Pie in the Skye
Despite sharing a blood line and the generational timing of being only three years apart, my younger brother and I couldn’t be more different: he, an athlete since the age of 5; me, a couch potato with penchant for the written word. We don’t live in the same worlds. We don’t speak the same language. However, there’s one thing we know for sure, we’d be much worse off without Skye.
Skye was a black furred terrier mutt for which we never learned the amalgamation of breeds that created her. Whenever someone would ask, “oh, what breeds is she,” we’d never have an answer. Ultimately, who cared if she was a little border and/or jack russell? She was ours, and the story of how she came into our lives only to ultimately define them is one that can only be cherished.
In Long Island suburbia, dogs are a dime a dozen. My brother had always wanted one, but I didn’t. I didn’t want the responsibility of walking it, feeding it, playing with it — never realizing I was never going to be expected to do anything but love it. Fought as he did, coupled with the fact my father grew up with 13 canines throughout his life, my little bro finally won out and, on a surprise visit to the animal shelter in April, 2001, Dad announced we were going to get a dog.
Arriving, we started walking the halls, but looking at all the potential pets just didn’t feel right. None looked cute, and some even looked aggressive. It was like dating: everyone believes they know what they desire until seeing it presented and immediately realize how wrong they were. Continuing to search, slowly losing hope today would be the day we came home with a new four-legged friend, my brother and I stumbled on a completely empty cage, except for the single bowl of food and skittish ball of black fur lying near the back wall.
“That one,” we screamed in unison, pointing to the scared puppy wanting to be left alone.
Sounds simple, but remember, my brother and I don’t jive. Yet, somehow, at the same moment, we knew this was the dog for us. Maybe it was because she seemed so scared. Maybe it was because her loner attitude of not being able to fit in with the other dogs made us feel something subconsciously as two people unable to fit in with each other even though we knew we should. Whatever the reason, this was a moment Dad couldn’t pass up.
Getting the dog to the communal play area, we got her story. Discovered in a doggy drop in Pennsylvania, Skye was five months old, had worms, was very shy and didn’t do well around other dogs. All one red flag after another, Dad originally didn’t want to take the dog home. But, she did leave with us that day, and not due to a change in reservation. Rather, it came down to one fact: my brother and I were putting up a united front.
Without ever discussing it, we’d both decided this specific dog was joining our family. What was poor old Dad to do? Both boys were agreeing on something without an ounce of hesitation, when was he going to have this opportunity again? So, he did the paperwork and, by afternoon’s end, Skye was living out of a cage in the kitchen while getting acclimated to her new environment.
In my tweens, the last thing I wanted was a relationship with the new dog. I just wanted to go through puberty alone. There wasn’t much rebelling, but there were a lot of closed bedroom doors to the point that, whenever open, Skye would merely sit within view but not actually enter… there was something more to it than a simple fear of entering the bedroom, though. Because of the house’s structure, there was a spot where one could stand or sit and be able to look into both my brother’s and my rooms simultaneously. This is where Skye’s spot was when we were mad at each other for whatever useless grievance was afoot.
She was the best showstopping dispute moderator we had. If my brother and I were about to come to blows, my father simply opened his door to allow the barking Skye to run out and break up the fight like a boxing ref standing between behemoths. If we were at the table not speaking, she would walk over and beg for food with her innocent “don’t you love me” eyes. She always knew how to pick which bedroom to go in during the day based on which kid was more depressed and in need of a companion to lie on the floor making a bed out of dirty towels and shirts.
For all of her anthropomorphized behavior that extended so far as to being able to trick my brother and me into getting out of bed so she could run in, jump up and take over the mattress for herself, Skye was something else to us — an innocent. She wasn’t born in to the family, but chosen, which made her emotional discomfort, whenever there was a fight, our responsibility. “We want you, but you’re going to be around a lot of yelling…” certainly not a fair thing to knowingly put any creature through.
My brother and I distanced further into our adult lives, but the older we got, and weaker Skye got, the calmer we became for her sake. It was as if she was training us, knowing one day she wouldn’t be around to break up the fight. She still came to the table for food when we were mad, but no longer did we make her “work for it” with simple commands like “sit” and “jump.” Instead, we simply gave her the pastrami slice.
Later in life, Skye gave us empathy for others. She taught us how to put another’s feelings ahead of our own. Perhaps she wasn’t stealing those mattresses at night to be cute. Perhaps it was because she knew she wasn’t the bottom of the house-hold hierarchy. She knew she was above us because, unlike my brother and me, she cared not about her well being, but the well being of others.
In January, 2014, I packed my bags for the West Coast, but before walking out the door I kneeled down and whispered to her graying face, “Please wait until I come back.”
I’ll never forget that day during San Diego Comic-Con 2014, arguably the busiest time of year for a geek news blogger. It was the Saturday of the convention. I was working from home in Los Angeles when the phone rang — it was Mom.
“Merrill… Skye, um… Skye’s having some problems and… it’s time.” She didn’t need to say more.
Immediately, I asked to speak to Dad. “We’re heading to the vet soon. Your brother took a video for you,” he explained, audibly holding back tears of his own.
“Call me when it’s done,” I replied, ending the conversation and hanging up while shaking in sadness. But it didn’t last long as I called back ten minutes later. “Can you take a picture for me?”
“I’ll try,” Dad replied.
The stress of taking the photo was tremendous. Getting Skye to even look up was a chore. Couple that with the tears and I might as well have been asking him to photograph the surface of Mars. But, photograph he did.
I was not left out of that day despite not being there. My brother realized he should film a video. My parents called me before taking Skye to the vet. My father granted my request for a final photograph. My family made sure I wouldn’t lose my chance to know what my best companion looked like in her final hours, even if I wasn’t going to get my chance to say good-bye. They had enough empathy to care how I would feel just as much as they did for each other in the room. That wouldn’t have been true without Skye being there in the first place.
A few days later, my brother emailed me. He wanted to know if I had any photos of Skye on my computer. I did, but not in much of an organized manner. Multitudes of digital backups covering years of her life were spread across hundreds of folders on two different drives. Regardless, I went through every archive I could for hours until compiling what felt like enough to at least ease the pain until uncovering the rest. I didn’t care how much the search was going to eat into my schedule, my brother needed those photos and I was going to make sure he got them.
The 14-year old canine didn’t pass that day because she was sick. She passed because her work was complete. She made two siblings care about one another, and her final test was one question long: will you come together and grieve as a unit when I’m gone? I can only hope we passed with flying colors. My entire family owes everything to that mutt with an indefinable breed mix, but two boys from Long Island owe her more than can ever be repaid.