It was springtime, May of 1982, a season full of capricious breezes, mounds of hope, and heaps of mindless anticipation. She was a scraggly goofball thing, a frenzied ball of fur, the little runt, last of a litter of ten adorable Golden Retrievers, born almost a year from my mother’s gruesome death and so a ray of positivity and silly joy punctuating the heretofore impenetrable shades of despondent memory.
She was born in Dori’s and my bedroom, in the whelping box we had provided for the occasion; and since her mother Julee – short for Mint Julep (yeah, don’t even say it) – a lovely light-complected Golden with a regal bearing and a smile in her eyes she took with her into the Afterlife many happy years later – had decided she’d had enough of this birthing business, thank you, and so had dragged her weary limbs up onto the king-sized Mom and Dad bed, while Dori, my resourceful yet happy-go-lucky wife, had dragged little Rootin Tootin from out of her mom, snipped the umbilical cord, and placed her in her mom’s soft fur.
Gosh, Time simply moves too fast – I could have savored that moment for a lifetime. We watched daily as Rootee scrambled to get at one of her mother’s teats, always occupied by brothers and sisters; but we would help Rootee out by pulling one or two of the others away when they’d had their fill. Julee would always lick the top of her little one’s head as the latter was nursing, and I truly believe that those moments of our fending for Rootee and her mother’s immediate ensuing tenderness created a connection among this lovely pup, her mom, and Dori and me that lasted a lifetime.
As Rootee was a frisky, incessantly happy little puppy, we made the decision to give the next smallest Golden to Dori’s mom (“Jessi” was intentionally poisoned four years later by Mrs. Formato’s next door neighbor, an act of random wickedness from which none of us has recovered to this day), then sell the other eight, a process that involved interviews and paperwork that netted us enough income to be able to afford, with the inclusion of my mother’s car, a small Nissan wagon, which we needed now that we were a “family” instead of just a young couple with a dog!
Mind you, by this time, I had been to Harvard to get my Master’s, suffered through both parents’ deaths, had ascended to the position of Head of the Upper School for a reputable private institution, and, with money from the combined sales of my mom’s house and our own townhome, as well as a trickle of inheritance money from my beloved grandmother Helen Hibbs’s estate, had just purchased a two-acre haven right at the entrance to Great Falls Park on the very border of McLean, Virginia.
What a playground for Julee and Rootee!
It was here that these dogs taught me what “being alive” really means.
Yes, they ran with me daily through Great Falls Park, but beyond the companionship with me, their play was constant, their focus on nature intense and real: every stick and branch was theirs for the taking, massive tugs-of-war continually initiated by their playfully competitive natures. Each could fetch a tennis ball and return it with alacrity, albeit giving it up often involved a bit of a struggle between canine and “master,” especially Rootee, who seemed to have been born with a determination never to let go. Of anything.
Rootee and Julee became my constant companions. I never went anywhere without both of them, and Rootee was insistent that her best spot to sit was in my lap – even when I was driving, a trait heartily mimicked by Hankster the Gangster, our ebullient, affectionate Vizsla thirty years later.
That jingle of Rootee’s collar as she came careening around any corner was music to my ears. Julee’s was distinctive, rhythmic and melodious even; but Rootee’s was magical, a signal that joy was just around the corner, and every time she arrived it was a tail-wagging-fest as if she hadn’t seen for two years whoever happened to be on the other side, even though every single morning – summer fall, winter, spring – it had been but five minutes to exercise bodily functions after a hearty breakfast…hers and all she could manage to pilfer from her good-natured mom’s bowl.
Almost eight years we enjoyed Julee and Rootee as if they were our children.
Even when disaster struck, my buddies stayed by my side- almost as if they had made a pact to console me whenever things seemed bleakest.
Within a span of 28 hectic, brutal days I lost both my career and my marriage, and all I had left were my two pals and a little blonde cat we named “Poe” because we had found him a few years prior abandoned by his mother upside down in a Rhododendron bush.
Here I had all this property, an ideal setting, and no humans – other than my softball teammates; and, believe me, they were my lifeline – with whom to share it. I dated some, even had a few lovers. But my best friends were these three animals, who, as they did when Dori was still there, slept in the same bed with me – shocker that my marriage ended! – then awakened me in the morning, Rootee with her lovely happy face on mine, lapping love and drool at the same time, licking me into consciousness, Julee waiting quietly by my side, Poe on one of the pillows staring.
All three animals swam with me daily – Julee loved to swim with me my last laps of a mile, and Rootee, right after her mother’s joining the exercise, would unfurl off the diving board into a flat-out racer’s dive, hit the water with her paws churning, then catch up to and pass Julee and me. (Poe swam because I put him in the water and pointed him toward the pool steps… It was more surviving than swimming, but he seemed to enjoy the attention he got once he’d hauled his little feline body out of the pool.)
We continued to hike, the dogs chasing every animal within sight, commandeering every stick and twig, bringing them back to me either at whim or at the sound of their names. Even though they ran off like wild horses, they always checked back. Julee would get within sight from a distance, check that I was still breathing and on my feet, then take off; Rootee would have to gallop all the way back, usually with a stick in her mouth, nudge me with her nose, then take off to catch up with her mother. They were a constant reminder to me of Nature’s bounty.
Once when Alex and Eleanor, dear friends, were visiting our “country estate,” we were walking about the property with highballs in hand, when Rootee came careening around the corner of the log cabin – she was doing about 180 in pursuit of some lucky wild animal (lucky because Rootee never actually caught anything) – and took the unsuspecting Eleanor’s legs right out from under her. So quick, fast, and furious was the clip that Eleanor’s drink never left her hand, nor was a drop of the cocktail spilled. When Rootee realized what she had done, she came to a screeching halt, returned to lick Eleanor’s face, and took off again when she seemed to realize no one had been injured.
Did I mention snout-biting? Ever seen two hippos mashing each other’s teeth in a muddy water source? Rootee and Julee would be lying on the floor peacefully, seemingly oblivious to the world, maybe running after a squirrel in their sleep, yipping away in their dreams, when Rootee – always the instigator – would leap up and bite Julee’s back, then work her way to the nose where the two would wrestle and snout bout bite for what seemed like hours. Pawing, sneezing, gasping, growling – and no doubt laughing. Their energy was endless, their joy and love for one another virtually palpable.
Injury visited little Rootee on more than one occasion. Once, during an hour of exercise for the dogs, a ball landed on the other side of our fence, and Rootee chose not to let something like wood and barbed wire keep her from getting to and returning the tennis ball. The screech was defeaning, the wound frightening, as Rootee’s side had been ripped open from shoulder to haunches by an errant piece of barbed wire. As she lay on the ground unable to scramble up, she turned to me with that lovely lively smile in her eyes and the ball still firmly entrenched in her little mouth.
“Give,” I can recall saying; but Rootee, even as she lay bleeding and in agony, would not let that damn thing go – not without a struggle, anyway.
I carried Rootee to the car to get her to the vet’s for stitches. When that ordeal was finished, she popped up ready for more play, even as the awkward Elizabethan collar the vet had applied at the end of treatment restricted her movement to keep her from licking her wound or ripping the stitching open.
I swear, her mother Julee was laughing at the sight of her daughter’s new getup.
Within days we were back in the yard, and – yep, you guessed it – the strenuousness of the exercise in which Rootee immediately immersed herself opened up the gaping wound – and back to the vet’s we went, Rootee’s bloody bod curled up in my lap as we drove, Julee sitting regally by my side.
For eleven wonderful years, Rootee and Julee were my sidekicks, their feline buddy Poe in for the adventure as well. For four of those years, I was gainfully unemployed, recovering from major personal, health, and professional setbacks – finding joy only in competitive softball, where my once considerable skills had begun to wane, and in the companionship of these two glorious friends. No judgment, no talking behind my back – just a constant demand for affection and food….and reciprocal doses of love in huge measure.
Sometimes in lazy late August afternoons, we would lie in the grass and dream, I of a future that terrified me, they I’m sure of dinner and hugs and long runs. They would lick my tears – Rootee especially seemed to sense I needed comfort and that no human was around to provide it. So, by cudding up to me and lapping that incessant love and drool, she reminded me that life doesn’t have to be hopeless.
Julee was my buddy, inseparable from me – even when I lived in Concord to get my Master’s at Harvard – and loyal beyond words. Rootee, though, was the light of my life, I guess because I had watched her being born and struggling in those days to get her full allotment of sustenance from her mother, then grow up as part of the family, learning tricks from and with Julee – always happy, so full of life and love, a constant bundle of joy.
I can remember the first time Rootee actually went into an open drawer and pulled out a pair of socks for me. She had been on the bed, wrestling with Julee, when I commanded “Socks!” Next thing I knew she was in full flight, legs moving frantically in midair as she soared through the bedroom, landing delicately, and returning immediately with a mismatched pair of athletic socks. No matter: I wore them that day anyway, in Rootee’s honor.
Whereas Julee’s eyes reflected the intrinsic wisdom of a wizened sage, Rootee’s were simply bright, full of glee and an appreciation, it always seemed to me, of life itself.
But life has a way of turning on itself, of reminding us that we were not brought into this life just to love and laugh, that suffering was part of the game as well.
Halfway through her twelfth year on this planet, Rootee’s life – and mine – changed. Dramatically and forever.
Almost overnight, Rootee began to be assaulted by epileptic seizures.
The quiet of an evening would be interrupted by a moan from Rootee, as her body was wracked with twitching or jerking movements; she was unable to swallow, drooling incessantly and uncontrollably, only this time not out of love but out of pain and fear. Her tongue would move spasmodically, and the possibility of her suffocating from its getting lodged in her windpipe was a real possibility. Drooling increased; her eyes, orbs of fear, blinked repeatedly; and rigidity would set in for her entire body – paradoxically offset by a loss of tone in her neck, her head drooping forward; then, complete release and total exhaustion.
I took her to the animal hospital emergency room the first time this assault occurred, on a Sunday night in midsummer. The vets advised that she must be dehydrated and “stressed” (Really? Rootee, stressed?) and sent us home with anti-seizure medication.
Nights were nightmares, the seizures increasing in number and intensity, the medicine simply not working. I would hold her in my arms, whisper “I love you, Rootee” repeatedly, beating back the inevitable with my own form of medicine. Julee would sit beside us, sometimes putting her head on her beloved daughter’s chest, as it heaved in anguish, convulsions, and terror.
I went to my good friend Freya van Holst Pellekaan, a lovely Australian woman, whose three children I had taught and who had sat by the sides of several beloved dogs and her very own daughter Bess as each had taken their last breaths in this world.
“How will I know?” I asked.
“Look into her eyes, Gene. She will tell you. When the fear and humiliation outweigh the will to live, she will let you know.”
The next day I plopped her into the wagon we had purchased so many years ago with income Rootee’s brothers and sisters had generated and headed for the vet’s. I could not let my little pal suffer any longer.
The diagnosis was quick and simple: either subject her to months of tests, probing, and ex-rays, or put her out of her misery. The vets, who loved both our dogs, offered to keep her till I decided. But their advice was clear: put her down, put her out of her misery.
Julee and I left despondent, went home to Single Oak, and spent the afternoon digging Rootee’s grave a stone’s throw from my home office beneath a lovely willow and on an incline down which Alan and Rootee and Julee had sled the previous winter when heavy snows had kept us prisoner on our own property. Alan was only two then, and the dogs were his sledding mentors!
As I dug, I noted an unmistakable sadness in Julee’s eyes. She knew. Oh, my God, she knew. When I finished, we sat together, my feet dangling in the grave, my arm around my loyal brave friend. “She’ll be in a better place,” I offered in true rote fashion, no conviction whatsoever in my voice. Julee plopped her head on my lap and sighed. We languished together for hours till I decided it was time to go.
Once again we headed for the vet’s, Julee next to me, her head again in my lap.
The vet secretaries were sympathetic. “Why not whistle? Give her a thrill?” Kay offered, appealing to what was left of my ego.
And then, suddenly, from the back we heard a howling like a werewolf having a bad acid trip. We rushed to the cages in the anteroom, and there was Rootee, hair still matted from the agony and struggles of her seizures, yet with a sparkle in her eyes like the North Star to a wary sailor once a storm has broken; her haunches pounded against the cage with a vitality that few youngsters possess. Rootee was back from the dead, a canine Lazarus!
“Take her home,” Dr. Hennesey suggested. “I will be honest: this ‘recovery’ will be short-lived. Her love for her family and her desire to see you guys have ignited her will to live to reach another level. But when her energy is spent, the seizures will come back in droves. We will be here for you.”
“You’re wrong, Doc,” I teased gleefully; “she’s back for the duration.”
“Oh, how I wish that were true,” Dr. Hennesey lamented. “How I wish…”
Julee, Rootee, and I sprinted out of the Animal Hospital, dove into the car, and drove home. During the ride Rootee managed to consume most of the fried chicken my friend had stowed in the car for an outdoor picnic we had planned on attending later. But none of us cared. Her tail would not stop wagging – I even wondered if she could launch herself into orbit, such a monstrous manifestation of joy married to love it was.
We spent the entire rest of the afternoon outdoors, the dogs racing one another to see who could make mincemeat of each stick first, who could control tennis ball retrievals, who could leap highest onto her master.
Rootee was in heaven – a lease on life, that second wind, that indomitable determination.
We went inside to get the dogs water. It was then that I knew the vet had been right: once Rootee’s body chemistry wound down to a semblance of normalcy, the seizures began their assault. No time for dinner: Rootee was in my arms whimpering, terrified, her eyes again orbs of fear. Freya knew her stuff: Rootee was talking to me. It was time.
I called the vet’s and they agreed to meet me the next morning. Even though it was a Sunday, I wanted Rootee to get her very last shot in the room where she had had her first one. She had detested all the needles through the years, but I sensed this time she would understand and accept the delivery from pain and terror it would bring her.
All night long, I beat back the seizures with “I love you” whispers. I held my little friend so tight. She was warm and safe in my arms, where she lay for twelve hours.
At dawn I wrapped Rootee in her favorite beach towel and put her in the front seat in between her mother and me, and we set off for the vet’s.
When the vet entered the room, Rootee was lying in my arms staring into my eyes. She was telling me, “It’s okay, Dad, you need to do this.” All our lives we tell us these animals instruct us in how to live and how to die. This life’s lesson was the hardest to take and yet a validation of that philosophy.
When the vet administered the shot, Rootee gave me one last look, her eyes locked into mine and softening as the medicine permeated her little body. An unmistakable moan came from Julee. And that was that: eleven and a half years. Over. Beginning to end.
Julee and I buried Rootee in the grave we had dug for her the day before. We put pictures of Julee and me and Alan and Poe (Kent wasn’t born until the following spring) in the little coffin we had purchased for the occasion. When we had covered the coffin with dirt, we planted an azalea on her grave. It was raining. God’s tears.
I knew I had done the right thing. I knew I had put my little pal out of reach of the torture that had terrified her so. But that didn’t stop my grief from pouring out of me. I sobbed for hours. My little friend. So full of life. So full of love. Now in the ground. Beneath the very soil on which she had pranced so gleefully every day of her precious life.
It was time to figure out how to cope. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll get a puppy. I also had to look after Julee, who was getting up there in years. I’ll be okay, I thought; then, looked at Julee, who would not stop staring at Rootee’s little grave. At one point, Julee sat next to the little makeshift tombstone and put her chin on the recently created mound. Was saying good-bye brutal? Absolutely. You’ve done it with your beloved grandpa. Maybe your own pet. You know the pain. The knife in the heart and then the void. The nothingness.
I knew, though, Rootee would live in my heart forever. I realized that when the first breezes of spring came wafting from the river across our lawn, I would crave one more dash through the park, one more drooly face drench, one more silly late afternoon snout-biting between mother and daughter.
And I would listen for the magical jingle of that collar.
That goofy little bundle of frenzied fur has just got to be waiting for us in the Afterlife somewhere – with a stick or a ball and a determination never to let go.