Thursday, November 7, 2013

Goodbye, Little Friend

Hercules made me angry like only a family member could. He would start barking at five-thirty in the morning on days we wanted to sleep late. He'd sneak off to shit on the carpet just moments after coming inside from the yard. He'd steal chocolate bars from the table and scrambled eggs from the baby's plate and scraps out of the garbage and butter from the counter-top. He'd whine and whimper and complain about any little thing that wasn't just so.

He would constantly demand attention when we were busy with something or someone else - very literally nosing-in in order to have his head patted. On cold days, he'd try to hide when it was time for a walk. He had the most disgusting breath of any creature I've ever encountered. He had a knack for being underfoot at the most ill-conceived moments. He would spend hours flipping a blanket with his snout in order to arrange himself underneath it to his satisfaction. When we needed a break, we'd lock him in his kennel, but somehow he'd get it open and escape. One time, he actually got out of his kennel, climbed out of the locked garage through a window, opened the back door to the house, and went inside.

Christ, that dog drove me crazy.

Most aggravating of all, though, was that Hercules would run away. He ran away so often that it wasn't worrisome or alarming or even notable. It was only maddening (and occasionally embarrassing when neighbors had to bring him home). At my old house, he'd jump the four-foot high fence easy as kiss your hand (an amazing feat for such a tiny dog) and go on an all-day walkabout. He'd trot back hours later with a look on his face that said nothing so much as "whuuut?"

On Monday, he ran off and got hit by a car. He died instantly. He was thirteen.

Though I consider myself to be an animal lover, I am not much of a dog person. It is not for lack of trying: as an adult, I've actually owned four dogs. We got our first dog, a black lab, in 1993. He was spirited and entertaining, but he grew into a ninety-pound handful, and after the novelty wore off, it became a grind to care for him.

At the time, we ran a child care business, and when that lab started to bite other people's children, we were forced to get rid of him. I vowed I'd never have another dog. But I was eventually overruled, and in 2001, my family and I found ourselves with an Italian greyhound, a breed I had never encountered (or even heard of) before my then-wife and daughter came home with Frodo.

As fate would have it, not long afterward, a college kid moved in across the street with his own Italian greyhound. Most dogs are not well-suited to a college student's lifestyle, however, and soon Hercules was spending a lot of time with us. He was more delicate than Frodo, and also a good deal smarter. We ended up adopting him, and from then on we were a two-IG family. We eventually added a third dog, a Pomeranian. They were quite a trio.

Now as I've said, Hercules had always been a total jerk. But damn it if he wasn't the consummate charmer too: he loved children and he loved the daycare. He'd cuddle with whomever was willing to sit on the couch for more than thirty seconds (especially if you had a blanket). And boy, did he love cats. When one of our cats had kittens, he took pride in them and considered himself to be a co-parent. They were his kittens and he raised them. 

The years slipped by. In 2007 I divorced, and although I wanted exactly zero dogs, I ended up with the two greyhounds. Strange how that worked out. Anyway, Hercules and Frodo didn't love the life of a single dude nearly as much as family life, but the three of us adapted and soldiered on.

When I remarried in 2010, my wife brought her cat Levi into our home, and predictably, Hercules loved that cat too. Unfortunately, Levi didn't want much to do with Hercules; one might say that he was on to Hercules' charming bad-boy routine (Levi being cut from a similar cloth). Levi preferred Frodo's guileless company, which made Frodo quite nervous and Hercules even more determined to bond with him. 

Even though Hercules and Levi never really came to an understanding, the newly-remade household and the dynamic between the three of these animals revived Hercules' familial nature. At ten years old, he was as playful as a puppy. I think it was a heavy blow to Hercules when we had to put Levi down due to illness in January of 2012.

Hercules proved to have plenty more life in him, though. When our first (my third) child was born in 2012, Hercules formed an immediate bond with the baby. This was something new for Hercules: he had played nursemaid to kittens and to preschoolers, but he had never been around a newborn infant, and he took to our son Malcolm more effortlessly than I thought possible.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Hercules pretty much single-handedly taught our boy how to be gentle. While Malcolm was squeezing and pinching and prodding, he'd patiently stand there as if to say, "try again."

All of this happened right before our eyes, and while it pleased us, I don't think we appreciated it as fully as we should have. We were busy being harried, sleep-deprived new parents just trying to hold ourselves together. But the magic happened, again and again, and I'm glad we captured some of it.

Unfortunately, Hercules was still prone to all of his rude-boy habits. And Monday afternoon, he ran off after being let out to do his business. Now, he hated cold and rain, and Monday was just such a dreary day, so we thought nothing of it: he'd come back soon. He always did. But when an hour turned into two, and he still hadn't returned, we went out looking for him. Before we went out, I was still muttering and cursing about him running off on yet another of his little excursions. Sadly, we later learned that by the time we began our search, he was running around in a panicked state. He apparently became too scared to approach anyone by that point - a fact that still surprises and grieves me. Ignorant of this information, however, I kept up the search until after 11 PM. The cold night and the racoons I spotted in the neighborhood darkened our spirits.

On Tuesday we received quite a few calls from our searching and canvassing efforts. A lot of people had seen him Monday afternoon in his frenzied condition. But our hopes were short-lived: on a tip from one of the many flyers we posted, we found his body that afternoon by a busy highway about half a mile from our house. I went to collect his remains. He was almost unrecognizable. Poor, poor dog. We suppose that he was hit Monday evening right after dark.

There were no skid marks, and by the blood-streaked road, it was clear that he was dragged at least 50 feet, and probably more. I doubt the driver saw him, but I am not sure how the driver failed to feel the impact. I washed and saved his name-tag, and I let Frodo sniff his body so he'd know that Hercules wasn't coming back. Then we brought his remains to Minneapolis Animal Control.

I am sorry. It was my job to protect you, little dog. And I failed.

Our relationships with our pets are complicated: we form attachments and project our own hopes, fears, and foibles on to these creatures. They probably try harder to understand us than we credit. Science has learned much about the chemistry and the hormones that transform a small domesticated animal into a beloved family member. But there is no measuring instrument that can quite capture the regret I feel.

I always thought Hercules would outlive everyone. Though he certainly had a long and rich life, he didn't deserve to die so suddenly and violently. And even though he drove me crazy, I am sad that he's gone, and my complacent, annoyed attitude toward his escape on Monday gnaws at me. I'll miss him most for his kindness toward my youngest son - I am heartbroken that their relationship has been cut short. Rest in peace, Hercules.


Julie Miller said...

Sam, so very sorry for the loss of your pet. Relationships with our pets are difficult, but fulfilling. Hope that you and your family decide to adopt another animal in need of a forever home.

Knight of Nothing said...

Julie - thank you so much. They sure can be difficult! But they work themselves into our lives and hearts.

I'm not sure what comes next. It will be interesting to see how Frodo adapts to being an only dog; I'm not sure he'll like it. I know Hercules would have loved being the center of attention. But Frodo is a different dog. He's become crabbier and more skiddish in his old age. And Malcolm and Frodo have not bonded in the same way. So we'll have to wait and see what happens.

Quinerly said...

So sorry for your loss. Enjoy your writing and this piece brought tears to my eyes. I just started reading your blog based on your comments on Balloon Juice. I couldn't help but share this piece to my book of faces page....I bet you get some more fans. Our pets are family.

Anne Laurie said...

My condolences. Hercules sounds like a most perfect gentil knight, and you have eulogized him beautifully!

I've know a handful of dogs that had the 'runaway' glitch in their programming, and every one of them an exceptional charmer. One of our current papillon rescues got re-named Zevon (after the songwriter) when, the night after coming to live with us, he jumped out a window, fell six feet onto gravel, and took off into a dark drizzly November Sunday evening before I could get out the door. Spent one of the worst nights of my life, patrolling the neighborhood every hour, dragging along the other two dogs in hopes he'd respond to them if not me, before Animal Control linked me up with the nice college kids who'd found him trotting along on the other side of the third-most-dangerous intersection in the state... Zeev has taught us to be paranoid about every door, window, and fence gap, but even after more than six years (he's 12 now) he still managed to take advantage of a moment's inattention to nose open the unlatched saftey gate, dart through my husband's legs, and take off down the stree, pursued by two old fat people...

May all the good memories you shared with Hercules soon help you, as Joe Biden would say, to bring a smile to your lips before they bring a tear to your eyes.

Knight of Nothing said...

Quinerly - thank you for your kind words, and for stopping by.

More readers? Pressure's on! :-)

Take care, have a good weekend.

Knight of Nothing said...

Anne Laurie - thank you so much.

Not having known many dogs well, I find your observation fascinating! I had no idea. I wonder how the wiring gets to be that way. Zevon sounds like a Dickens! And a sweetheart too. It must be hard to keep such a small and determined dog contained.

By the way, awesome name - I loved Warren. I was only nine years old when Excitable Boy came out, but I felt that I had a special connection, because my middle name is Roland. :-)

Cheers, and thanks again for your sympathy.

rocky said...

Sammy so sorry about Hercules. Your writing is a beautiful tribute to him. Made me cry so I'm pissed at you for that ;-) Actually it hit me square in the jaw - we lost Puzzle 4 weeks ago and I miss her. When they go they leave an empty space that seems far bigger than what they took up out napping in the sunshine. Hope you find some space for another one someday. They make a positive difference in our lives.

All my best to the Welter clan. Take care Sammy.

Knight of Nothing said...

Rocky - thank you so much. So sorry to hear about Puzzle! These lazy freeloaders really know how to make us fall in love, don't they? They absolutely do leave a big empty spot. Our condolences to you as well.

Give my best to Mike. Miss you guys!

Susan Jones Designs said...

Aw, Sam. I'm so sorry about Herc. They do become family matter how much barfing, pooping, chewing, shredding and slobbering they do. You can always count on them to be deliriously happy to see you when you get home. I'm sure you miss him like crazy. He was a lucky dog to have spent so much of his life being loved on by you and your family. I remember you walking Herc and Frodo both before work every day so they would behave while you were gone. My sincere condolences to you, Lacey and Malcom.