Last Walk — A Love Story

Posted on February 5th, 2012 by admin

As we come up on Valentine’s Day its time to talk abut love. And what better love than that between rescuer and rescued?

This story is dedicated to all the brave, marvelous people who adopt old dogs.

 

Last Walk

This story is about love, love that carries through death. Oh, it’s not a story about romantic love. There are plenty of those. This is a story about an unselfish love. This is a story about love that accepts unconditionally and asks for nothing. This is a story about the love between a rescuer and the last dogs she saves.

Margaret was an old woman who loved dogs. She loved big dogs and small dogs, short-haired dogs and long-haired dogs, quiet dogs and not-so-quiet dogs. She loved puppies, too. But what Margaret loved the most were old dogs. You know, the ones who sleep a lot and maybe can’t see so well any more. They’re the ones who hang back when the treats and pets are being given out because they have a little arthritis or aren’t so sure on their legs. They don’t want the other dogs to bump them or even knock them over. They’re the dogs who might have trouble eating hard food but try anyway. You know those dogs.


Some people want puppies or young dogs with strong legs to go up stairs or jump on beds. Margaret loved those dogs too. But, maybe because Margaret was old or maybe because she was just such a caring person, she had a soft spot for old dogs. She used to say that she fit right in with them. She said they were her speed, slow. Then she’d laugh and pet the nearest fuzzy back. And there were always plenty of fuzzy backs to pet.

Margaret would say, “We get along cause I’m old, too.” Then she’d give that throaty laugh and pet another dog. Of course, she had been saying that for so long she must have started taking care of old dogs long before she really was old.

Before I go any further let me tell you about Margaret. Margaret was one of those people who seemed to slip between fifteen and her actual age of eighty-nine. One minute she was the serious crone overseeing her canine kingdom and the next something shifted around her and you could swear she was a teenage girl playing fetch with another new-old dog. She had long blonde hair that had faded more to a very light blonde rather than outright grey or white. It was almost like even Nature was trying to treat her with unusual respect. So Nature touched Margaret the way she touched her elder charges, with love.

Margaret wasn’t a particularly small or large woman. She was somewhere between five foot and five foot four depending on how she felt that day. She had a bit of arthritis in her back so some days she might not stand as tall. She usually wore comfortable jeans with the occasional stain on the knees or calves. Her shirts were roomy but slightly tailored and almost always pullovers. She almost always smelled like lavender, her favorite flower.

People always remembered Margaret. There was just something about Margaret that made people remember her. She had a way of making everyone feel relaxed in her presence.

Margaret had been a teacher, a professor in fact, before she retired. She taught anthropology. When she retired she left that all behind and I rarely heard her bring up the topic except to mention dogs in history.

After she was gone people would recount this story or that about Margaret but the one thing they always remembered was her love for dogs, all dogs, but especially old dogs. She always said, “Every old dog has been there for some human. We should be there for them.” She asserted that there was a covenant between dogs and humans. Dogs lived up to their side and Margaret said taking care of dogs when they get old is part of living up to our side.

So Margaret took care of old dogs.

I have no idea how many old dogs she rescued. She was the last resort for old dogs being tossed into an early death by circumstances or uncaring humans. She took in dogs whose humans had died and had not made arrangements for the dogs they left behind. She adopted dogs whose humans had fallen into assisted care and mental wards. Then there were the dogs who were tossed out by their humans because the dogs were older and a little more trouble. Those were the ones that made Margaret the maddest because they were preventable. Margaret could get pretty riled up about abuse cases but I think these “dog dumps” as she called them made her the maddest. “How stupid or unfeeling do you have to be to throw out a perfectly good dog just because he gets a little slower or she gets a little leakier? I hope these idiots get treated exactly the same way when they get older. What kind of example do they think they’re setting for their children? Mom and Dad get to be a bit of trouble so you can toss them out?” Then she would get back to tending to her old dogs. There was always another diaper to change or special food to mix. But Margaret didn’t seem to mind. I think every time she got tired she’d just pet another dog and remind herself what they had lost.

She never seemed to mind cleaning up after them, either. I know she always had another load of laundry to do or another pill to give. That was okay. She would clean up whatever mess was there and then pull up a high-backed Victorian seat next to her huge front window and brush down another old dog as she watched the world roll by outside.

Someone asked her once if rescuing older dogs was depressing. Puppies and younger dogs usually move on to forever homes but older dogs won’t find new homes. Margaret knew that when she took in an old dog that dog would probably die in her home. In effect, Margaret ran an old dog hospice. She was the last stop before they moved into death. Many of them were in good health but the hard fact was that too few people wanted to give them a chance.

Most people want a young dog so they don’t have to face death any sooner than necessary.
The last time someone asked her that question Margaret let loose a short laugh and gave the young, dark-haired woman a long look. “Are you afraid of death? Is it something to hide from or avoid seeing? It’s as much a part of life as breathing or being born. All things die. What a coward I would be to not help these senior citizens because I didn’t want to face death! I miss them when they leave but I treasure the time I can spend with them before the end. I learn so much from them! Yes, it is sad for me when they die but I love knowing that I made their last days or years happy. Sad, yes, but depressing? No.”

When the weather was nice Margaret would put all the dogs who could walk easily into harnesses and take them out. They made a motley parade making its way slowly down the avenue. Her retinue could include a Great Dane with its long arthritic legs and a white-muzzled Weimaraner with cataracts gingerly feeling her way along next to an ancient Brittney. The breeds varied and changed as the elderly canines passed into eternity and other dogs took their places in Margaret’s canine hospice.

So for more years than I can guess Margaret was the last home for dogs with no one else. Untold numbers of dogs spent their last days with Margaret and she never flinched from holding their paws as they passed from one world to the next.

Margaret always said death was the one thing we all had to meet alone but she could help her “sweet ones” to the edge and give them what comfort she could until they went beyond her touch. When they passed, Margaret made sure each body was treated with love and respect, either buried or cremated and the ashes spread over her mildly unkempt large yard. She didn’t keep all the ashes but she did keep a framed picture of each and every dog who had been with her. Each photo had the dog’s name and year he or she died clearly engraved on the frame. At least twenty or thirty of these portraits were arrayed on a bamboo bookshelf in her eclectic living room. Another twenty or so hung in her long hallway. She never forgot any of her canine charges. And they never forgot her, either.

Did Margaret ever talk about her own death? Only to say that she expected to see her “sweet ones” again. I honestly don’t think death was something she feared. Maybe she had spent too much time with Death as she watched Him embrace her old babies to fear him. Death had become if not a friend, then at least a close acquaintance.

The only thing she worried about was dying and leaving a dog or four behind. She knew what happened to dogs left with no one to love them and she did not want to do that to one of hers. But what could she do? She could have stopped rescuing old dogs but that was not part of her plan. She had to help as many as she could.

When I asked her what would happen with the dogs she left behind when she went through the Dark Door she said not to worry. “Maybe we’ll all go together or maybe some of my babies who have gone before will come back to help us join them.” Then she would laugh and change the subject.

The last time I saw Margaret she was on one of her daily walks with an assortment of older, blinder and somewhat lamer dogs. There was a grizzled Black Labrador Retriever with a white muzzle. There was a fat, long in the tooth Beagle boy and an Aussie mix with eyes that could barely see much beyond shadows. A proud ancient Shih Tzu led the stroll, his nails making a faint click-click as he maintained his forward watch. She had maybe ten or twelve dogs with her. I recognized a few of the dogs as current adoptees. But there was something about the others that tickled the back of my mind. There was something I should have seen but didn’t. The afternoon sun warmed the dogs and Margaret as they made their way together westward, their old pack standing together against the world.

Most days Margaret looked and felt like a mountain that time passed by. But not that day. Today, Margaret looked older, weaker. I asked her how she felt and of course she said she was fine. What else would Margaret say? She rarely complained or asked for help for herself so what could I do? I let her pass by and the next time I saw her, well, things had changed.

I stopped her for a moment but the dogs seemed anxious to move on. The Lab tugged at his harness. Margaret gave a knowing smile and reassured him they would be moving soon. “Max, there is plenty of time to get where we’re going. Patience, old friend.” Then she caressed his sagging back. The little Beagle rubbed his head against her pants leg and shook the tags on his collar as if to hurry her along, too. “We’ll get there, Barney.”

I glanced at my cell phone. “I have to go. Margaret. I have a conference call at 1:30 so I better let you get back to your walk.” We hugged and went our ways.

That night I got the call that Margaret had met her own appointment with Death. A mutual friend had found her. Our friend, Julie, told me what she saw. “Margaret had collapsed sitting with her ‘sweet ones’ as they sat in the backyard. The dogs had also died with her. All three dogs had been lying around her, touching her as they all made the last journey.”

I rushed to Margaret’s to help Julie. As I made the short drive I kept thinking there was something here that I was missing. Margaret had more than three dogs with her when I’d seen her that afternoon. Where were the other dogs? What had happened to the dogs who died with her?

Julie opened the door for me as I walked up to the lighted door. She had been crying. “Thank you for coming. Margaret and the dogs are out back. I didn’t want to move them until the ambulance got here.”

Julie and I walked out to where Margaret lay with her last old dogs around her. The paramedics had walked in right before me and the two women were busy checking Margaret’s body. There was the Shih Tzu I had seen. He was cuddled up against her chest under her right arm. The Beagle, Barney, lay on her other side with his head over her waist as if he was just sleeping. There was a pit bull girl here, too. I’d seen her in today’s walk but had not heard her name. But where were the other dogs? Where was Max the Lab? Had he gotten loose? Were there old dogs wandering lost around the neighborhood?

“Julie, are there any other dogs here?”

“No.These are the only dogs Margaret had.”

“Are you sure? I saw her earlier today and there were at least ten dogs with her.”

One of the paramedics, a middle-aged Black woman, stood up from Margaret’s body and walked over to me. “Ma’am, when did you see the deceased?”

I thought for a minute and pulled my reading glasses off my head where I had parked them. “It must have been about 1 PM because I was walking back from lunch over at the grill a few blocks over.”

The paramedic looked away at Margaret’s body and then back at me. “Are you really sure about that?”

“No doubt. But she had more dogs with her when I saw her. Where are they?”

Julie put a soft hand on my left arm. “No, Margaret only had these three dogs now. The odd thing is these three dogs just seem to have died. None of them were in really bad health. It’s as if they just decided to go with her.”

I turned and walked back into Margaret’s all-too quiet house. Julie came in behind me but I wasn’t listening to her right then. I must have been looking for something, anything to help me understand what happened to the other dogs.

The paramedic came in behind me and put her hand on my right shoulder. “I hate to ask you again when you saw your friend today but bear with me. Are you absolutely sure you saw her walking dogs at 1 PM?”

I turned toward her concerned face. “Absolutely. Why are you so interested in the last time I saw Margaret?”

The woman glanced at Julie and back to me. She ran her hand through her short hair and tugged at a small gold hoop earring. “Well, ma’am, I’m not doubting you but your friend passed early this morning. According to her vitals the latest she could have passed would be around 11 AM. There’s no way she could have been walking dogs at 1.”

I lost my breath and took a few steps back, coming to lean against the bookshelf hosting the dog photos. Julie reached out to me to keep me from falling. I turned to avoid the two women’s doubtful glances. As I did, I realized where I had seen Max before. Max, complete with white muzzle stared out at me from a photo and gold embossed frame that very clearly proclaimed, “Max—passed 2007.”

Then I knew where the other dogs were and who they were. Margaret’s “sweet ones” had not forgotten her. She had seen them through Death’s gate and they had returned to make sure she was not alone on her journey. They had taken the last walk with her.

 

Copyright 2012 Joy Ward

 

Joy Ward is a member of the Sunbear Blog Squad and member of the Sunbear Squad Board of Directors. She is the author of Haint: A Tale of Extraterrestrial Intervention and Love Across Time and Space  and co-author with Missa Dixon of Interviews from the Ark.

    One Response to “Last Walk — A Love Story”

    1. chris says:

      What a wonderful thing. The love, the love is all we need.

    Leave a Reply

    Please leave these two fields as-is:

    Protected by Invisible Defender.