For most of my childhood, my family would spend our spring break every year at my grandparents’ cabin in Eagle Rock, Missouri. This was the kind of place, so close to the Walton family stomping grounds, where Walmart was the superior grocery store. At the beginning of the week, we would take a short jaunt down to the nearest Walmart, which was in Arkansas.
This was also the kind of place where people had farm dogs. These were dogs with free reign and strong species-survival instincts. Some farmhouse families didn’t watch The Price is Right, and this meant that every spring, non-birth controlled doggies roamed free. For my family, this convergence of horny farmhouse dogs and a one-stop shop meant that our grocery stop of the vacation went, from some perspectives, a little sideways.
As we walked up to the big blue sliding automatic doors on March 27, 2001, my priorities suddenly shifted away from spending my life’s savings on a shiny fishing lure: there was a big, beaten up cage with six three-month-old puppies inside. A cardboard sign leaned against it that read “Free Puppies.” A woman sat on a camp chair next to it, holding a little black mutt on her knees.
I grabbed my dad’s forearm. I don’t remember what I said, but it didn’t matter: he pulled his arm away, pointedly ignored the dogs and the woman, and walked stridently into the store. Unfazed, I sat down next to the woman and said, “I want that one. My parents are in the store. I’ll stay here with you until they get out.”
I sat there for over an hour with that little black puppy on my lap. I pet him and talked to the woman. She professed that the group, made up of six very different-looking dogs, was nonetheless a single litter. The pups’ mother was a dachshund, and the woman’s husband didn’t plan for or want puppies: this was her third time peddling them here at Walmart, and her husband said any that came back with her would be drowned in the pond by their house. When I heard that, I held my good boy tighter, petted him more assertively.
Eventually my mom and brothers came out of the Walmart. My brothers talked to the woman and got the same story I had. They immediately turned to mom and started in on their spiel: “We’ll take care of him, mom. He’ll be our dog. We promise we’ll be responsible. You won’t have to worry about a thing.” She smiled and nodded and said, “You’ll have to ask Judd.” They began to strategize together, examining their arguments and anticipating the rebuttals.
“Mary, we need a girl dog. We already have a boy dog, and they might not get along.” I tried to protest, to preserve my sense of loyalty, but I let them take the other little black dog out of the cage and hand her to me, while I gave the boy back to the woman.
Like a man fleeing the scene of a crime he’s hoping he can get away with, my father came out of the store with my uncle. Never have I seen such long strides taken at so fast a clip by so old a man. I called to him, pointed happily to the dog on my lap, and said, “Daddy look!” In a sharp growling voice, he said, “Everyone get in the car. Now.”
I was an eleven-year-old girl who, up until now, had gotten everything I had asked for in life. Granted, that was at least in part because I had only ever thought to ask for things that came with a gift receipt. Nonetheless, this obvious snub by my father was too much for my little heart. I did the only thing my people had ever known to do in times of great adversity: I broke down into tears.
It was Patrick who got the crucial spark of inspiration. “I know she’s not really ‘free,” he said to our father, ever the economist. “But I’ll pay her vet bills. I have money saved. I’ll pay to have her fixed and to get her shots. I’ll pay.”
I continued to sob. Between my pathos, Patrick’s logos, and my mother’s ethos of neutrality, we wrangled that little girl out of the cruel grasp of Fresh Water Davy Jones and into the backseat of our minivan.
That little girl was eventually given the name Fudge. My father always called her “The rat dog.”
My bedtime routine has been one of the greatest sources of happiness throughout this gloomy winter. I regularly read a book, play video games with my husband, or listen to podcasts while doodling until around 10:30, which is pushing it. At that point, I brush my teeth, slide into jammy jams, if I haven’t already, pick up the old lady and climb into bed. I am always careful to lay her gently next to me on her side, place her head on my pillow, and tuck her under the blankets.
Fudge has been by my side for more than half my life. For most of that time she was pretty low-maintenance. She has been properly my dog, living in my house, charging her vet bills to my bank account for the past five years, and, per Murphy’s Law, said vet bills have risen steeply. She has contracted gross butt worms twice, presumably by being a bit too friendly with my brother’s dog. She has had a couple of opportunities to demonstrate her allergy to flea saliva. She has gotten skunked at least twice, and a third time she just rolled in a dead skunk for fun. Her face has mysteriously swelled up, she has dislocated several toes, she has ripped off a toenail, she has had a ball of hair the size of a lab mouse surgically extracted from her stomach, and she has scratched her cornea. Not to mention, the slow march of time has robbed her of her sight, most of her hearing, and, for all intents and purposes, all flexibility in her spine.
Even so, that Sunday night, I picked her up gingerly and laid her next to me as my little spoon. My husband let her outside before he came to bed hours later, and she slept the rest of the night in her bed. Or so I thought.
When I woke up that morning, it was to a pungent smell and an unsettling quiet. I walked down the stairs where I heard the tell-tale clicking of dog-on-hardwood. I gave her a little scratch behind the ears and poured her food into her bowl.
And then my world turned upside down: she did not eat.
There are no sufficient analogies in the world to describe Fudge’s relationship to food. The first two years of her life, Fudge pretended to not know her own name, and I swear even now she is adept at selective hearing, but she has always responded anything that approximated the sound of kibble falling into a bowl. She will lick spinach off the kitchen floor and even chew it a bit before she decides it’s not worth her time. When she is being rebellious at a new vet and the tech asks, “Is she food motivated?” I have been known to laugh out loud before I can stop myself.
So when she did not eat that Monday morning in late January, 2018, I knew it was the end. Even before I noticed the doggy vomit all over the place, I knew the heart of this very good girl was counting down its last. I knew she had somehow decided that food was not worth it anymore which, for Fudge, meant life was not worth it anymore.
The next three days were difficult. Yet more expensive vet visits, where everyone gave me sort of pained, “You had to know this was coming,” looks. A few nights spent “making her as comfortable as possible,” meaning laying with her in bed, covering her with a blanket, and hand feeding her what few pellets she would deign to eat. She got subcutaneous fluids, which was an odd thing to see: imagine an ancient dog with a lopsided breast implant lying sloppily between her shoulder blades.
And we waited. I would leave for work, preparing myself for the possibility that it was the last time I would see her alive.
And we wondered what our bedroom, our little home, our lives would be like without her.
And we thought idly about advanced planning for dogs, and if there was ever a way to be a hundred percent comfortable with euthanasia.
And then the daughter of a bitch pulled through. She skipped right over the expensive Sensitive Stomach canned food from the vet and jumped right back into eating her cheap IAMS Super Senior+. We haven’t taken her back to the vet yet (because, you know, rent) but I honestly think she just had the flu. It’s been going around for dogs this year too, evidently. Still, I would have thought that even just the flu would have killed her.
From day one, I’ve been saving this dog’s life, but not with any sort of skill or special effort on my part. It was by complete chance that she was the one my brothers chose to hand me: there were two other female puppies in that litter. For all those years of easy living while she was with my parents, she was overweight and under stress, living with a grumpy old man who scowled at the mere mention of her name. By all rights, her blood pressure alone should have been enough to send her to at least a reasonably timed grave. It definitely shouldn’t have been a fountain of youth.
The Disney Princess in me, the eleven-year-old sobbing in front of the Walmart, wants to tie everything up neatly with a good old “Who Rescued Whom?” bumper sticker in the shape of a pawprint. But if I’m being honest, I know that deep down, she’s just another horny farm dog with the genes of hundreds of years of animals who simply refused to die. Regardless, I thank God every day for that promiscuous little wiener dog down in Arkansas whose owner probably loved her as much as I love her daughter.