I saved Woody from a fire once, but I couldn’t save him from kidney failure and old age. As I watched Woody struggle as he walked and moan as he climbed into his bed each night, I realized that I had to do the right thing. When Woody stopped eating, I knew it was time.
On January 14, 1997, my friend Vicki called me and said she knew of a dog I might be interested in. SOS Animal Rescue in Midland had found Woody at a pound after someone had dropped him off. Woody was currently living in a house about five miles from me, and I made arrangements to meet him. The minute Woody came bounding up the stairs from the basement of the house in wild pursuit of a cat; I knew I had to adopt him. I left the house with Woody in my arms, and surprised Jim and Matt when I walked in the door. Woody didn’t bark for two days, and I wondered if he had ever learned how. I was wrong. If he had been a singer instead of a barking dog, he could have toured with Johnny Cash.
Woody’s original name was Buster. He was no Buster in my eyes; He was Woody. I saw nothing wrong with renaming him; after all, my mother and father renamed me after they adopted me at two months of age. My birthmother named me Connie. Jo. My mother renamed me Melissa Jean. The name Melissa was based on a relative my mother had known when she was young, and my middle name was my mother’s sister’s name. From the moment I picked Woody up and drove him home, we became kindred spirits.
Woody soon began to be in charge of the house and our lives. He slept when he wanted to, ate when he wanted to, and he spent an enormous amount of time wanting one of us to play with him and his stuffed animals. We soon learned that Woody hated water, and when we first brought him up to our old cottage at Higgins Lake, he barked at waves. Woody loved to sit on the dock with me, but I had to forget about the notion of spending quiet time on the dock if waves were rolling in, their smacking noise steadily beating against the dock and boat. Eventually, he would give me a look that let me know he was worn out, and it was time for him to go in for a nap.
Woody loved to dance when he was happy. When I arrived home from work, or even if I had been out running and only been gone for 45 minutes, Woody would dance with joy at the sight of me coming in the doorway. He squealed, he twirled in circles chasing his tail, and then he would twist the other way around, squealing, suddenly stopping and waiting for me to pick him up to give him a hug. He was always happy to see Jim and Matt, but he typically just gave them a little twist and shout and not the full-out dance routine. If you have never seen a twelve-pound dog do the twist, you are missing out.
Woody envisioned himself as a lover boy. Despite the fact that we had him neutered a few days after we got him, Woody thought he was a love machine. He tried to make love to any dog that happened to come near him. Gender didn’t matter, and he didn’t have a species requirement either. We were once at Peggy and John’s house with their menagerie of dogs and cats, and Woody chased Brutus, a twenty-one pound cat, around the house constantly. He eventually caught up with Brutus and tried to do what we referred to as the mumbo-jumbo. Brutus didn’t seem to mind, but we did break up the action much to Woody’s disappointment.
In December 2004, a fire broke out in our house. The men who were refinishing our wood floors happened to leave their sander next to a large container of polyurethane in our laundry room. They had been gone for about twenty minutes before I heard a pop, ran to the other end of the house and saw the fire. To make a long story short, I grabbed Woody as I called 911 and got us out of the house. We ended up watching the action from the across the street at a neighbor’s. Luckily the fire damage was small compared to the severe smoke damage. The stuff we lost? I really didn’t care. I had Woody and that is all that mattered.
In the summer of 2005, our vet told us Woody had cancer in one of his legs and sent us to a specialist in Rochester Hills. My friend Patti went with me to the clinic. It was a very sad place. The vet at the cancer center said they had also discovered a tumor in Woody’s lungs. The bottom line: for about ten grand, we could have Woody cut open, take out the tumor, and then he could start chemo for his leg. Woody looked at me as if to say “I don’t think so,” so I said, “I don’t think so.” He never complained about the cancer in his leg, and he still barked at waves, squirrels, chipmunks, and us if we were too slow in doing what he wanted to do.
Last year, Woody’s vet said Woody kidneys were failing. I figured Woody could beat this diagnosis. Woody was our wonder dog. He seemed fine, a little slower when running and jumping, but he seemed okay. At the vet’s recommendation, we began feeding him special dog food, and he adjusted quickly, although he occasionally let us know he preferred steak and chicken. He still followed me everywhere, always wanted to be the life of the party, and slept on the floor next to me in his little bed.
A few months ago, we began to see a change in Woody. He still greeted us at the door, but the rock-and-roll dance had become a slow waltz. He no longer barked at waves, he no longer wanted to make love to dogs or cats, and he ignored his beloved toys. My heart began to break slowly, because I knew I was going to have to make a decision. I did not want Woody to suffer.
I learned a lot from Woody in the sixteen years we had together. Years ago, my friend Helen pointed out that Woody didn’t take crap from any dog, large or small, waves, or anything else he considered trouble. Helen told me I was a lot like Woody. By coincidence, I happened to listen to a Sheryl Crow song on my way to work every morning to pump myself up to deal with administration bureaucracy and students filled with excuses: “I ain’t takin’ shit off no one, baby, that was yesterday.” For my office, I bought a painting of a dog with tattoos and lots of piercings. He wore a t-shirt that said “Bite Me” and was called “Mad Dog.” I imagined Woody in this outfit, and I realized I was the human version of Woody/Mad Dog.
Mornings are most difficult for me now. I hear Woody waddling down the hall towards my office looking for me, his eyes filled with cataracts, his nose guiding him as if he were the great hunter searching for truffles. He lies down next to my chair and waits while I write.
Later, we will go to the end of the dock, and wait for the waves to roll into shore. He will look at me as if to suggest his barking days are over and indicate, by the turn of his head, that it is time to return to the house. As I carry him, I can feel him slipping away from me. Inside, we both take a drink of water and head for the couch. I lift him up next to me, and he snuggles in and falls asleep while I wait. I imagine the cycle of life, spinning loved ones towards me, but also away from me, and wonder where I am in the continuum.