BOOK ONE: THE ROCK
And like all great love stories it’s a tale of a journey against all odds, fraught with danger and full of magical encounters and adventures. Of a love that travelled thousands and thousands of miles across 16 lands through forests, mountains, swamps, and flatlands in hellish heat, arctic cold, and savage storms.
But this isn’t your typical love story. There are no fair maidens, no knights in shining armor – just a cast of unlikely characters on an extraordinary journey. Nor does this story end happily ever after. But oh, what a glorious journey it was.
It didn’t begin as a love story.
It began with a dog named Malcolm……
Actually, it began with a stripper from San Antone.
Leesburg, Virgina 2009
“A stripper from San Antone”, I answered excitedly to Theresa who had left the balcony to take the empty plates into the kitchen.
Theoretically if you go back far enough in time you can trace the origin of everything.
I was two bottles of wine into a perfect evening of grilled swordfish steak and her husband, Ray’s, guitar when Theresa had asked me how our travels really began. They were one of our host families for a few nights as we passed through the Washington DC area.
Hudson and Murphy, my trusty travel companions known endearingly as The Fuzzybutts, and I were hiking a contiguous trail system from Pittsburgh to the nation’s capital some 315 miles of a low grade, nicely manicured pathway that is part of the Rails to Trails network.
At that point we were on the second stretch known as the C & O towpath that ran right between the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, used years ago to run coal up to Maryland, and the Potomac River. It had been in disuse for well over a century and the lock houses and gates are now mostly in ruins. And the waterway that once was the Canal is now pestilent and pea porridge green that smells of swamp stink and host to mosquitoes the size of sparrows.
Still, so much history and beauty we had found on the trail but it was nice to be out of our tent for a few nights and with such kind and gracious hosts.
Initially, I answered, as I had so many times over the roughly 1,700 miles we had trekked up to that point and to so many hosts and kind strangers we had met along the way, that our story began with Malcolm, a Great Pyrenees I lost to metastatic bone cancer in 2006.
I think Theresa sensed there was more to it so she pressed. “No, I mean, how did it really begin?”
And that’s when it hit me like one of the super-sized semi-trailer tractor trucks that almost plowed into us on the road pretty much weekly. On a good week.
I shook my head in startling realization as I hadn’t really thought about it. Not in any of the months since we left Austin, Texas in March 2008 or the many miles we had logged since, because moving forward doesn’t lend itself to looking backwards.
But I was thoroughly enjoying the company and our conversation and it seemed like the right night to reflect. I stroked the big wedge shaped heads of the Fuzzybutts sprawled out next to me on the deck, poured myself another glass of wine, and began regaling Ray and Theresa with how our story really began.
Lindsey was an exotic dancer from San Antonio, Texas. She was a woman of exceptional beauty and intelligence with a biting wit to boot and we took off the second we met. But we were like two brilliant stars that, when brought too closely together, they collapse and although our affair was brief, Lindsey and I remained friends throughout the years.
In the fall of 1997 I received a call from Lindsey and true to her nature, she got straight to the point the second I answered the phone.
“Do you want a dog?” she asked impatiently borderline impudently.
But I answered in my usual fatuous way with her, “Why, what’s wrong with it?”
She went on to tell me some crazy story about how she and her sister while taking a trip into the hill country found these cute puppies and they both got one but her sister wasn’t taking care of it or something to that effect. Just listening to it was exhausting and it sounded complicated to me so I asked if I could think it over.
“Nope need an answer now”, she replied tersely, as though I was merely one on a long list of prospective takers and she had no time to court me.
At the time I was living with my brother in Castroville, a small Alsatian bedroom community southwest of San Antonio, and even though we had an entire acre fenced in, the truth is I didn’t want a dog. I’ve always lived the ‘work-hard, play-hard’ lifestyle and my many passions consumed just about every spare second I had.
Plus, I’d never had a dog in my adult life and had no desire to start then and there. Add that to the fact I was in school pursuing a BBA and had little time for anything else. It was at that point in the conversation my mind had already begun constructing a spreadsheet with a cost versus benefit analysis when something inside of me spoke, I swear unconsciously and unwillingly.
Such a simple decision made in a flash of a second would ultimately send shockwaves across time touching thousands and thousands of people throughout the world. It was a decision that would nearly cost me my life but restore my faith, and it was a decision that would change me forever.
August 2009. Oldtown, Maryland.
Gerry, a retired white bearded postman whom I had only just met earlier in the day, sat across from me on his two-sectional sofa. He regarded me intensely yet curiously like a bug on a rock as either an entomologist bent on studying it would. Or a madman intent on squashing it.
There was a looming, uncertain feeling in the late night air that made me a tad edgy. His wife, Bettie, the only certified animal rehabilitation rescuer in western Maryland – and the only reason I was there in their house that evening, had retired earlier leaving only me and him watching TV on the couch.
But I was regarding him equally as I had done so with dozens of strangers before him.
Engage and smile graciously. Then disengage but don’t seem confrontational or discourteous. It’s a survival strategy you learn to hone on the road staying in unfamiliar houses and with hosts utterly unknown to you but no matter how skilled you think you’ve become in survival, you’re never entirely certain you’ve mastered it.
When you’re on the road, you see, you never let your guard down. And you never let anyone around you know it.
The TV was dialed into some BBC thriller Gerry was raving about earlier in the evening that involved serial killers. Great. That’s exactly what I wanted to watch while surrounded by dozens of venomous snakes. As part of Bettie’s wildlife rescue efforts she had saved rattlers, copperheads, and a whole host of other lethal reptiles that were encaged in their living room plus one evil prairie dog in our spare guest room hell bent on breaking loose and putting the hurt on me, Hudson and Murphy, gnashing us to the bone.
What the hell am I doing here when I could just as easily be camping out on the C & O towpath as we had done hundreds of nights before?
And then, after many uncomfortable commercial breaks, Gerry spoke.
“You’re not at all what I expected”.
Honestly, I wasn’t surprised at all that these were his first singular utterances to me nor taken aback by the apparent effrontery. By that time, I was kind of used to it. Most people I’d met on our journey had prior expectations and a mental image of what this ‘Man’ who had sold his stuff and started walking cross county should look, sound, and seem like – A super human genetic hybrid between Bear Grylls and Gandhi.
The folks in Bowling Green, Kentucky even asked me if I drank beer. I still laugh at that. It was like I was made into the myth that William Wallace was in Braveheart, a ten foot tall giant who shot lightning bolts from his eyes and fireballs from his arse.
I was about to launch into the ‘Aww, shucks I’m just a southern boy’ speech when Gerry interrupted my thoughts and continued his.
“No, I mean, you’re like a normal guy. I was expecting a vegan, PETA card carrying, animal rights zealot doo-dad.”
‘Heh’, I laughed under my breath and thought to myself. You don’t even know. I never even used to like dogs.
That’s not entirely correct but it is technically and my love of and devotion to dogs developed despite my upbringing, shit, despite me and not because of it.
Growing up, like most normal boys, I had a whole host of creatures I called pets whether furry, scaly, slimy, or feathered at one time or another – from box turtles to lizards, tarantulas, gerbils, scorpions, and even a ball python. But our household was home to the softer, more mammalian and snuggly kind, too.
There was a Siamese cat we had, Papanicolaou, named so by my mother after the doctor who developed the Pap smear for reasons to this day that still elude me and remain inexplicable. Then there was Wally, a ghostly white cat with extraordinary hunting abilities.
Jenny, true to the black lab breed, was just about the sweetest dog I ever did meet. Loyal and full of love, I think I drew a picture of her once in grade school. But man, her noxious farts would disperse a room full of my friends in 0.2 seconds like tear gas and a flashbang and that’s the lone, lasting memory I really have of her.
Sure, my younger years were replete with pets of all sorts, but not necessarily a love for them. They were all well-kept and cared for in the Robinson household but they were always in the backdrop of our daily lives. I cannot recall one single vacation we took as a family where any of our dogs came with us.
Reflecting on it now, it seems the animals in and out of our lives were playthings meant to preoccupy me and my three brothers and for my parents as filler to float the holes in their marriage. As I am older now, and though a bit wiser and longer on in the years, why companion animals sometimes become surrogates to our personal disappointments and stand-in symbols for something darker still remains a mystery to me.
I grew up in the Deep South where animals were treated like chattel: Bought, sold, traded, or discarded like farm implements or any other piece of property.
When Lindsey called me that fateful day asking me if I wanted a dog I should have never let my guard down.
Why I did is a question that still haunts me.
THE ROCK: CHAPTER ONE CONTINUED
“There is no greater glory than a good piece of wood in hand, the path underfoot, your dogs at your side and the call of the wild leading you on.”
How many years it took to earn the right to write those words…
There are many reasons I could offer up as to ‘Why’ I initially didn’t want Malcolm in my life like I had no compelling need or even the slightest desire to have a dog. Or I was busy in business school and my upbringing just didn’t lend itself to a loving nature towards companion animals.
But this isn’t a fluff piece. I am writing this with the purist of intentions like scientists trying to understand something unquantifiable and seemingly, eternally elusive. The thing that keeps them up late at night in the lab, calibrating, testing, and toiling then recalibrating, retesting, and toiling is the same thing that keeps me up late at night.
Only we use different instruments. This book is my microscope, the focal point of which is aimed squarely into the depths of my soul and the lens I chose for it, the lens I use isn’t either refracting or reflecting, it’s a piercing one.
The truth is I’ve always been a self centered, singularly absorbed, solipsistic sumbitch hyper focused on myself, something that’s taken me a long time to understand and accept.
It wasn’t my fault but hell, I was having fun in my twenties and I had no interest in being encumbered. I was exceedingly well educated, rakishly handsome, dapperly dressed, dating models, and in an upward spiral to what I thought was my destiny.
And then everything changed. Not immediately. Nothing ever does.
But even after I had Malcolm for a couple of years I still wasn’t what you would consider a dog lover. I didn’t go to parks to meet other dog people and whenever we were out for a stroll and happened upon one of them I hurried by.
They creeped me out kinda like the cheerleader and beauty pageant moms of the south who live fanatically and vicariously through their kids. Think Toddlers and Tiaras. I won’t even mention the other one.
I felt uncomfortable being around dog people, you know the ones who talk all about the color, consistency and regularity of poop like a carat rating then hit you up with play dates? I had absolutely no interest in discussing Malcolm’s bowel movements with complete strangers or hearing how special their little snowflake was. It’s like they lived in this one-dimensional universe and I was a stranger in their strange land.
A girlfriend once goaded me into going to some sort of dog event up in the hill country and it didn’t do anything for me. I wasn’t interested in talking to anyone there so I found a secluded patch of flat grass far away from the others and just hung out with Malcolm.
I didn’t know if I was protecting myself from them or protecting him.
Whatever, I wanted no part of it, which, in the grand scheme of things is a cosmic irony why I was picked for this mission.
Of Metaphysics and Men
Noone likes being under the scope but it’s a responsibility some must bear. John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island in of himself”. It’s a quote that’s almost always abused and misused.
He should’ve written instead, “We are all rocks part of a great mountain. Some of us choose to be pebbles, some cobblestones, and others gigantic boulders. But we are all, each and everyone of us, part of it.”
Though I studied Donne and Johnson and all the rest in a 17th century literature class in college, I had no idea what any of that meant at the time and even if I did, I could have never predicted nor been prepared for that one day back in 1997 in Castroville, Texas when I got the call from Lindsey.
Unexpectedly, unwillingly, and definitely undeservedly, I became part of something bigger than me back then.
Malcolm became the rock that I broke myself against.
Author’s Note: Publishing this book in blog form wasn’t my intention and I keep making mistakes. Not in the MLA English writing sense, screw THOSE assholes who constrain writing, but the notes, thoughts, ideas, drafts, revisions, edits, and midnight musings have been written in more states than the union has, and on scratch paper, cocktail napkins, several moleskins, and multiple computers that have gone kaput on me. Piecing them together has really become the story.
In the preface to an anthology of poems by Dylan Thomas he wrote, “These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of Dog, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.”
I’ll try to do a better job of it.
The Gospel According to Malcolm
“Look to the rock from which you were cut and the quarry from which you were hewn.”
Malcolm was all of a few months old when I met him for the first time back in 1997 and he didn’t seem like much of a rock to me. More like a powdered cream pastry or a lump of Crabapple blossoms freshly blown from a tree. Or the thing that sat atop Albert Einstein’s head well after he was a genius. I didn’t know what to think of him.
Malcolm, though nameless to me then, had kind, curious and unexpected eyes that drew me in. But what I couldn’t see at the time was a stoic and ancient story behind those eyes and that the white and innocent fluffiness of the Great Pyrenees belies an intense and fierce nature.
While their exact origins are uncertain, it’s widely believed that Pyrenees date back to 1,000 BCE and is one of the oldest pure breeds still extant. They hail from the mountain range that bears their name and were born and bred by Basque farmers to protect their livestock from wolves, a job they performed then and now expertly.
I didn’t know any of this when I stared at him in the back of my Nissan Pathfinder, still ambivalent and wondering what in the hell I had gotten myself into. Picturing it now, the contrast was stark; his small, wobbly body all alone in the rear of my empty and capacious SUV. I wonder if he was as unsure as I was about the arrangement but what I did know, I had to eat and since I was in Austin that morning that meant Ruta Maya.
As I was ordering a café au lait and one of their righteous blueberry muffins I stopped mid-request and said, “No, make that two.” After all, the lil’ feller had to eat and who wouldn’t love a muffin in the morning? Feeling pretty damn pleased with myself and already owning up to my new role, I fed Malcolm his half and he graciously ate every last buttery, sugary crumb.
Yep, things we going just swell on my drive back to Castroville when I heard a gurgling, churning sound like something being dredged up from the bowels of hell. And then that cute little Crabapple spewed the Ruta Maya muffin all over my SUV. Oh, but he wasn’t done yet.
Somehow, blueberries triggered a chain reaction that went from his fore to his aft and he squirted poop like a Jackson Pollock painting. Only the canvas was the cloth interior of my Pathfinder.
I once read an article about senses having memory. How long after you hear a song can you recall the singer and album? When do you forget the name of the person you just met? What scientists found is smell has the longest and most eternal of memories.
Case in point. You’ll never forget the acrid, eye watering, migraine inducing smell of a skunk after your first introduction. And til the day I die, I’ll never lose the memory of what happens when you combine blueberries and feces. All I could think about while I was still trying not to swerve off of I-35 was the scene from Stephen King’s movie Stand By Me about blueberry pies and the state fair.
I pulled off the interstate at the nearest rest stop and, after cranking out every single paper towel from the dented, rusty, dispenser, cleaned up the mess Malcolm had made. Surprisingly, given my upbringing, I wasn’t mad or mean to him. I just went about it, cleaning the truck as best I could. But I couldn’t help wondering if I made the wrong choice not only for me but for Malcolm, too. After all, I had just fed him something that clearly was disagreeable to his digestive system and it had become apparent I had no idea what I was doing.
We were somewhere around New Braunfels and the Canyon Lake exit, about the halfway point to Castroville, and I was wrestling with myself. I should just take him back.
But I didn’t. I slid into the driver’s seat, put the gear into drive and headed down south on the freeway. All I could think was, “This is going to be a long trip home.”
Some fifteen years later, and we’re still so far away.
Arriving in Castroville for the first time, full of fear and fully unaware of what was in store for me and Malcolm, I had no idea where to begin. After I let him romp and stomp around our acre of fenced in backyard, I took him into our solarium, and there we sat nose to snout regarding each other, both of us unsure what came next.
Talking to the little tyke seemed like as good as any place to start so I began.
“These are the rules of my house and if you respect them, I’ll respect you.”
And then I enumerated them for him. (1) No chewing on anything that isn’t previously designated as ‘chewable’, (2) No interrupting me when I am working, (3) You’ll only speak when spoken to… and the list went on and on.
With his big brown eyes open wide and a sweet smile, Malcolm appeared to listen attentively and agreeably, which I assumed we had reached a meeting of the minds.
I nodded my head, got up and patted his. “Good talk”. Whew, that part was over and our ‘contract’ was signed, sealed, and delivered. “You see”, I thought to myself, “It ain’t that tough”.
The ink wasn’t even dry before Malcolm ate the contract and pooped it out into my Cole Haan loafers. And over the coming weeks he set about, like the Tasmanian Devil, to destroy everything I held sacred. He peed on an antique edition of Grey’s Anatomy passed on to me from my father.
And after I had passed out from a long day, my clothes draped over the nearest chair on the way down, I awoke to the horror to find my Hermes tie, a gift from my girlfriend, severed and all slobbery in the little rat bastard’s mouth.
And he was shitty about it, too, and he knew it!. He was like, “Thanks. I needed a new chew toy”. And every time he pissed in the house and by this time, no square foot had been spared, he looked up at me all innocent like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I do something wrong? Was that something you treasured?” And then he cranked up the nozzle a few notches.
I mean, come on, do dogs have four bladders like cows have stomachs?
But it wasn’t Malcolm’s fault. The truth is he was untrained. And so was I. You see, I had a preconceived notion based on my upbringing of how to raise a dog but it wasn’t long before I had to accept the reality that I was way in over my head. I purchased a few books on Pyrenees and the experts described the breed as ‘independent’ but I became to understand that as a Texas euphemism for ‘stubborn sumbitches’.
Indeed Malcolm and me became a perfect study in what happens when an immovable object meets and unstoppable force.
But the old model on which I was raised of ‘establish dominance and punish unruly behavior’ just wasn’t working. It was will against will and that just made it worse.
It would have been somewhat tolerable I suppose if he showed the slightest shred of gratitude. He had a good life at our humble little abode in our small Alsatian community and he wanted for nothing.
I’ve never needed much by way of affection in life but there’s nothing like a good snuggle every now and then but Malcolm wanted no part of it. I’d have to wrestle him up on the couch for it and, at times, he’d relent for five minutes, tolerate me, then jump right down and be on his way with a “KThnxbye”. And that damn near drove me daffy.
Nope, Malcolm was too cool for that.
Thinking about him now, he was a man’s dog. Hell, he slept like Superman and pissed like Steve McQueen.
There was a tiled corridor from the den to the solarium where he slept most nights and he would face the wall with his right paw extended, almost touching it and his left tucked in. Malcolm’s legs would be stretched far, far out which made him look like The Man of Steel flying, only in the old, old movies when the first word of the term ‘special effects’ was more exact and telling than the second.
He slept differently and he peed differently, too. Or unlike any of the male dogs I grew up around. He didn’t hike it but he didn’t squat like a girl either. Rather, Malcolm planted all fours squarely on the ground and arched his legs like mounting a motorcycle with a certain machismo that would’ve made the King of Cool smile.
It was fascinating, albeit foreign to someone like me, to behold Malcolm.
But still we struggled. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and everything I tried seemed to end in utter failure. There was a chasm between us that I ultimately deemed unbridgeable. Despondent and downright convinced I was utterly incapable of caring for Malcolm, I called Lindsey and tried to give him back. True to her nature, she said, “No”, and then promptly hung up the phone.
And then a miracle happened.
(1) As Ed calls them, I’m writing vignettes. When I first heard the term, I thought that’s what you put on salads. I hope I’m giving you more than leafy greens.
(2) Last week, I was up in the White Mountains when I published the first part of Chapter 2, The Gospel According to Malcolm and, as he will always be known to me, the original Snow Monkey, it was fitting that New Hampshire was hit by a blizzard.
And then tonight, in posting the second installment in Newport Rhode Island, my writing was interrupted by fireworks as part of the 25th celebration of their Winter Festival. How’s that for trail magic, baby?
THE ROCK: CHAPTER TWO CONTINUED
The term ‘Miracle’ can have many meanings especially when you’re talking about a puppy; the first pee on newspaper, the first poop outside or when it’s a Pyrenees, the first paw.
But for me and Malcolm it meant blankets.
I’ve had chronic back pain most of my adult life due to an injury sustained on a job and then a subsequent car crash in Corpus Christi when, on my way to a deep sea fishing expedition, a Dodge Ram driving 50 MPH slammed into my rear end rupturing a disc.
For as long as I can recall, beds made it worse but couches made it tolerable.
Back in Castroville, I slept on the living room sofa while Malcolm was asleep all Superman style on the cold corridor tile, and even though we were close in proximity we still seemed worlds apart.
Then one morning, after what must’ve been a fitful night, I awoke and found Malcolm sleeping not in the tiled hallway but right next to my couch.
“Why hasn’t he done that before”, I wondered? And then I realized that at some point my blanket had partially slipped off me onto the floor upon which he lay.
I tested that hypothesis the very next night.
After I retired to the couch, I deliberately took half my blanket and draped over me and the other onto the floor and closed my eyes pretend like.
Moments later, sure enough, Malcolm plopped himself down onto the blankets and fell soundly asleep.
It wasn’t my notion of ‘snuggling’ or even what I wanted or expected out of a puppy but that night I realized something I’d never ever thought possible from a dog. He was trying to communicate with me.
But about what? Are cold tiles giving you piles? Is Timmy stuck in the town well?
Hell, I didn’t know. And at the time, he didn’t even have a name.
You’d think a creative type wordsmith like me would have no problem at all naming a dog but even after months together nothing came to mind. And it wasn’t due to lack of diligence. I researched mythologies from around the world and the only name I came close to was Loki, the Norse God or mischief, which seemed fitting. .
Still, I remained uncommitted until my brother, Mark, came into the living room one night and spoke the name ‘Malcolm’.
“That’s it”, I said without any hesitation and up until now, I never understood why I pulled the trigger so hastily.
To the extent of my recollection, I’ve never known anyone or anything named Malcolm and couldn’t find any personal, historical, emotional, or grand significance to it either.
And maybe that’s the reason.
I didn’t want this dog and maybe giving it a name that I had no attachment to meant I could get rid of it cleanly and easily.
Or maybe even then I had absolutely no idea what I was up against and it was still so foreign to me.
Over the coming months Malcolm would accrue many nick names.
One of the rules I had set forth on our first day together was I absolutely refused to ‘cutesy-tootsy baby talk’ him like girls do. Southern men just don’t do that
But Malcolm had a way of breaking down my preconceptions and down and outright bigotry towards dogs.
One morning in our first winter together, I was taking a long soak and he nosed the door open to the bathroom and I started singing the ‘Rubber Ducky’ song to him but instead substituted the name ‘Chubby Bubby’.
Other names followed; Smiley Britches and then later on, Snow Monkey.
And I loved singing to Malcolm as he listened to me with rapt attention, whether I sang Queensryche, Emmy Lou Harris, or Luciano Pavarotti.
From nicknames to sing songs to finding any and every excuse to picking up a new chew toy on my way home from school, the little feller was growing on me.
Malcolm rarely left my side and I his. With one exception. Church.
One Saturday morning I was headed out to worship at the Alsatian Golf Club, the only church I knew at the time. As I suited up and strapped my bag on my shoulder, Malcolm got all excited as though he was coming with.
“Oh, no”, I said patting his head. “This is a man’s sport and no dog’s allowed.”
Unconvinced, he sidled up to me with a sweet expectant look. Whether I was spent from the constant battle between us or resigned to the inevitability, I said to the little wedge shaped head dog, “Fine. But I’m driving the cart.”
“And don’t bark in my backswing.”
Malcolm didn’t. He turned out to be an exceptional caddy, riding shotgun in the golf cart, spotting my errant balls, and chasing the geese and gophers from the fairways. And although he couldn’t keep score so good, his card always erred on my side.
I think then and there on the fairways of the old Alsatian course, I was entering into a new chapter of my life. Malcolm had become my mate.
But my naive misconception of the true nature of our relationship almost cost Malcolm his life several times over and I had a whole helluva lot to learn.
1. Math. Point on a curve at which the curvature changes from convex to concave or vice versa.
2. Business. A moment of dramatic change, especially in the development of a company, industry, or market.
3. Dog Owner. The absolute moment at which you realize you don’t own a dog, it owns you.
As I reflect back on our first six months together, it’s still surprising that both of us made it out alive.
But me and Malcolm were now mates, having a helluva lot of fun, mixing it up, playing golf, and side by side twenty four seven. And we were developing a routine. As the sun sneaked up over the Medina River that abutted our land, we’d awaken, Malcolm stirring from the blanket beside the couch and me uncrumpling from the two-seater I slept on that didn’t quite fit a man of my size, then head out to the backyard and take our morning piss. Ah, what a way to start the day.
At the time I was pursuing a business degree and was thoroughly involved with accounting and finance type clubs but at every study session at Calcutta’s Coffee House and at every school sponsored event I attended, Malcolm came with. ‘I Go, He Go’ was how we rolled and there were very few exceptions to that rule.
At one of the FMA or Eco-Finance meetings I was chairing, I can’t recall which, I met a fellow named Eric Gamble, a rapscallion, scraggly looking, screw-the-system sort and we became friends. He got his rebellious bent and respect and admiration of nature I suppose from his grandfather, the founder of Ozark water, but Eric was more than that to me. He was a fellow dog lover and at the time, I knew very few of them that I cared for, tolerated talking to, or even respected.
He and his striking Great Dane, Lily, lived on 200 acres south of San Antonio, a place that became a second home to me and Malcolm. On any given weekend, we’d go out there to romp and stomp, pound our chests, and explore the wild and untamed. Cheese-Mo type stuff, you know? At least I thought it was just that.
Yep it was beers for me, bitches for him at our weekends at Patron’s Ranchito (as Eric’s place became known by me), and by bitch I’m speaking of the most beautiful Lilith, a name that if you understand its origins, was most aptly picked by Eric. Fawn colored yet fiercely independent, she was the Mamasita of the little ranch and Malcolm fell in love with her the moment they met.
One of my favorite memories is driving up the half-mile bumpy, pot ridden, red sandy loam, unpaved drive to Eric’s house and before I had a chance to park the Pathfinder, Malcolm leapt out the half opened passenger seat window to greet her. Like all proper Southern Belles, Lily asserted and like all proper Southern gentlemen, Malcolm submitted.
And once the dance was done, they tore off together to wallow in the nearest mud pit or livestock tank, which, for those of you who never grew up on a farm, is like a pond but with an indelible and unforgettable stank to it. Maybe that’s where the name came from.
Indeed, those were our salad days.
Back then, I thought that idiomatic expression meant just the good times, the life of Riley. I don’t know where it came from but I recall the Shakespearean play about it being green in judgment. And that I was.
You see, it’s easy to be mates as Malcolm and I had become. Friendship doesn’t and shouldn’t really require a whole lotta moving parts. Parenting does but at that time, I still didn’t see myself as one.
So at what point does an inflection, the inverse curve, begin? What causes it and why? For some I suppose its love, loss, beauty, pain, tragedy, triumph, despair or desperation.
For me it was fear. A fear I’ve never felt before the weekend we were at El Ranchito de Patron, one sweet sunny South Texas day.
I still recall that day with absolute clarity. It was the day that I became a dad for the first time but it was also the day I almost killed my son.
Writing about Lily made me miss her. I don’t have any photos of her with me but if you email me one, I’ll post it here. She was a beaut and Malcolm adored her. Great memories.
It felt good to write about them and thank you for helping out and being apart of the San Antonio Puppy Up! walk.
Stay Righteous My Brother.
Farmers in the deep south are pretty unforgiving when it comes to stray dogs and they shoot them on sight, the second the innocent and unknowing paws trespass onto their land.
Not all strays are sweet natured and innocuous, that’s true. We’ve encountered a few predatory packs on our travels but the ‘shoot first’ mentality that’s pervasive down there is a special kind of ignorance and absurdity that often ends in tragic and unnecessary consequences.
I just didn’t know it at the time.
We were spending the weekend at the Ranchito in Somerville, Texas. Eric and I were thoroughly involved in a crazy project of some great momentary importance that I can’t recall while in the near distance, Lily and Malcolm were mixing it up, playing slap and tickle, rolling in dead Armadillo carcasses or whatever the two of them did when we weren’t watching.
By that time, I had grown comfortable enough leaving him off leash so long as he remained within earshot, but like a bat using echolocation, it was a range I tested every ten minutes or so just to be sure. Kinda like an out of water version of Marco Polo.
I must have lost track of time because when I stopped for a sec to call out to him there was no response. Again. And again. No hide nor hair nor fuzzybutt tail after repeatedly calling out to Malcolm.
There are minutes that defy physics and logic and somehow condense down into microseconds and this was one of them. I stopped the construction job I was working on at the time and started walking in the direction I last spotted him.
My pace became hurried, the pitch of my voice increasingly excited and desperate, I ran to his usual haunts but he was nowhere to be found. Frantic and half-crazed now, I scoured as much ground as I could and still nothing but I was the limiting factor. By then Malcolm was missing for at least half an hour which meant he could have been 5 miles from us.
Eric had a beat up work truck that we jumped in and tore ass along the perimeter of his property, across adjacent country roads, up down, back, again and again searching for Malcolm. I remember at some point I heard gunfire in the distance and my heart sank.
Plummeted actually, down to a deep dread and desolate darkness and that day I experienced two emotions I’d never felt so singularly affecting and utterly consuming: fear and hate.
If indeed that was the gunshot that killed my boy I would turn it on whoever fired it. I’d take their life with as little consideration and hesitation. Even the simplest minded person could have seen Malcolm’s smile had no ferocity in it and in spending a split second with him, sensed his gentle nature. I had all but given up on that possibility and was hell bent on avenging him.
After several hours, our search was unsuccessful and as the twilight wasn’t too far off, we returned to Eric’s house. And although the ending had already been wrought in my mind, I called to check my voicemail messages at our home in Castroville in the off chance Malcolm had been found and they called the number on his collar.
I remember hearing the voice of a woman, an angel she seemed. Malcolm had wandered onto her property, a few farms down, and she’d lured him up to her house with some treats. He was safe she said and…. I didn’t listen to the rest… and within minutes, Eric and I were there and Malcolm and I together again.
I wept quietly, privately and though I was eternally grateful to the gods for his safe return and the Angel of Somerville, still a silent rage seethed within me.
A Note from the Author to Malcolm
Today marks the fifth anniversary that Hudson, Murphy, and I left Austin Texas on a cross country walk in memory of you. Miss you, mate, and you’re still in my every thought and adventure.
A Note from the Author to Farmers
I understand that you have to protect your livestock from predators but the safest way is through better fencing. A lot of you have inadequate, antiquated, and dilapidated ones that provide no protection at all and just because a shotgun shell is less expensive than a length of fencing, it doesn’t give you the right to use it instead. You must value all life, not just the ones on your property.
A Note from the Author to the Author’s Previous Idiot Self (and Others Like Him)
Read this book and learn from it because even the simplest mistake made in a fraction of a second can cost the life of your companion.
A Note from the Author to Everyone Else, or at Least the Irish Amongst Us
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. Erin Go Bragh!
A Great Growl was growing inside of me and it felt both prehistoric and preternatural at the time. I’d never been a parent before but the innate instincts of one had lain dormant inside me that I discovered that day when I damned near lost Malcolm.
The terror I felt took me to the Dark Side and by Dark Side, I mean being a Dog Person.
I realized just how uneducated, ill prepared, and uninformed I was about pet parenting and I started reading indiscriminately about Pyrenees, puppies, and about raising big dogs in general. And it was then I learned a term I was never properly introduced to before but became the absolute bane of my existence.
A term I previously associated with a late night that consisted of a dozen or so Dos Equis and take out from Taco Cabana. Like people, dogs get gassy, too, I assumed, but upon learning for the first time bloat could lead to catastrophic and complete organ failure and death, I was panic stricken.
For months thereafter I hadn’t a single restful night as I became obsessed with bloat. And every article I read, website I came across, and story I learned of only compounded my dread.
When Malcolm didn’t finish his meal, he had bloat. When he didn’t have a bowel movement at his usual time of day, dammit it was bloat. I was constantly sticking my head to his belly listening for peristalsis, or stomach gurgling, to assure me his systems were functioning normally.
In short order I’d gone from ‘Don’t want dog’ to ‘He’s my mate’ to ‘Okay I’m a dad’ to “Mad dog man’. I wasn’t a parent anymore. I was a hyper-maternalistic maniac who was probably seriously freaking Malcolm out with my obsession over his bowels. And all of my friends and family, too.
But my mania wasn’t just limited to bloat. Shortly after nearly losing Malcolm, I became hell bent on protecting him from outside threats to the point that I installed an electric fencing system in our back yard.
Malcolm had escaped a few times before and I couldn’t figure out how until I let him outside and hid in our sun room until he tried it. I’d read about dogs digging holes underneath gates, squeezing through them, or even the more athletic ones jumping over fences but nothing like how Malcolm got loose.
Our backyard acre was enclosed by a standard four foot high Cyclone fence and there was no way Malcolm could clear it. Instead, he put his front paws on top then stuck his hind paws in the first or second openings in the weave and then somehow, miraculously, threw his fat butt over the fence in a painfully uncoordinated way.
An Olympian, surely not, nor would he ever be invited to perform with Cirque de Soleil, but after a few rolls he got up quite contented, dusted himself off, and tore ass down to the Medina River to wallow in the mud.
The only solution I could come up with back then was to electrify the top of the fence where he positioned his front paws. I grounded a single looped wire from a system I purchased at a local feed store that assured me the voltage was so low it would act a deterrent only and not a detriment. But the first time I saw it in action, Malcolm jumped straight up in the air, clearly frightened. The look on his face I never wanted to see again and I immediately deactivated the electric fence.
I just didn’t have enough parenting experience how to balance enrichments and risks and to compensate for that deficit, I suppose, I systematically started to insulate him from all external threats. Or maybe I was protecting myself.
But it all culminated when my girlfriend brought home a Pyrenees puppy she had rescued that day from an irresponsible groomer. I came home late that night and she had hoped to surprise me with him, but the second I saw the dog, I told her to start looking for a home for him.
Unquestionably, there was no way I was going to make Malcolm feel like he had to compete for my love nor was I going to permit anything to breach the bond we had developed.
The dog could stay with us for a week, I informed my girlfriend, after that, the Pyr pup had to have a new home. I was adamant I didn’t want it, wouldn’t accept it, and damn well couldn’t have another in my life.
I couldn’t have been more wrong as ‘that dog’ would one day be known as Murphy.
Author’s Note On Bloat: One of the best and most comprehensive studies I’ve come across on the risk factors of bloat is from Tufts. Read it, learn it, and take it to heart. I say this because one of the factors that increases the risk significantly is elevated dog bowls. On our travels, I’ve stayed with many families that use them and I’ve had the discussion with people countless times. Some of them use them for older, arthritic dogs and that may be a valid reason. But if you have a large breed, barrel chested dog, here’s what you need to consider. Nature designed dogs to drink from the ground no matter what manufacturers selling raised bowls try to tell you. I’m no expert about anything but at the end of my day, nature is the final arbiter.
Author’s Note 2: The cover art for the trilogy was brilliantly done by my dear friend Jamie. She’s an amazing artist and here’s the link to her portfolio. Thank you
It’s been almost two years since I lost Murphy and there’s still a rankled rawness in writing about him and within my original draft of Book One, this chapter wasn’t initially included.
But as excoriating as it still is, Murphy was so much a part of Malcolm’s story early on and mine, their influence upon one another is significant and I realize now it’s impossible to disinclude it.
Murphy was all of a month or two old when Stevie, my girlfriend at the time, brought him home as a surprise for me. I’d met Stevie years previously and was turned on to her in a lightening second for a couple of reasons. First of all, she was named after the lead singer of Fleetwood Mac due to her tall stature and flowing hair.
Stevie was also a die hard vegan and animal rights advocate, her big heart always standing up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves was what also drew me to her. Still, when I came home to find that she had rescued a Pyrenees pup, a potential brother to Malcolm, I was none too pleased.
Even though Murphy was a cute lil feller as all pups are, I could tell he was a powder keg set to go off at anytime. But the flaws weren’t his fault. Stevie had pretty much down and outright stolen him from a groomer at the vet clinic she worked. The groomer left him outside day and night, through sweltering heat and treacherous electric storms and by the time he was brought into the clinic, Murphy was listless and pretty much lifeless.
But within a day of being brought home to our townhouse, he perked up enough to begin a reign of holy terror. He wasn’t house broken but he was so willful even at that age that he actually tried to break the house instead.
First of all, Murphy didn’t have ‘accidents’. Nope, as I came to learn, his incontinence was intentional. He didn’t shyly or sheepishly urinate in a corner, he ran around the entire living room with a steady stream of pee like he was making performance art or something.
And he couldn’t be left unattended for too long in our townhouse. We kept him barricaded in the kitchen to try and limit and confine the damage he wrought but even still he found a way. For the first few days, Murphy would just knock down the pet doors and pee and poop all over the house. But when I reinforced them to the point at which escape became impossible, it was like we left the Tasmanian devil in the kitchen.
He’d chew on cabinet knobs and when we removed those, Murphy actually gnawed on the kitchen walls stripping it of wallpaper leaving teeth marks in the sheetrock. It was like the Pyrenees version of Hannibal Lector and Linda Blair from the Exorcist had just moved in with us and I wasn’t about to call a priest. I wanted him out of our townhome and out of our lives.
I felt bad for the lad for his lot in life and that he had a shitty, neglectful parent. But that he was an unruly, untrained, misbehaving child, the real reason I didn’t want Murphy was because of Malcolm.
My attention had become diverted from Malcolm and even though he never displayed the slightest sense of jealousy or what I would later learn as ‘resource guarding’ over Murphy, I still felt guilty that he wasn’t the one and only anymore.
It was a long, hard road for me to learn to love Malcolm and I wasn’t about to share that. And I wasn’t about to take that journey with another dog.
Author’s Note on Author’s Notes: I’m no longer calling them this anymore because it makes me sound like a pretentious boob. Henceforth, they’ll be Yer Big Dog’s Notes.
YBD’s Notes 1: I have a big opportunity so I’m going to have to move my posting from Friday to I’m not quite sure yet til I work out the specifics. But rest assured, I’ll keep sharing the story with you every week.
THE ROCK: CHAPTER FOUR CONTINUED
The two hardest things in life are opening doors and closing them. And I wasn’t about to let Murphy into ours, me and Malcolm.
We had reached a rhythm and routine and there was no room for another. Indeed the very evening Stevie brought him home as a surprise, I was already trying to ship him right back out and one of the first calls I made was to my parents.
‘You need a dog’, I said and put my best sales pitch together citing that they needed more than just their two Persian kitties to illuminate their golden years. But they declined and I called friends. And then friends of friends, but no one wanted Murphy.
We were stuck with him, the half-crazed, chewing on sheetrock, micturating in every square foot of the house, train wreck of a puppy, Murphy. I still can’t recall what I did in life to deserve a first and now second Great Pyrenees, but I was paying penance for it now.
The price wasn’t that steep but taking into consideration that I was working day and night and often slept on the couch in my office I just didn’t have the strength, time, or even inclination to help heal this poor little abused puppy.
But as fate would have it, I didn’t have to. Malcolm healed Murphy. Mostly anyway. Within weeks, it was like all of Murphy’s anxieties were gone. He wasn’t righted completely but he was better and happy and Malcolm had found a mate.
To play with sure but to torment most probably.
By the time Murphy had come into our lives, Malcolm had become uninterested in dog toys and yet whenever I’d bring a new one home for Murphy, Malcolm would claim it as his own and unwilling to share for an hour or so just to assert the order of things. And it would drive Murphy nuts.
Malcolm’s authority was always absolute. Hell, he broke me and to the point where I was singing girly songs to him and I’m no push over. But watching the two of them together, I learned that dogs need to have both human and canine companions and though I didn’t know it then, this is where 2 Dogs really began.
Not with Malcolm and even with Murphy but their togetherness. They were inseparable.
Doors are never fully open or shut. They are in a constant state of in-between. It took a long time for me to love Malcolm. To learn how to care for him as a parent. And the damnable tragedy is that no manner of love that I had learned, that I had so reluctantly been willing to give Malcolm spared him from what came next.
YBD’s Notes 1: The photo is of Murphy when he first came into our life.
YBD’s Notes 2: To my former Muse. Though I came up with it a long time ago, I never knew how to use it until now. Thank you.
YBD’s Notes 3: Malcolm and Murphy’s companionship reminded me of a song from an much underappreciated movie, Hudson Hawk sung by Bruce Willis and Danny Aiello.
Giants Ants Wearing Top Hats Dancing Around
I love comedy. Not the easy, one-liner, spoon fed sitcomy crap but the bold, unapologetic, ‘yeah I wish I could say that’ kind. The unshakable and precise perspective on the human condition and for me, that’s Louis CK. But it took me years to find him.
The year that I was selected as one of San Antonio’s ‘Rising Stars’ was the year that I decided to betray my Texan roots and move on.
While in college, I had built a consulting practice that focused on commercializing technology and within just a few short years, I was at the top of my game but it wasn’t good enough. Texas had a great and growing nucleus of high-tech and bio-tech startups but I wanted to be a part of cutting edge research and that meant going to either the West or East Coast.
I choose the latter and loaded up Malcolm and Murphy and Anna, my girlfriend at the time, and we moved to Watertown, MA, into a rental a block off the Charles River.
I don’t think the terms solace or contentment apply to men like me but we can come close enough and walking along the Charles with Malcolm and Murphy on our daily constitutional got me as close as I’d ever been.
The beauty is indescribable. There’s a bend in the river where time seems to stop, where the light catches its surface refracting a spectrum of colors and a stillness to it. We’d walk it up and down, back and forth in awe of the Charles.
I still remember that place with absolute clarity not only for its stunningness but as a simple, singular answer to the question I had at the time as to why I moved there. Yes.
Certain as I was of my life choices and damn well determined to do great things and then, on one of our daily walks, everything changed. My whole life reduced down to a dog walk along the Charles.
When Malcolm limped.
THE ROCK: CHAPTER FIVE CONTINUED
It was slight, almost imperceptible Malcolm’s limp at first. I kept asking my girlfriend, Anna, if she saw it, too, as we walked along the Charles, and she said she didn’t and that I was being neurotic and too maternalistic. Which in hindsight probably wasn’t too far off the mark. If I could’ve bubble wrapped him without a PETA intervention, I may just have.
Still I took Malcolm to a vet in Watertown, MA, and walked him all over the clinic like a show horse and they didn’t see anything either. Sad as it were he was like a shimmy in a steering wheel that you can’t reproduce when taken to the auto mechanic.
I knew it was there. But at the time I was thinking it was perhaps a recurrence of hisOCD which he was diagnosed with back in Texas that the bitter cold New England winter had exacerbated. Or Malcolm had Lyme Disease which is exceedingly common up here that can lead to a degenerative neuro-muscular melt down.
I vacillated for a couple of weeks half convincing myself nothing was wrong yet half knowing something was.
Three things happened next.
My dog got cancer. My girlfriend left me. And she took the truck.
In some cruel cosmic irony, this Texas boy, who within six months of moving up to Boston, became a country song.
I remember when Anna and I first moved up to Boston in 2003, we were looking for a place to take Malcolm and Murphy for a hike and surveying a map we saw the Emerald Necklace, a sprawling almost contiguous swath of parks designed by the great Frederick Olmsted.
We got lost looking for Back Bay Fens and saw a beat cop at a convenient store. I pulled into the parking lot and asked him for directions, which in a thick, sweetly grating Boston accent he gave us smilingly.
“Thanks but, say”, I asked him, “I’m not from around here but I can’t help but notice that there aren’t any street signs in this city. Why is that?”
Without a second’s hesitation he replied, “If you don’t know, you shouldn’t be here.”
Maybe he was right. I shouldn’t have been there. I should never have left my native state of Texas. But just like playing a country song in reverse doesn’t get your dog, your girl, or your truck back, one cannot undo the order of things.
I finally insisted that the vet in Watertown take X-Rays on Malcolm to be sure and when he delivered the diagnosis, I remember saying, “Wait, what?”, as though my comprehension needed to catch up to the reality.
I didn’t even know dogs got cancer.
Sure enough the vet showed me the star burst pattern on Malcolm’s radiograph, an image permanently etched in my memory. Through my tears I asked a question that, although I didn’t know it at the time, would design and determine my fate for the rest of my days.
YBD’s Notes 1: I’m an honorary New Englander now and as I write this, in the wee hours of the morning, the great foghorns on the Narraganset Bay bellow nearby and rock me with pleasure.
YBD’s Notes 2: I didn’t realize until writing this vignette that Back Bay Fens was where the final mile of our walk began. Ironically, it wasn’t our first choice. The Esplanade was. Funny how things work out.
YBD’s Notes 3: I find people who use tragic circumstances to further a personal agenda distasteful and even though I am a transplant, I just want to let the people of Boston know that I stand proud with you. And to that beat cop, “Maybe so. But I am here.”
Statistic: 1 out of every 2 men and 1 out of 3 women will develop cancer in their lifetime…
It is estimated that between one and two million dogs are diagnosed every year with cancer…
Everyone who has been or had a loved one diagnosed with this scourge of a disease has spoken these two words in some variation or another.
Cancer is like the sound of silence when you’re underwater. Like when you’re submerged in your bathtub holding your nose.
After I got Malcolm’s diagnosis, I was stuck there until I couldn’t breathe and had to resurface.
Scientists say that it takes about 10 milliseconds for your brain to register pain. They also say the average person can hold their breath for a minute, maybe. I cannot recall when the next words I spoke fell within that range but just as innate the desire to live is, so is the immediate instinct to save the life of a loved one.
“Do whatever you can to save him.”
In many life and death situations, you’re not given a great many moments to think about things. Maybe my mind was pre-wired when the diagnosis came down as Osteosarcoma and learned that it meant taking a bone saw to my boy.
As medieval as it seemed to me at the time, I didn’t hesitate in my first consultation with the orthopedic surgeon. ”Take it”, I said.
But I asked him if we could have one more week with Malcolm being four-legged. Given the advancement of his cancer the surgeon strongly recommended against it since there was a possibility that his right front leg could fracture or break at any moment.
But I was resolute and we scheduled the surgery for the following week.
Knowing the risk, I took Malcolm and Murphy camping at Harold Parker State Park in North Andover, MA, pictured nearby, and we had us a helluva time. But in the tent that night I couldn’t help but being haunted about why Malcolm didn’t show me earlier he was suffering and in pain.
If his cancer was that advanced, it must’ve been growing in his humerus for months and that thought hurt me the most. As I would later discover from a biopsy, his bone was spongy with little support and structure left, and as the Orthopede related to me once the biopsy came in, he couldn’t even believe Malcolm was still walking.
They cut off his leg the following Monday, a procedure that really is quite short and simple.
We all too often think about time as a continuum but it’s a compression really. We live lifetimes in moments and lives last for only a moment. And I realized that Malcolm didn’t have many left.
YBD’s Notes 1: On my travels, I have since learned about and in some cases met dogs with bone cancer that never evidenced a single symptom until their legs split apart. It’s unfathomable yet fascinating to me their threshold of pain and how it plays into their natural survival instinct. Pain Management is a new area of veterinary medicine that is trying to understand this.
YBD’s Notes 2: Given that, I should have entitled this Chapter, ‘People Are Pussies’. In the wake of all of the recent tragedies, I mean no disrespect to anyone but I mean this as maybe dogs are a greater model for us all to learn how to live and survive.
THE ROCK: CHAPTER SIX CONTINUED
Is That Thing Going to Grow Back?
We were making our way through Kentucky during the first winter of our walk when Ginger Morgan’s dog, Buddy, was diagnosed with bone cancer in his jaw. We had only met Ginger a few months earlier when we walked through Memphis but I had knew the Bud Man and bonded with him instantaneously. Three and a half legged, Katrina survivor, squirrel hunter and coon ass lab mix there was nothing that anyone couldn’t love about him.
Ginger sought treatment for his cancer at the University of Missouri and his care came under the capable hands of Dr. Selting. During their first visit there, she and Buddy checked into one of the cheap pet friendly motels most proximate to the vet school and the concierge there, upon seeing, I assume, a three legged dog for the first time, asked the question to end all questions. When was Bud Man’s leg going to grow back.
Ginger and I reflect and laugh about it from time to time and while I did know dogs don’t regrow limbs like reptiles, I was probably just as uniformed and confused as that concierge back when Malcolm was first diagnosed with bone cancer.
Down south where I grew up, if you have an animal that becomes lame you put them down. That’s less true today than it was 10 years ago but it’s still commonplace. But there was never a moment’s hesitation in my decision for Malcolm to undergo limb amputation. It was like an answer that always existed before a question was ever asked.
The surgery was successful and I couldn’t wait to get him home. The clinic wanted to keep him for an extra day to which my answer was, “Hell, no”. Healing happens much faster at home. But I was concerned about the transport back so I rented a flatbed dolly upon which I put his dog bed and built a plywood ramp to get Malcolm from door to door with as little turbulence as possible.
When I said last time in my YBD’s notes that I had intended to entitle chapter six, ‘People Are Pussies’, I meant it in that it’s amazing to me how better equipped animals are to survive and adapt than we are. I’m not smart enough to know if that’s a sociological flaw or an evolutionary one though I suspect it’s the former not the latter.
But the resiliency with which Malcolm rebounded post-op was nothing less than awe inspiring. As the Fentanyl wore off within a week, he didn’t want any assistance walking down the steps outside to attend to business. He was damn well ready to piss on his own. And the week following, it was almost as if Malcolm was born three legged. It was as if everything was back to normal. But it wasn’t.
Or I wasn’t anyway. Once a loved one is given the diagnosis, there is no normalcy. Not ever again.
YBD’s Notes 1: I’m not sure if you’re liking the non-linear telling of this story but it’s the only way I’ve found to reconcile the story’s past and keep it moving forward. But I appreciate any thoughts and ideas to make it better.
YBD’s Notes 2: If you have or know a dog that has bone cancer or lost a limb, check outTripawds. They’re great motto is ‘God gave dogs 3 legs and a spare’ and they work tirelessly to help educate people limb amputation. Jim and Rene are just about the best damn people in the world and it’s trail magic that this week that I’m talking about Malcolm’s amputation is the publication of their first newsletter. We’ll catch up with them further down the line as they play a bigger part in this our story.
THE ROCK: CHAPTER SIX CONTINUED
It was the summer of 2004 when I really learned how to love and hate.
After Malcolm’s leg was dissected and Anna left us, I had to find a new place to live. I didn’t have any friends or family in Boston at the time as we were only there less than six months when I got the diagnosis. It’s not easy to find a place to live in the Boston area with two big dogs.
Ultimately, I met a kind fellow, Ron, who had a spare room in Somerville Ma, in a beautiful and historic area but it was on the second floor, atop a spiral winding staircase. I was in a bit of pinch and we moved in but on our first day there, Malcolm, three legged now, down and outright refused to walk down the stairs. They were too steep and too winding.
I remember our first day there I couldn’t get him to walk down the stairs to go outside. He wouldn’t budge.
I cried for the first time. I failed him. I failed myself. Things didn’t work out in Boston like I planned and Malcolm was suffering as a result.
My tears lasted only for a moment and then I figured out a solution. Malcolm was afraid of falling so I put myself in front of him, kneeling down before him. Chest against chest, we made it down the staircase. We did that every day for the year we lived in Somerville.
Too often we think of love and hate as finite points but in reality, they’re just degrees of beauty.
THE ROCK: CHAPTER SIX CONTINUED
Noun. Fr. An intricate relationship between two things. A dance.
It didn’t take long for Malcolm and I to figure out how to make it down the slippery, wooden winding steps of our new home in Somerville and learn how to navigate the virgin seas together.
Years earlier when I had an office at the Tech Center in San Antonio at nights and weekends I’d bring him and Murphy up to my second story suite. There was a red-railed concrete balcony all of 10 square feet or so off the west side our office overlooking Fredericksburg road that became his realm.
Malcolm would sit outside upright for hours, with a quiet and content stoicism that fascinated me. Had his soul been incarnate, he would have been a philosopher king. Some people say we anthropomorphize our dogs too much. I say not enough.
Malcolm’s spirit was unconquerable and indomitable. With crystal clarity I recall a crisp Autumn New England morning. I was sitting on our porch drinking coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal. Murphy was tethered to a baluster but Malcolm wasn’t. Where the hell would a three legged dog go I thought to myself.
I had just nestled myself into the rocking chair and hadn’t even gotten to section B before Malcolm jumped up, cleared the stairs, crossed the street to a neighbor’s Sycamore, and treed a squirrel. Coffee spewed all over me and the journal strewn all over the porch, down and outright amazed, half-crazed and scared, I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t help myself.
It was the first time I laughed in a complete and innocent way since April 2004 and it would be the last that year. Despite amputation and chemo, cancer ultimately spread to Malcolm’s lungs. One morning, he just couldn’t get up. An emergency trip to Angell-Memorial revealed that he had a grapefruit sized mass in his lungs.
Bone cancer is just an awfully damn aggressive form and by the time dogs become symptomatic, it’s most likely already spread, the lungs the most likely place.
The thing I had the hardest time with, I mean other than the fact that we’d just been given a big stop clock, four to six weeks they said, was that Malcolm stopped eating. And he was a passionate eater, too.
I added dog gravy on his kibble, cheese sprinkles, and all of the other tricks and incentives I read about but they just didn’t work. So I put my apron on, got in the kitchen and started making food for Malcolm. At first it was ground beef and brown rice but I quickly expanded his menu to include chicken and steak. Hell, he ate better than I did.
And he snarfed it all up. And that gave me pleasure. I found that the kitchen became my only sanctuary, where I was free of stress, anxiety, and sadness. I was feeding my boy and filling him full with my love. But it wasn’t long before I became his chef biatch. He’d look at me with those eyes that said, ‘Go make me a sammich’.
And I would. You see, love is a dance where one leads and the other follows. It’s an intricate mystery that defies logic and understanding. And yet it is.
YBD’s Notes 1: I’m forever indebted to the folks at NEVOG, Angell-Memorial, and Dr. John Berg and Shelly Rodman at Tuft’s Vet School who gave me counsel, consolation, and hope during a very hard time.
YBD’s Notes 2: I’ve been working on a big project and this Sunday, I’ll post about it here.
Once Malcolm’s cancer had spread to his lungs and been given a death sentence, I packed up my belongings in Boston and moved back to Texas to be with family.
I remember driving the boys back home. It was on the BQE, crossing the East River, that I considered it for the first time. Malcolm was coughing incessantly and I was inconsolable. A flick of the wrist, the steering wheel turns, and it would all be over.
I had never considered suicide as an option for life’s travails before, it seemed so counter productive, but I couldn’t imagine a life without Malcolm either.
But I could no more give up on him as he never did me.
I came up with a saying to get us through the hard days when Malcolm could barely make it out the door for our daily constitutional. “We don’t give up. We don’t give in. Until the end, my friend.”
Every day I uttered those words to Malcolm, in part for him, in part for me.
When you bear witness to a loved one dying before your eyes, it crystallizes your constitution. Malcolm went down hard and I went down hard with him.
It wasn’t the bone cancer that took him down. Not directly anyway. It was hypertrophic osteopathy. Malcolm was in congestive heart failure because his lung tumor had grown so large that it forced fluid in his hind legs rendering them useless.
I had made the conscious decision the day before to take Malcolm off his pain meds to better assess his condition. In poker, it’s called forcing a hand.
When Malcolm could barely even walk, my hand was forced, the decision predetermined. No one should have to make the call to kill our kids. Even in an act of kindness. It’s not the correct order of things.
But on this day, I took Malcolm to Dr. Gosney’s clinic in Temple, TX and held him as he died in my arms.
After his lifeless body slumped, I couldn’t help but wonder why the substance in the syringe that took his life was colored pink. And who was the person that chose that color?
THE ROCK: CHAPTER SEVEN CONTINUED
We were on the Rails-to-Trails from Pittsburgh to DC on the second stretch known as the C & O canal. The Canine Cancer Caucus event was upcoming and Hudson and Murphy and I had some blazing to do. Earlier in the day, a storm descended down on us, it was light and non-electrical, and I decided to press ahead though much to the consternation of the fuzzybutts.
The rain abated and we made it to the next campsite on the towpath. There is so much truth in the old saying that fire warms the traveler’s soul but it did much more for us that night. Temperatures had dropped precipitously throughout the day and by the time we made camp, the three of us were shivering wet.
With the sun still unset and the boys snuggled up inside the tent, I gathered what dry wood and kindling I could. Over a thousand miles into the walk I was an old salt at starting fires in all sorts of conditions and it didn’t take long before the flames flickered and my body warmed.
But with the rainstorm, it was slim pickings and I couldn’t find enough dry tree branches and twigs for the fire to reach the maximum combustion point, the point at which all wood burns. So the warmth was brief and gone as quickly as it started. But I was so cold that I couldn’t leave its side and wouldn’t until it died.
The week after Malcolm was given rest was an unexpected surprise. I felt very little sadness and loss inside me and I remember saying to myself, “Luke, you’re doing so good, man.” I was preoccupied with planning his wake with some of the friends and neighbors that helped out in the last months of his life. And I spared no expense in forethought and detail as it was to be a grand celebration.
But unlike a traditional Irish wake, there was no keening at all. Just joy and laughter and story after story of a great soul. The ‘Jumping Armadillo’ was one of them. As the hypertrophic osteopathy worsened, it was harder and harder for Malcolm to move about but I would take him out in the evenings to sit in the grass and savor the outdoors that he had all of his life.
One evening, he and I heard some rustling in my father’s juniper bushes. He couldn’t get up and investigate so I did. As I pulled apart the blue-berried shrub a freaking armadillo leaped up at me, like four feet high, almost kissing my nose and I squealed like a school girl. That in turn, got Malcolm up and on his three legs and over to me. To defend me or eat the armadillo I’ll never know.
As the wake wound down, we laughed and drank and toasted until dawn and then a darkness descended upon me, swiftly and mercilessly.
You see, I had loved Malcolm as a father loves his son and when he was gone, the great fire I felt for him, for life, was extinguished.
I didn’t… I didn’t know that people could suffer so deeply and for so long.
YBD’s Notes 1: Next week begins Chapter 8: The Bottomland.
YBD’s Notes 2: Thank you to all of our friends in my native state that were so kind and generous with their love and support in this chapter of our story.
For me the end of revelry.’
It would be much later on when I learned that immediately following the death of a loved one, a sense of relief is very common. That comes from not only the end of suffering but the release from the incredible mental and spiritual strain from making constant medical decisions on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, whether a child, debilitated relative, or a companion animal.
Your sense of confidence is under continuous and often daily assault from measuring treatment against quality of life and your own self doubt. And to complicate matters, decisions are routinely made with a paucity of data and a preponderance of speculation so basically your best guess is no worse than that of the opinion of the most trained specialist.
That weight can at times be unbearable so after the passing of a loved one an unshouldering occurs. But the feeling is fleeting and often followed by emptiness. A week after Malcolm was cremated I held a small, private wake then quietly sank down into the dark side of sadness. The tailspin was swift and absolute.
You have to understand up and until then I had never lost anyone close to me. Both my parents and all of my siblings were alive and I’d never experienced a traumatic loss.
Hell, before Malcolm I never knew such a thing possible with an animal and that a human could have parental instincts and emotions with non-humans. And now it was gone. He was gone. That sun which had shone new light into my life had set and with it, my will to live.
Abraham Maslow constructed a theory of motivation in the mid-twentieth century called ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy ofNeeds’. Often portrayed in triangular form the highest level is self actualization – the penultimate goal of humans he argued. The bottom represents the most basic human functions like breathing and eating without which none of the higher levels can be attained.
And I was barely even there. I was on the ocean floor where you would find strange and grotesque looking creatures like blob fish, fang tooths, ghost sharks, and vampire squid. In the absolute absence of sunlight and air, their existence consists entirely of the basest of survival and when Malcolm died I drowned myself to live amongst them.
I never knew humans could suffer so deeply and for so long and for most of 2006, I remained at the deepest depths of despair desperately holding onto Maslow’s bottom rung. I slept for days then couldn’t sleep at all. It was a living hell, the haunting nightmare we all have of being a coma patient but conscious and awake.
For months after he was euthanized, I kept replaying Malcolm’s final moments, exhaling his last breath, and his limp lifeless body falling into my arms. My mind became caught in an endless video loop that played every night and I couldn’t make it stop.
I didn’t know it at the time I was going through what I now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. I was incapable of recalling the memory of Malcolm’s death without experiencing the extreme emotional trauma that came with it.
Even now years later, it’s still painful for me to reflect upon because I blamed myself for it. The way I was raised, depression is a symptom of a weak mind and lack of will and character but I honestly couldn’t will myself to move on.
Isolated, wrought with grief, and devoid of all hope, I don’t know why I didn’t die that year. I felt like a big part of me had and I drank enough to do the job. But the absence of a will to live is not the same thing as a desire to die. I had made three promises to Malcolm before he was given rest and that kept me holding on to that bottom rung.
And slowly over the ensuing six months since Malcolm’s passing, I pulled myself up. One motherfucking rung at a time.
But I did get a little help. And by little, I mean an 8 week old Pyrenees named Hudson.
YBD’s Notes 1: Next week is the eve of our launch of Chef Big Dog so instead of starting Chapter 9, I’ll compile all chapters to date in a single blog for all of you kind and discerning readers. The following week, I should be in full stride and ready to publish the next chapter: Hudson & Murphy, the Fabulous Fuzzybutts
YBD’s Notes 2: The title of this vignette was loosely based on a duet between Lyle Lovett and, unsurprisingly the beautiful Emmy Lou Harris, a constant source of inspiration through most of my life. Here’s the link to a youtube performance of it with Lyle’s large band and even larger hair. If you do have the courage to walk through the bottomland, like they say in the song, there’s only one way to do it: without no shoes.
YBD’s Notes 3: One of the most invaluable things I’ve learned from the thousands of people we’ve met and the stories they have shared is that everyone grieves differently. That being said, I chose to suffer alone and I strongly discourage anyone from doing the same. There are support groups at many of the veterinarian hospitals throughout the country and there are online communities as well. And I am available to anyone at all hours of the day to anyone who needs an understanding ear.
Tuesday June 4th, 2013
TODAY’S YBD’S Notes 1: Well we’re up and down b/w 4,500 – 5,500 readership per week of ‘The Rock’ and I can’t sleep with Louis CK again to bolster interests again. He won’t return my calls. And Natalie Portman is never gonna happen. Yep the walk of shame is never easy.
Please help us in getting the message out. I write every week for all of you because it was the deal I made. Not with a publishing house but with God. And I won’t crawfish on that understanding. I don’t ask for money for it but if you appreciate and respect what I pour out of my heart and soul every week, please to make a donation at 2 Million Dogs.
YBD’s Notes 2: If you can’t afford a donation, please share this story amongst friends and family and help promote this blog.
YBD’s Notes 3: I know some of you object to my use of expletives (have i been using the wrong word all this time?) but I studied hard and early in life to build a Library of Congress sized vocabulary & I think I’ve earned the right to use them especially as they pertain to cancer and loss. As a Christian, an aesthete, adventurer, philanthropist, and lover of life, I mean no offense to anyone but I remain unapologetic. God didn’t make me that way. He meant me upright not prostrate.
I know every time I curse I loose friends and followers on FB & Twitter and I think that’s a damn shame especially with all of the filth and evil in this world. But I won’t compromise the integrity and truth of this story no matter how it reflects on me personally.
One of my favorite movie quotes, and unfortunately I can’t find a clip for, is from Criminal Law about Justice Brandeis slipping and falling in the shadow of the statue of Justice. ’We are all trying to maintain our balance in pursuit of an ideal that will always be greater than us’.
YBD’S Notes 4: Next week Chapter Nine, the Fabulous Fuzzybutts. Confused you with the ordering of chapters last week and even myself but I try to keep up.
2 Dogs 2,000 Miles