This is the first morning at home I can remember in 12 years that didn’t start with opening a can of dog food and refilling a water bowl. No doubt there were a few times Annie, our golden retriever, spent the night at the vet’s kennel because our plane came in too late or because she’d had a bout of stomach problems related to her cancer. But I don’t remember those mornings. Nor do I remember the kids ever waking up before me—especially once they became teens—to feed her first.
As sure as J. Alfred Prufrock measuring out his life with coffee spoons, I meted out mine for over a decade by scooping out Iambs for Annie and Precious. Though I also now start the coffeemaker, my pet pals have been my only morning companions since back in the day when, as a thirtysomething, I drank Diet Coke for my daily hit of caffeine.
Until this morning my days have commenced with Annie wagging her tail and licking her lips as I clanked her bowls down—sometimes begrudgingly on days off when she wouldn’t let me sleep in. She didn’t care that the kids had promised, as all kids do, to take care of the pets but always leave it up to Mom to take the AM shift. On those lazy mornings she’d do her drill—sometimes three or four times—if I refused to move. She’d nudge me with her nose, sprint toward the door, stop and spin 180 to lunge at me while throwing her head over her left shoulder as if to say playfully but tenaciously, “Ok, come on, let’s go!” All the while a disgruntled Precious meowed in Drama Queen fashion. Like it or not, I followed them both down the hall to the kitchen–the pecking order always the same. Precious, as senior sister, jingled in the lead, followed by Annie, her best friend and gentle giant, with me stumbling last, their disheveled servant.
Annie arrived in our lives by Santa’s sleigh as a special delivery for Cole. 1995 we had lost my dad and in 1996 Dan and I divorced. I wanted Christmas ‘97 for my four and seven- year- olds to be magical—to make up for as much pain as possible. A counselor had said nothing is better for children than pets, so I began scheming. I wanted a blonde golden retriever. But when the smallest of the litter– more red/golden on her back with blonde only on her belly– climbed all over me when I bent down, I fell in love. I’d bring her home Christmas Eve and between my grandmother who spent the holidays with us and me we’d keep her quiet till the kids woke up.
We already had another new pet in the house. A week before Christmas, Taylor’s cat, a stray who had wandered into our lives and became Queen Elizabeth, died. Though I knew Annie was coming, they didn’t. So in that panic where parents try to replace lost pets rather than watch their kids grieve, I packed them up the next day for Taylor to pick out her new kitten. We named her Isabella for yet another queen (no wonder in her old age she has become so demanding) but called her Precious. Timid and tolerant, she would sit still or be wheeled about in a doll stroller for hours dressed as a baby. Soul mates in their sweet spirits, the sisters met Christmas morning. Because both were born the previous September we celebrated their birthdays together each fall with a cake, candles, and singing.
Truth is, I needed Annie as much as the kids did. The first Christmas Day it was Dan’s turn to have them at his house, I walked her in one of the few good snows since my childhood. Her nose twitched as she smelt the early morning air, and she was all ears though there was nothing to hear that silent, pristine morning. Come spring, summer, and fall, she’d always lift her head to the sun and drink in the smells of wisteria, jasmine, or firewood burning. When another snow came she flipped over and rolled on her back, making her own snow angel while the kids built a snowman. Appropriate because she was our angel.
She breathed life into the house—literally. Going to sleep alone didn’t feel so lonely with her in the room. She’d sigh and breathe steadily except when she’d whimper-yelp in her dreams at a squirrel she was chasing. Who knew where Precious was sleeping and Lord knows she wouldn’t come—still doesn’t—90% of the times I’d call her. Even if our cat hopped on the bed, pawed at me playfully, purred and plopped down, she’d twitch her tail a few times and scram. But Annie wanted to be where we were all the time—on the bathroom rug beside the tub, on the floor where I needed to mop, under my feet when I cooked.
Of course, she wasn’t always so docile. The first two years I wondered if Annie would ever lie by the fire while I read on the couch—the idyllic view I had of dog ownership. After chewing all around the edges of Taylor’s baby album and my Bible, eating unknown quantities of crayons, puzzle pieces and Legos, gnawing off the legs of my Tiptoe Elf, a childhood toy I’d unpack each Christmas, chomping to bits a starfish in a bowl of shells on my coffee table, and eating an entire turkey left on the kitchen counter one Thanksgiving, she finally settled down and began stretching out beside Precious every time the fire was lit. And while when younger she would harass ducks rather than sit with us on the blanket when we’d picnic by the lake each year celebrating the first day of summer vacation, she became my summer writing companion. As I wrote on the deck swing, she’d sleep beside me once she grew tired of poking her head through the rails on neighborhood watch. She dared squirrels to jump from the trees onto her turf and barked at every dog walked past our driveway. But the guard dog she was not—never growling or barking at people nor even the dogs once they ignored her warning and walked right up to her. She’d sniff warily while wagging her tail, then try to play with her new friend.
The two periods in my life when I ran daily in the neighborhood–the summer of 2000 and the spring of 2007— Annie was by my side. But not long after the greenway was finished near our house, our running days were over. I was done having my knee drained and she was done with long distances. A couple of autumns ago when Cole and I took her for a walk by the Stones River, he ended up carrying her back to our car. Last summer she barely made it to the end of our street. Her laps around the house and sometimes slipping off to check out the neighborhood ended as well, but she still enjoyed a good walk around the front yard a couple of times each day.
She carried babies— a Winnie the Poo house shoe when she was a pup, a stuffed squirrel in the middle years, a rabbit when a senior citizen. When younger she endured being dressed in basketball uniforms thanks to my kids watching Air Bud. Our favorite Disney movie has always been Homeward Bound. For a short time we had a third pet, Callie, a feisty calico cat who adored Annie but terrorized poor Precious. The film stars were our troupe: Annie as Shadow, Callie as Chance, Precious as Sassy. We wanted an ending to Annie’s story like in the movie—the part where you think Shadow didn’t make it but in the final hour he does. We got the happy ending a few times… but not yesterday.
After years of managing her seizures, the vet told us September 2007 she had lymphoma. He said if she made it through Christmas he would be surprised. We prayed for a miracle and got one that lasted more than two years. When she became ill this Thanksgiving, he said again to prepare for the worst. She recovered within a week.
December all was back to normal. She’d roll around on her back after breakfast in my bedroom, do her happy dance with Cole though he’d grown so tall her paws could only reach his waist when they used to rest on his shoulders, lie beside Taylor when she would sit in front of her mirror putting on makeup, pawing and licking her leg. At dinner, always in a better mood than when serving up breakfast, I sang as I had for over a decade in my best Rick James, much to my son’s disapproval but Annie’s excitement: “Annie’s a very freaky girl…the kind you don’t take home to Mother….She’s all right. She’s all right. That Annie’s all right with me.”
Sunday she beat me up the stairs and later, as I typed on my laptop, she got up from the sunny spot beside the couch where she lay with Precious and nudged me to pat her. I removed the red bow the kids had tied on her the week before for Christmas. I ruffled her full fur coat—the same beautiful color as my son’s hair. They were such buddies. More nights than not Cole left his bed to make a pallet on the floor because Annie was too old to climb in beside him. She was his video game wing woman in the years before he and his friends began playing online together, and she remained his best friend to the end. Taylor drove home from college most weekends and sometimes even during the week because she said she missed “Nana,” as she called Annie, and Precious. When Cole and I were at school and Taylor was home, Annie took up residence in her room.
This morning Precious and I just stood in the kitchen and stared at each other. The Third Morning Muskateer was missing. With tears pouring, I threw away the bottles of Predisone and Phenobarb. I berated myself for my stupid magical thinking…believing the sick spell that had started on Monday would pass like the others. Tuesday I had an appointment with my accountant and thought she’d sleep off the nausea as she’d done all the other times before. But when I came home, she was gone. Dan and the kids were called and in shock we gathered round. The four of us said our goodbyes and Cole, as a rite of passage, helped his dad shovel the dirt into the grave.
I remembered her looking up at me Sunday and something deep inside told me we wouldn’t have her much longer. The last time she had gone outside, she lay down in the yard. I had to lift her back legs and practically carry her inside. Still, I refused to believe she wouldn’t pull through. I kept pushing her, just as I’d done my grandmother when she became tired and sick. I couldn’t imagine life without Mama Lou, Mama Sargeant (who died just last August), or Annie so I chose to retreat into denial when they all were near the end. I was determined Annie would make it as she had done for over two years despite the vet bracing us for reality.
The night before she died I was singing my version of the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Like Prufrock, I was feeling lonely and sad, lamenting to a friend that another year had passed and after 13 years of divorce I was still alone. I was saying that my son would be off to college in just a couple of years, leaving an empty nest. If I’d known it was her last night with us, I would not have been whining about the “significant other” I don’t have. I’d have embraced–literally–what I had in her. With Annie’s passing I again realize how much I have but too often take for granted—so many significant others in friends, family, pets. She was so much a part of our daily life that I couldn’t imagine her leaving it. Even as I write this I forget and think she’s under the dining room table, head on my foot.
She wanted no more than our company, our presence. Unlike us, she was always present. Forever loyal. Constantly content. Leaving me never alone.