This is a story about losing a dog. So if you’re anything like me, feel free to find something else to read that doesn’t make your throat constrict with the unbearable sadness of not knowing how to live without your best friend.
The first dog I remember losing was as a young boy. The worst part about this story is that I’m pretty sure I’m the one that killed him.
His name was Houser and as I think back on him I picture a big ole tan Mastiff with black markings around his muzzle. A very handsome animal, he was seriously stout. I don’t recall being especially close to Houser like I am with my dogs now but I remember him being our constant companion as far back as my memory stretches. He was really well behaved and I clearly recall his presence out in the yard with us kids. He never left us alone to chase squirrels or cars. I’m pretty sure he knew it was his role to look after us. He was always there like some kind of chaperone or defender. Just making sure no one would come near us. Watching over us as we made forts out of refrigerator boxes or used magnolia leaves and twine to make sandals for our bare feet.
To give you an idea of how burly Houser was I recall running around the outside corner of our house at top speed one afternoon and I ran smack into this giant dog of ours who was just standing there, solid as a mountain. His back came up to my hips, so when I made contact I just flipped right over him and I don’t think he moved an inch.
Back then our parents were working artists. My stepdad at that time was a potter and my mom made these big Navajo like rugs although she wasn’t even remotely Navajo. She was pretty white. We spent summer days in their studio and running around downtown Decatur, Alabama trying to keep ourselves busy. Most weekends were spent traveling to arts & crafts festivals all over the Southeast where my parents would try and sell their wares. We’d pack up our big gold and red cargo van with pottery and rugs and all the display equipment and head out on Friday nights, arrive after dark, setup our displays, then wander off to a nearby cheap motel where we’d spend our nights. Days were spent waiting for folks to buy our crafts and eating festival food like boiled peanuts and little 3 packs of home made chocolate chip cookies wrapped in sandwich bags.
Well, anyway, one day Houser and I rode with my step dad, Tim, up to his studio. We were having a heat wave that summer so it was pretty hot outside.
When we got to the studio, Tim parked the van out back in the alley (the same alley where my sister Holly would later chip her tooth on the dumpster while looking for boxes to craft forts out of). For some reason I wanted to stay in the van. Maybe I was playing with a toy or something and wasn’t ready to get out. I’m not too sure what happened at this point but Tim may or may not have told me to make sure I brought Houser in to the studio when I got out of the van. I really don’t remember, but I’ve been suppressing feelings of guilt now for 30+ years. My mother assures me that no matter what Tim did or didn’t say, it was his responsibility to get Houser out of the van.
Neither of us let him out and it was too hot in there. I can’t say how long he endured the heat but he suffered a stroke and we spent the rest of they day with Houser lying on the cool concrete floor of the studio pouring 5 gallon buckets of water over his body in hopes of cooling him down. But we were too late. He wasn’t going make it. My parents had some friends come by and they were trying to help us out and I recall them putting Houser on a big piece of plywood so we could carry him back to our house. I think they left him out on the front porch of this big 2 story Victorian we were renting on Canal street so he could be in the cool night air and if he died he would be outdoors where he would be most comfortable.
It’s been over 30 years and I still tear up at these memories. Not because Houser is gone necessarily but because I fear he experienced an uncomfortable and frightening death. Possibly at my hands. I’m not sure I’ve forgiven myself. Whether it’s my fault or not.
See, the thought of a dog enduring physical abuse or a bad death is one of the most painful things I can imagine. Something so sweet and innocent and loyal having to bear unnecessary pain and suffering makes me unspeakably sad.
Tim and my mom got a divorce a few years later. Then they remarried and got divorced again. He struggled with fidelity. Or maybe since my sister and I were from different marriages he just had a hard time assuming responsibility for us. Or loving us like a father could.
After he left the last time I remember sitting on the bottom bunk of my bunk beds crying. My room a mess. Feeling for sure like it was my fault. My mom came in and sat next to me, rubbing my back, and assuring me that I had done nothing wrong.
Mom remarried a few years later to a wonderful man and they’ve spent the last 28 years together. They had another son. The only one of us kids to actually grow up with his biological father. It’s been fun to witness what it looks like to have that kind of father-son relationship.
These days Tim lives here in Tennessee and is still making pottery. I’ve seen his work in the Nashville airport and his name is mentioned here and there. I had the random opportunity to sit down and chat with him a few years back and we caught up for an hour or so. For quite some time I’d lugged around some heavy baggage about this man and my relationship with him. I was given the chance to set that baggage down that day and leave it with him. He’s a sad man who thinks the way his life has turned out is due solely to the actions of others. He claims no responsibility for his station in this world. As I listened to him talk about the perceived wrongs others had done him, I was flooded with a sense of compassion. After so many years of hating this man for cheating on my mom and running out on our family, I was finally able to let go of so much of that anger and rage and resentment. Then there was just a calm compassion and sympathy that he had to live like that.
Houser was (unfortunately) not the only close friend I’ve lost in my life. There have been others, both canine and human. Sometime when I’m out hiking or riding my bike alone out in the country I think about the losses and I still get choked up. In my memory all of these friends grow more and more perfect and flawless. A little less realistic and a little more idolized.
So here’s to the immortals…. Houser and Pandora and Sebastian, and Peter and Biscuit and Jojo and last but not at all least, Kevin. Each of you has a piece of my heart. Always.