Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My First Saint Bernard...An Emotional True Story

A few weeks ago I found her picture in a box I had stored in my closet.  The picture had faded, tinted over with sepia, like an old tintype.  So completely had I put the memory of her behind me, that the story of her life with us, nearly thirty years ago, might have occurred in a fantasy.

When Tippy and I first met, I had just returned home for the summer from my Freshman year at the University of Iowa. I remember taking the call in my dorm room a week before; my sister breathlessly informed me that our parents adopted a puppy from a breeder at the International Dog Show.  A 5-month old Saint Bernard puppy in fact.

Upon entering the house from the back door, a broad brown-and-white head with large floppy ears suddenly appeared at the top of the steps, the brow wrinkled in curiosity as she looked down at me. 

Her soft curly fur made her appear like a lamb. I loved her immediately.  My mood swung from amused happiness to almost mourning, as I somehow knew, as if I had lived this life already, that Tippy would be lost to me some day.  I resolved to make the most of our time together.

I stayed at home all summer, working a job at a bookstore and doing chores around the yard. Tippy was my shadow, my buddy, my playmate. 

She grew so fast, and eventually weighed in at almost 200 pounds.  We fed her from a wok, and cleaned the backyard with a large shovel.  Tippy learned to do her stuff along the back fence, kindly helping us avoid an accidental misstep.  She got brushed every night, and we removed enough fur each time to knit a small sweater. 

Her favorite time of day was early evening and her favorite place to be at that time was the front porch. Just saying the word "porch" produced tail-wags strong enough to knock lamps off of our living-room end tables.  She quivered with happiness as we led her out the front door, and almost immediately, the kids in the neighborhood came for her nightly play, climbing on her, petting her, and enjoying the licks of her big old tongue, that I can still feel lapping at my cheek like a piece of warm bologna.

I thought I had stopped missing her attempts to sit on my lap.  I thought I had stopped missing her eating a bowl of beef stew, and cleaning the bowl but hilariously spitting out all the peas.  I thought I had forgotten how she kept me awake at night with her godawful snoring, so that I would grab her leg in the dark to make her stop--and she just rolled over, out of reach, and snored up a storm again (I didn't sleep a lot that summer).  I thought I forgot how funny she looked when I bathed her from the hose in the garden...and how frightened she was of the hair dryer.  I thought I had forgotten her love of the snow, during some of the coldest winters we ever had in Chicago.

I returned to school every fall with lots of pictures to show my friends, and went home for summers and her excited routine.  I looked forward to it as much as she did.  She was a big and gentle friend, sensitive to my  energy as well as my quiet moods, alternately frolicking in play, or resting quietly with Joni Mitchell or Gordon Lightfoot playing on my turntable.

Eventually my sister came to school at Iowa, and Tippy missed us both.  My parents did what they could to keep her occupied, and exercised, and distracted.

When my sister graduated (I was working full-time at Iowa by that time) my parents decided to surprise us. They rented a U-Haul to pack my sister's belongings, and let Tippy ride with them to Iowa.  They were looking forward to the shouts of surprise and the deep barks of recognition...a wonderful graduation present.

Along the way, however, Tippy became agitated.  I can't describe what I know of that ride....it is still too painful.  After many unsuccessful attempts to quiet her down, and get her to drink water, she finally lay down in the bed of the truck...and drew her last breath.  They were in the middle of an Iowa farm highway, far from help.

(My mother said it was the only time she ever saw my father cry.  The trauma and the guilt she felt led to many years of emotional challenges.)

When they arrived with the shocking and painful news, it was numbing.  I helped my father drag her dead weight to the nearest vet for an autopsy....which turned out to be gastric torsion.  Large dogs often experience this serious bloat and turning of the stomach. 

(If you own a large-breed dog, you might want to know more about this ailment by clicking here)

We all barely spoke to each other that weekend.  And the eventual homecoming was initially unbearable.

All of the dogs in my life left us eventually, but few under worse circumstances. As happy as she and I were together, I learned to stop thinking about her.  At that age, it was my best coping strategy.  Soon, my parents adopted a new Saint puppy named Cassie..who presented us with her own set of challenges.

Tippy was only seven years old. 

So I have the pictures.  The old pain is gone, but there is a lingering emptiness...Tippy (such a silly name for such a big girl...but she was always a lap dog in her own estimation) had so much life ahead of her....  And we were robbed of some good years.

My passion for dogs started with Tippy's demise.  I always loved these animals, but I had always been haunted by this experience, and like Clarice saving the spring lambs, I felt determined to save the unfortunate among them.  Am I still trying to bring her back?  Still asking her to forgive us for leading her to her premature demise? 

1 comment:

  1. What a tragic end for such a beautiful animal. I think most of us have had our "Tippy"; that animal that defined what it was to be a member of the family and too soon left its ranks due to some unfortunate circumstance. Mine was a beagle named "Charlie", and I can relate so well to your wonderful post, Tom. Really great job!