by George Lynch
George is a featured writer for his town’s newspaper, the Granby (Connecticut) Drummer. We are related through his daughter Beth’s marriage with my son John. rjn
He’s a single guy, a loner, not much given to crowds, seemingly content with limited social interaction. His words, “My whole life has pretty much been centered on dogs rather than society. I have always had a dog”. He has always exhibited a certain degree of imperturbability but this situation really threw him.
You see, he and his dogs were a family. He loved them and they knew it. He talked to his dogs. If he was leaving, he told them when he would return. When he talked, they settled down and listened, seemed to understood every word.
They never cared what kind of day he had (although they were sensitive to his moods). They didn’t know whether he was rich or poor. What they did know was that his caring for them was genuine and their love for him was accepting and unconditional.
The dogs were guaranteed two outings a day, the best of which was to go swimming at the Tariffville park. He says, “Every day at 4, I would take them swimming at the river. Rain, snow, no matter what, we would go – every day without exception. Bella would swim. Coby would stand in the water and splash around. They both loved it, and I did too.”
Coby, was a “Big Yeller” sort of dog, a Lab/Shepherd mix, about 100 lbs. He was six weeks old when rescued. His inherent nature was to love and make others happy. He was gentle and sure with eyes that would move a soul. His one quirk? He would only eat and drink while lying down on all fours.
There were other pets in the house when Coby arrived, namely six parrots and a five foot iguana. The dog and the iguana got a kick out of each other. They would chase each other all over the house – raising hell – great fun.
Bella arrived later. She was a female hound, tall, 52 pounds, with a sorrowful history. She had originally belonged to a migrant farmer who lived in a trailer somewhere in the woods. When the season was over, he tied her to the front door and disappeared. One of the neighbors noticed her, called the dog warden, and another rescue dog joined the family. She was a year old at the time and starved for affection.
In the house Bella bonded instantly with everyone, especially Coby. Though half his size, she was always protecting him. Coby was a big “mush” and maybe she figured he was not assertive enough and needed someone to see that he was not taken advantage of.
She herself was certainly assertive enough. For a while, it was feared that she was aggressive toward other dogs but she later proved that she just wanted to play. People were initially afraid of her especially when they came to visit. It was common practice of hers to suddenly jump five-six feet in the air and bop a visitor in the nose.
At dinnertime, Bella would gulp her meal down and then wait maybe five feet away from Coby and watch him. Coby ate slowly, one bite at a time, and would always leave some food in his dish. She learned that if she was patient, he would eventually leave and she could finish the leftovers. She could have pushed him aside and he would have let her but, they were friends.
He came home from work one day, opened the door and found the house eerily quiet. Coby had always been the first to crash the door but this time it was just quiet. He found Coby lying in the living room; he didn’t want to get up. He had to be carried outside to do his business. The dog was uncommonly lethargic, devoid of any energy. Upon examination, the vet found a malignant tumor on his spleen. Removing the tumor would give him, at best, one more month of quality life. To avoid further discomfort, it was decided to have him put down.
Bella initially seemed to be okay following Coby’s death She ate regularly and exhibited normal behavior – but gradually she began to change. Rather than her usual assertive nature, she turned shy. She might perk up a bit with the other dogs but then come home and just lie down. She became restless. She would lie down and then get up, search for her lost companion, then lie down again. She would jump on the couch, get down and jump back up again. She could not get comfortable. She stopped eating out of her own bowl. She would only eat out of Coby’s bowl. Her grief over his passing was conspicuous. They had played together, exercised together and had fun together. Her world had revolved around Coby and suddenly there was no one to share it with. Someone close to her was not around anymore.
A few weeks after Coby’s death, Kevin came home from work and Bella looked sick. It was apparent that she wasn’t feeling good. He took her outside and she settled herself in the grass. Then she didn’t want to get up and go back in. He looked into her eyes and it scared him. The more he watched her, the more concerned he became. He already had an appointment scheduled with the vet to pick up Coby’s ashes. He brought Bella with him. The vet listened to the symptoms and suggested a blood test but also said that Bella needed another friend.
The following day, the vet called with the results of the blood test. Bella’s kidneys were shutting down; she was experiencing renal failure. The vet said that she would have died soon anyway but her grieving the loss of Coby had exacerbated her disease. She couldn’t deal with both.
Kevin comes home to silence. There are no dogs to talk to, no scolding, no companions scampering around his feet. He misses the commotion. It’s quiet. It seems like, all of a sudden, it’s just him. He fixes dinner for one. He hears sounds that he was not aware of before. His light and grace have disappeared. Nothing seems to be safe and secure anymore.
In bed he there is no pressure against his leg, no weight on the mattress. On the floor there is no sound of a dog shuffling position, of yawns.
Later, he settles down in a chair. For some reason he feels the need to validate his feelings so he pulls an album with pictures of the dogs. There is Bella, sitting with her head on his lap as he works on his fly rods, a picture of Coby in his usual resting place. He closes the album, again becoming aware of his solitude. He wonders if he has ever experienced real grief before.
Weekends are the hardest. He has more time to think and reflect on his losses. He says, “I’m not a very social guy, never did like crowds – don’t know why. It’s just a thing with me. What the dogs did was get me out talking to people, especially other dog owners at the park. Usually the same people were there at the same time. The dogs brought me out of my skin you know? You don’t realize it until they are gone how good they were for you. You think back and ask yourself, ‘Would I have talked to that person?’, ‘Would I have made conversation?’, ‘Would I have been friendly?’. No, I wouldn’t have”.
He thinks he is feeling a little better. It’s time to gather up the leashes and the collars and the dog dishes and the toys, throw away the leftover dog food. He sees that it is 4:00, time for the afternoon river trip – but not today. Someone else’s dog starts barking outside
He doesn’t talk to anybody about his feelings. He presupposes an insensitive reaction, “Hey, it was only a couple of dogs”. Humans have closure for their deceased: wakes, funerals, burials. The only closure he will ever have is time. Nobody cares that his dogs were the only non-judgmental friends that he had, that they helped him to become a person that, by nature, he was not inclined to be. That is tough.
He does know that there is one truth in his life – he might heal but there will always be a scar.
I was in the parking lot of my church where Kevin is the sexton. He has been there about 4 – 5 years I guess, never said a word to him other than good morning, afternoon etc. I saw him from the parking lot and probably said something like “hows it going?”
He stopped his raking and came over which surprised me and then started talking about the loss of his dogs. I think he knew that we had had several guide dogs and would understand. Anyway, I could tell that he was in distress. I am a bereavement volunteer so I had some idea of what to say and what not to say. Anyway, he agreed to an article and we had a formal interview. I thought he might take umbrage over my characterization of his person but he was fine with it.
Kevin Pelletier lives in Tariffville, Connecticut.