I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from April 2017, when I wrote about dogs. This seems a good week to think about good dogs.
I saw Isle of Dogs this week, and while you’ll have to tune into the Grierson & Leitch podcast Monday morning to get my full report, I will say this: It made me desperately want to get a dog.
The Leitch family didn’t get a dog until I was 13 years old. Living out in the country, there were always as series of stray cats that would show up out of nowhere, all gnarled and wounded and crazed, and if they kept rodents and varmints out of the yard, they’d get all the milk they wanted. We were casual and laissez faire enough about the cats out by our house that they’d inevitably end up getting pregnant and giving birth in our garage, and they’d still understand the situation to know that once the kittens got old enough they’d all have to go back outside. I still remember my mom getting me out of bed so I could watch Pooker, the first stray to ever come around, push out a litter of kittens. It was incredibly gross and I’ll never get the image out of my mind.
These cats would come and go: You were careful not to get too attached. One of them, Sylvester, I found completely torn apart in our backyard when I was about 12 years old. It must have been quite a scrum, whatever it was, because he looked like he’d been put through a cheese grater; one of his eyes was hanging out of his head, and half his fur was gone. (That was pretty gross too.) I shoveled him into a bag, dumped him in the barrel and burnt him up with the rest of the trash later that afternoon. (We used to burn our trash in Mattoon. I know it’s awful for the environment, but I’ll admit, “taking big bags of stuff and setting it on fire” is just about the most exciting chore a 12-year-old kid will ever get to do.) We would hear the cats in heat, the cats fighting, the cats hissing at birds and squirrels all the time. You never much thought about it. Cats sort of were like squirrels: Just wild animals roaming around, part of their own world, only occasionally dipping into ours. The cats were never allowed inside, and only given names really about half the time. We cared for them, and I can prove it, because we fed them, and we let them in the garage when it was cold and/raining and we otherwise left them alone. This is the kindest gift you can give a cat.
A dog requires more work, more devotion, more integration into the family, so we always resisted. It wasn’t until my father was helping my grandmother, his mother-in-law, work on her deck in Moweaqua, Illinois, that he noticed a beaten-up, but still young, golden retriever limping in the neighbor’s yard. He did some investigating and found out that the dog had been adopted by a family that was not ready to take care of her, was struggling getting her trained and was thinking of sending her back to the pound. She was a beautiful little dog. She already had a name: Daisy. Dad took her home with him, and then she was a member of the family.
She was Dad’s dog, first and foremost. She played with us, but she was always just waiting for Dad to come home. Dad was always getting called out to work in the middle of the night to fix downed power lines, and he’d always take her with him: He’d whistle and open the door to his work truck, and she’d jump in, and they’d drive to Casey or Pana or Pawnee or Tuscola, in the freezing cold, Daisy just sitting there waiting for Dad to stop so she could get out and run around. Dad had no trouble training Daisy. He raised her like he raised me: Disciplined, unyielding and consistent, but never harsh or cruel. Daisy did everything Dad asked and just followed him around, pretty much her entire life. I know the feeling.
My favorite Daisy story was the time she did a trick a little too well. Dad used to put dog biscuits on her nose, and she would balance them there until he said “Get it!” and she’d whip her nose around and catch it in her mouth. Well, one time Dad was doing this trick and he got a phone call from the neighbor; could he come over and help her with her air conditioning? Dad walked over and discovered the job was bigger than he thought, so he drove into town to get some new parts, and then back home for tools, and then back to the neighbors, and next thing you knew he’d been over there for hours. Sweaty and exhausted after a long day, he came back home, got in the shower and then went in the living room to turn on the Cardinals game. And there was Daisy, still sitting there, biscuit on her nose, puddles of drool all around her. He screamed, “Shit, get it, Daisy!” and she, relieved, snatched it up. I think she got to sleep in the bed that night.
Daisy was there through everything, from me going to high school to Dad and the rest of the union getting locked out of work the summer before I went to college to college to my sister in high school to my sister in college to Mom going through chemo though the loss of my grandmother whose house we met Daisy at. We ended up getting two other dogs, Anoushka (who was we adopted from my sister, who probably shouldn’t have tried to get a dog while she was in college) and Molly (another golden retriever). Daisy got along fine with Anoushka but battled with Molly, who wasn’t trained well because my parents at that point were old enough that they treated Molly not like a child but like a grandchild and thus spoiled her. But one time a neighbor dog tried to go after Molly, and Daisy, her face grey and her bones creaky, sprung into action and nearly bit that neighbor dog’s face off. You didn’t mess with Daisy’s family.
Daisy was still alive when I moved to New York in 2000, but she was very, very old. She slept most of the day and grew weak enough that even urinating in the yard was a struggle; her legs would buckle and she’d end up just lying down halfway through. My parents knew what had to be done, but my dad couldn’t do it. One of the kindest things my mother has ever done was take Daisy to the vet to be put down so Dad wouldn’t have to.
Anoushka and Molly have both passed on now, and my parents haven’t gotten a dog since. They really loved those dogs, and you sense it most acutely when their children were both out of the house, when they just wanted someone else to take care of. My parents have been different people in subtle ways since their dogs died. It was the first time I ever saw them as grandparents first, rather than parents, and I sense they felt the same way. Daisy’s ashes are still in a vase mounted on the wall of my dad’s bar in the basement, next to a picture of her. Every time we’re down there, we make sure to toast her. Daisy was a very good dog.
Our boys here in Athens are too young for a dog. They’ll need to be more involved in the taking care of a dog before we can get one; their parents are extremely busy. To come full circle, we have a cat who started hanging around in our back yard that we now feed; we’ve named her Piggy, and she never gets to come inside, and we mostly just leave her alone, but she’s warmed up enough to us that she’ll rub up against our legs when she is hungry. Maybe there will be others. I’m fond of Piggy. But she’s just a stray cat.
I want to wait until we’re all definitely ready for a dog. A dog is a new member of the family, and there isn’t much more serious than that. Daisy has been gone for 15 years and I still expect her to come bounding up to me when I pull into the driveway in Mattoon. There’s a tiny part of Dad that has been gone since Daisy died, and I totally understand. I’m not ready to feel the same way, not yet. In fact, until I saw Isle of Dogs, I hadn’t really thought about how great dogs are in a long time. But that movie will make you want a dog if you don’t already have one, or hug yours if you do. Someday the boys and my wife and I will have a Daisy of our own. We will have a good dog.