When I think back, I do not recount my past in memories of birthday presents, school friends, vacations, bumps and bruises. I keep time in the dogs. The dogs that slept curled up in the crook of my neck, their very essence of bad breath and animal spirit wafting like incense in and out of my time remembered here on earth, as me.
There was Buckley, the dog I remember only through photographs, for I was just learning to walk when she passed on. The picture of my father, young and strong, the Hollywood hills shading their bodies, his golden pit bull wrapped around his shoulders like a fox fur scarf. I swear the dog is smiling in this photo, just as my dad is.
Otis, my mother’s heart and soul. I remember the stocky tri-colored Jack Russell not coming to the porch for dinner one evening. I found him ambling around amongst the rocks and bushes of ivy, down the hill in Topanga Canyon. It was October, and Otis had stuck his head into my neon orange plastic pumpkin, the one I would use later to fill with candy. I remember pulling and pulling, working so hard to release his head, to not hurt his neck while doing so. There, now you can see. I hugged him tight. It’s okay, now you can see again.
There was Hobson, the Big Lover, the Rhodesian Ridgeback the size of a small horse. One hundred and sixty pounds of bone and muscle, and of chub, if I’m to be honest. Our guardian, that one was. He did not bark, but bayed, and for the few years we had him, the coyotes didn’t dare jump our fence. I remember the drive to the vet, with Hobson in the back, his legs having given out from overbreeding. I remember the car feeling so heavy, almost falling down the winding canyon roads, but somehow, the car felt even heavier on the drive back home, with Hobson no longer with us.
There was Scout, my pug, supposedly rescued from a family of drug swaddled addicts, though I learned later on he was bought for an extravagant price at a Malibu Pet Store. A rescue from the puppy mills, then, I would say. And his face. Oi Vey. I loved that pig-like creation like nothing else in this world. He made it all the way from Topanga Canyon to Dripping Springs Texas with us. He passed away on our newly built porch. The day was warm, I think. I buried him on one of Mom’s best house pillows.
There was Ollie, the squirrely deranged little jack, the one with a tennis ball always lodged in her teeth. She slept with it, she did. She passed suddenly, quick, like everything else she did. She’s still running laps up there, somewhere, never ceasing that shrill bark of hers. The few times she would settle, I would run my fingers through her white and blonde fur. She was so soft. I cherished those moments of calm.
There is Wiley, the snaggletooth, now living in another home, taking on another life. There is Geronimo, the only living breathing soul I’ve met who actively sees ghosts. There is Mystery, the wizened sorceress of a fantasy tale, her eyes so human and rich. There is Ruby, my pup of chunk and boisterous personality, and there was Hazel, this morning, her belly impregnated with cancer, her maw swallowing whole the last treats I tossed to her indoors.
We put Hazel down today, the seventeenth of December. She lay still, as if sleeping, on the living room floor. Hazel – the dog of barks and bays, the animal of pure love and bliss. The dog stepped out from her blonde Labrador casing and into the somewhere else at nine-thirty this morning. A memory I shall not soon forget.
I wonder at why these animals have such a hold on human’s hearts. I believe now, after having buried the sixth dog, the sixth family member, today, in a hole dug out at our ranch, that it is their innocence that heats our hearts. We crave it – the genuine kindness they give freely to another species, a species that does not even speak the same language. Their kindness, their innocence, their over-brimming offerings of affection and warmth, given to us every day, from the very second we walk into the door, to the very second we leave them.
There are no words to describe their spirits. Their love is a wild, all-encompassing essence that surrounds us like the air that we breathe. And as I continue to move through this world, counting stepping-stones in the fur of these beloved animals, I think, that I would like to be more like a dog. They can teach us to love freely, for one.
Rest in good company, Hazel Basil. Say hi to the others, wherever you are.