As a kid I read every dog story in the children’s section of the Richmond Public Library. I’m a sucker for them. I’ve found that dogs can also be the central characters in Christmas stories including some of my own. Ask my daughter how Dozie got his name on a Christmas day a long time ago. Anyhow, I came across this dog story that I think says a lot about the spirit of Christmas and thought I’d share even if it has nothing to do with Durham or Real Estate. I hope you enjoy it.
I asked you to come here hoping you would give me fifteen or twenty minutes so I could I could explain why I’m doing a couple of things. I really appreciate your patience because these things are something I’d like to check off my list.
Lucky came into my life on a Christmas Eve years ago when I was home alone. I’d been divorced for a while and my parents were gone so the kids were all with my ex’s side of the family or with the families of their spouses. This sounds pathetic I know but the truth was I didn’t mind. In fact, Christmas had been a season I’d just as soon fast forward through for some time.
As your grandmother may have told you, as kids we didn’t have much. Mom and Dad always managed to get us something for which we were both grateful and we probably enjoyed the season as much as any kids.
One year though, a schoolmate…I’ll call him Butch now, but I don’t really remember his name…invited us to come over to his house on Christmas morning to see what he’d gotten from Santa. Your granny was about 10 I think and I was a year younger. Butch lived in the neighborhood but not in a big house or anything; nothing to make you think they were rich. We had both gotten winter coats as our main gift and a few stocking stuffers, mostly sweets. So even though it wasn’t cold we put the new coats on proudly and walked over to Butch’s house. It was a completely different scene in that home. Huge tree, lots of decorations and presents…most open but some still wrapped… were all over the place. We looked at each other with wide eyes and our mouths slightly open. Shortly after our arrival a set of grandparents showed up with even more presents. Barely acknowledging the grandparents’ presence, Butch tore into the presents. In minutes they were all over the living room floor and Butch, clearly annoyed, complained loudly, “Is that all there is?”
Sissy grabbed the glass of eggnog I was holding and put it with hers on a side table and then took my hand and pulled me to the door. We hadn’t even taken our coats off. I could see tears on her cheeks during the walk. I remember being a little dizzy. I can still remember the cloying taste of the eggnog, and I’ve never had another drop since.
Anyway, as the years went by I lost all enthusiasm for Christmas and, truth be told, one of the big disagreements my wife and I had over and over again was my reluctance to shower our kids with gifts on Christmas, even though we were both doing very well and we could afford to spend as much as we wanted.
However, on this particular Christmas Eve, I was a little bit excited. I was hopping on a plane late in the afternoon on Christmas day and heading for a warm climate. I had arranged to meet a potential investor at his winter home and then spending a few days enjoying the beach and some good food before coming home and getting to work. I had spent months putting together a business plan for a new venture and, like I had done before and would do many times after, I was seeking a strong financial backer. I was on my second glass of wine and puttering around double checking everything for the trip and rehearsing my pitch to the investor in my head. I was told he was difficult but I had a great idea and a good plan and was confident we could both make a lot of money and do something good for the world.
Then something annoying penetrated my quiet little bubble and I realized that the neighbor’s dog was barking. This wasn’t unusual but this time it was much more insistent and he wouldn’t let up. I started to call them but remembered that, unlike me, they were probably celebrating. So instead I flicked on the floodlights in the backyard. I could tell he was along the fence line on the other side of my shed. It had started to rain and the temperature had dropped so I slipped on a jacket with a hood and grabbed a flashlight. As soon as I turned the corner of the shed it was clear what had him riled up.
My first impression was that I’d stumbled upon a manger scene. There was no baby Jesus but there were several animals. There before my wondering eyes were one exhausted looking mutt and six tiny puppies snuggling together on an old burlap grass seed bag under the shed. I was simultaneously annoyed by the intrusion and concerned for the animals. I got a little closer look and there was no attempt by the mother to keep me away. The dog next door had stopped barking and sat there like a sentinel in the wet gloom watching me like my conscience. I went into the shed and found a cardboard box. The puppies were not too active and I was told later they had probably just been born. I pulled off my jacket and laid it open in the box and then laid the puppies on its fleece lining. The mom didn’t resist and followed me into the mudroom and climbed in the box with her pups. She didn’t look well. Her ribs were prominent and her eyes had a rheumy look.
I pulled off my wet shirt and grabbed a sweat shirt and called the county. It took some persuasion but they agreed to send out the animal control person on call to pick up the dogs. I got a little concerned they had blown me off but he showed up about an hour later. He was starting to load the dogs onto his truck when the phone rang. It was my your grand mom calling to wish me a Merry Christmas and I told her about what I had found. She sounded a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to try to take care of them but I used my planned trip and maybe even exaggerated its importance to rationalize what I was doing. I heard the truck drive off. I was a little disappointed in myself but I figured I’d done my duty. That’s what animal control was for, right? After we hung up I finished the glass of wine I had poured before the ruckus and decided to grab my coat from the box in the mudroom and throw it in the wash before any stains settled in.
To my surprise there were still two of the puppies on the coat but they weren’t moving. I immediately called the county again but only got an answering machine. I looked at the puppies and assumed, probably like the animal control guy had, that they were dead. My immediate inclination was to get a plastic bag and just throw them in the trash. For some dumb reason the word “manger” flashed through my mind for the second time that night and the thought of them in the trash seemed disgustingly irreverent.
So I pulled on a another jacket, found a spade in the shed and set out to dig a hole in the bed of mulch against the back fence. It was raining harder and I was soaked and cold before I had gone down about a foot and a half moving dirt and chopping out roots to go deep enough that no dogs or raccoons could get to these little bundles.
Both puppies were curled up and no bigger than a tennis ball each. Both were black with some white patches and little black noses. I picked up the first one using an old dish towel for a shroud and wrapped it up. I grabbed another towel to pick up the second pup when to my amazement, the tennis ball uncurled and stretched weakly. It was alive! I immediately unwrapped the first one to see if there were any signs of life but there were none. Still, I left it unwrapped just in hopes that it was in a deep sleep. I got on the phone to the county again but got the same message as before and slammed shut the phone.
The thought went through my mind “what the hell am I going to do with this?” When all else fails, there is always the internet. Sure enough there were instructions that emphasized feeding orphaned puppies formula sold at pet stores. But this was Christmas Eve! I dug a little further in the search and found a couple of recipes for homemade puppy formula. Of course, I had none of the ingredients.
I moved the box with Lucky, who I’d already named, into the house with Unlucky, who I was pretty sure I was going to have to bury. I filled a big ziplock bag with hot water for a makeshift radiator and put it in the box. Then I rushed off to a 24 hour drug store where I found almost everything I needed for the formula and a baby bottle. When I got home, I found my blender and mixed it all together. At first the formula wouldn’t come through the nipple but I got the hole just right finally and it was dripping slowly just like the instructions on the website said it should.
I dabbed a little of the formula on my finger and wiped it across Lucky’s lips. A tiny pink tongue stuck out tentatively so I put the nipple close to his mouth. At this point in our relationship, I didn’t even know he was a he but when it took the nipple and started slurping…weak at first…but then a little stronger, I swear I wept like a baby and the warm tears dropped on him. Unlucky was definitely gone and I wrapped him in the towel and buried him in the hole I had dug earlier. I didn’t sleep much, a problem I hadn’t had for a long time on a Christmas Eve. I got up a couple of times more during the night to nurse Lucky.
First thing in the morning I checked him and then started making phone calls. The first was to the county. When I got the message machine I made it clear that I wanted a call back. I knew there was somebody on call that was monitoring the voice mail so I wasn’t surprised when a woman got back to me and apologized for the delay.
When I had planned the call the evening before I was going to insist they come get Lucky. But after the second feeding I had decided that this little pup was mine. So I just asked how the other dogs were. She took a deep breath and told me that they had been put down. I was startled. She told me that the mother had been too dehydrated to nurse the pups and was in bad shape anyway and they were full and nobody was available to take care of the others, blah, blah, blah, so they had to be put down and they wouldn’t have lived through the night anyway, blah, blah, blah. I slammed the phone shut. Later I was sorry I had done that but I got busy online to get listings for local veterinarians.
On the fifth call a human answered the phone and quickly put me in touch with a woman who was at my door within an hour. She checked out Lucky and brought some puppy formula and a little incubator with a thermostat to control the temperature and said I was doing a fine job. I couldn’t have been prouder if I had known I was raising a future president.
It was getting late in the morning when I realized that I needed to make one more call, this one to the gentlemen I was supposed to meet and persuade to trust me with a chunk of his considerable fortune. When I told him I needed to postpone the meeting and why, there was silence on the other end of the phone long enough that I wondered if we had gotten cut off. Finally, he said, “Listen, you might have a great idea, but if you’re the kind of guy who will postpone a meeting like this to save the life of a half dead dog, I’m not sure you have what it takes to make the idea happen. Prove me wrong and maybe I’ll take a piece later.” He hung up.
“You son of a bitch” I thought as I slammed the phone shut for the second time that day and then laughed at the irony of my curse. Turned out bootstrapping was a better way to go or maybe it was my new Lucky charm but the only time I ever talked to him again was when the business was flying high and he was begging for a piece of it. He was surprised when I told him thanks, but no thanks.
Lucky pulled through, of course. I’d never had a dog before and I was a bit indulgent. I didn’t train him, did terrible things like feed him from the table and otherwise spoiled him. Full sized he was about 22 lbs, but probably should have been 20. Nobody had any idea what breeds might be a part of him but he had a pleasant personality and we got along great. The only other dramatic thing that happened in his life was that he saved mine.
We’d been out for a walk on a beautiful fall day. I wasn’t feeling well and after coming through the door, the next thing I remembered was looking up from the floor at several men and a woman in blue jump suits. I had a mask on my face and was feeling fuzzy. They loaded me on a gurney and when I kept saying “Lucky” the woman finally realized what I was talking about. She had kind eyes and said that she would make sure he was taken care of. I had had a pretty serious heart attack. The neighbor who had discovered me was the same one whose dog, long since gone, had alerted me to the manger scene under my shed that Christmas day almost 8 years before. He said that he had heard Lucky barking excitedly from the door and came to check it out. When he saw me laying there and came in, Lucky had run over to me and licked my face in desperation. The EMT’s were there within five minutes and I pulled through with a new appreciation for Lucky and for life.
But I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself. From the first Christmas after I found Lucky we would drive over to the animal shelter every Christmas eve with a couple of six packs of puppy formula and spend the night in the employee lounge watching sappy Christmas movies to pass the time. I was determined that no puppy was going to die again in that shelter on Christmas Eve if I had anything to do with it. In the eighteen years we did it we saved maybe six or seven puppies. Truth be told, in those later years I’d become a benefactor of the shelter and raised enough money to put in place a rescue network so that they very seldom have to put an animal down and never a healthy one. And there is always someone there to field those late-night calls. I’ve watched a lot of kids eyes light up and cry when their new puppies licked their faces after leaving the shelter. I cry every time too…very happy tears.
Lucky lived to be almost 18. We could see the end coming and on another beautiful autumn day I picked him up from my bed and wrapped him in that same coat and took him to the vet for the last time. It was poignant that the two people who helped him get a start in the world also were with him on the way out. She and I hugged and both cried again like babies. I wrapped him in the coat and took him home and buried him in the coat right next to the piece of slate I had laid on the grave of his sibling almost 18 years before that.
One of the kooky ideas I’ve come to believe over the years is that both dogs and cats are special. I’m not sure whether they are the most intelligent of animals but somewhere in the process of evolution they began including us in their packs and we including them in ours. I’m also convinced that when they die they live out there in some dimension that we can’t know until we too pass. But their special power is that they reincarnate and come back to us when we are both ready.
When the people at the shelter first saw Duke, he was a stray that was picked up off the street. Lucky had been gone for over a year and this guy was about 6 months old. They called me and said that they KNEW he was the dog I was waiting for. He does bear a remarkable resemblance to Lucky but it wasn’t until I saw him lying in the shade under the back of my shed in exactly the spot where I had first seen Lucky that I was convinced. “Duke” was the name the shelter had given him and I saw no reason to change it but “Lucky” slipped out of my mouth as often as not when I called for him. I hope he hasn’t been too confused.
Anyway, the reason I’m telling you this is that I wanted to let you to know how much I appreciate how you have taken care of Duke while I’ve been here in the hospital. Let’s not beat around the bush. I’m old now and I’m not going to beat this cancer. Don’t even want to try. They’ve told me to make my peace and get my affairs in order. Which is what this is all about.
A good chunk of my estate is going to your mother and she will make sure your grandmother is always well taken care of. You and your mom have been very good to me these last few years. Your grandmother has often told me that her biggest regret in life was spoiling Christmas for me forever when she cried on that long-ago Christmas. She didn’t, of course. What she didn’t know was that when Butch was saying, “Is that all there is?” I was thinking the same thing, but for a different reason. It took that little puppy from a manger scene sucking on a bottle in my hand to give me the answer. There’s a lot more if your are open to it.
Back to business. There are a couple of trust funds that I set up that involve you. One is there for your education and if the stock market doesn’t collapse and you keep getting good grades, there should be enough there for you to go anywhere you can get in. If you decide to go to medical school or vet school, that’s there too. If you just want to be an artist or an auto mechanic, that’s OK too but the bulk of the trust will just transfer to the other trust that is set up set up for abandoned dogs. Or cats or whatever you decide. You and a trust department guy are the trustees. He’ll handle the investments and you will decide which shelters, rescue groups, or just nice people, get the money it generates every year. There should be enough to save a lot of animals and I know you’ll do the right things with it and take care of Duke too.
I said goodbye to Duke before I came in here and knew I wouldn’t be going back home. The next few days or weeks are not going to be pretty so don’t try to bring him here. He’s got a few good years left in him and I think he’ll understand, but if he doesn’t, our connection has just been a pleasant fantasy for me anyway. The last thing I want you to do before you sell my house is find the two pieces of slate in the mulch by my back fence. There’s about five feet between them and the border. Then go to a nursery and find a nice broad Japanese Maple tree and plant it between the slates and the border in line with the back door. If the timing works out and my ashes are available before the house is sold, sneak back there and bury my ashes next to the slate. Don’t bury the urn. Just pour the ashes into the ground and fill it up.
You’ve been good to me and your mother, now pull yourself together and get out of here. I need to sleep. Dogs have been running around playing tag in my dreams lately. I don’t know if it’s because of this patch they have on my hip or what, but they sure make me happy.