Caper by Dan and Cyndy Ratcliffe / Caper, August 1995 – 21 July 2005

She was just a damned dog. I was running in one of those great Carolina thunderstorms ten years ago. I had just retired from the Marines and was a little lost myself. This dog, skin and bones wet, bedraggled, shivering was in this open field near the road. As I ran along, she trotted up toward me tail wagging. I stopped and called to her and she approached to just out of reach. No collar, it was a country road, probably abandoned, hungry and frightened, but the tail still wagged. I turned and started to walk back toward the house, and when I looked back, she was there, just out of reach. I started to trot and she stayed right with me and closed to just at my heels. Damned dog.

We didn’t have dog food so we fed her bread and milk. For the first three days, she lived under the workbench in the garage, refusing to come out. We weren’t going to keep a dog; we were just too busy in our lives, two new careers, a lot of travel, etc. We put up posters, took her to a vet, bought dog food; we didn’t get her a bowl, she wouldn’t be with us that long. Once the owners claimed her, they would appreciate what we had done for their damned dog.

Then I found myself hoping she was abandoned, secret prayers asking for a way to fit her in to our lives. They were answered, those prayers. Through career changes, damned near getting a divorce, the teenage years of a daughter with all the willfulness of her father, through nearly losing that child on a hard corner on a country road late one night, through all of the things life throws at you there was that damned dog.

You could sit bitter and frustrated, angry or sad and she would plop down beside you and just lean in to you, or roll on to her side, raise a paw and silently demand a belly rub. All of it would fall away for those few moments. She grew from a very skinny thirty-five pounds to be a full ninety at the end. She was fit even as she got older and four days ago could still charge off the back porch and chase the squirrel off the bird feeder. If the neighborhood children were playing in the cul-de-sac and an unknown car pulled in she would raise holy hell, UPS vans were the most hated. Children who didn’t know Cyndy’s or my name knew hers. Tall as or taller than many of the children around they still wanted to pet her or hang from her neck, and patiently she allowed them. Everyone wanted to handle that damned dog.

If you put a cup of coffee down, she would stick her nose right into it. We only fed her from her bowl and made her sit for her biscuits, but she would camp out on the kitchen floor when we prepared a meal hoping for an accident of some sort. On occasion, her patience was rewarded. Food never lasted three or four minutes in her bowl and if you had forgot to feed her she would remind you with a single sharp bark. She would always be afraid of thunder, coming to my or Cyndy’s side whenever it came. We took her to get her haircut about twice a year. When we went to pick her up the first time the woman who groomed her told us, it was the first time she had cried cutting an animals hair. She said, “As I was beginning to cut her hair, she leaned into me with such a heavy and patient sigh that I just cried and cried.” She had that effect on you sometimes, who could imagine that you could find grace in a damned dog.

She had survived a bout of Cushing’s disease nearly two years ago, but we knew it would it would come back, it always does. A month ago, we confirmed the now familiar symptoms with the vet. Four days ago, she quit eating and drinking as she threw up every time she tried. After the second day, we took her to the vet again. They gave us some medicine for some intestinal swelling that was causing her discomfort, and something to help with the nausea, and we planned to take her back today to be put to sleep. However, yesterday she was able to get up, and when I went to the biscuit drawer she came over to get one. She didn’t eat it. She did walk over and drink from her water bowl though, something she hadn’t done for three or four days. We had been giving her ice cubes to help her up to that point. I walked her outside to the back yard. She rolled for a moment in the grass as she did every day and I knew that this was the best day she was going to have. She walked the fence line, most of the way, on her daily patrol, but cut across where the yard slopes in toward the porch. She knew the slope in the corner coming up to the porch would be too tough for her.

I have seen family members die, and there always seemed to be a rally day the day before they passed. Yesterday was her rally day; it was the best day she would have. At 1:15, I connected the leash to her collar and walked her out through the side gate, in to the field next to the house. She loved her walks, still pulling on the leash hurrying me along even on last Sunday’s walk. This time she walked beside me and instead of a mile we just walked a few meters in the grass and weeds and then over to the car. I gave her favorite treat. A bone filled with peanut butter. At about 1:45 we sat on the floor of the examination room, I cradled her head whispering those stupid things we say to our animals when the vet gave her the shot. Just as gently as she had lived this life with us she went to sleep, in between breaths she left us.

I know, I know, she was just a damned dog.


We miss you,
21, July 2005
Dan and Cyndy Ratcliffe