That Fuzzy Terrier Sprawled Snoozing

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Rain drips steadily from the eaves as the afternoon winds down to dusk. The thermometer slides slowly down into the forties. The house is warm enough, but I can feel the cold nibbling at the windowpanes. The firewood is all in the cellar; the snow tires are on the car; a small chicken thigh sits thawing for supper. It’s very quiet and serene. Except for one thing: I’m trying to type with a furry terrier sprawled snoozing across my lap. This is nearly a physical impossibility.

I don’t know what she sees in it; it isn’t much of a lap. During the summer, with all the windows open for the cross-draft, she finds a shady spot on the floor and barely raises an eyebrow at invitations to “come up here.” Now, with the dark and cold advancing – and who knows what else she senses encroaching from the woods out back? – she’s suddenly appointed herself the official groin-warmer. She may know this intuitively; but when we settle down like this, I can peek at my Dick Tracy wristwatch and watch my heart rate drop. I suspect hers does, too. People and their pets can grow marvelously attuned to each other.

One thing for sure: This place would be a lot quieter than it is without my constant companion. She arrived a few months before my wife died. While Kiki’s hardly a substitute for my companion of almost 60 years – I can’t, for example, look up from my newspaper and share my feelings about the metastasis defacing the road between Hanover and Lebanon – just the presence of another living, breathing (dare I say sentient?) mammal, usually between my feet in the kitchen, in my lap in my easy chair, and ranging through the woods all around when we walk, has been a blessing. It’s hard to imagine life here without her.

People who don’t feel a natural affinity for dogs have a lot of difficulty understanding what to them appears to be a simpering sort of relationship. I must admit that if we make transcripts of what we actually say to our dogs, we sound pretty stupid: “So who’s a good dog today. Hmm? Could it be you? Yes, of course it could! Aw, you’re just the best…” ad nauseam. It’s the tone of voice that counts. A friend of mine uses some epithets on her pets that, if her pets were her kids, would activate Child Protective Services. I do it myself now and then. But Kiki doesn’t hear the words; she picks up the affection.

Which, of course, she returns. Of all the creatures we deal with in the course of our lives, no other is as non-judgmental, forgiving, and sympathetic as our dogs. When I fall, for example (a not uncommon occurrence), Kiki is right there, muzzle in my face, to see if I’m okay. (At the same time, my wristwatch is expressing the same concern, and asking if I need help.) I reassure both of them, and then have to get the dog out from under me, where her efforts to help are actually a hindrance. But her concern is palpable, as is her relief when I start walking again.

In some ways, writing about dogs is like shooting fish in a barrel. But the stories about them stay with us. I read “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” probably a dozen times. Albert Payson Terhune captivated me as a child with his tales of heroic collie dogs bred at his New Jersey estate, Sunnybank. And who can forget the “heroism” of Balto, the Siberian husky who was part of the team on the final leg of the 1925 relay of diphtheria vaccine to stricken Nome? His statue is a popular spot for kids in Central Park.

The relationship between me and Kiki, though we’ve by now learned each other’s moves and moods, isn’t perfect. She still sometimes chews cordy fabrics and synthetic fleece, and she makes a lot of noise when I let her out at night. She still chases the deer out of the yard – if they run. We’ll celebrate her sixth birthday this week. I doubt she’ll even notice the occasion.

I once asked my class of high school sophomores, during a section on poetry, to compose an epitaph for the gravestone of a dog. The results were fairly predictable. There were lots of garment-rending, tearful addresses to deceased pets with romantic names “Oh, Lassie, my Lassie, why do you lie so still?” But one of my favorite students (for his wit) came up with the best, which I remember still: “Had a dog named Clyde/ Who thought dogs flied./ Tried./ Died.” You may not think that deathless poetry, but it’s lasted me 54 years.

Among the commonest posts on Facebook are those expressing grief at the death of a beloved dog. It’s a terrible occasion, marking the loss of a family member and creature who gave without stinting, knew our faults and shortcomings and yet thought us the most wonderful thing in the world. As Kiki and I venture together into an uncertain future, I try to live life as she does: with enthusiasm, joy, appetite, and no thought for what problems tomorrow might bring. Worry is the thief of today. I’m awfully glad she’s here.