When a Puppy Earns His Soul
He was sitting quietly toward the back of the pen in the barn when we arrived, shy and slightly larger than the others. A barefoot Amish girl plucked him from the squirming litter and put him in our arms. We took turns holding him, our hearts turning to mush. We painted one of his toenails pink and pulled out a post-it note to sketch the L-shaped swath of white fur on the back of his neck so we wouldn’t forget which one he was.
Two weeks later, the girls and I brought him home, where we gave him a flea bath, dropped a few bits of kibble onto the linoleum and lightly tapped our fingers on the rim of his water dish. Outside, we cooed over his adorable pudginess as he sat in the grass cocking his head from side to side at every bird and butterfly, the L-shaped swath so distinctive on his back. It was August of 1991, and we were his doting pack of humans—Rob and I and our three girls, Lauren, 13, Leslie, 10, and Kelly, 6.
Leslie at age 10, with Tucker (Photo by Sally Obert)
Within a day or two, he began to stir up our family dynamic like a beater in cake batter. His puppy zoomies sent us into hysterics, and me running behind him with paper towels to dab up the dribbles. He lived well into his name, Tucker, because by the time he was old enough not to sleep in a crate, he managed to spend equal time on each of our beds—tuck us in, if you will—before going to sleep by himself in the corner at the bottom of the stairs.
Dogs are usually the first to know when a storm’s coming, or to sense a medical crisis. But on his first birthday, the relief of it all was that Tucker didn’t.
What had shaken us to the core barely made a ripple in the pool of his puppyhood: Kelly has a brain tumor? Let’s play fetch! Brain surgery in a children’s hospital 70 miles away? Treat, please! Six weeks of radiation and then a year of chemo? Local firehouse siren! Owwwwooooooh!
Kelly at age 6, with Tucker (Photo by Sally Obert)
Lauren grabbed fistfuls of mini-marshmallows to lure Tucker to her room at night. Leslie was horrified every time he chewed the crotch out of a new gymnastics leotard. When Kelly and I were in the hospital, Rob and the girls called us on the phone so we could hear him howl in the background, and brushed off enough of his fur to put into a baggie for their next visit so Kelly could nuzzle it against her cheek. During respites at home from the hospital in the winter, we would all cringe when we saw Tucker chomping on his frozen turds in the back yard. And thus he grounded our heads and hearts when they spun out of control with fear and anxiety.
We returned from a Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World on a September midnight, 15 months after Kelly’s diagnosis. Her next-to-last words were to him: “Oh, sweetie . . . I missed you.” She bent down and kissed his forehead, went up to bed, and then had a sudden, violent headache. Without our realizing it, she had slipped into a coma. The next morning, we wrapped her in blankets and laid her in the back of the van to drive to the hospital, where a CT scan confirmed that the four brain tumors we knew had recurred five weeks ago were now shutting down her organs.
We brought her home in the back of the van, and when we got home, Tucker settled down next to the sofa where she lay in our family room and stayed there until she passed a few hours later.
Kelly at age 8, one month before she died (Photo by Lauren Bair)
Every week day in the following six weeks, Tucker would scamper to the living room window at the screech of the elementary school bus brakes at 4:12 PM and squeal with anticipation, piercing my heart until I couldn’t take it any longer. “Tucker, STOP IT!” I cried. “She’s not coming home anymore!” And then I ran up to our bedroom, shut the door, and wept. Amazingly, he did stop it. He never responded to the bus from that day forward.
Months later, I was home alone one evening and sat down to play the piano in our living room, with only the soft light of Christmas candles in the windows. I had often accompanied Kelly as she would sing “At the End of the Day” from Les Miserables in a defiant, boisterous little voice well beyond her six years—At the end of the day you get nothing for nothing / Sitting flat on your butt doesn’t buy any bread!—and then “Castle on a Cloud” as winsomely as any child could. But on that night, I whimpered myself through the heartbreaking “On My Own,” because that’s how I felt: On my own, pretending she’s beside me / All alone, I walk with her till morning / Without her, I feel her arms around me / And when I lose my way I close my eyes and she has found me . . .
By the next verse, I found myself singing as if she had taken over my voice: Oh, Maman (the French word for “Mom” just came out of me), the pavement shines like silver / All the lights are misty in the river / In heaven, the trees are bright with starlight / And all I see is you and me forever and forever…. The words garbled as I sang through my tears, but I was afraid if I stopped, the spell would be broken.
And that’s when I realized I wasn’t alone. I looked down, and there was Tucker, his head pressed firmly on my thigh. I took my fingers off the piano keys and embraced him, sobbing into his neck. He was slightly claustrophobic and not much for hugs, but he didn’t squirm out of my grasp.
That was the night he earned his soul. And while his function during her illness was Court Jester, now he was Minister of Grief.
I can’t begin to know all he meant to Rob, Lauren and Leslie during the worst of those early years, but my guess is he was The Friend Who Was Always There, The Friend Who Would Always Listen, The Friend With Whom All Secrets Were Safe. I don’t doubt his fur absorbed an ocean of bewilderment, grief and emotional chaos.
In the following seven years, we began to leave home—first Lauren to Ringling School of Art and Design, then Leslie to Penn State, then me to NYU for my masters. The night before I left, I lay on the floor beside him and tried to explain what was going to happen. I would miss Rob terribly, but how could I make Tucker understand? “I’ll always be with you in spirit, my sweet boy, and back to visit on holidays,” I said, stroking his ears and looking him deeply in the eye, channeling my best dog-whispering self. “Don’t forget me, okay? Please take really, really good care of Rob for me, will you?”
Lauren at age 17, with Tucker. (Photo by Countryhouse Studios)
Without any cueing, Tucker moved upstairs and slept beside Rob’s bed every night of my absence. Two years later, when I returned home for good, he was clearly more attached to Rob, but he was happy to have me back.
By Christmas of that year, he started to lose his hearing. So we began to clap to get his attention. One day the following spring, Tucker couldn’t get up or walk, and I couldn’t lift him. I called Rob to come home, and we spent the day at several veterinary clinics. At the second one, a specialty clinic, he was diagnosed with severe pancreatitis. Afterward, we put him in the back of our Jeep, his body leashed to an I.V. pole, still as a stone. As we drove back to our local veterinary clinic, we both knew we wouldn’t be able to afford lengthening his time with transfusions for uncertain results. It was time to say goodbye. He died on a Monday afternoon after a ride in the back of our car, just like Kelly had 10 years before. The synchronicity left us speechless.
I’m not sure how you ever say thanks for a dog like Tucker. We were certainly not unique in having loved a pet so deeply. But what was different about him was that, similar to the scapegoat in the Old Testament who took on the sins of the community before it was cast into the desert, Tucker bore the heavy, heavy grief of our family, and bore it with so much unconditional love and mercy.
I have learned never to look askance at anybody for doing the bizarre rituals people do to comfort themselves in their grief. And neither should you when I tell you that I filled Tucker’s water dish for two months after he died. I’d fill it, then let the water evaporate, then fill it again. And again. And again.
I know it was my way of thanking him for his holy and beautiful life with us.
NOTE: Tucker figures prominently in my book about this experience, A Table for Two: A Mother and Her Young Daughter Face Death Together. While currently out of print, a few new and used copies can still be purchased on Amazon.