I am a dog person.
I come by it honestly; my father has a natural gift with dogs and I like to think I have that same affinity. I can tell from ten yards away if a strange dog is going to greet me with rollicking tail-wagging and bouncy, happy licks or with raised hackles and a low, stiff tail.
Except for a few years when I lived on campus at Maryland, I've always pulled in the driveway to the sight of a wet nose pressed against the window and the sound of barking - the sound of a joyful reunion, canine-style. Being greeted by my dogs is a sight and a sound that has remedied many bad days for me in my life.
Two months after Knute and I were married, we brought home our first puppy, Bailey. She was the pick of the litter and man, did she know it. Our Queen B, we used to call her; I even have a picture of her wearing a dress-up play tiara from one Christmas years ago when I was first pregnant with Becky and my niece was just four. Bailey wore that tiara around the house and damn if she didn't have a look in her eye as if to say, "FINALLY - my CROWN!"
Not long after we brought home Bailey to our uber-spacious one bedroom apartment in Newport, Rhode Island (a palatial six hundred square feet), the breeder called us about the last pup in the litter. The runt, he said, but he's sweet as can be. Do you know of someone that would want him? It seems that the only interested buyers of this last pup were both men the breeder - a Massachusetts State Trooper - didn't trust.
One of them just wants a hunting dog, he said, snorting with disdain. Doesn't plan to let him in the house or love him one bit. And the other guy is an absolute no, he added, his voice flat with certainty. None of my dogs like him.
Let's take him, said Knute when I told him about it. What's one more dog?
A lot, it turned out, especially when the two of them whipped each other into the sort of frenzy that seems to be genetically hard-wired into the brain of the German Shorthaired Pointer. But the breeder was right; he was a sweet puppy with the mildest, gentlest disposition and we loved Barnum from the start.
Barnum and Bailey, our circus of hounds, moved from Rhode Island with us during the Navy years and the not-Navy years, from Rhode Island to Florida to Virginia to Illinois to Ohio and again in Ohio.
When Knute was deployed, they were my anchor at home, keeping me safe and busy during the long, lonely months.
When I was pregnant with Becky, and then with the boys, they curled up next to me on the couch or in bed, one or the other's head on my belly as the baby kicked and pushed.
With each baby I brought home, they sniffed the top of their heads delicately, then took their positions as guardians. Bailey was home security, always watching over the front door and out the front windows. Barnum was personal security, sleeping next to baby's crib or bouncy seat. Even now, eight years later, Barnum still follows the kids around the house. Even now, I find him lying in front of their doors when they're fast asleep.
Two summers ago, we made the soul-splitting decision to say good-bye to Bailey. She had fought the onset of Cushings disease for more than four years until the disease finally won, exacting a great price of suffering. It was the hardest decision I've ever made. Even today, I cannot look back at July of 2007 without tears. It was the right choice, one we had to make. She would never have slipped away peacefully in the night; she was a fighter and her devotion to us was too great.
Now, I fear that time is soon for Barnum. He is fourteen, an aged and ancient old man in dog years, and he is beginning that treacherous slip downhill.
Early Sunday morning before Mass, I leashed him and Brownie (our newest GSP) up and took them both up to the open field at the top of our neighborhood. The field hasn't been mowed for weeks and the grass is high; the dogs frolicked off-leash chasing birds and bugs and the scents of the field mice that burrow into the hillsides. Brownie flew at top speed; Barnum hop-limped along.
He was happy, oh so happy to be out in the field on a bright spring morning.
Now he is in pain from his over-exertion, and I have an appointment to keep with our vet who will no doubt gently and quietly have "The Talk" with me once again. The time is nearing and both Knute and I know it although neither one of us wants to truly admit it.
I don't know what lies ahead but I do know this much:
Sunday was a good day for Barnum, and if it was his last good day, that might, just might, be enough.
*Revised Monday, 5/18/09, 9:08 pm EST*
After visiting our vet today, Barnum is much improved and his happy self once again. Doc reassured me that Barnum is still the healthiest old dog he's ever seen and gave me some pain medicine to help him recover from his overly exuberant romp in the field.
Sometimes, you do get one more day; seize it!