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Man’s Best Friend


Engulfed in emotion, I walked my oldest and best dog around the perimeter of our 18th-century property for the last time. A month more, and we would have celebrated a decade since settling Hamlet House Farm together. Instead, though the acreage is rectangular, we’d come full circle.

I had gut-wrenching requests. I made painful promises. I asked Dolphus Raymond (D.R.), my English Chocolate Labrador Retriever, to leave his spirit—to let it envelope the farm, infuse the other animals, and guide and protect us all. I promised that each summer I’d name every sunflower in a corner garden “D” or “R” or “D.R.” I promised I’d always write about him. I promised to never call another Chocolate Labrador my dog.

It rained all day. The world, I thought, was crying, too. But when it stopped, I knew what I had to do. D.R. had thrown up three times that last 24 hours. The little food he ate, the high-powered meds and the water he insatiably sought were poison for a dog who couldn’t fully empty his bladder. The struggle had lost its dignity.

That night, D.R. laid down for me for the last time. As a compassionate vet, a friend, honored his profession, I blessed D.R. with holy water. With a whimper, he passed gently and humanely. He was 11 years, 3 months and 20 days old—not nearly the age I’d hoped he’d become.

D.R. was—and will always be—a knight in white satin. Wrapping him in a white sheet from my mother, I carried him from the farmhouse, an emotionally excruciating escort. Vividly, I’ll always see his eyes staring back at me, like the two red taillights of the make-do hearse that carried away his physical body.

I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” D.R. was pure Labrador and pure gold. Still, almost daily, I whimper—an unrelenting, unleashed, universal grief dog lovers harbor. My eyes fill, then blur. Sometimes, I tremble.

What’s so important about our dogs? How do we become so attached? The highs and lows both create and cripple us. Our dogs teach us to live in the moment, to soak in every streak of white light.

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White like the white-flowering dogwood tree I’ve planted in part with D.R.’s ashes. I bought it the day we would’ve celebrated our 10th anniversary on the farm. That first day, his then-puppy legs kicked up in a sheer sensation in the back meadow. I thought of the song “I’m Free” from the Who’s rock opera, Tommy: “I’m free—and freedom tastes of reality.”

Now, the dogwood will outlast us all. The tree’s placard commands it: “Neither man nor nature should ever remove this tree.” It will bloom each April 3 on D.R.’s birthday. His remaining ashes—sealed in a brass tobacco jar—rest on my nightstand. One day, they’ll be interred with me. His collar hangs on my bedpost—and I think of the rest of the line from “I’m Free”: “I’m free, I’m free. And I’m waiting for you to follow me.”

Without D.R., my great protector, I haven’t slept through a night. The second evening without him, a heavy mist pervaded my bedroom. Summer humidity? No. It was his spirit. I feel it still—daily—and hope I always will.

In a recent dream, D.R. gets squeezed to death by a boa constrictor—a good synonym for cancer. A once-hulking 117 pounds; in the end, D.R. was just 87. I thought farm life kept him trim—that, or my two German Shorthaired Pointers. But no, the cancer was everywhere—in his chest, bladder, prostate and rectum. I took him to five vets in three of his final days. At his age, it was inoperable.

The night I let him go, my sister Maria dreamt we were all younger and on an island beach. D.R. ran freely. Water came ashore, soaking us—and we didn’t care. D.R.’s spirit was at work—as when my 7-year-old godson Kyle, a future vet, captured his own enduring farewell in a handmade card, “Forever D.R.”

From D.R., I learned the meaning of uninhibited friendship, selfless responsibility and the priceless value of loyalty. Let us never forget the importance of the bond we forge with our dogs—especially the bond between a boy and his dog.

In the park on D.R.’s last Sunday, we weren’t out of the truck 30 seconds when a young boy noticed my Big Brown Bear: “I like your dog!” he innocently quipped.

Fighting—then relinquishing to—emotion, I answered, “Yeah, me too!”

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D.R.’s last Sunday was spent with the family. With a medically emptied bladder, he had his final surge. He helped me land an antiques sale in the barn. For the first time, unbelievably, he jumped into the truck himself. We shared a steak.

Overnight, my Braxton Brag Underwood (B.B.) became D.R., and the pup, Miss Maudie Atkinson, became B.B. B.B. slept to a D.R.-esque 7:30 a.m., and I thought, “What a slug-a-bed.” But B.B. was mourning. Even days before, with Maudie already outside, B.B. wouldn’t depart without D.R. Three times, he took a step and a half, then peered back into the log cabin where D.R. rested.

For more than a month, I had to drag B.B. outside—a previous passion. He hardly ate. Outside, his eyes continually went to the skies. A bird dog after birds? No. These weren’t the eyes of a hunter, a pointer, the grandson of a two-time national field trial champion. These were the eyes of a lost, timid puppy, searching for his great protector, too.

Without D.R., the next serious thunder and lightening brought B.B. up the steep, winding, pie-shaped staircase to my bedroom. In the morning, I had to carry him down. If I had a dollar for every time B.B. rested his head somewhere on D.R. in an act of brotherly love, I could pay a year’s worth of German Shorthaired Pointer Rescue PA, Inc.’s medical bills in D.R.’s name. Or donate it all to canine cancer research.

D.R. was my rock. Without him, for the first time in my life, I have often felt lonely. Outside, routinely working into nightfall, he’d lie down and guard me. His head magnetically rotated in every direction. He barked at everything that moved—a falling leaf, a motorcycle. In daylight, no bicycle could peddle past without him sounding his alarm. In the skies, an occasional passing hot air balloon heard its share of D.R.’s defense. There would be no 9/11 repeat attack here—even by hot air balloon. No, not on these soils.

D.R.’s anecdotes are too many to recount, but among them, basic obedience training stands out. Consistently, he refused to perform in class what he’d mastered at home. In class, he sniffed other obedient dogs and snatched any treat that missed their mouths. It didn’t endear us to the instructor. But on graduation night, we had a talk before we went in. I told him, “Tonight’s the night.”

In his final exam, he outperformed even her training dog, a gorgeously groomed Standard Poodle. Reluctantly, the instructor conferred on us the certificate with the highest honors. It was that night, more than any other, that I knew D.R. and I would get along. His only negative trait, his stubbornness, he learned from me.

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As a pup, in 1999, he traveled to Indiana, Pa., and slept in bed with my sage pitching coach, Jack, and me. He took up more space than both of us combined. But just maybe he was our good-luck mascot: We won the American Junior Legion state championship that year.

Of late, keenly aware that time was passing, I took him to “Pet Photos with Santa.” Every December, I’m the fundraising Santa for GSP Rescue-PA. I began thinking, “What if there isn’t another Christmas for D.R.? Shouldn’t he have his photo with Santa?” A professional photo shoot, too, for all three of my hounds, was deferred into last fall. D.R. died July 23. I debated keeping the session, then canceled it.

In subtle ways, D.R. had been sending me his parting signals. Still, a week before his illness emerged, he earned his three-year rabies tag. That office visit, though, he hid in the corner from Dr. Dave—another first. He didn’t want to be examined. In the two painful weeks that followed, I never clipped that tag onto his collar. It took me three weeks after he passed before I could. And, of course, I cried again.

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