When my son Timothy was about 18 months old, his mother took him to Steffen’s Pet Shop to see the puppies. All Timmy wanted since learning how to crawl was a dog. His grand-mothers each had a dog. A few of his cousins had one. So Gi took him and put him in the puppy pen at the rear of the store. There a litter of black cocker spaniel mix pups collided with each other and jumped to get his attention. Timmy giggled and ran around the pen, the pups all running after him and when he tripped they all attacked him with yips and licks as he broke into a laugh.
I was working the Midnight shift, having been promoted to dispatcher at the private ambulance I had been working, and was sleeping when Timmy burst into the room. He was laughing and speaking quickly, even in baby-talk. Gi told me about Timmy’s adventure at the pet store, and about this black puppy with a white chest that had played with him. Timmy pulled me from the bed by my hand, begging me to come with him.
“Come on! Come on, Daddy!”
So I got up, hopped in the shower and dressed. It was late February, 1997. I could feel Spring coming soon, but the winds of Winter wanted to keep its grasp on the back of my neck. I just moved our small family to Port Richmond. Gi wanted to live near her parents, and at the time it was the only home we could afford. The house is a modest middle of the block row home, which getting the mortgage had given me a case of the shingles; but that was months before and now a monthly payment to the bank. A new home needs a pet – a guardian, an additional member of the family. I thought of it as a new mouth to feed, an animal I would wind up caring for and regretting its very existence. It was a pessimistic view; but given the option of having a bowl of soup to feed my son versus a bowl of dog food to feed a puppy I knew the latter would have to wait.
We walk into the store, the smell of wood chips, fish food, cat and dog assaulted my nose. Timmy grabbed my hand with both of his small hands and dragged me to the rear of the store, where I could hear the yip-yip barks of pups and the mewing of kittens in the cages. Timmy pointed at the pups and what was left of the litter, maybe four or five black furry tail-wagging four legged wound up balls of energy. I hunched down and asked Timmy which one of the puppies he liked. Of course asking an eighteen month to choose which puppy is like asking a chocoholic to choose between a Crunch bar and a Hershey bar.
Gi hung back at the counter, waiting for the sales-girl to finish selling a goldfish or evaporated kitten milk, wanting to take Timmy into the pen area. The girl grabbed the keys, smiling at Timmy as his did his little boy happy dance, with has hands held out and fingers spread wide. As the locked gate was opened and shut, the puppies released, Timmy shrieked with delight. The store was filled with the mix of puppy yelps and a little boy’s laughter. The idea was simple, put Timmy in the pen, and distract the puppies and see which either stayed with him or returned to him no matter the distraction.
My mother had done the same with me, when I was a little boy in Mount Airy. Our neighbors had a gorgeous black and white collie named Laddie, and had given my parents the name of the breeder in Bucks County who owned a farm. I wanted a collie because of watching the uncountable version of Lassie on television. When we got to the farm, there by the barn and a tree with a tire swing, a beautiful female collie and her pups scampering around was in a penned area. I have forgotten the name of the family – but I remember the Flintstones cartoon daughter Peebles was on the road sign next to a mail box complete with the tiny ready flag.
The woman, who was the breeder, talked shop with my parents and discussed the pedigree and the costs. I sat in the tire swing, my brother, John, and sister, Katie, stayed near my parents. I was about five or six years-old, and I remember the barn with country like setting complete with the azure and amber skyline behind a distant tree-line. My mother called me over to the pups, as the woman corralled them into a fenced area. I climbed onto the white washed plank wood fence and hung half over the pen. The collie pups got into frenzy, jumping up to lick and sniff. My mother picked me up and placed me in the pen. It was the same process.
“Pal, see which wants to stay with you.”
Timmy giggled as the pups overpowered him. He was knocked down and greeted by licks and sniffs. One adventurous pup growled and pulled on his shoe laces. I called over to the pups, still not able to tell which pup Gi had told me about when Timmy had woken me. As the puppies came scampering over to me, jumping and knocking into each other, I spotted the puppy with the white chest and a small white patch on his left front paw. He ran over with his brothers, turned and ran straight back to Timmy as if he was trying to say “Hey that guy over there called us over, come on!”
Timmy sat down, grabbed the puppy by both ears and translated into a hug. The pup began to lick and nuzzle Timmy. This was the one for my boy. This puppy would grow into the dog would never leave his side. I walked into the pen and picked up the puppy, his long cocker spaniel ears, Labrador face, and felt his soft black wavy fur. He licked my face and twisted his body attempting to lick and nibble my hands. Soon I found myself pulling out my credit card, buying a leash, a collar, puppy vitamins, and other assortments deemed necessary to adopt a puppy into a home. All except one – baby wipes and newspapers.
Gi had noticed how the puppy followed Timmy around like a shadow and given his black fur his name was given – Shadow. That night, was my night off from work, and I went to bed after three AM to keep my schedule somewhat balanced only to toss and turn as I listened to the cries and yelps from the kitchen where we put Shadow with a large area of newspapers and a baby-gate in the doorway. I walked down turned on the lights and sat at the gate. Shadow sat at the gate, his ears perked and turning his head in a way to communicate “Hi Daddy. Did I wake you up? Are you going to play with me?”
“Why aren’t you asleep? You have got to get used to this, you’re going to wake up everyone in the house.”
Shadow jumped up and put his front paws into the gate, wagging his tail and barked.
“Okay, just this one time.” I opened the gate and watched as the puppy seemed to dance into the living room where he promptly peed on the carpet.
A few days later I was moved to the day-shift, and was given a chance to work a few hours overtime. Gi must have woken to Shadow’s howling and brought him into our room. I undressed in the hallway, so that I wouldn’t wake anyone by turning on lights. I turned off the lights and crept into my bedroom in my bare feet. Within a step or two, I tripped over something soft and furry and heard a painful yelp.
“What the…? Shadow?” I reached down and felt the outline of the dog. Finding his head, I pet his forehead and scratched behind his ears. Shadow stood up and sniffed, and licked my hand. “Good boy, lay down.”
I took another step or two, and then felt something soft and squishy like wet Play-dough shoot up between my toes. My other foot landed in cool liquid puddle. “Jumping’ Jesus…” Then the smell of puppy poop hit me. “Oh my God.”
I turned on the light and saw the trail of puppy landmines all leading to my side of the bed and the obligatory puppy puddle. I choose between the two evils and hopped on one foot from the bedroom to the bathroom. I pulled toilet paper from the spool in large wads and wiped my soiled foot. I tossed each wad into the toilet bowl and flushed. With a gurgle, the toilet became stopped up. I thought, maybe even said aloud, ‘That can wait.’
I turned on the water, trying to get it at bath temperature and with my pajama bottoms pulled up over my knees began to wash my feet. Soap, shampoo, baby wash – anything to clean my feet and get rid of the odor.
I turned my head and saw Shadow sitting at the door. His tail, like a whip, wagging and thumping on the floor; he got up and walked to me. “What did you do?”
“What did who do?”
I saw Gi, at the door, squinting against the light and rubbing her eyes. “The puppy pooped in the room. Why isn’t he in the kitchen?”
“He was crying, and I couldn’t get to sleep, so I brought him up.”
“Yeah well, now I need a map of to find my side of the bed with all the turds he left.”
Gi reached under the sink, pulled out cleaning stuff and a roll of toilet paper. She pulled the plastic bag from the bathroom paper basket, and walked back to the room. I picked up Shadow and walked downstairs to put him in the yard so he could do his business. I figured since Gi already had him in the bedroom, letting him sleep there for the night can be any worse. I was never so wrong, because when I woke up in the morning, and turned to sit up my feet instantly felt the same squishing between my toes.
My mother suggested getting a teddy bear or other stuffed toy animal and putting it in the kitchen with Shadow at bedtime. It seemed to alleviate the cries in the night, unless I had gotten home and said hello to him. Soon it dissipated as Shadow grew used to sleeping in the kitchen after I would let him out to do his business.
Shadow soon learned he could be fed at anytime, if he sat under Timmy’s high chair at dinner time. He learned to behave when sleeping in my room, but always slept on my side. He was lay like a sentinel until I got him, and then grew daring by actually jumping onto the bed and sleeping curled up on my pillow. A few times I woke to find him lying on his back between me and Gi, snoring and contorting, pushing against me to give himself more room. I guess he figured he was our baby, just as much as Timmy. There were nights, I really wanted to hate him.
One time as I was sleeping, I rolled over and believing I had my arm around my wife, I pulled her closer. I adjusted the bed sheet to get a better grasp. I felt her arch back and move closer into the spooning position. I then felt fur and a wet lick on my nose. Behind my eyelids, I saw a flash of light and opened them to see Gi holding a camera as Timmy laughed as I was cuddled up next to the dog. Shadow rolled over and jumped out of the bed. I swear to this day I heard him snickering as he walked out of the bed room.
There was the Easter when Shadow was one year-old. Timmy had taken all the Easter toy bunnies that my wife and I had collected over the years, and those that were given to him and displayed them across his bed. There were big bunnies, and small bunnies. There were bunnies that ate a carrot when the ears were pulled; there were bunnies that squeaked or farted when squeezed. We had gone to Church, and when we returned Shadow ran down the stairs from the second floor. Sticking to his fur, like wisps of cotton candy were tuffs of stuffing.
We soon discovered the great Easter bunny massacre. Some bunnies were decapitated, others were eviscerated; one had its entire hind quarters chewed to a huge hole. Timmy screamed at the horror, and Shadow had gone from a tail-wagging happy to see his family type of dog to know he was in big trouble. It took about an hour to clean up the stuffing, and to use a Hefty bag as a mass body bag for all the chewed and torn Easter Bunnies for the Thursday trash pick up.
My family had twelve great years with Shadow; he died from canine congestive heart failure. In many ways he was the best dog I ever had, in many ways he was a great friend to me and my family. Shadow will be missed for a long time. I explained to Timmy that Shadow may have given up his time with us so that another dog may have a house full of kids to play with and to learn from for other years to come. It was among the hardest things I have ever had to explain.