(The Echo of those who came before)

As I begin this story, I think it’s important to share some background so you, the reader can get an idea of how normal my discussion (several months after she passed) was with Mari Lynn.

 Several months after Mari Lynn and I were married we moved to a house with a large backyard. By this time our two youngest daughters, who were best friends before Mari Lynn and I had made our escape, were now progressing from blended family rivals to becoming sisters. Mari Lynn came to me one evening with a proposal that she believed would help the two young girls become closer. Mari Lynn thought that we should get them a dog, a living thing that would help the two focus on a common interest and maybe stop punching each other.

 On the surface, this seemed like it might be a good idea, but I needed some convincing. After all, we really couldn’t expect the two young ladies to scoop poop, and I was concerned about the cost. Our finances were really tight and between dog food and veterinary bills, I didn’t think we could justify the cost. After several weeks of discussion, I relented and the two of us went to the local shelter and adopted a puppy.

Baby was everything Mari Lynn had promised.  To my amazement, the girls weren’t bickering as much, and as time passed their puppy became a focal point in their young lives. Dressed in the girls’ clothes, Baby would lay between them and eat popcorn as the three watched movies. With Baby as part of our family, the girls were truly becoming sisters.

One day, several years later, we noticed Baby hadn’t eaten her kibble. We didn’t think much of it, she sometimes skipped a day. That is until we realized that she hadn’t eaten for the past five days! You see, both Mari Lynn and I fed her and had assumed the other had filled her bowl. Suddenly we were paying extreme attention and were horrified to realize Baby wasn’t drinking either. At the emergency visit to the vet, we were told that Baby was suffering from cancer, and it was very advanced. She would probably not survive the week. It was four days before the girls would return from their other families, and we couldn’t bear the thought of the girls not being able to say goodbye. We brought Baby home with medication to keep her comfortable.

The morning after the girls came home, all four of us took Baby back to the vet for the last time. As you can imagine the girls were heartbroken. After seeing the girls’ anguish, both Mari Lynn and I vowed to never get another pet again.

About six months later, Mari Lynn began starting conversations with the phrase, “We need a dog.” I had a couple of thoughts. The first was “Here we go again”, a close second thought was, “How can we put ourselves, especially the girls, through the possible loss of another family member?” Just as before, after several weeks of discussion, I relented and off we went to the local pet shelter.

After several visits, we were walking through the infirmary room of the shelter and saw what seemed to be a lab mix puppy. We asked why he was in the infirmary and were told that the very young puppies were put on a seven-day hold to make sure they were healthy. Looking at the index card in his enclosure we noticed that this was the seventh day, and after a little haggling, we negotiated his release. Two days later Buddy was home. 

Buddy was a rambunctious lab mix who loved to chew things. He immediately became an outside dog. As he grew, it became more and more obvious that he was going to be larger than the 65 pounds the shelter staff estimated. By the time he was two years old, he was a stocky 95 pounds and retained enough puppy energy that he was almost never allowed in the house. Playing with Buddy inside almost always resulted in something being broken. Don’t get me wrong, Buddy was a lovable family member who was always gentle with children, but life was generally better when he was outside.

In the fall of 2000 I sustained a serious injury, and was unable to work, Buddy was still an outside friend. Often, I would lay in our hammock with him resting in the grass under me.  The pain from my injury worsened, and I spent less and less time outside. After my second back surgery failed my pain was immediately so bad that I was unable to get out of bed.

One morning Mari Lynn left for work and accidently left the back door open.  As I was lying there in horrific pain, I suddenly felt the moist tongue of my outside friend licking my hand. My first thought was wondering how I was going to get Buddy back outside before he chewed or broke something. Before I could formulate a plan, I felt a thud on the floor next to me. For the eight months that I was bedridden, in so much pain I was quite literally afraid to blink, Buddy did not leave my side.

After several years we moved to another home; one with enough driveway space for our new motorhome, a vehicle we used to reclaim as much of our active “pre-injury” life as possible.  When we returned from a weekend getaway, my mom who was house-sitting greeted us with unwelcome news. Our daughter who was nearly 19 years old and still living at home had adopted a puppy. We were paying an extra $200 per month which had been added to our lease for Buddy and had agreed not to have any more pets of any kind. Since our neighbor was a good friend of our landlord, it would have been impossible to keep this violation secret. When Mari Lynn told our daughter that she would not be allowed to keep her new puppy in our home without us having to renegotiate our lease and, at a minimum she needed to be willing to pay whatever monthly cost was required. She moved out to live with her boyfriend.

One day when our daughter came over to visit, she not only brought the Corgi mix that was the reason for her exit from our home but also brought a nearly fully grown Great Dane mix AND a one-month-old terrier mix. Both Mari Lynn and I were horrified when we were told that when they would leave their house for work all three pets, as well as their cat, were locked up on a single pet crate. Even though it was the largest crate they could find, there was barely room for the huge Great Dane let alone three other pets.  When we confronted the “kids” they told us that they realized they had made “A little miscalculation”, but the shelter they had adopted their new family from refused to take any of them back. They were stuck with their mistake and couldn’t see a way out.

Mari Lynn took me aside and rather forcefully told me that we had to do something. My first thought was, “Here we go again.”  This time I didn’t take weeks for her to convince me. So, as I walked over to talk to our neighbor (the one who was our landlord’s friend and, after a couple of years and become our dear friend) about having another dog, Mari Lynn was on the phone with our landlord, finding out what it would require to have a second dog.

Betty (Betty Boop) was a quirky little thing but from the first day, she was Buddy’s little girl.  Buddy, now over ten years old, adopted Betty, and no matter where he went the tiny terrier followed. They were often found curled up together for their afternoon nap.

 Even though Betty and Buddy were inseparable, Betty quickly became Mari Lynn’s dog. Mari Lynn loved afternoon naps in her recliner. As soon as she closed her eyes, Betty would jump into her lap and plop down hard. The two would snuggle and sleep for an hour or two. If one moved the other, without waking, would move in unison. Their bond seemed to be one whose history was greater than the current lifetime. They were ancient souls reunited.

 Our daughter had a falling out with her boyfriend and she and her Corgi (Rezzi) moved back home. Soon we bought our first forever home so the landlord issues about extra pets was no longer an issue. Buddy, now 13 years old, was being kept young by the two younger dogs. The three played together in our fenced backyard and were often found curled up together in an afternoon nap.

 When Rezzi, our daughter, and her new boyfriend found a place of their own, the loss of their family (Rezzi) really hit Betty and Buddy harder than we expected.  For months they moped around in obvious grief.

Buddy was now almost 15 years old, and his health was failing faster than Mari Lynn’s who, six months before, had been diagnosed with gastric cancer. It was obvious that Buddy’s time on earth was over, but neither Mari Lynn nor I had the physical strength to carry Buddy, now 105 pounds, to our car. We decided to have a mobile veterinarian come to our home and help give Buddy the rest he deserved. Rezzi brought our daughter over and all five of us, Mari Lynn, Betty, Rezzi, our daughter, and me, laid down on Buddy’s bed with him as the vet helped him drift into his final sleep.  We lay there with him until both Rezzi and Betty had said their final goodbyes, simultaneously getting up and going outside. The vet loaded Buddy’s lifeless body onto a stretcher and gently put him in the back of her SUV.

Betty seemed lost. Both of her friends, and her family, were gone and while Rezzi would sometimes come to visit, she was never the same.  Her depression was made worse when Mari Lynn’s illness progressed to the point that it hard for her to have Betty in her lap. When Mari Lynn passed away it was like some unseen force pulled Betty’s soul right out of her.

After Mari Lynn passed, I wasn’t sleeping well and would often be up in the very early morning hours. One morning at about 4 A.M. I was up reading. Betty came up and licked my hand and curled up by my chair. I noticed because it was quite unusual for her to acknowledge me that early. Since Mari Lynn’s passing, she normally slept at least until sunup. At about 5 A.M. I got out of my chair to get a cup of coffee. Betty was no longer beside my chair. I didn’t think much of it, I assumed she had gone back to her bed in the living room. She wasn’t there either. Her behavior was unusual enough, and having one of those gut feeling moments, I thought I should find her, “Just to be sure.”

I looked through the entire house and she was nowhere to be found. It was still dark outside but with a flashlight, I checked both gates to make sure she hadn’t gotten out. I looked everywhere for the next hour and a half without success. At 7 A.M. the sun was rising, lighting some of the places that, even with my flashlight, I couldn’t see. There in the farthest, darkest corner of the yard, little Betty was lying with her nose to the fence. I picked her up and tried to get her to walk on her own. She couldn’t do it, she was too weak. As I picked her up to carry her into the house, I noticed white foamy bubbles around her nose and mouth.

By this time our veterinary office would soon open, so I gently put her in my car and drove over. They were unlocking the door when I pulled into the parking lot. A kind young lady took Betty out of my arms and carried her through a door that led to the exam rooms. As I waited for the vet to arrive, I called our daughter (Rezzi’s mom) to let her know Betty was in crisis and it didn’t look good. Before she arrived, the vet told me the grim news. Betty was suffering from torsion, a condition where the stomach flips tying it off both ends. I was told it was unusual for a small dog, but it could be surgically corrected. HOWEVER, this must have occurred three or four hours before, and in Betty’s weakened condition she would most likely not survive.

It was less than a year since we all laid on Buddy’s bed as he drifted off and only four months since Mari Lynn passed. When I told the vet this, she said that she had witnessed this before. “Sometimes our pet’s grief is so great they simply quit living.”

Mari Lynn died of gastric cancer. Betty followed her into the next life with her own stomach ailment.

I realize this has a bit of a read, but I thought it was necessary for you to understand why I hesitated, when on early morning walks, six months after Mari Lynn passed, I began hearing her say the familiar words, “We need a dog!”. WTF, “Here we go again?”.

Shortly after Mari Lynn passed, I began hearing her voice. Sometimes it was audible, as clear as if she was standing beside me, but most of the time I would hear her speaking somewhere in my mind. For some, it may sound like my imagination was being driven by my grief, but our discussions were often profound with ideas and concepts expressed in ways and with words that were definitely not my own. I soon found that we could communicate best outside on walks in the early morning hours.

It was on one such walk when I began to hear all too familiar words, “We need a dog.”  There were mornings when I felt compelled to get outside where I could best hear her voice, expecting some profound conversation that would help me understand how I could still be having interactions with my deceased wife. Or maybe she would give me some guidance to help our children (or others) through their deep feelings of loss. Or possibly as on past walks, she would interpret some of the vivid dreams I was having. But no! For weeks, seemingly every day, she would only say, “We need a dog.”

After a while, I actually began to argue with her. As I began to list the litany of excuses (to me reasons) that I should never have another pet of any kind, she would gently shoot each one down. I would say, “I can barely take care of myself. How can you expect me to be responsible for another life?” Her quiet reply was, “A dog will bring life to you. We need a dog!” I would argue, “A dog may destroy some of our things! Some of what I have is really important- it’s a physical reminder of you, and I can’t bear even the possibility of losing that connection.” In my mind, I would hear her gentle reply in a way that only she could say, “Things are just things. Besides what connection are you afraid of losing? You’re talking to me now, so what you’re afraid of will not happen. WE NEED A DOG!”

It was getting to the point that I wasn’t as anxious to get outside. I knew what we would talk about and exactly what she would say.   I thought I had devised a plan to change the subject once and for all. One morning, as soon as I got outside, I said, “Fine! I’ll look online for a dog to adopt. BUT if I don’t find exactly what I’m looking for, well, I don’t want to hear about this ever again.”  “Okay.” Was her quiet reply.

 I’m not sure where the idea of outsmarting someone who’s on the other side of the veil came from, but I gave it my best shot. I told her, “I will look online one time and I have conditions that, if not met, well, I want to hear no more about this. First, I will only adopt a young puppy—young enough that I don’t have to deal with anyone else’s idea of what a dog should be. Second, my new friend MUST be a large breed. And third, (this is where I thought I had outsmarted her) when I go online, whatever this puppy’s name is, well I’ll recognize it. My adopted new friend will already have a name that I will know, one that just makes sense.” Again her quiet reply was the same with a little tagline at the end, “Okay, but we do need a dog. Look as soon as you get back inside.”

As soon as I got back in the house, I fired up Mari Lynn’s laptop computer and did a quick search for “pet adoption shelters near me.” The first shelter that popped up in my search was a small adoption organization that wasn’t close to me at all, but what the hell, I opened up the website for “Fur Baby Rescue”, a small pet rescue shelter near downtown Los Angeles that specializes in young puppies and kittens. I clicked on the “Find a pet” button and looked at the first listing. It was a small kitten. I’m allergic to cats, so I thought for a moment that my plan was working. When I scrolled down to the second listing, I nearly fell out of my chair. There on the monitor in front of me was a two-month-old German Shepard mix named Bear—a name that logically followed Baby, Buddy, and Betty. It was only 4 A.M. and, realizing that I never had any hope of winning our “We need a dog” argument, I filled out the shelter’s contact info, told them that I was interested in Bear, and tried to go back to sleep.

At 8 A.M. I received an email from the shelter asking for a bit more information and suggesting that I come to see him the next day. If they decided that Bear and I were a good match, I could pay their fee and pick him up a day later—they needed time to comply with the Los Angeles County rule of not placing unaltered pets up for adoption. My new friend would get “snipped”. I was told that Bear’s fee was unusually high—it had taken a two-day trip to Central California to rescue him. It would cost $580 to adopt Bear.

Since I was only getting a few hours of broken sleep each night, driving was a real issue—it was easy to doze off. My Thursday morning drive through Los Angeles traffic was not going to be easy. A few minutes before I got in my car, I drank two 5-Hour Energy drinks, you know, those little bottles you see at gas stations and convenience store checkout stands, and put two more in my car’s glovebox for the return trip. It took a little over an hour to find the plain brick building in an industrial area of Los Angeles near the USC Campus. In a small pen in the shelter’s front office was a German Shepherd puppy.

He was much smaller than I expected, only weighing 19 pounds. The staff told me about how he had been rescued. Bear was found wandering the streets of Tulare, a community north of Bakersfield. Tulare County was experiencing a tremendous influx of stray and unwanted dogs and cats. Because of limited resources, the county had made a difficult decision; unclaimed pets and strays would be euthanized on the third day after they were picked up.  They did, however, list every pickup as soon as they arrived back at their facility. The Fur Baby Shelter scoured the internet looking for young kittens and puppies close enough that they could secure them, make sure they were healthy, and find a forever home for them. Tulare was far outside of the area they normally would travel to, but one of the staff felt compelled to make what would be a two-day trip, paying for the necessary hotel stay and extra meals out of their own pocket.

Bear was found wandering the streets on Monday. The Fur Baby staff member had Bear back in Los Angeles late Tuesday evening, took a few pictures of him with their phone, and posted him on their website at about 1 A.M Wednesday morning—just a few hours before I thought that I could outwit Mari Lynn who had been telling me for weeks that “We need a dog!’

The shelter director took a bit more information and I signed the adoption papers. She told me that I could return the next day and he would be ready to go home. He would be given the first puppy shots and, since he seemed too thin, they expected that he needed to be dewormed. She warned that he may be a little groggy from his surgery and said that I should make an appointment with my vet as soon as I could.

Other than needing more energy drinks, the ride home with Bear was uneventful. We drove for a couple of hours as he dozed in and out of an anesthetic stupor. By the time we arrived home, it was dark. Bear took to his new surroundings well; it seemed as though he had never experienced the joy of a well-trimmed lawn and immediately did “his business” before running back into the house.

As soon as he saw the toys I had already bought, he made a beeline for a tennis ball. Picking it up he ran straight to where I was exhaustedly sitting in my recliner and tried his best to put it in my hand. I reached out and accepted his little gift and tossed it into the next room. He joyfully ran after it, bouncing as he went. As soon as he retrieved it, he turned and ran as fast as his little legs could move—slipping all the way on the slick tile floor. We played catch for an hour or so until he laid down and fell exhausted into his new bed.

     From that first night, Bear was house-trained. I have never had a mess to clean up in the house. He did, however, love to chew things. He surgically removed the tongs out of my favorite shoes and even while sleeping, would gnaw the corners of dressers or any wood furniture he was near.  We played catch in the back yard, and worked on our boat, and motorhome.

We spent a day fixing a gate that, in the future, would not hold an energetic adult German Shapard. We even went for bike rides with him in a trailer he no longer fits in.

      The shelter’s paperwork indicated that Bear was a German Shepard “mix” and (because of his size) he was three to four months old. At Bear’s first vet visit, I was told that he was one month old not four and would probably be extremely large. The vet also said he was almost certainly a purebred German Shepard and remarked how unusual it was for a breeder to “lose” a one-month-old purebred puppy. Later I followed up with a pet DNA kit and found that Bear was indeed a purebred German Shepard. An adult male German Shepard ranges in size from 24-26 inches in height at the shoulder and 70 –90 pounds.  Bear is 30 inches tall at the shoulder and now weighs about 150 pounds. He is much larger than average, an attribute that is extremely helpful.

    I still have enough pain from my 23-year-old injury that movement is sometimes difficult. If I need help getting out of a chair or if I’ve knelt down to pick something up at the wrong time, I simply need to say, “Bear, come help.” Within moments my friend is standing in front of me, grinning ear to ear, ready to help. He’s a big enough anchor that I can use him to pull myself to my feet. He knows what the first aid “kit” is and will retrieve it from the house, bringing it to me anywhere on our property. One of his greatest daily joys is to help me get the mail and will carry even heavy boxes down our 120-foot driveway back to the house.

Anyone who has had a pet, especially one who acts like a 150-pound two-year-old child knows they can sometimes be a real pain in the butt. However, they also overflow our hearts with joy and truly unconditional love. I wrote this “little” story to point out two things. First, the joy and love our furry family brings us far outweighs the pain we feel when they leave. They teach us valuable lessons that come from a place that’s just beyond our human ability to see.  The second reason I penned this is simple; Listen to your wife! Even if she’s on the other side of a thinning veil. Because you too may need a dog.