Should I feel sad or ashamed that the best year of my dog's life was the year in which I was absent from it? I don't. Instead, I feel eternally grateful to Jessica for giving Lucy the life she deserved and satisfied with myself that I helped that happen by getting Lucy from the pound the summer before my first year of law school.
I suspect that Lucy's heaven will look remarkably similar to the Boulder she already knows. It will smell of pine and her bowl and her belly will always be full.
* * *
I got Lucy in the summer of 2003. I was doing some superficial renovations to a house my parents had bought in Lexington for my sister and me to live in. I was beginning law school and she was fresh out of college. I had just moved from DC where I had plopped down for a year after traveling after college to five countries for a year on a Watson Fellowship. I was excited to have a place to settle down. And, settling down meant having a dog. Nothing was a more powerful symbol in my mind of being settled than having a dog.
I wasn't renting. I wasn't traveling. I was home.
A few weeks before I got Lucy, my extended family gathered in Maui for Camp Jasper. In Maui, the Hana Highway wends its way along the coastline to dozens of waterfalls, swimming holes, and diving rocks. Early one morning, I loaded into my cousin Brent's rented Jeep and he and his wife, Julie and I headed toward Hana. We stopped at a sandwich shop at the start of the trip and picked up sandwiches, yes, but also one of the owner's dogs, Lani. The owner explained that each of her dogs knew the road and all of the attractions along the way. Lani was a canine tour guide. Sure enough, as we parked at various attractions, Lani hopped out of the Jeep first and ran to the trailhead leading to the falls, pool, or overlook. She waited for us there. She knew where to go no matter where we parked.
I wanted a dog like this. I wanted a dog that was ready for adventure. Smart enough to keep up and fast enough for frisbee. I got all of this when I got Lucy.
I picked up Lucy from the Lexington Humane Society. She had been dropped off in the Night Drop box a month earlier. The workers named her "Lucky." I thought it was lame to have a pound dog named "Lucky", so I dropped the "k". Lucky had been described on petfinder.com as a border collie mix. When I got to the pound, they gave me a ball and Lucky and I went out into the small side yard. I threw the ball, she sprinted after it, grabbed it off the bounce, and brought it back to me.
She did not drop it. She stood there, head down, her jaw mashing the tennis ball. Mash. Mash. Mash.
We [mash] could [mash] work [mash]on [mash] that. Mash. Mash. Mash.
Alright. Let's go.
Lucy, née Lucky, hopped up into the shotgun side of my red '97 Toyota pickup truck and we were off.
When we got home, Lucy bounded out of the truck and into the backyard. Three seconds later, she was neck deep in the 4'x3' water feature that sat—neglected, stagnant, and foul—in the back of the yard. A week earlier, I had pulled a broken glass bong out of the bottom of the pool. The bong wasn't mine, but the dog that now had her front paws on the side of the pond and was scrabbling out and grinning widely most certainly was.
We were home.
* * *
I had done a lot of reading about adopting a dog and dog ownership before picking Lucy up from the pound. So, I knew that I needed to show Lucy a) that I was boss and b) that she should pay attention to me. One of the ways I was supposed to do this was by tying Lucy's leash to my belt and going about my business around the house. This would communicate to her that she should follow me around.
I have participated in a lot of unnecessary bullshit in my life—the SATs, traffic court, law school—but tethering my dog, my working dog that understands and responds to complete sentences, that knows where every cat in our neighborhood lives, that twice returned to my car parked miles away from where we got separated in the woods, tethering my dog to me completely, absolutely unnecessary.
Tethering her to me was like throwing Br'er Rabbit directly into the briar patch.
This is what is so hard about losing Lucy: for the last 9 years I have never been alone in a room; she has been my constant companion.
She has also been my partner in the only magic trick I know.
A well-trained dog is like a magic trick. I always felt like my relationship with Lucy was a kind of sorcery. Here is a force—an incredibly fast, agile, and tough force—that exists outside of my body but over which I could exert some (occasionally minimal) control over.
Lucy is a frisbee dog to her core. It is what she was born to do. When I was looking to adopt a dog, I knew I wanted a dog that would play frisbee with me, which meant I was looking for some variety of collie, setter, heeler, or shepherd. I got a little of each with Lucy.
In college, I played Ultimate Frisbee and disc golf. I am not an athletic guy, but I can throw a frisbee. If you plotted my athletic skills in various sports on a bell chart, my frisbee skills would be just to the right of my similarly useless and oddly formidable ping-pong skills.
No way I was going to get a dog that couldn't play frisbee.
I probably read more about "how to teach your dog frisbee" than I did "how to not fail out of law school" in the summer before my 1L year. So, when I brought Lucy home, I knew the first step was to feed her out of the frisbee. Next, I began rolling the frisbee across the floor. Lucy would chase after it like a ball. After that, I placed the frisbee in her mouth and took it out. Repeat. Repeat again. Then, we quickly graduated to catching short (one foot) tosses. The final step was teaching Lucy to circle around my legs before retrieving a thrown ball. Lucy learned to circle counter-clockwise because I'm right-handed. I'm not sure the direction matters. But, when she circles my legs, Lucy is placed behind me, so she can track the frisbee as I release it.
Lucy learned to catch a frisbee in less than two weeks. It was not hard. I think probably she would have learned in less if I hadn't spent so much time rolling the frisbee across the floor, putting the frisbee in her mouth.
"That's for sure, dad."
Lucy learned to catch a hard plastic, lightweight frisbee from PetSmart. We then moved on to catching 175-gram hard plastic Ultimate frisbees. Don't do this: your dog will catch the frisbee. If your dog is like Lucy, your dog will catch basically anything you throw to her. But, a frisbee that hard and large will hurt your dog's mouth. Lucy often bit her tongue and would come back, smiling, with a slightly bloody, slightly muddy disc in her mouth, ready for another throw.
Instead, buy the Jawz brand frisbee. These frisbees are great to throw—they're heavier than the cheap, plastic frisbees, but not as heavy as an Ultimate disc. They're smaller in diameter than an ultimate disc, as well. More like a frisbee golf disc in size, but made out of a durable, but soft urethane. We buy the Uglies (cosmetic defects) because they're cheaper. These frisbees are heavier than hard plastic disks, so they fly farther and cut better through any wind. Lucy loves these discs and I'm ashamed I didn't learn of their existence sooner. She lost one of her little front teeth at some point. I'm sure it was on one of these hard plastic frisbees. I'm also sure she hasn't missed it a bit. Or, at least, considers the trade a fair exchange.
Lucy never learned the command "drop it" very well. I mean, I know she understands what "drop it" means, she just decided that she didn't like it very much. So, early in our friendship, we compromised by me bringing two frisbees, two balls, two somethings to throw and I stopped having to say "drop it". She always wants the one in my hand more than the one in her mouth, so she is more than happy to drop the frisbee at my feet as she rounded my legs, ready for another throw.
It still seems like magic that I could throw a disc as hard as I could, watch it silhouetted in an orange sky, watch it fade to the left, and watch my dog—small and getting smaller—float across the ground, leap into the air, grab the frisbee with her certain teeth, land, turn, and begin to float back to me.
I am going to miss that magic so much.
* * *
One of the hardest aspects of living with Lucy's diagnosis of hemangio sarcoma is the vet's prohibition on any exertion. No hiking. No running. And definitely no frisbee. Lucy's condition is delicate.
I haven't read too much on hemangio sarcoma. I know it is a blood-born tumor. I know the tumors are on her liver and spleen. I know it's not operable. And, I know that these tumors cause internal bleeding. Ultimately, it will be this bleeding that kills her. Even now, her belly is getting tight and a little more swollen each day with fluid. I have stopped feeding her twice a day and instead feed her smaller portions four times a day. Her belly can't hold as much food because of the internal pressure. The vet made it clear that vigorous activity would likely cause another acute bleed and lead to her demise. So, in this time between diagnosis and death, Lucy can't do the things she most loves doing.
Eight days before the diagnosis, Lucy, Pugsley, Erin and I went to the middle school down the street from our house and Lucy and I tossed frisbee for 15 or 20 minutes. When I was in law school, Lucy and I would go toss frisbee—nonstop—for an hour and a half. She didn't want to be in the house and I didn't want to be in a law book, so it worked out well for both of us.
Now, though, we're taking walks. I'm allowed to toss ball to Lucy, gently, in the house. Lucy is really only happy when she's working. It is what she lives for. I have thought in the past that Lucy might actually kill herself with pure exuberance; part of me knows that's how she would want to go. Part of me thinks she'd rather me arrange for in-home euthanasia, take her to the park, toss a bunch of frisbees, and bring her home panting. I don't have the guts to do it.
* * *
This evening, we were walking back from the middle school and a small rabbit bounded across Lucy's path. I did not allow her to give chase; hunting rabbits definitely is "vigorous activity." Lucy has chased many rabbits. Earlier today, in fact, she cornered a rabbit in our backyard. The rabbit was tucked unmoving behind a fencepost, so Lucy was unable to kill it. But, when I called for her to come in she was sitting—belly down, paws forward, intent—on a stakeout. I made her come in. Puglsey went out. He went to within two inches of where the rabbit was hiding, failed to notice the rabbit. Instead, he paused, sniffed, hiked his legs, peed, scampered back up the deck steps, and plopped himself back onto his couch.
Lucy's lifetime record against rabbits is 2–1,352. For years, I thought that when Lucy took off across a field after a rabbit she was just inviting the rabbits run up the score. Then, on a run in Lexington's Arboretum, Lucy disappeared into the woods, hot on the trail of a rabbit.
"Here we go again," I thought.
Lucy's hunt usually meant me waiting around for her, calling her, and, occasionally, having to go find her in the woods. Not this time.
I kept running and was about 100 yards up a hill when she emerged from the woods, a large, walnut-brown jackrabbit draped from her jaws. As she approached, I realized that I didn't really know what I should do with the rabbit. So, I did nothing. Lucy reluctantly dropped him after I told her to and we left her trophy laying in the grass, his left eye staring up at the blue sky.
Lucy may have had an atrocious win–loss record against rabbits, but that one victory was all she needed. Word spread fast in the rabbit community, I'm sure, that this dog was an actual threat. This dog, unlike so many other dogs, was for real.
That was Lucy's first kill. Her second came on August 9, 2012. Lucy and I were out on our nightly trip to Highlands Middle School's field. As Lucy sniffed along the fenceline and ate some grass, I wandered into the field through the hot, dark air. Once I get a little bit away from Lucy, she will generally trot over, figure out where we're heading next, and scout ahead for me. But, last night, as I walked away from Lucy, I saw her dark shadow trotting towards home, not me. I yelled for her and she stopped, took a few steps toward me, and then started walking towards home again. I thought that she was just really, really tired, so I started walking after her. It wasn't until we got to the end of the field and I bent to put hook her leash onto her collar before I saw that Lucy was carrying a small rabbit in her jaws. It was totally dead. She had caught a rabbit and now it was time to go home.
That Lucy caught another rabbit, even just a small one, made me very happy because since we have begun our nightly walks we encounter rabbits every night and every night Lucy wants to give chase. But, she remembers how fast they are. She feels how slow she is. We feel sad. Getting one last rabbit helped us both feel young again. That we need death to make death feel a little less inevitable, even for a moment, should trouble me more deeply than it does.
* * *
Killing that jackrabbit in Lexington has to be one of the best days in Lucy's life. There were a lot of very good days. Some have become part of McCarter lore and I write them here so we will not forget.
There was the day we went out to Erin's dad's farm. Lucy really should have lived on a farm. I do feel a bit bad that I was not able to give her that every day, but, one of the benefits of adopting a dog from the pound is that you can look at your dog laying in front of the TV or wandering around in a fenced yard and think to yourself, "She really should be on a farm, but you know what? This beats the pound."
Erin's dad lives in a valley called "North Fork" in Greenup County where he raises cattle. Greg hopped on a four-wheeler and Erin and I loaded into a Grasshopper, a sort of utility four-wheeler with a payload in the back. We spent the afternoon riding up and down the hills around Greg's farm. Lucy saw her first cow and immediately went into herding mode—hunching down, staying low, unblinking.
At one of the cattle ponds, Lucy got to retrieve sticks. She swims like an otter. I threw a stick into the middle of the pond. She swam to an area near the center of the concentric ripples made by the stick, but grabbed another stick floating in the water. She turned and began swimming towards shore, her head barely above the water. She was swimming much slower than usual—struggling. A few moments later, Erin and I understood why: a tree trunk surfaced behind Lucy. The stick Lucy had grabbed was clearly a branch near the top of the tree. It took her about two minutes, but she dragged the goddamn tree to shore. She was so pleased with herself. We were so pleased with her.
When we got back to Greg's house, Lucy and I went to the barn where Greg had stored circular hay bales three high. She and I climbed up and ran around on top of them, hopping from one to another, scrambling in between them. Down below, Erin and her dad surveyed the new calf. As evening settled in, Greg rewarded Lucy by letting her eat a bunch of cattle feed, which I understand is made of molasses and corn an all sorts of other delicious deliciousness. It smells almost like corn whiskey mash. Lucy ate her fill, we thanked Greg for a great day, and Lucy climbed into the back of my station wagon. I turned on the headlights. Lucy's breath smelled like cow feed. My car soon smelled like cow feed. As we turned into downtown Russell, the smell was overpowering. We rolled down the windows.