Mother with her first dog:
And her last:
written by jaron summers
Who they love and where they live becomes the graph of most people’s lives. However, Mother’s life, a life of almost a century, was defined by the dogs that lived with her.
When she was 90 her poodle died and I suggested we find a replacement. No way. Mother feared she would die while her next dog was still alive. There would be no one to look after it properly.
“We’ll get you an old dog,” I said. “I’ll find you one with a year or two of tread left on its pads.”
She laughed and threw a dishtowel at my head and a few days later I brought Nike home. He was half poodle, half Shih Tzu, and half crazy.”
“He looks pretty frisky for an old timer,” she said.
“He’s almost ten,” I said. “He’ll be in doggie heaven before next summer.”
But Nike had an indomitable spirit and excellent genes. Things went well for the next five years.
Then when Mother turned 95 she said, to use her own words, she was ready to “kick off.”
“Are we talking football?” I asked.
“No, I will be joining my pets in heaven.”
“You don’t seem worried.”
“I’m ready. But I fret about what will happen to Nike. He’s about the best dog I’ve ever had.”
“I’ll take care of him,” I said.
“He needs a stable family. Not a crazy boy who even forgets to feed himself.”
I promised Mother in the unlikely event she “kicked off” before Nike, I would find her Shih-Poo a perfect family who appreciated and cherished him.
Relieved that her precious puppy would be taken care of, Mother kicked off the following week before I could renege on my promise.
I arranged for Nike to remain in Mother’s home, Joyce, the middle-aged lady, who had been renting the downstairs suite, volunteered to look after the little fellow.
A few weeks went by and Joyce ran short of cash. Nike and I let Joyce live there for free. As the months rolled by we agreed to help with other expenses. Food, cleaning supplies, pizza deliveries, window washers, candy for Halloween and so on.
Joyce, busy looking for a job, hired a retired Sunday school teacher to walk Nike, shovel the snow in the winter and mow the lawn in the summer. We paid for that.
The dog, the Sunday School teacher, Joyce and me were happy in that order.
The bills kept mounting.
Within the year Mother’s home was the most expensive kennel in the nation.
A grad student and his sister rented the upstairs. Everyone seemed to get along great … for about a week — then Joyce said the Upstairs People were too noisy and either they would have to go or she would.
I shared this proposal with Nike. He acted like he wanted the new renters to stay because they played with him … He also indicated to me that the downstairs human was not looking for work, despite her assurance to me that she was.
I told the downstairs human that I would accept her notice to quit our premises … the house had to generate enough income for taxes, a new roof and a sewer system. Besides, the dog wanted the upstairs humans to stay.
I confided to the downstairs human that Dog Nike had indicated that no downstairs humans were looking for work.
Joyce told me that I was a rotten excuse for a son because Mother had told her that I had promised to find Nike a nice family to live with. Not grad students who often forgot to feed or walk the little dog. Joyce reminded me that I was even incapable of feeding myself.”
Joyce snarled . The dog snarled louder . Joyce left a few days later.
Since the pup was looking scruffy I took him to the groomers and while he was being clipped and shampooed I noticed a sign. The Pringles wanted a mature Shih-Poo that they vowed they would treat like royalty.
I phoned the Pringles.
Nike and I were invited to have lunch with them the following day.
George and Martha Pringle lived in a well kept home near a large park that Nike eyed with interest. The Pringles were into early retirement and instantaneously fell for Nike. The little fellow seemed to spark to them — yet both the dog and I sensed something unusual about George and Martha.
It was the way the Pringles interacted with each other. Or rather did not interact. They never spoke to each other or even looked at each other. An invisible barrier separated them.
Initially Nike and I were confused until we realized that the Pringles were grieving. Grieving for an only child, a daughter they had worshiped, and who had died in a mountain hiking fall, a year earlier.
When a child is taken from a family, the family often crumbles. Those who are left stop interacting with each other. All too often a brick wall goes up that seals each person in his own separate pain field.
George and Martha asked why I didn’t keep Nike. I explained that I traveled a lot, lived out of the country and did not want to disrupt or confuse the little guy any more than necessary.
“Your mother’s dog is wonderful,” said George.
“What do we have to do to keep him?” asked his wife.
“I will leave him with you for three days and if you like him and he likes you, we’ll take it from there.”
“OK,” said George. “But we have rules for pets. Nike will never be fed at the table. He must stay in his corner of the kitchen. We will not tolerate a pet having free run in our home. And we won’t bribe him with treats.”
“He will be trained with love,” said Martha.
Nike gave a positive nod.
“Sounds fine to me.” I had dog food and leashes in the car which I left with them.
Driving back to Mother’s home, I wondered if Nike could help the Pringles break down their invisible brick wall. He was cute but as far as I knew Nike was not much of therapist.
When I returned to the Pringles, Martha had prepared a lovely lunch. The pair could not have been more gracious and after we finished eating George said they wanted to keep Nike.
“I have the rest of Nike’s supplies with me and a document for you to sign,” I said.
I brought in Nike’s feed pans and treats and winter coats and toys and assorted leashes.
The Pringles read the document a lawyer had helped me write. It contained two stipulations. The Pringles could not give Nike away or sell him. If they did either, they would owe me $5,000. Bottom line, the only way they could divest themselves of Nike would be to return him to me.
Martha was horrified. Five thousand dollars!
George, under the spell of Nike, signed immediately.
What happened next was the beginning of the end of the brick wall between the Pringles.
Martha looked at Nike and said: “Tell Daddy that $5,000 is outrageous.”
Nike, puzzled, looked at Martha, then after a moment looked at George who said: “Tell Mummy I don’t care. You’re a wonderful addition to our family.”
I left the Pringles standing in their open doorway, the dog between them, wagging its tails. George and Martha still had not talked to each other. Or for that matter looked at each other.
The following day I flew out of the country and I did not return for almost six months.
I made arrangements to see how Nike was doing in his new home.
Martha had prepared lunch and told me how much she and her husband had grown to love the dog.
George arrived with some strawberry ice cream for dessert. And, doggie treats for you-know-who.
Nike, was apparently accustomed to what was about to unfold and took his place between George and Martha.
“Tell Mummy something smells good,” said George.
The dog looked from George to Martha and waited for her to talk. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Tell Daddy that Mummy is happy he brought my favorite dessert for us,” said Martha.
Dutifully, Nike looked at George who slipped him a dog treat and scratched his ear.
Nike wagged his tail.
I recalled George’s statement that Nike “would be trained without treats” and bit back the first of many smiles.
We finished off Martha’s excellent quiche and dug into the ice cream. “Are you going to keep the dog?” I asked.
George and Martha froze. But then laughed when they realized I was teasing. I had the feeling that they would have traded their house for the little rascal.
“Nike is pretty clever, isn’t he?” I said.
“How do you mean?” asked Martha.
“I assume he built that platform in the living room with the little steps in it so he could look out your bay window,” I said. “I know neither of you would have done anything like that since you told me the dog would never be allowed in the living room.”
George mumbled about rumors of bandits in the neighborhood and said that Nike needed to see out the front window so he could alert them of intruders.”
“Tell Daddy that he’s a wonderful carpenter,” said Martha to Nike and gave him a treat.
The dog looked to George who said, “Tell Mummy that this carpenter knows how to nail more than planks.”
“Tell Daddy that if he’s going to lumber around tonight, he better take a shower first,” said Martha.
The Pringles seemed to forget I was there. Just the three of them … a happy couple and a pampered Shih-Poo. Nike looked back and forth between George and Martha. As though he were umpiring a tedious game of tennis.
The years rolled by … Nike grew old, and then one day, with a tiny smile, was off to join Mother.
It was a few months until I returned to the city.
I drove to the Pringles. They hugged me and told me how much they had appreciated Nike in their lives.
But their wall was back up. They had stopped talking to each other. Once again a member of their family had been taken and there was no small animal to filter their grief.
I noticed that the bandit observation platform with its little steps remained by their living room window. A ragged chew toy seemed as though it had been there forever.
There were four other platforms with steps at other windows. I was going to joke about what a busy carpenter Nike had been but the mood was too sad for that.
The Pringles gave me a photo album of the highlights of Nike’s life with them. There were photos of Mother with Nike in happier days. Where they found those photos I don’t know.
George showed me a silver urn on the mantle that contained Nike’s ashes. Nearby was another urn that held their daughter’s ashes.
The Pringles walked me out to my car and we said our goodbyes.
“We bought Nike from a farmer who raises Shih-Poos,” I said. “I told Mother he was much older than he was. You know why?”
“Because you knew after your mother passed, you would have a live memory of her,” said Martha.
“Right. Nike even has some grandchildren.”
“We know what you’re going to suggest but we could never replace Nike,” said George.
I clicked my remote and the trunk lid rose and there, in a white wicker basket, was one of Nike’s grandsons. “Could you say that to his face?” I asked.
Martha and George were astonished.
“He’s an interpreter dog,” I said.
“What?” asked Martha.
“He helps people communicate. Say something to him, George.”
Nike Two wagged his tail furiously.
“Ask mother is she wants to keep you,” George said to the dog.
Nike II looked at Martha and woofed.
The Pringles were hooked … again.
“How much do you want for him?” asked George.
“He’s a present to you two from my mother,” I said.
“We can’t just take him,” said Martha.
“Sure you can. After all, you rescued me from underwriting the most expensive kennel in North America.”
I drove away, leaving three individuals in the doorway. Each on their way to a new adventure. George and Martha moved closer to each other.
Mother would have been pleased that I had taught the new pup to look lopsidedly at anyone with a treat. And, she would have laughed when she found out that I had slipped a couple of dog goodies into Martha’s apron pocket when I hugged her.
(The above is the first chapter of a novel. A novel by definition is a work of fiction; however, most of what I wrote happened. I changed some names … the dialog and interaction between my mother and me is the way our life unfolded. If Mother had not “kicked off” she would be 112. That’s only 16 in dog years.)
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