Snips And Snails To Puppy Tales

Sam and Bruno were best friends. Sam’s older brother, Nicco, had picked out his dog, Lucca, many years earlier. At the time Sam was 2 and Nicco was 10.  When Sam turned 10, he pointed out that Nicco had selected his own pup, so it was now time for Sam to claim his.

His selection of Bruno was a good one. While Lucca had been a rescue dog that cost $50 plus free neutering, Bruno was bred with papers and cost quite a bit more. They were both fine animals but Bruno looked like show pony from day one. He didn’t even need to try. He had such natural posing abilities. Wherever we went, people stopped us and asked all about handsome, athletic Bruno, the Jack LeLane of German Shepherds.

Lucca was already frosty around his beard when Bruno romped into his domain and this little pup that pulled his ears and outsized him within his first year needed a lot of straightening out.  Clearly by the second year, they were inseparable and if any of us chose to walk one without the other, the one left at home would have a fit as he stood by the gate and watched the other go. And the other was always reluctant to leave without his pal as well.

And so the days went; Nicco, Sam, Lucca, and Bruno were just happy friends with cross-loyalties that were nothing but love-based and well-intended. Bruno, the 120-pound lug, often slept in the living room with Sam using him for a pillow. Lucca, a little older and arthritic, would doze in the sun to let the heat bake his aching bones, but when Nicco walked in the door, he went to butter at the site of him; two boys, two dogs, two great stories being played out before my eyes. A classic American story as it should be.

Then came the day Nicco left for college. At first, Lucca didn’t seem to notice but over time, his absence was more prominent and Lucca began to sit at the gate and hang his head. He was certainly distracted by his giant “son,” Bruno but he missed his boy. I filled in as best as I could but I wasn’t Nicco. Bruno reacted to Lucca’s sadness, too, and often lay by him at the gate like a friend commiserating a death or great loss.

In time, Lucca brightened and seemed to accept the new way of life, but the allegiance that he and Bruno established during that time was visibly significant and a big part of what gave him comfort during those days. And so we all hit the “Reset Button” and got used to life as it had become until one dark day, old reliable Lucca gave up the fight and we had to put him down.

I can tell you that observing Bruno’s reaction to this loss was nothing more than fascinating

although pitiful. In the wake of Lucca’s death, Bruno didn’t eat for days. He moped, he cried, he couldn’t get settled anywhere. Many nights, I’d see him gazing out the fence seemingly thinking (hoping) his old pal was just going to show up one day. My throat tightens just thinking about it.

So suddenly there were two. Nicco was essentially gone. Lucca was really gone. And Sam and Bruno were left with each other. And they did well. They became even more inseparable. They went for walks. They played at the dog park. Bruno slept at the foot of Sam’s bed and listened for him, his boy, whenever footsteps were heard.

So again, there had been a “resetting” of sorts until one evening when Bruno came into the house bleeding profusely from his nose. At first we rationed it away until it occurred again weeks later. In short, we soon came to find he had multiple, cancerous tumors in his nose.  Within a month Bruno was dead, too.

And now Sam was really alone. Only this was a loneliness that went all the way to the bone.  He missed his older brother tremendously; they had become so close. And Lucca had been such a dear old grandfather to everyone. No one could ignore what a solid brick of a dog he had been. And then to lose the light-hearted spirit of Bruno who was still very “puppyish” despite his age.

One night, I walked into Sam’s very quiet room; a room that sat among four other empty bedrooms where all his brothers and sisters had grown and gone. A room where there were still scratch marks on the door from Bruno’s undeniable right to burst through any door that blocked his access to Sam. A room where a young boy, not too popular, sort of quiet, a little “deeper” than most, was now alone doing homework with a single light on and a stereo playing softly. I sat on the bed and smiled at him. He weakly returned my smile and I saw water coming from his eyes falling onto his textbooks. I put an arm around him and went to my bed. I told my wife tomorrow we were going back to the dog pound to see if there were any rescue dogs in need of a friend. If Sam sunk any lower, he’d have to reach up to scratch a snake belly. He needed to be needed. And he needed to love something.

Twelve hours later, I was filling out papers to purchase and adopt Lila, our first female canine

addition to the family. All her precedents were boys. But what a lady she was. Soft, gentle, timid, vulnerable; she tucked herself inside Sam’s arms and refused to leave him that whole first night. She’d been left at the doorstep of the rescue shelter with a dozen brothers and sisters in a closed box on a snowy December evening. She was in need of everything Sam had to give. Fill what’s empty and empty what’s full.

In the morning, I came down to find them on the couch. He--awake and smiling and petting her lovingly. She--sound asleep and practically purring. The match had been successful. She was smart; a very quick learner and was housebroken in a matter of days. She shook her little puppy rear end when Sam came into view in the driveway and greeted him like he’d been away at the war when he got home from school. She filled him with love and he poured it back into her and without a doubt, Lila was the best thing the doctor could have ordered to bring Sam back around and out of his awkward teenage slump. All through his last years of high school, his friends got to know Lila. She was at the bonfires, at the games, in the car when Sam got picked up. And they would fawn over each other at every opportunity. And all the while, she was filling him with love and confidence and unwavering support, a funny thing was happening. My boy was becoming a man. And this young man became a strong enough high school athlete that he got himself a bit of a college scholarship. His confidence found him leading a church youth group, greatly improving his grades and enjoying a social life like he had never had before. Everywhere we went we heard what a great kid Sam was. And after a tearful goodbye from his many friends on the morning we left to take Sam to college, Lila watched from the window and saw the tail lights go out of site. And as Sam began to embark on his new life one thing was clear--now Lila was going to be alone.

And this little girl took it hard. Because this time there were no kids left to distract her and my wife and I have a working schedule that found her alone in the backyard quite often. Sam would not return that first semester until one unexpected weekend he popped in for a night and surprised all of us. Lila was overjoyed and came at him like a ball of thunder, but soon it was over and our new adult son was on his way back to the place that was even further shaping him and liberating him from any sort of “control.” His life was his own.

So the evenings played on and we’d put away the dishes and settle into the living room, Lila dutifully at my feet, her soulful eyes gazing up at me. And then one, night my wife explained that there was a woman she worked with who lived with her elderly mother and they were looking for a dog. One who was trained, settled and quiet. One who would …

“Wait a minute!” I said. “You want to get rid of her?” And my wife in her very calm and gentle way explained. She told me how lonely Lila was all day. How these folks loved animals and were home all day. She brought them over to meet me and they were just the nicest folks you could imagine and Lila loved them up and down the whole time we were together. So we drove up to Sam’s school to watch him play an important league match and after their victory we took him to dinner and told him what we were thinking. And he thought awhile and nodded his head and said. “Yeah dad, do it.” I wasn’t expecting this. I said, “What? Let her go?”

He choked on the words but got them out. “I know how busy you and mom are and I know she’s now alone a lot. She deserves to be loved and I love her enough to let her go to a place where she’ll get that. Heck I won’t be home for more than a few months for the next four years maybe longer, maybe never. She’s only 2--let her have a beautiful life.”

So we did. The bridge that was Lila established a gateway to manhood for our youngest and what a purpose she served! So we sent her off and have gotten numerous reports about her happiness and loyalty to her new family. She’s evidently adjusted very well and has constant attention. And every once in awhile when I am out driving, I think I see her and I go out of my way to avoid that. Don’t think I want to mess with her emotions, nor mine.

Because, see, while each of the boys watched their dogs go and each of the dogs watched others go and even brand new Lila had to watch Sam go, my wife and I had to watch all of them go. Each animal clearly served a purpose as did each of us serve many purposes but now while the grandkids visit and our house is typically far from quiet, we are very much alone.  Just the two of us that started this whole thing. The clatter and clamor of raising five kids, and several dogs has come to an abrupt stop. Most of the “bridges” we provided have been crossed and there are certainly more miles behind us than in front. But I fondly look back on the animals that assisted us in so many ways and I thank God for all that a dog embodies and how much good the outside of an animal can do for the inside of a man.