It was late June in a dry summer when the dog showed up at the house, looking for water.
He found some in a half-full garden bucket under the front deck. He was the biggest dog I'd ever seen: coal black and almost waist high, with a massive chest and enormous head and jaws. I remember thinking my entire hand would fit in his mouth.
The spot under the deck was shady and protected, and the big dog lingered there. I'd see him in the morning as I left for work. In the evening, he'd amble over as I stopped my car in the driveway, putting his nose on the window. The first time it happened, I sat in the front seat, stiff with fear, waiting for the dog to get distracted long enough for me to open the car door, then dash up the front steps and into the house.
At some point I realized the big dog wasn't going to go after me. A softness in his eyes contradicted the message of his powerful body. So I grew bolder. “Get out of here!” I yelled one night. The dog's head lowered, his ears went back, and he slinked away into the brush across the road. But the next morning, he was back under the deck. And that evening he was waiting as I pulled into the driveway.
“He's watching out for me,” I thought. So I began watching out for him.
I made sure the water bucket was full. From time to time I grabbed handfuls of kibble from the bag l kept for my two bichons frises and dropped the pellets under the deck. It was a stealth operation—my husband David didn't want another dog.
One Friday night, the deal was sealed. We grilled steaks, tossed salad, opened a bottle of wine, and watched the big dog watch us. By now he was putting his nose on the bay window in front of the kitchen table. As I ate, I noticed the dog's ribs stuck out from his chest. His footpads were torn and bleeding. Flies swarmed around the open sores on his flanks.
I stood up from the table. “He's getting this,” I said, and walked into the front yard with my half-eaten T-bone. The dog took the steak, tail wagging furiously, and devoured it with a few mighty crunches. Then he took my entire hand, put it in his mouth and held it there, ever so gently.
“That's the biggest dog I've ever seen,” David said. “I wonder if we can get him in the car. There's a vet about three miles from here.”
The clerk at the vet's office asked us the dog's name. “He really doesn’t have one,” I said. “We just call him big dog.” When we picked up his tag, it read “Big Dog Earls.”
That was nine years ago. With only a few exceptions, each day since then Big Dog has shared his joy with us.
Unity people might say he has an attitude of gratitude.
I'd say Big Dog simply is gratitude. His daily demonstration of thankfulness starts first thing in the morning, with the three best words in the English language: let's feed you. It doesn't matter if the stuff in his bowl is Science Diet or the Wal-Mart special. It's all dish-lickin’ good.
Big Dog watches over me, and I watch out for him. Especially now, as his muzzle grays and his gait slows. “You know he's about 77 in dog years,” David said the other night. I think about the flights of stairs he has to climb in the house, his early morning stiffness, and the time when he will lie down and not get up again.
A few days ago we went to the vet’s office for the inevitable conversation, preparing ourselves for the day we have to say “goodbye.” When the time comes, Big Dog’s transition will be pain-free, in gratitude for the good life he has helped create for us.
“You'll know when the time is right,” said Joyce, the vet’s assistant. “You'll see it in his eyes.” We’re not there yet, but the day is coming as surely as winter follows autumn.
When it does, there will be lots of petting, the Unity “Prayer for Protection,” a moment in the Silence—then ashes falling gently in a shady, protected place.
As our visit went on, my husband wondered about the next dog. That's when Joyce said, “You guys ought to take a look at the rescue puppy that just came in. He's about 12 weeks old and already weighs 15 pounds—a real butterball.”
The puppy was coal black, with an enormous head and chest, large paws, and soft eyes. He jumped up in David’s lap, his tail wagging. “He's going home with us,” David said.