Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Sweet Boy

Tuffy Loved The Beach
Animals find you. Cats, always: they choose.
But dogs, too. Dogs charm their way in. They know
You're a sucker for a big-eyed grin, a lick on the hand.
Animals find you. They don't just appear in your home
By accident. They come out of the woods, out of the wild,
to be close to the hearth. You think you don't want a pet.
You say you want to travel light, unencumbered. You're free
To stay out late and never know the number of a vet.
You think you're smart not to take on all that work.
Or you think maybe someday, when life is dull anyway.
But an animal chooses when and where. Ask Eve. One
minute you're all alone, and the next, moved by the blink
of an eye, a skyward smile, a flicking tail, you're owned.

My husband called me from work. "I'm looking at the Internet and I see that someone is giving away a schipperke in New Jersey."
"That's weird." It was. Schipperkes are rare. Most people don't even know what they are. We had one called Edie, and I had been asked if she were a wolf, a fox, a pig. The breed isn't related to any other. They look like miniature Belgian sheepdogs, but they aren't. Their story is that they were bred to live on boats and to work as ratters, but this may be a myth.
"I'll bring the ad to show you."
This was meant to be for purposes of curiosity only. We had Edie. We had cats. A child. A small house. Enough already.
He brought this ad home, and swears now the accurate version of what happened is that the next day he came home from work and the dog was in the house.

I had called the number and had a long talk with a young woman who had to give her dog away. The story came out over several weeks but it was this: she had gone to a car dealership to buy a car so she could go to Rutgers where she had been given a full scholarship. The car dealer, a man in his late forties, had romanced her on the spot and she started going out with him. (Oh boy. She was eighteen.) He took her to a pet store and bought her an $800 dollar puppy. (I didn't tell her about puppy mills. She already had this ancient boyfriend--bad news enough.) She and Spaz, as she called the puppy--too young to coordinate all his motions--then moved in with the boyfriend, who once he had bagged her felt a rivalry and a hatred toward the dog. (To understand the monstrousness of this, take a look at some YouTube videos of schipperke puppies. Yes, all puppies are cute, but these are like little toys come to life--irresistibly so.)

The dog had to stay locked in a room and was NEVER ALLOWED OUT. Never went outside. Never sat with the girl while she watched TV. She went to the back room to feed him and change his paper, but he was utterly alone. (She didn't go to college, but got pregnant and was basically stuck in the apartment herself.) She realized this wasn't a good life for the dog and decided to find him a home. I am grateful to her for this.

So I took him. It wasn't that simple, though. We kept him for a week and then my husband insisted we give him back. He was wild and anxious and peed everywhere. I didn't mind, but I have been told I have a high tolerance for crazy. We drove him to the depressing apartment. The skeezy boyfriend glared. The girl put him back in his room and we left, with me heartbroken.

I kept talking to the young girl about him and her boyfriend was threatening the pound--so I took him again, with clearance this time, for a two month stay, during which I would train him and find him a home. He was completely unhousebroken and had never been outside. He knew nothing.
This was in January of 1998. January! House training a dog when there are no scents on the ground, in the snow, in the cold, twelve trips outside a day (I have never liked crate training)...but Spaz, quickly renamed Chaz (somehow I couldn't see walking around the town parks yelling out Spaz! and anyway, if names are destiny...). But the dog was an easy and sweet boy who wanted to learn and please. He was utterly open and would go right up to the scariest dogs in Mills reservation with a big smile on his face, all curiosity and bright expectation, and they'd look at him like, are you fucking kidding me? I am a Rottweiler. What planet are you from, you friendly moron? I had to explain to him what was up and soon enough he got the idea of watching my other schipperke, Edie, who was street smart and cool; when those big dogs passed her she turned around and gave a little nip at their heels, just enough so they'd swing their heavy heads around to look, because they'd felt something...but she'd be playing innocent by then. She got away with it every time. Chaz, whose name morphed through a series of changes into Tuffy, never wanted to be like that, but he backed up Edie while she did it. He never stopped looking after those he loved.
Two months passed, and I found a very good home for him. He was here until a couple of weeks ago. His last night he wanted to stay in bed with me, very uncharacteristic of him; he liked to guard the house at night, either sleeping down near the front door or on the steps on the way upstairs. He could not breathe. He'd had cancer for several months but had been doing very well until that night. All three of the rest of the pets stayed in the room too, to be near him.  I hoped to take him to his vet in the morning but when it because clear he was deeply distressed and uncomfortable, I drove him to the emergency vet to be euthanized. He kept his head outside the window the whole way, both having his last look at life, and gasping for air. I was able to tell him he was about to die, and would be comfortable very soon. When he got the shots he collapsed into my arms. He isn't here anymore, and never will be. The house has lost an anchor.
The other night I was driving home from work and when I was thirty seconds from my driveway, I had the clear thought, "I am about to see Tuffy." I probably had that thought a thousand times but never noticed it. It was part of the background, as he was, in many ways--the least demanding of anyone in the house. "I am about to see Tuffy. But, no, I'm not."

I have had many animals with me in my life. It is a privilege and a mystery in every case. They grow and change in ways people don't, and they remain the same in ways people don't. The language of communion with animals is as complex as the human is willing for it to be. The vocabulary is truly endless. The death of the animal is part of that vocabulary and always present; knowing their life span, every day is a memento mori. So the life is vivid and fresh. Every walk is taken in Beginner's Mind.
Our other dog, Jesse, is still in mourning. She was his companion all her life and utterly bonded to him. Her grief has been deep, and I have tried to spend as much time with her as possible. She is beginning to adapt, just now.
I didn't take Tuffy's ashes as I did for Edie, and for Rupert, a great cat. Their ashes are on the shelf, and rather meaningless.  Instead I have an epitaph, something my son proclaimed: Tuffy is Gentle. He was.


  1. What a beautiful, beautiful tribute. I'm so sorry for your loss, so glad he had a home with you.

    "They grow and change in ways people don't, and they remain the same in ways people don't." Gorgeous in its truth.


  2. She said, he says: I forwarded you the listing of the one year-old Schipperke in need of a home from my desk at work in Rockefeller Center at around 3 p.m. I came home to our house in N.J. at around 6:30, and you told me the people were on their way. "What people?" I asked. "The ones with the Schipperke. They're bringing him over so we can see him." And they did, this nervous, jumpy dog. The very same day that I sent you the listing on AOL, Spaz/Chaz/Tuffy was in our house. "What did you expect?" you asked me. I know you better now.

    I did insist we return the dog, and I did later say we could take him back while the owner looked for a suitable home (I knew theirs wasn't). I suspected the suitable home might turn out to be ours. I did grow very fond of Tuffy. Gentle, yes--gentle and clueless and fiercely protective. I miss him, too.

  3. Beautifully written and very moving.

  4. Oh Tuffy, a gentle and big hearted dog indeed. Love to all of you. x

  5. Brenda ShaughnessyDecember 4, 2011 at 3:53 AM

    This is so beautiful and moving. I love it. I really get such a sense of who Tuffy was. You guys gave him a great life!

  6. Alice,
    What a beautiful piece. I told myself I wasn't going to read it right now but then I couldn't stop, couldn't stop, was uplifted, captivated, charmed, and given the huge gift of your vision. Thank you. I learn so much from you about life.

  7. your respect for him is so wonderful. Beautiful and so sad, as a very new mom it is truly heartbreaking to read. Sorry for your loss.
    And I can`t help to think of your dog training lesson you gave your listeners one night at the Happy Ending in Chinatown....