When I started to read Travels with Charley, a travelogue by John Steinbeck about his road trip with his poodle, I decided it was time to share a story I wrote sometime ago in tribute to a special dog of mine called Chuckles. Tomorrow I’ll post some biographical information about Steinbeck and on Saturday share my thoughts about his last full-length book. For now, take a trip back in time with me.
I glanced at the picture window as I drove into my family’s driveway, but no dog waited there barking at my return. I opened the front door, but no dog greeted me nails clicking on the linoleum. I had hoped for but not expected either to happen. Since becoming a senior, Chuckles had taken to resting most hours under the far end table in the living room.
Cutting across the hallway, I spied Chuckles in his favorite spot. A white streak ran between his fringed ears, giving his face the appearance of a butterfly—despite an ear that had remained flopped even after months of being taped. Chuckles didn’t quite live up to his breed name of Papillon, but he was mine.
I had just returned from dropping my family off at the airport. Dad had invited me to join them in visiting relatives, but I had declined. Chuckles suffered from arthritis, deafness, decaying teeth, and failing kidneys. I clung to what could be our last summer together.
Kneeling near him, I stroked his nose. He licked my hands and then staggered to his feet. I carried him to the backyard, where he lumbered about more beautiful but less spry than when a gangly and energetic puppy.
His bladder relieved, I carried him back inside where I fetched bed clothes to spread over the living room. Chuckles had slept with me whenever I visited. Then he injured his back, developed arthritis, and couldn’t jump.
Chuckles sniffed old shirts near my makeshift bed. I wrinkled my nose and offered him a dental treat. They were the only treatment our family could safely give his teeth anymore. He sank to his belly to chew it, but perked his silky ears as I untied a bakery bag. “I picked up biscuits,” I told him. “We can share them and later you can drink milk from my cereal. Next week, we’ll go for walks and visit people. It’ll be like old times.”
I had bought Chuckles after his breeder told me tales about how he liked to watch the toilet flush. On fitful nights when his stomach rejected food while he adapted to his new life, we snuggled together alongside my bed. During daylight hours he tagged along with me to the bathroom where he licked splashed water. As he lost puppy clumsiness, I tried teaching him a few basic commands. He learned all but “Heel”; he persisted in straining at his leash until almost choking. He even joined me on temporary jobs, where he stood against baby playpen railings and wagged his tail at customers.
Alas, five years after buying Chuckles, I landed my first fulltime job—in Nebraska, 2500 miles from my home province of Newfoundland. My search for an apartment near work that allowed pets turned up empty. My sole consolation was that I could leave Chuckles with family.
Throughout the next decade, many other firsts occurred: work visa, rented apartment, and steady boyfriend. Chuckles faced his own changes of bed rest, dietary changes, and pain pills, but took them in stride with family around him. I eventually found a rental that allowed pets, but by then it seemed unfair to take him from family and make him endure flight transfers, quarantine at the border, and hours alone during work. I left him with family but annually visited them–and Chuckles.
The morning after my family left, we woke to the sun warming the house. I grabbed a breakfast bar, leashed Chuckles, and drove to Corduroy Brook Nature Trail. We strolled over a rickety boardwalk, through a shaded trail, and along a glistening lake. I allowed Chuckles to pick the direction and distance. Sometimes he misjudged how far he could walk and asked for a lift. Or perhaps he tugged beyond his limits because he did not want our amble to end. How I too wanted our time together to last forever!
One morning, we saw movement in the marshes. Chuckles hauled on his leash as if seeing a dog, but a duck family swam out from the reeds. He tilted his head, unsure of how to react.
Another day, we explored a different trail. Cotton grass blew in the wind. Chuckles stretched his neck and batted at it, the way he once had snapped at insects. Later, I stopped to rescue a slug. It was in the middle of the trail where other slugs had already been trampled. Chuckles wrinkled his nose at the slug’s slimy residue, before pulling me onward to further adventures.
Later in the week, two raucous flirting crows swooped back and forth amid birch trees as we snuck beneath unnoticed. Actually, only I snuck, as Chuckles seemed unaware of them. Chuckles used to be able to hear a car turn up the hill to my parents’ house but nowadays barely heard when family called to offer him food.
Chuckles never seemed to get enough walks, but I didn’t want to overexert him and so limited our other walks to fifteen minutes. In the afternoon, we fetched mail at the post office before I drove us to visit family and friends. In the evening, we strolled around the block before returning home to relax.
Weekends were extra special. I drove us to a convenience store for soft serve. Sun poured upon us, ice-cream dripped over my fingers, and Chuckles coaxed for remains.
We enjoyed ten days to ourselves. Then my family returned. I spent two more weeks with them, but even this time came to an end. I left, heart heavy, knowing there was little chance I would see Chuckles again, but oh so happy for our precious days together.
Chuckles surprised me. He hung on past the following April when I married and to the following summer when I introduced him to my husband. On the last night of our visit, I slept again in the living room with Chuckles. I asked to hang on once again and maybe next year we would have a baby for him to meet.
One month later, the emails and calls began. Dad informed me, “Chuckles isn’t eating. He’s peeing in the house.” The veterinarian said she could try flushing his kidneys to buy him a few months, but the following evening I pulled to the curb in front of our house to discover my husband’s car already there.
There was only one reason my husband would leave work early. I took a deep breath and raced up the walk. I needed my husband’s embrace. He met me at the door. “I’m sorry,” he said, and held me as I bawled.
That evening, one of our indoor plants bloomed. I photographed and will forever remember its purple flower, because of the life it symbolizes.
As I look ahead to visiting family, my sole consolation is that I can visit Chuckles’ grave to say goodbye. After hugs and hellos, I will retreat outside to a bed of flowers in a far corner of the backyard where Chuckles is buried.
I will dream of my butterfly puppy darting about and chasing after dandelion seeds. When he flops beside me with happy eyes, I will smooch his nose and share what we have missed in our time apart.