I’ve heard before that farm dogs are working animals, that to own one is to understand them as an employee. They have jobs (much like ourselves) and must attend to those as their first and primary purpose upon the earth. We are the boss, of course, and such is the way to hold together the relationship. And while I would agree to some extent—after all, someone must be in charge—it also occurs to me that something is lost in that schema. There are dogs, and then there are dogs. Personally, I would have never entangled my life with the latter if it had not been for an unexpected incident in my late thirties. Before that, I might have agreed to the working-dog business contract without any impassioned addendum.
But it is doubtful.
As a child, I was attacked by a Dalmatian while trying to give it a hug. The orbital circle under my eye was slashed, exposing the bulb of it; my earlobe was almost totally detached. Afraid that I would go into shock, the doctors and nurses “hooded” me with a clean, white hospital sheet through which they stitched my face in tiny clicking motions. I felt everything, and it took four nurses to hold me down while I screamed for my mother, the safety of home, and the dog that had betrayed me. And so, from then on, even a far-away bark would send shivers down my spine. It had all become a nightmare, and dogs were the guardians of it.
My life went on—notably and purposefully canine free—and I became quite impervious to the pleas of young boys and animal shelter commercials. Both tugged at nothing in my heart—after all, the space that had been there had long been stitched closed.
Then, one night in graduate school, I sat outside drinking wine after my young sons had gone to bed. The backyard fence was open—after all, there was nothing to keep in. I don’t remember hearing him coming, but suddenly the animal was there in front of me. We screamed/howled together in the dark while I stood on a patio chair. In the end, I abandoned my best bottle of wine for the security of a wall between me and the uninvited monster, eyeing the beast through the window. I tried to look ominous, waving my arms about in my best effort to create an unwelcoming presence. I had read that this lunatic performance worked with bears, and this was roughly the same level of danger in my mind.
But he never left. It occurred to me that maybe the creature was dimwitted and in need of help.
Two nights later, both of which were spent with an Australian Shephard whining under my bedroom window, I put down my foot with an eight-year-old child: No, we cannot keep it. Any day now, we will find the owners. Later as I tucked my son in, I found the crumpled piece of paper in his hand. It was titled “What I’ll Do To Keep Him,” and it promised a certain mommy the moon and stars. A star, he had scribbled on his list, had in fact brought his doggie to him after wishing with all of his might as it fell. There at the top of the page was a crude star in blue crayon, beneath it a stick of a boy. . .
And so, I broke.
The next day, I found myself on the phone with my best friend grappling for dog names. I suppose I should have seen it coming. After all, I loved F. Scott Fitzgerald with total and senseless abandon.
Still, it would take an entire year before I let Gatsby into the house.
That December was frigid, and so I kept him in the garage with a little space heater. We had a new kitten named Elvis, but that night, I somehow forgot to latch the kitchen door. I awoke to find the kitten missing, and as I slowly pushed the door all the way open (certain that I would find gore and heartbreak), it took a minute to focus. Yet, there it was, a plop of black fur cuddled atop the dog that I had refused to love. And that, my friends, was that.
The rest was Camelot. He slept with my boy and seemed to prefer the “Magic School Bus” bedtime readings over any other book choice. He loved the beach, although we did have to leash him after he tried to “save” every swimmer who went past the wave line. (Nothing upsets a country bubba like a dog spilling his beer into the ocean, apparently.) As if he knew the old trauma, he always turned his snout away from my face—assuring the scared little girl inside of me that his were the safest of all dog teeth in the world.
And then, we moved to the country.
There, it’s all a blur: The time he cleared my head to land upon a coyote, injured and limping back to me to assure that I was okay. The day the rooster attacked my legs and he chased it down into the trees to “tell it about itself.” The morning I planted beans and he helped me dig the line with his sturdy paws, or the winter that it dropped to eight degrees in Alabama and he wrapped his arms around me in the bed to keep me warm. The manner in which he stood guard over that black kitten, long grown, as it slowly died from kidney failure—and the way he howled the day when his Elvis left the building. The growth that started so fast on his side that the doctor had mistakenly assured us was benign.
December of 2019, we went on vacation to the mountains. Gatsby had become incapable of walking without a sling, and we had not seen it coming. Hip dysplasia is a monster that plagues his breed, but still, we had booked the trip a year in advance. And so, we took him to the vet (who loved him so) and kenneled him there. When we arrived back to pick him up, the growth had split—and no amount of money could save him. He never came home, and the boy that had fought to keep him stood and cried as a man on the cold slab of office tile. And that was that.
Except, I’m losing him still.
And that’s the horrible thing, really, about death. The forgetting of every day, the minutia of it, the sound of his bark or the way that he smelled . . . it has all started to fade now. I find myself at his grave begging him to stay as a spirit, the wind, anything really. I’m so far away from the authority of “farmer boss” in these moments, when all of my heart implores the ground: please, oh please, give him back to me.
So much for the chain of command . . .
Close to the second anniversary of Gatsby’s death, I found myself on the phone with a dear friend. She had lost her Gus, a farm dog that had become more than a working hand and broken her heart abruptly and without much warning. She had heard the wail deep within the belly of a Maine night—that long, sorrowful owl cry that comes just before our beloveds are taken to join the stars. Her grief wafted above the power lines and wound itself into the Alabama pines around me. I think Gatsby heard it, too—as southern stars tend to do.
I’ve told her not to hate that owl. After all, it was just warning my friend to steady up for the greatest loss a farm could know.
My own owl’s cry has faded over the years. And yet, here I am, holding onto every thread of Gatsby’s life as time continues to wrench it away. I dig my fingers into the fabric of it–the smells, the sound of his breathing as it sighs into the farm that he loved so. I hold on so tight that I almost miss the fact that he’s part of me now, and I’ll never let that go.
Finally: I know what I’ll do to keep him, too.
The Farm-Dog Star
the stones lie there,
pushed back and forth by clover–
forcing their lives through, so green
against your bones now.
no chickens to chase, I begin.
but here I am, the boss
kneeling against the edge of you,
my chest tight against the weight.
don’t leave, I whisper,
how far away now?
your paw still in my hand at dusk,
the weight of it no longer real.
remember me, I beg,
no longer momma.
only a girl, bent against your memory
without a leash.
our garden, I bargain,
where you ran and stood
against coyote and mailmen and hawk–
unguarded, a wound.
what are you now, I wonder,
tracing your face against the trees
that threaten to steal away those days
and all that we were.
good boy, I concede,
finding my feet, older somehow.
enough, I nod, and turn my back to you
to walk back to life.
good momma, the wind whispers,
wrapping my arms
against the flutter of woolen sweater
and inevitable eventide.
the stars burst above me,
broken free of day,
no more cloaked by work, or clouds. . .
and there you are.
Note: Gatsby inspired his farmer momma to save over twenty-seven dogs and eight cats during his lifetime. It would take the writing of this essay for the farmer to realize that the boy who wrote his own little essay to keep Gatsby had a nickname, himself: Jay.
On the anniversary of Gatsby’s death, an Australian Shephard showed up in need of a new momma. The farmer named her Coraline, and she is just as vexingly inconvenient as her predecessor.
And that gives the farmer hope.
photo credit: Katharyn Privett-Duren