As a little boy I had a wonderful companion. Poocher was his name. He had a speckled coat of black, gray, and white, the result of accidental breeding of a Springer Spaniel and a Dalmatian. I grew up in a rural area with farms and fields of Christmas trees. Large swaths of Scottish, red, and white pine surrounded by outstretched fingers of mixed hardwoods and sumac on the edge of abandoned pastures and apple orchards.
This was our playground. I climbed trees and called for small streams and wandered into the darkest parts of the forest as if I were the first to spot them. The worry of getting lost never crossed my mind. At my command “Poocher, home” he shot away and I knew he was going in the right direction.
If I ever met a dangerous animal or person, I knew that my companion would protect me. He already had the story after my father for trying to wake me up and actually bit a friend once, probably thinking I was going to be hurt. I always felt safe with this amazing dog.
But boys turn into wild-eyed teenagers. As I discovered new loves and interests with my new friends, I began to work, plan, and live a life that didn’t include forays into our beloved playground.
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I still went to his kennel every morning and evening – when I was home – and brought him food and fresh water. More out of responsibility, I suppose. There he would be waiting with his tail wagging and looking at me with those brown eyes, happy to see me. Occasionally I patted his head, scratched his ears, or even spoke to him a little. But I seldom took the time to take it out and let myself be guided through the woods and fields.
Then wild-eyed teenagers become young men. Ready to take on the world, we show everyone in front of us how we are going to change everything for the better. Off to the army thousands of miles away. I never thought about the old home and I am happy to be alone. To discover a whole new life, completely free of responsibility, I thought. I was in my own hedonistic heaven. I never thought of anything that wasn’t directly related to my so-called happiness.
Then one day a friend came into my room. He was obviously in a sad state. When I asked what was going on, he told me he had just learned that his teenage dog had died. He made story after story about his youth, training and hunting birds with his dog, and remembered all the camping trips and walks through the woods and trails. After he left, I sat for a few moments with memories swirling around in my head. I immediately called my mother and asked how they were. I finally got around to asking about Poocher. Although I was assured everything was fine, the moment I got home I decided to spend more time with him.
A few years later I found myself back in my old home. There he was, happy, and wagging his tail. But time affects a dog differently; I could see it in his snout, a shade of gray that only comes with age. He didn’t run when I let him out of his kennel. He moved slowly and deliberately and stopped in front of me. When I urged him towards the forest out of loyalty, he moved in that direction, but without the excitement of his younger days. We stopped often so he could rest. We never made it to our old houses because he had too much trouble walking. When we got home he drank some water and lay at my feet as I sat on the swing on the porch.
I looked down at him and at that moment I realized how little I deserved the devotion of this animal. I had neglected him for years. I barely fed and watered him when I was at home. I couldn’t even remember the last time I bathed him. He moved a little and let out one of those low sighs that always make me think of satisfaction. I rubbed it gently over his head, and his cock pounded slowly and lazily. First one, then two.
I decided he was too old to sleep in the kennel. That night he slept on the carpet in my room. When I woke up in the morning he was still sleeping in the same curled up position. With some uncertainty, I leaned over and patted his back. His head rose slowly and I could see his eyes, still brown, but not clear and sharp as before. I could see years of waiting in that look. His wistful expression seemed to ask, “Where have you been?” There was no judgment in that look, just a deep sadness.
I took him outside, bathed him, and gave him food and water. We walked up and down the courtyard a little, I walked slowly, he by my side. Every now and then I would pound his head and tell him what a good boy he was.
A few days later he was gone. When I carried him into the forest, which we loved so much, I found a place in a small clearing with maple and beechnut seedlings. After laying the last handful of earth on his grave while near this sacred ground, a light breeze began to move in the treetops. In the distance I thought I heard a boy laughing and the sharp cacophony of the excited bark of a dog.
It was hard to go. After all, he waited several years for me to return. He deserves better. I could only hope that the last few moments of his life would be filled with the few lean hours I’d spent with him.
Over the years I have tried to comfort myself with the fact that every dog I have had since Poocher has had my utmost attention and care. And all of these dogs were extraordinary companions. But I would give anything to run through these ancient forests again – a little boy who knows nothing about the coming days, with his wonderful companion, a colorful mutt who is on his heels, and the absolute certainty that they would do it again tomorrow.