Saturday, November 15, 2008


I. Canine Sibling.
It was a classic “good news/ bad news” joke. The bad news was that a certain member of our family had flunked the 4th grade and would never be allowed to return to Ephesus Elementary School . . . The good news was that she was a Golden Retriever.

She came to live with us in the spring of 1994. Her name was Penny, but I dubbed her “The Toondog," for some reason I've long forgotten. Maybe it was the way she made us all laugh sometimes, like a cartoon dog.

She was trained as an official assistance animal for Angela, and the two of them became constant companions. Penny wore a red backpack with a button that said, “Don’t pet me. I’m working.” (And when you took off the red backpack at the end of the day, it was as if she had another button that said, “It’s Miller Time.”)

Penny would open the sliding-glass patio door for Angela by tugging on a rope tied to the door handle. Angela would drive her wheelchair through the open door, and Penny would pull the door closed behind her. Sometimes this took a few tries. (The refrigerator door worked on the same principle but the angle was much easier. Penny never had any trouble with that one -- something your average dog only
wishes he could do.)

The Toondog could do a few other things. The most useful task for Angela was picking stuff up from the floor. If Angela dropped her book, a piece of paper, or a toy, Penny would immediately retrieve it, unbidden, and hold it up in her teeth where Angela could reach it. This worked with almost anything, the possible exception being food.

The dropped-food scenario posed a behavioral challenge (not to mention a cognitive puzzle) for Penny. If she did what any other dog would do with a wiener on the floor, she got a reprimand for going against her training. If she did what seemed like the right thing -- retrieve the wiener intact in her mouth and hold it up to Angela -- there was no reward in that, either. But just leaving a wiener lying there was a distraction and didn’t make any sense. Who could figure people?

Penny went everywhere that Angela went. She rode the bus. She went to restaurants. She attended services at Church of the Holy Family Episcopal (were she tried to take communion a couple of times.) She slept beside Angela’s bed every night. And in the fall of 1994, Penny went to school. The two of them were in the 4th grade.

She drew a lot of attention from the other students at first, but the novelty wore thin when the kids were told they couldn’t touch the dog. Penny sat quietly in class beside the wheelchair. The months went by. Things appeared to be working out perfectly. . .

Then one day in the spring, as the students were filing back to class after lunch, Penny’s leash slipped from its hook on Angela’s chair. The Toondog saw an opportunity and just decided to make a break for it. She took off like a bat out of hell -- straight out the door, across the lawn, and through the pine trees towards Ephesus Church Road.

A chase ensued, with Angela’s teacher, her student assistant, the school security guard, and finally Mrs. Maniloff the principal joining in hot pursuit. None of these frantic adults, on foot, was any match for a three-year old Golden Retriever on a glorious romp with no interest in being captured.

The basic situation was this: a trained and registered assistance dog worth thousands of dollars had bolted from her 4th-grade human companion in a wheelchair and was running all over east Chapel Hill wearing a red backpack with a button that said, “Don’t pet me. I’m working.”

Penny eventually tired of her frolic, wandered back to school, and turned herself in. The posse of educators, administrators, law enforcement officers, and assorted municipal authorities all breathed a collective sigh of relief. And then they got pretty ticked off.
(If you are a dog, you do not want to humiliate these people; it will come to no good end.) From that moment on, the proverbial handwriting was on the wall: Fifth grade wasn’t going to happen for Penny.

The next year, Angela went back to school alone. The Toondog stayed home and took early retirement as a
Helper Dog Emeritus.

* * *
II. Midlife message from an aging companion.
It’s November, 2008, and I’m in the first half-hour of the Tuesday seminar, surrounded by postdocs and a few faculty colleagues. I finish my cup of coffee and take a deep breath -- then notice something strange. What is that smell?

But of course, I know what that smell is. Everybody does. I glance discretely under the table and turn my foot slightly, just enough to confirm the source of the odor. It is right there, squashed and ripening in the tread of my sandal.

Toondog. I know you can't bark much anymore, but this is a fine way to get my attention. What's gotten into you? It's only thirty feet to the woods . . .

Suddenly I realize that I’m not the only person in the seminar who is smelling this. And we have ninety minutes to go. The ventilation is not that great. After a moment of contemplation, I extract my cell phone and try to look extremely startled, hoping that my body language will say, “Folks, I have a call coming in from the Obama transition team. Excuse me, but I’ve got to step out and take this.”

I get up and stride purposefully out the open door of the conference room. Aware of the gaze of the assembled scholars behind me, I take an immediate right turn into the men’s restroom. Then I realize this is a mistake. (Just in terms of impression management.)

Toondog. Where was this, anyway? Right there in the garage by the car? I guess the last joke is on me. Literally.

* * *

III. Beloved friend lost.
The Toondog would have been sixteen years old in December. Her face had grown snowy white with age. She had been retired for many years from her work as an assistance dog. She stayed with us after Angela went off to college. She took to following Pam around the house wherever Pam went, which was both endearing and rather annoying. But then she stopped. She went into a slow physical decline, until eventually she couldn’t stand up on her own anymore. Dr. Redman said she had tumors. Near the end, she became incontinent and just stayed in her bed and coughed.

Last Friday, on a suitably dark and rainy autumn morning, Pam and I helped Penny into the minivan for a final outing. We were going to see Dr. Redman. Pam choked back tears. The Toondog was oblivious.

At the animal hospital, they showed us into a room. We lifted Penny and laid her gently on the table. Dr. Redman shaved her leg and found a vein. Pam cradled Penny’s head and kissed her nose. I watched a syringe full of blue fluid slowly disappear. Dr. Redman listened for heart sounds. Then he looked over at Pam, pointed his finger toward the heavens and said softly, “She’s up above.”

I like to think so. In my dream, I see the
Toondog Redivivus in some parallel universe. She’s running headlong through the spring grass. Angela is running beside her this time. There are some waterfowl flying north overhead, but Mrs. Maniloff and the rest of them are miles and miles behind.

* * *
In Memoriam: Penny (1992 - 2008)

“ . . . She possessed beauty without vanity,
strength without insolence,
courage without ferocity,
and all the virtues of man without his vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning flattery
if inscribed over human ashes
is but a just tribute to the memory of
the Toondog.”

-- Adapted from the inscription on a monument in the garden of Newstead Abbey, Newfoundland; quoted in Lord Byron’s poem, “Epitaph to a Dog.”