November 2, 1997 in Features

Love Of Dog Was One Thing Couple Shared

Kathleen Gilligan The Spokesman
 

He came to us in winter, a grizzled, starving antique of a dog, the kind no one would ever adopt from the pound.

He left us, too, in winter, barely able to crawl from the garage to my ex-husband’s van for one last ride, then a trip to the vet to be put down.

Harsh winds slapped my tear-streaked face that morning. On the lawn sat Henry, wagging and terribly frail, John’s arms wrapped around him.

In the end, Henry was the glue that held our ailing marriage together, one of the few things on which we’d always agreed. From the day John found the aging, half-dead dog on a snowy country road, Henry became our project, our common enterprise, “the best thing we ever did as a couple,” we joked.

Neighbors watched Henry’s progress, skeptical at first. Emaciated though he was, the Great Dane/Lab mix still looked imposing, like he’d one day belt neighborhood-waking barks. Up and down our street John led the limping dog. Henry hung his massive head, refusing eye contact with anyone.

“Come on, old boy,” John coaxed, lifting the garage door for Henry, who was too arthritic to climb down the stairs from the kitchen to the basement.

Henry recuperated, napping for hours in the downstairs bedroom, gradually gaining 50 pounds. The Siamese curled up next to him, unafraid of the gentle giant in which our neighbors came to delight, flashing “thumbs up” from their living room windows as his gait improved.

Children loved him, insisting he was part Saint Bernard. “Beethoven!” they’d squeal. We’d just smile and nod, weary of explaining his dubious pedigree. Garbage collectors returned empty trash cans to the patio so they could pet him.

Henry flourished during the two years we loved him. The marriage declined.

What is it, exactly, that pulls people apart? Is it words withheld or words shouted in anger? Unrealistic expectations or a lack of shared hopes? Does it happen over time, subtly and insidiously? Or can each partner pinpoint the moment when shared horizons started looking dark and bleak, when “I won’t” began to carry more weight than “I do”?

We argued through our separation, but agreed, at least, on the menagerie we’d assembled. The dog and five cats would stay with me, in the familiar house with its fenced yard.

“I can’t believe you’re taking me away from my hobbling dog,” John said the day he left, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Down the yard and toward the van, I watched him walk away.

Over the months, he continued picking Henry up for his beloved rides in the van. John fed him corn dogs, doughnuts, salty chips and cookies. Still, Henry lost weight, and his deep-chested barks sounded weak. He lost his sense of time, and often whimpered at 2 a.m., rousing me from sleep to come downstairs and sit with him.

In my head, I knew old age was stealing Henry away. In my heart, I believed he missed his “daddy.”

One day after work, Henry didn’t greet me in his customary way, big black nose pressed against the fence. I found him huddled in the back yard shed. He wouldn’t eat. He got as far as the garage and sank to the cold cement floor.

“Come on big guy, eat your food,” John whispered, to no avail. For days, Henry shunned his old favorites until finally we discovered he would eat turkey breast - but only from John’s hand.

Again, we faced a question neither one of us wanted to answer. We knew our dog was dying, and there was nothing we could do.

Together we took Henry to the vet. His enormous body shook as we helped hoist him onto the examination table. John buried his face in the dog’s muscular neck as the vet searched for a suitable vein. Seconds later, Henry was gone. So, too, it seemed, was the vital link that had sustained us and brought us joy.

John came back to the house that day to get Henry’s leash and choke chain, but left his red water bucket near the back door, where it remained for two years.

We looked at each other, saying little.

“I guess I’ll go,” John said, gathering up Henry’s things. I nodded, and hugged him.

Down the yard and toward the van, I watched him walk away forever.

, DataTimes MEMO: Kathleen Gilligan is Lifestyles & Trends Editor of the Spokesman-Review.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Kathleen Gilligan The Spokesman-Review

Kathleen Gilligan is Lifestyles & Trends Editor of the Spokesman-Review.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Kathleen Gilligan The Spokesman-Review

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