A few years ago, a dog across the street, often out while I was writing, became my surrogate pet. I went over and met my neighbor as a ruse to meet her. She was an old dog, she couldn’t see or hear. The man told me she didn’t know I was even there but that I could pet her. I pet her and it startled her. One day, she was no longer there and I knew why. I went over and offered my sympathies to the man. He said he sometimes still heard her in the house. I sat on my porch and wrote about Gabby, and I liked the piece, so I typed it up and gave it to the man. I never heard anything else about it. I returned to the piece later and didn’t think it held up to how it felt when I wrote it so I never did anything else with it, and I was a little embarrassed I’d given it to him.
Cut to a couple weeks ago, that house is for sale. I thought the man had moved but he’d died. I thought he’d lived alone, maybe he did, but his wife talked to me. I told her I’d visited with him, a few times, and talked to him about his dog, Gabby. She said, “Oh, are you the one that wrote him that letter? That was really nice.”
I’ve gotten a lot better over the years about floating my writing out and not worrying about what reactions it gets or if it gets a reaction or if I find out about it getting a reaction. But finding out that my tribute to Gabby at least meant enough to the man that his wife ended up knowing about it, got me to revisit this piece and now I like it again. This is what I gave the man printed out on a sheet of paper.
A tribute to my neighbor’s dog
I became a watcher of my neighbor’s dog. I went over and introduced myself after asking my neighbor, first, if I could pet her. He said sure. “She’ll be startled, she doesn’t see or hear anymore, but she won’t mind.” Her initial lurch when I put my hand on the top of her head and then relative calm as I ran it down her back let me feel she enjoyed it, but when I returned the next day my petting her startled her again. I would always be a sudden hand on her in the familiar square of front yard she knew and trusted without use of her senses. I would always startle her.
The man was retired and this was Gabby’s hospice care. He let her out often and she must have enjoyed exploring the same patch of grass past the front steps—perhaps her dwindling senses made every visit feel different—because she would spend ten to fifteen minutes each trip rooting in the grass and under a nearby bush before returning up the porch steps to be let back in. Some days she couldn’t propel her hind end up the steps and had to wait with her front legs on the steps and her hind end in the yard for the man’s help. I wished I could be the help she needed instead of sudden hands behind her startling her and shoving her forward. I would have even simply waited with her if I could have felt, to her, like familiar company. Watching from my porch I would say, “poor girl, poor girl,” softly to myself, imagining that once she was a puppy who would have scrambled up and down steps like that in a yippy blur of fur. That she once kept vigil over her square of territory emitting barks that would sound friendly to family and friends and ferocious to strangers. And that now she gets startled by a hand sneaking onto her back.
Gabby didn’t recognize aging and think of her dwindling senses as loss or she did and possessed grace. Because I’m human or lack grace I could never help aching for her as I can’t help staring over at her empty yard and missing her.