Friday, November 21, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dad

Today my father would have been 89. We lost him ten years ago. Today my four sisters, my mom, and I are all remembering how blessed we were to have him and how much we miss him.

Had multi-infarct dementia passed him by, he would be fit as a fiddle today. He was so very good at taking care of his health. Dementia is a cruel trick to play on a man like him.

My father was not known to be overly sentimental about animals, so we never really knew how much he really loved our dog Scooter until she was hit by a car. It happened not long after he and my mother moved to a suburb of Chicago. My private theory is that she got loose and ran off to hunt for our previous home in another state. When we first moved from New Jersey to Michigan, she wouldn't want to go back home on walks; she'd just keep pulling ahead. I figure she was doing it again in Illinois, looking for our dirt road amidst the sidewalks of Hinsdale.

Fortunately, my folks lived around the corner from a vet's office. After she was hit, some kind soul scraped her up and took her there right away. She had some broken bones and a terrible concussion. Many people would have put Scooter down there and then. But not Dad. He took it very hard, perhaps out of guilt, knowing she was probably trying to run to Michigan. He nursed her back to health himself (my mom has a hard time with blood, injuries, etc.). When my mom called to tell me, I instantly got chocked up - I could already tell something bad happened from her tone when I answered and she said "Francesca..."

I went to see Scooter as soon as I could get a ride from Ann Arbor. What a nightmare to see this lump of fir bandaged up, and still wagging her tail. My dad would take her outside to pee on a piece of plywood. He gave us all regular reports on her progress. It seems to me it was weeks and weeks before she could lift her body, months perhaps before she could walk along, and she never really lost her lopsided limp.

Scooter was a great dog. She fully deserved the special dispensation to have her life prolonged. She was smart, fun, crazy at times, and a real dog. Our family life was far too chaotic to focus on her training, but kids and adults muddled through it somehow, and did our best with vets, tags, collars, and the like.

We chose her because she was the most active, sharp one in the litter of a beagle-type mom and unknown dad, advertised on a residential lawn by means of a scrawled sign offering free pupies (sic). As far as we were concerned, it came down to choosing her or the beauty of the bunch, a honey-colored, gorgeous male. But Scooter won paws down because she literally scooted all over the place and exuded sheer glee at everything. We used the same reasoning when we picked out our canary, who my folks named Enrico (after The Caruso of course).

I gave training Scooter a try, though I was only ten. I found a huge book on dogs in the bookcase, and skimmed through it one evening while sitting on the kitchen floor with our new, rubbery-limbed puppy. I worked on "sit" and "come", but didn't succeed much further. In a family of seven, it's kind of hard to be consistent. We spoiled her rotten, there's no denying it. Luckily she was good-natured and trained herself more or less, like so many family dogs do. Still, it was a real struggle to deal with the poop until she got the hang of walks. She did prove tremendously smart - and terrifically talented at getting into things she shouldn't. When that happened, she'd run and hide under our beds, with a pincushion or a hairbrush chomped halfway through, or worse, our miniature turtle. If I could get to her before Dad did (he could be a bit rough), or sometimes, after he gave up, I'd extricate the object from her jaws, being the only one
of five girls willing to do it. My sisters were either too afraid or grossed out, but I was pretty rational-minded about such things. Blood never made me faint, though I don't know why. So whenever Scooter got something in her mouth, I'd race to pull her from under the bed and carefully pry her jaws apart with thumbs pressed on the inner jaw joint, a technique I read about somewhere. Scooter was just small enough for us to pick her up, so I'd hang on to her, and she never snapped at me, though reluctant to give up her catch of the day.

As a puppy, Scooter nearly gnawed through the rungs of all eight kitchen chairs. Forever afterwards, you couldn't rest your bare feet on them without risking a splinter, even though Dad tried to sand them down. Eventually Scooter taught herself a special way of begging for food invisibly from under the kitchen table, by persistently beseeching one and all for tidbits, with a ghostly wail of howled arias, launched as shortish alto murmurs and worked up into lengthy and elaborate soprano phrases. Sometimes she'd eerily match Grace Slick's voice from the Crown of Creation, one of my sister Mary's favorite records. Scooter used the same high-pitched voice to utter squeals of delight whenever a man arrived at our door. The one exception was my friend Pat, who responded just as warmly, declaring her reciprocal and undying love above Scooter's crescendo shrieks and wagging body.

Scooter was indeed a very friendly dog.  But she was no fool, just the same. You never really saw Scooter at the dinner table, but you could certainly hear her. She stayed quiet, though, whenever my dad carved the Thanksgiving turkey and tossed her bits now and then. It was an unspoken deal between them. He wold scold us for doing the same thing, so he kept his transgression quiet. Scooter would just park her little body below the counter while he worked, and he'd toss her pieces of skin, gristle, and fat, and the odd scrap of actual meat without a word.

Scooter never failed to catch a piece of food thrown to her, however badly aimed. It became a past-time of ours. Some of us argued that she caught and swallowed in a single motion. I tested this theory by throwing something she wouldn't normaly eat, like a piece of lettuce. She caught it expertly as always, then spit it out a second later. (Whereas, Brindi will catch dog treats in her mouth just as accurately, but if she doesn't like one, she'll discreetly move to a corner and gingerly deposit them on the floor, as if reluctant to seem ungrateful or impolite!)

We used to take Scooter, squirming in our arms, up into our treehouse, where she could see birds a little closer; on occasion we'd walk her to the "sand pit" (an open slope where we sledded in winter), to let her run around in the deserted grass while we rolled down the hill. My little sister called this a "vacation".

After college, when I shared an apartment in the city with my sister Nancy, we took Scooter in for a week when my folks went away. We found we could cure her of her begging habit without too much trouble, and were very proud of ourselves for it, too. Sadly, we neglected to train my parents not to feed her from the table after they returned, so Scooter of course resumed begging as usual. It was useless to lecture my parents about it. They'd agree vehemently that begging was bad, then within seconds my mom would absentmindedly drop a scrap of food over the side of the table into the patiently waiting little jaws. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but human habits die pretty hard.

Our experience with Scoooter is a big reason why I was adamant about not giving Brindi food from the table, whether tossed to her or placed in her dish, from day one. I never did it. As much as I adore her, I know that giving in once virtually means a lifelong battle and I didn't want a dog constantly at my elbow with that expectant look in her eye. I found myself having to keep a sharp eye on friends and guests here because she sometimes gave it a try with them. It paid off, though. For instance, I don't have to think twice when I leave a plate of my food next to the bed or even on it to go down for a glass of milk. I know I will return to find the plate unmolested and Brindi lounging quietly two feet away, just as I left her. Not bad, I'd say! (It's a different matter with kitty food, however - it's got to be up on a table or out the door!)

My dad and Scooter were a funny pair, though. I don't remember him walking her all that much before I left for college though he must have. In general I guess it was our job, and fair enough. He made occasional comic half-hearted attempts to curb Scooter's begging, bellowing at her in his fluent Longislandese, "This is human food. You're a DAWG!" He gave the impression that she was a full-fledged German Shepherd as he ruggedly moved her around by the collar. But he didn't seem to mind if we dressed her in our old pajamas for fun, and was good-natured about it if she slept with us instead of the blanket "box" he set up for her downstairs. Usually she'd make the rounds of our beds and her box throughout the night - not his bed - but she'd always insist on being invited up first. I remember many a night being roused by her soft doggie murmurs. Not until I'd pat the bed once would she fling herself up and snuggle into the curve of my body for an hour or two before departing for somebody else's bed.

Scooter lived to be fourteen years old. The last few years she not only still limped, but her little head, with its big brown eyes, never fully lost the palsy from the concussion after the car accident. She was still our beautiful girl, though. And we all loved her deeply and told Scooter stories with relish. 
Dad used to pretend to complain to guests that he was the only male in the house of six women, "Even the dawg!" Scooter was a woman to us. I guess he felt the same. I will never forget how tenderly and devotedly he took care of her after that accident. I can forgive his impatience with her in later years; if I could have taken her to live with me, I certainly would have. 

In many ways Brindi reminds me of Scooter, even some of her markings. Brindi's luxurious eyelashes are more prominent, though, maybe because Scooter was only half of her size. Brindi is just as loving and affectionate, I think, although much more sparing about kisses. Scooter had deadly aim with her tongue and was quite aerobatic: during her customary gushy greetings, Scooter could jump up mid-wag, lick the kid or crouching adult right on the mouth, and be back down on the floor with split-second timing, never touching their bodies. They never knew what hit them.

We were so lucky to have Dad, who had a great sense of what kids liked without being asked. He built us girls a tree house and taught me how to hammer a nail and use a screwdriver, and let us have Scooter, tolerating the extra pandemonium she brought to the household. It made for great copy, if nothing else!

I love you, Dad. Happy Birthday, wherever you are! I'm sure Scooter is right there with you, waiting for savory treats.