My family has always been a dog family. It started with my dad’s granddad more than 100 years ago and is true to this day. My great grandfather grew up in rural Tennessee where times were tough and money was tight. Any time he would ask for a dog he was told the same thing; there wasn’t money to feed an extra mouth especially if that mouth was on a dog. It might have been his dad’s new job or just the persistence of a ten year old boy but his mom finally relented. The new family member was a Bluetick hound my great grandfather named Tick. This started two traditions that have lasted through four generations. My family has always had at least one dog and all of them had Tick in their name. Tick was followed by Luna Tick then came Gigan Tick and Roman Tick with at least 10 others “Ticks” before Fran.
Fran Tick, had come on the scene almost seven years before I was born. Fran was a border collie and just like most of his breed he was hyper from the start. I hadn't been there to name Fran but for the eight years I knew him he lived up to the moniker. He never seemed to stop running and on more than one occasion mom, dad, and I would spend hours playing a game Fran invented called. “I’ll let you get close, then I’ll run again.” Fran seemed to like the game more than we did but when we would inevitably catch him, we could never be mad. He just wanted to play and we loved him.
The day Fran died was one of the worst days of my life. Little boys tend to make friends easily but there is no friend like your first best friend, and my first best friend was Fran. From the time I was a baby, at least according to mom, I would fall asleep with my head on Fran's belly. When I was old enough to have a “big boy" bed Fran would return the favor by jumping in every night and laying next to me as we both fell asleep. The only exception were the nights I would spend at friend's houses. Fran would climb on the couch and place himself on the back cushion in such a manner as to be able to look out the front window and he would sleep there waiting for me to come home.
As Fran got older I started to have to pick him up and put him on the bed but I didn’t care, he was my dog and my friend and once he was on the bed all was normal and he would place himself next to me and we would go to sleep.
The morning I woke up and found he had peed on my bed I wasn’t mad, I was scared. Although I didn’t fully understand at the time, my parents had been preparing me for the day for the last few weeks. They did their best to tell an eight year old, in terms he could understand, that his best friend wasn’t going to be around much longer. “Every dog has only so much love to give” my mom told me, “and they give it so completely that they run out of it before we do.”
“Fran has loved you since the first day you came home from the hospital,” My dad added, “and even though it makes us so sad, when he’s gone all that love stays with you forever.”
I didn’t want to tell my mom and dad what had happened but I was eight years old and didn’t know how to clean my blanket. I picked Fran up and carried him downstairs and asked my mom, “Is Fran out of love?”
My mom called my dad over and he took Fran from me and they put him on the couch and after a few minutes she turned to me and said, “Honey, I’m afraid so.”
There are few things more heart wrenching than the sobs of an eight year old boy who knows his dog is about to die and I was inconsolable. I begged my parents for one more day but they knew two things that I didn’t: the first was I would always want one more day and the second was that Fran was in pain. They knew how much I loved my dog and they knew that one day I would understand they were doing the compassionate thing for both Fran and me.
“Get your shoes on and grab your coat.” My mom's words caused both relief and anxiety. I knew when the time came, Fran would have to be taken to the vet, but my parents weren’t sure if I should go. To this day I don’t know why they made the decision they did but I am forever grateful. I wasn’t there the day Fran came into our family but I was able to stay with him to the very end. The final thing he saw before closing his eyes for last time was my face and as painful as it was for me I hope it comforted him.
The first time I saw Miss Tick was a sunny Sunday morning. Fran had died the Wednesday before and I hadn’t slept well without my friend. Startled awake by the sound of a high pitched bark coupled with the delicious smell of hickory in the air had me leaping out of my bed and heading for the stairs. Mom told me we were a dog family and that we would get another dog, but I wasn’t interested. No dog could replace Fran, I was no longer a dog boy.
Sunday mornings were bacon and eggs days and for a kid who had to eat healthy cereal the other six days a week it is an understatement to say I counted the days between Sunday breakfasts. On this particular Sunday, the aroma of bacon and coffee took a back seat to the salt and pepper miniature schnauzer puppy who was peeing on the floor as I finished my trek down the stairs. It’s funny how a smelly puddle of off yellow liquid broke the ice for me.
“Mom! It’s a puppy, a real live puppy!” A real live puppy, I actually said that. Keep in mind I was eight and only knew Fran as an adult dog so cut me a little slack. I’m sure if you ask a psychoanalyst they could give all the reason I fell in love the moment I saw this new dog but to me, she was little, I was little. She didn’t know how to go outside to pee, I could teach her. Most of all she needed a friend. I needed a friend even more.
“Get some paper towels and a mop.”
“Yes ma’am!” and I ran to the hall closet to follow my mother's orders. When I finished cleaning I called my mom and dad together and gave them the news. “Okay, you know I said no dogs, right? I then paused for dramatic effect and stated my terms. "Well I'm willing to keep this one as long as I can name her.”
“What did you have in mind?” my mom asked as she looked anxiously at dad.
“Miss Tick!” I knew the family tradition and it would be perfect for my new friend.
“Miss Tick it is.” My dad said with a smile as he clinked coffee cups with mom. “Now let’s have some breakfast and celebrate.
It’s a funny thing about getting a new dog once you’ve lost your best friend, especially if it’s a puppy. You are still heartbroken about your loss but you’re also really busy. It felt like the only thing I had time to do was deal with the dog. At the crack of dawn I’m down the stairs, filling her bowl with food and then getting filtered water. My mom said filtered water was better and I wasn’t taking any chances. Next I would take her outside to go “potty”. That’s what we called it. Mom never liked calling it poop or pee. Miss Tick wasn’t very good at that for a long time. I would stand outside having a staring contest until she would lay down in the grass and as soon as I brought her in; poop or pee or both. Sorry mom.
The best thing about Missy, as I called her, was she was attached to me. It wasn’t easy at first. Missy couldn’t jump on the bed by herself and I felt guilty letting her into Fran’s space but come on, it’s a puppy. I defy you to say no. Before long I was spooning every night with the cutest little dog you ever did see.
Missy became every bit the best friend Fran had been and the two of us started to grow up together. By the time I started high school Missy as a full grown Miniature Schnauzer which is a little oxymoronic. The good thing was, being small, she always seemed like a puppy and, as I learned about the breed, their energy kept them acting like a puppy too. She was always active, always loyal, and I swear she was smarter than me. I taught her how to shake hands, give a high five, roll over, play dead, and speak on command. I had plenty of friends in high school but Missy was always my best friend.
When I was making my choice of where to attend college I chose the University of Maryland. I wanted to major in Criminal Justice, and Maryland is a top 15 school in the country for my chosen field. I didn’t choose it so I could live at home, but it was nice to be able to sleep in my own bed every night with Missy right by my side. We didn’t have much time for playing or learning new tricks but at night when I would sit at my desk to study, Missy would come over, plop down and lay on my feet. It never looked very comfortable to me but she was relentless.
Four years after I started at the University of Maryland I walked across the stage to accept my degree in Criminal Justice and, because the event was outdoors, my mom and dad and Missy were there to cheer me on. A month or so before getting my diploma I applied for a job with the Maryland State Police and was hired contingent on graduating. When I started my new job I made the decision to move into my own apartment and needless to say, Missy came with me. She was the family dog in name but everyone knew she was mine.
I didn’t get to see the life cycle of a dog with Fran. He was an adult dog, fully trained and confident before I was ever born. On the other hand I was there to see the “puppy” days with Missy. I was there when I had to do everything, teach her everything, and fix everything. It was worth it and before long she was jumping in the bed all by herself, letting me know when she had to go out, and protecting the house with her ear-piercing bark. But now, now she’s getting old. She doesn’t run very much and a lot of times she waits for me to put her on the bed. She still cuddles up with me at night and sleeps on my feet during the day, but sometimes she doesn’t quite make it outside. I find that little by little I’m becoming that eight year old boy again, living in fear that Missy is running out of love.
I always said the worst day of my life was the day Fran died. It was until today. Fifteen years ago my parents made the gut-wrenching choice to mercifully end my best friend's life but I was the one who had to make this decision. As I sat on the floor and held Missy in my arms the same way I had done since I was eight, I stroked her fur and told her over and over how much I loved her and even gave her all of the treats she could eat. I then took her to the car, laid her gently in a soft bed on my passenger seat and drove to the same vet we had gone to all those years ago.
My mom and dad met me at the vet and without words we all began to cry together as we walked through the large chain pet store to the vets office located in the back. I had called the receptionist earlier in the day so she led us to one of the exam rooms to give us time to say goodbye.
There is never enough time to say goodbye to your best friend, not when you are eight and not when you are 23, but I was glad for the time to reflect and remember. When the vet came in and asked I was ready I couldn’t speak through my tears but nodded my head. Just a quick painless shot, that’s all it takes and once again I stared into my friends eyes until they closed for the last time. As I sat there crying I looked up to my dad and said, “That’s it. I can’t do this ever again. I know there is a family tradition but the pain is just too deep.”
“I understand, I really do.” and with that he and my mom hugged me at once.
“I need to be alone. I’ll come over to your house tonight but can I be alone with Missy for a few more minutes?”
“Of course, son. Take as long as you need. They won’t rush you I promise.” and after another hug they left me alone to mourn.
When you put your dog down, you have a choice of having them cremated so you can keep their urn in a special place in your home, I knew this because I always found comfort that Fran had been able to come home where she belonged. After a few minutes of final goodbyes I called in the veterinarian’s assistant and gave her Missy so that she could make the arrangements. I waited long enough to see her go into the back room and then turned to leave the store.
When I got to the parking lot there was a man parked in the loading zone just out front. He was collapsing a pop up shelter and loading it into the back of his pickup truck. I wouldn’t have taken any particular notice except for as I was walking by I heard what almost sounded like the chirp of a fire alarm. I turned my head and saw the smallest little dog I had ever seen in a cage with a sign that said free puppies.
“You interested in a puppy? This is the last one I have. She’s the runt of the litter and no one wanted her.”
“No thanks, I’m done with dogs. Good luck though.” and I turned back towards my car. Then I heard the chirp again and for some reason I turned around again and this little dog was looking right at me, wagging its tail, and barking.
“What kind of dog is it?” I asked for no particular reason.
“She’s a Miniature Schnauzer. Why? You sure you're not interested?”
“You’re kidding? I blurted out. caught off guard by the coincidence.
"Serious as a heart attack." He responded with a chuckle. "It's a little known fact that baby Miniature Schnauzers pretty much look like generic puppies for their first six months."
"Can I hold her?” I said unexpectedly, the words coming from my heart not my head.
“Sure.” and he pulled the little girl out of the cage and handed her to me. I held her in my arms and tried to fight back tears. "I don’t want a dog." I said to myself as she tried to climb her way towards my face.
Turning back to the man I asked, “What’s her name?”
“You get to decide, well that is you get to decide if you take her home.” Then the man's expression changed as did his voice.
“I’m so sorry, she didn’t mean it. She’s just a puppy.” As I looked down to see what the man was talking about, right there on the front of white shirt was a small yellow stain.
Sometimes the universe sends you a sign and when it does it's best not to ignore it. “I’ll take her." I said with a smile just a few minutes earlier would have seemed impossible. "This little girl needs a friend and I need one even more.”
“Done and done, she’s yours." the man said as he slammed shut the tailgate on his truck. "By the way, what are you going to name her?”
“Hope.” I responded. I knew what the old tradition was but it seemed to me as good a time as any to start a new one. "Let's go home girl." and with that Hope and I headed to the car.