While Gracie was still alive, she rode along on my solo road trips. When I had a friend along I generally left Gracie at home as her shedding would fill the cabin with tufts of her fur and it wasn’t an experience I wanted to force on my friends. But when my friend Michael and I made this particular road trip down US 50 in Illinois, I brought Gracie anyway because otherwise I would have needed to leave her home alone far too long.
Gracie loved to go out on the road! She’d leap into the wayback of my little wagon and off we’d go. But a long road trip always wore her out. Here, we were on our way back home at the end of the trip. Michael was driving, so I turned in my seat to photograph my dog. That’s definitely her tired face.
It was on Thanksgiving three years ago that I lost Gracie. She was very old, at least 17, and had been in declining health for a few years. She was a difficult dog, but we were deeply bonded. I grieved her passing for a long time.
I took this photograph in 2009 while testing a Canonet QL17 G-III I had just gotten. I didn’t know it leaked light. I was disappointed at the time that the leak marred this photo, because I like this composition. Today, it feels like looking through the mists of time upon my old friend.
Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime. This is the story of Sugar, a wonderful dog I had who died eight years ago.
My stepson was over at a friend’s house twelve years ago, running around in the back yard, when the Rottweiler next door sailed over the fence and bit him on the leg. The puncture wounds were not serious and they healed without complication. The dog’s owner was mortified, apologized all over himself, and swore he’d keep his dog from clearing the fence again. We decided to let bygones be bygones.
Several months later my wife called me at work. “Jim, the people with the Rottweiler still feel so bad that they’re giving us one of their new pups! Isn’t that exciting?”
If the fact that they wanted to take the offending dog’s progeny did not prove that my wife and stepson were completely mad, the fact that we had a five-month-old baby most certainly did. But as usual I buckled and we got the dog.
Worried about the Rottweiler reputation, overblown if you ask me, my stepson named her Sugar so all would know she was a sweet dog. But when my brother inexplicably nicknamed her Buckethead, it tickled me so improbably that it stuck.
My little Buckethead was on the small side, having been the runt of the litter, but she was smart, gentle, and obedient. My baby boy used to crawl up to her and yank on her ears, and all she would do was look up at me with long-suffering eyes until I intervened. She favored my wife and followed her around the house, which provided good opportunity for my wife to play “head bitch” (her words, not mine!) so Sugar would know the pecking order and her place in it. Sugar did challenge for top spot a couple times as Rottweilers will do, but my wife put her back in her place swiftly and efficiently. Her care gave Sugar lifelong contentment and happiness. When my wife picked up a stray abused dog, to our surprise Sugar took her under her wing and provided, in her doggie way, much of the same kind of esteem-building structure for Gracie that my wife had provided for Sugar. While Gracie will always have issues, I think Sugar’s companionship gave Gracie a lot of security and kept her from being a basket case.
Our dogs’ job was to secure the back yard against the great squirrel menace, and they poured all of their energy into it. When they spied one in the yard, they tore after it relentlessly, to the unending detriment of the patio enclosure’s screens. One day, a squirrel trying to escape Sugar scaled the maple tree, and then Sugar made a flying leap and scrambled right up into the tree’s crotch – which was six feet off the ground. She momentarily forgot about the squirrel as she looked down at the ground, her body’s tension showing her puzzlement. We had to coax her to jump down from the tree. After she did that, she realized she could go up there anytime she wanted to, and so she did. We used to entice her to do it to amuse our guests.
As she aged, arthritis crept into her joints, ending her tree-jumping days. And then my wife and I divorced. The dogs were hers, and she kept them; I didn’t see either of them for a couple years. But nine months ago she asked me to take them, and what a blessing it has been to have them back! I enjoyed the quiet of living alone, but missed having someone happy to see me when I came home. The dogs have been excellent company, and as the new top dog in their lives I’ve grown much closer to them. Sugar accepted the change with the characteristic good humor and serenity for which I always admired her, and set about making new routines in her new home. (I wish Gracie had transitioned so easily!) But she was almost 11 years old, quite elderly for a Rottweiler, and her arthritis had grown worse and she lacked her old energy. Some days I couldn’t get her interested in a squirrel in the back yard, and even when she did chase one, Gracie would sail off the edge of the deck after it while Sugar went down the steps gingerly before trotting out. I could see that I would have only so much more time with her.
Lately she has had some days where she lay around subdued, getting up only to eat and answer nature’s call. Then yesterday her legs gave out underneath her twice while I got ready for work. The second time, she just crumpled into the grass and I had to carry her inside. The vet diagnosed autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA). He said that the treatment for it would be very hard on her, especially at her age, and he estimated only a 30 percent chance of success. He said that without treatment, she’d die within a week – and it would be a horrible death by suffocation as her body destroyed her red blood cells. Yesterday was the end of the line for my poor Buckethead. I scratched her ears and stroked her head until she was gone. Everybody who’s ever had a dog through its old age has a story to tell, and this one’s mine. Gracie and I are both grieving in our way, but we will get along without old Buckethead. I’m telling people that to help Gracie cope with her big loss I’ll be giving her extra attention and making some new routines – tonight, I put her on the leash and took her for a run while I rode my bike, something we’ve never done before. But the truth is these new routines will help me grieve and move on, too. Goodbye, Buckethead! You were an excellent dog.
We already had two dogs and three cats, which I thought was more than enough pets. And I was concerned about bringing this stray dog into our home where our curious and active baby boy might accidentally provoke harm. But my wife’s boundless compassion for unwanted animals overruled better judgment. After a couple days of driving by the golden dog who hid in the bushes of a nearby Shell station, she stopped, coaxed her into the car, and brought her home.
The filthy dog was starved and had been beaten, presumably by whoever dumped her. My wife cleaned her up as best she could, and as she healed and gained weight she became quite beautiful. She had the size, color, and general markings of a Golden Retriever, but the thick fur and purple-spotted tongue of a Chow. My wife named her Gracie.
Thanks to the abuse she suffered, Gracie was highly anxious around us. She growled in fear every time I or my teenage stepson entered the room, which led us to believe that her abuser had been a man. Whenever the doorbell rang, you could hear abject fear in her barking. She tucked tail and ran every time somebody stood up near her. But she didn’t run from Sugar, our Rottweiler. Subtly and gently, Sugar befriended Gracie, and soon wherever you found Sugar, you found Gracie. Gracie remained high-strung and anxious, but Sugar’s friendship helped Gracie find security and let her slowly settle into her new home.
And so we went along for about five years, until my marriage fell apart. I moved out and hardly saw our dogs for a couple years. When I found myself unable to properly care for an especially difficult cat that my sons had given me, I asked my ex if she would take it, and she said yes – but only if I traded her for the dogs. And so Sugar and Gracie came to live with me.
Sugar died less than a year later. I’m just going to admit it: I wished it had been Gracie. Sugar was an outstanding dog – happy, smart, gentle, easygoing, and loyal. Gracie, on the other hand, was still anxious, needy, and demanding. She was also deeply attached to Sugar. When Gracie figured out that Sugar was never coming home, she fell apart. In her grief, she destroyed a great number of my possessions, including chewing a huge chunk out of a solid wood table. I never knew what destruction I would find when I came home from work. I was still recovering emotionally from my divorce, and I was pretty fragile. Coming home to find one more thing destroyed could unhinge me.
The veterinarian prescribed Prozac, and within a couple weeks Gracie calmed down. In parallel I built new routines with Gracie to help her find anew the security she lost when Sugar died.
And then, bit by bit, Gracie bonded to me. Hard. I’d never experienced a dog becoming so deeply devoted to me before. She became expert in reading my moods. She would quickly figure out my internal state and respond accordingly. When I was happy, she was energetic and eager to go for a walk or explore the front yard with me. When I was ill or depressed or angry, she would rub against me and lean into me and stay near my side.
Gracie became my devoted companion. When I’d sit in my office to write, she always curled up in the corner created by my two desks. She loved to be in the yard with me when I worked in it. And she loved to ride along on my road trips. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, as long as she was there, too, all was well in her world. And what a blessing it was to me. It took me a long time to recover after my destructive divorce, and except for the time I spent with my sons I mostly wanted to be left alone to heal. But the other side of that coin was loneliness, and Gracie gave me wonderful companionship and affection.
But she still had a damaged psyche and was a bottomless pit of need. No amount of attention satisfied her, and she remained at best skittish around, and at worst outright frightened of, people she didn’t know very well. Her constant demands could overwhelm me, especially when I needed to unplug after a tough day at work.
It didn’t help that I had to leave her home alone a lot – minimally nine hours a day, five days a week. It was very hard for Gracie. I gather that Chows were bred to spend all of their time working with and protecting their families, and are happiest when they are always surrounded by their people. Even though Gracie was only half Chow, she had this trait fully. To ease her separation anxiety, I developed some happy routines around my going and coming. But even when I was home, I had things to do. I couldn’t make enough time just for Gracie.
As a divorced man who lives alone, Gracie anchored me in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. She was always at home eagerly waiting for me, and she showed me plenty of devotion and affection, things that were in short supply in my life and so were deeply welcome. But she was also always at home eagerly waiting for me to come let her out and put kibble into her bowl – I could be away from home for only so long. Because of her emotional issues, I couldn’t board her or let anyone other than a close family member check on her at home. My sons and I have always began and ended our vacations in my hometown of South Bend because my parents were willing to care for Gracie. But South Bend is far enough away to be practical only when I would be gone for several days. Weekend trips with my sons and overnight business trips have been impossible because of Gracie.
Despite all Gracie gave to me, and despite how deeply I cared for her, I was ready not to have a dog.
And then Gracie lived for a very long time.
Gracie came into my life fully grown 16 years ago. That’s mighty old for a dog that size, and predictably, a few years ago she began wearing out. First, her hearing faded. When it failed entirely, I worked out a set of gestures and hand signals to communicate with her. Meanwhile, her eyes went cloudy. Then when she and I drove the National Road across Ohio together in 2011 she struggled for the first time to jump into the back of my little hatchback. On what ended up being her last road trip, in 2012, I had to pick her up to put her in my car. She hated that. Soon even routine car trips became uncomfortable for her. And lately her stamina faded. When I’d take her for a walk, she often pooped out before we got home. More than once we finished the last block of a walk at a snail’s pace because she was spent.
Then this summer she began rapidly losing weight. An x-ray revealed a swollen liver; blood tests showed highly elevated liver and kidney numbers. “This is going to be the end of her,” the vet said. “But it’s really hard telling how long she will live. She’s so very old that I recommend you just keep her comfortable.” Antibiotics and steroids helped her feel better, and her weight increased.
My parents have both retired now and will move to Indianapolis soon. I hated to make Gracie spend more than two hours in the car this past Thursday, but I didn’t want to miss the last Thanksgiving in the house where I grew up. I knew something wasn’t right with Gracie on Thanksgiving morning when I picked her up to put her in the car – she cried a little from discomfort. Then she was unusually unsteady on her feet in the car. When I let her out of the car at my parents’ South Bend home, she seemed oddly disoriented. But shortly she settled in and seemed to be her usual old self. She was happy to see my parents’ dog and was constantly underfoot in the kitchen looking for a handout while Mom cooked. She happily ate the table scraps Dad gave her after dinner, and she gobbled down her kibble as usual.
But while I was drying dishes Dad came in and said, “Gracie is standing out in the hallway all hunched up. You need to come look after her.” She was clearly very uncomfortable. Her belly was hard and a little distended. I thought it might be constipation, which had troubled her in her old age. I tried a usual remedy, but she wouldn’t eat it. I tried letting her outside in hopes she’d relieve herself. She just stood uncomfortably in the yard, so I signaled her back in.
When she reached the back door, she fell. I lifted her up and she fell again. I lifted her into the house, and she stumbled into the kitchen and fell, legs splayed out. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth and onto the floor. I knew it was bad.
While we tried to reach the emergency vet on the phone, Gracie slipped away.
I will probably always wish I could have better met Gracie’s considerable needs. But given where she came from, she was very fortunate and had a good life. And now I’m left with the conflicted feelings of having the dog-free life I’ve wanted for the past few years – and missing my friend and companion terribly, expecting to find her in the usual places around the house and wishing I could feel her lean into me one more time.
Good night, Gracie. I’m so glad you didn’t have to suffer long or hard, and that you died when you were ready. Rest well, my girl.