Biographical Non-Fiction posted January 24, 2015 Chapters:  ...36 37 -38- 39... 

This work has reached the exceptional level
My dog taught me about love and letting go...

A chapter in the book My Almost Cashmere Life

A Dog, Lemonade & Cotton Candy

by maggieadams

(See author's notes before reading.)
We have all seen or heard the slogan: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." It is a simple idea about handling life's disappointments. Today, a new slogan has made the rounds and is cropping up everywhere: "Fair is in August and sells pink cotton candy." These combined slogans sum up life: life is not fair, but it does offer the unending capacity to make the best of what we are given. Humans struggle with accepting these universal truths; dogs do not. In fact, our canine companions teach us how to take life head-on---how to love and let love, how to age with grace and dignity, and finally, how to let go.

Within the first month of living in our new rental in Sunrise Hill where the doors and locks all worked and the backyard was fenced and gated, Spanky showed his displeasure and asserted his control. He had been used to doors opening upon his command, and he sure in hell wasn't going to let a few gates get in his way. He would not be denied access to his house. My daughter was away working, and I had my first substitute teaching job of the year. On a clear sunny day in September, I was so excited to have all the pets contained securely in their new backyard.

Eight hours later, I came home to a disaster. Spanky must have gone right to work after my departure, for his destruction was monumental. First, I saw the open gate, then I saw the open door. Upon closer examination, both were in shambles, pulverized to wood chips and splinters. With further investigation, I cobbled together the following scenario: Unable to open the slider on the back deck, Spanky had circled to the side gate, expecting it to open. He, no doubt, put his big snout in between the slats, jiggled the gate and surveyed the situation. Next, he brought out his better weapons, his gigantic paws and teeth. Clawing and chewing his way through the slats, he freed himself and stood only a few yards from his front door.

The front door was a solid wooden double door, secured by a dead bolt lock. This had needed major artillery. I am guessing he spent hours chewing, clawing and prying off the whole door jamb before calmly walking through and taking his rightful place on his Asian rug in the front room.

His tail thumped when I climbed through the opening.  Like posing for a picture, he held his head high and smiled at me as if to say, "Hi, Mom, aren't you proud of me?"

I grabbed one of the pulverized pieces of wood and pointed it at him. "Spanky, bad, bad dog."

His tail thumped louder and he came towards me to give me a slurp.  I kept pointing the stick. "Spanky...bad dog." Thump, thump, thump, lick, lick, lick, whine, whine, whine...the anger and frustration melted away like foam when a wave hits the sand, and soon I gave in to his enthusiastic embrace.

 I rationalized that Spanky had used his cunning and his survival tools, which were as instinctual to him as his wolf ancestors thousands of years ago.

I rebuilt the gate, creating one from which even King Kong could not escape, and I had a cabinet and door company rebuild the door, but, to be sure, I never, ever, kept Spanky from having access to his home again.

One major difference for all of us in Sunrise Hill was the experience of having a two-story house. In my entire life, I had never lived in anything but a ranch-style home. Every night, I enjoyed climbing the stairs away from all the distractions downstairs, entering my master suite for slumber only. I found much serenity in that process. When we moved to Sunrise Hill, Spanky would quite nimbly climb the two flights of stairs and circle around his doggy bed, which sat on the floor at the foot of my bed. He would paw at his bed until it was 'just right'. His nightly process gave me much comfort and joy.

By the third year, he struggled to climb the stairs, stopping on the landing to catch his breath and to rest his arthritic hips before attempting the last flight. Sometimes, he would arrive two hours after I was tucked in, plopping down noisily on his 'unmade bed', For three years, he never missed one night as my protector. However, I felt like I heard his internal dialogue, his wrestling with his predicament, and my comfort and joy slowly turned to sadness hanging like a shroud around my heart.

In the last year of his life, his hind legs would sometimes (and eventually with regularity) cave under him, and he'd collapse in a heap onto the hardwood floor. With dignity, he would drag himself by his front paws over to the carpeted area where he could find enough stability to pull himself up again. He loved to greet callers at the door, but he would run excitedly from the carpeted area to the hardwood floor of the entrance, and when he greeted them, he would slide on his stomach out the door.

On one of those occurrences, a TV repairman looked horrified when Spanky had flopped around trying to find stability and fell out the door onto the porch at the repairman's feet. "Mam, is your dog dying?" he asked with a furrowed brow and round eyes.

"Oh, don't worry.  He always does that.  He'll right himself."  I bent down and patted Spanky just to make sure.  "Let me show you the TV.  It's upstairs."

 Pretty soon, we heard panting and saw a smiling red dog amble into the room. Spanky had just wanted to be part of the deal, and he sure as hell wasn't going to let a long staircase keep him from joining in.

Spanky and my dad were the same age, both quickly approaching ninety-two. They were both grey and not very ambulatory. One major difference separated them, however: my dad was in the latter stages of dementia, but Spanky was as sharp as the day I brought him home as an eight-week-old puppy. I agonized over both situations.

How ironic that I had a choice for Spanky, but not one for my dad. My dad, who had lost my mom over five years before, had often exclaimed: "I had a great wife, and I have had a great life, now let me go."...

Twice weekly, I would visit my dad in his memory care home. Though it was only a few miles from Sunrise Hill, I didn't go there every day because I came away too depressed.  The smell of pee hit me as I walked through the door.  Seasonal art projects taped to the windows reminded me more of a pre-school class, than a home that housed once-proud doctors, lawyers, farmers and teachers---that housed our mothers and fathers; wives and husbands. 

Punching in the code to let me pass, I would walk into a sad reality of silver-haired men and women lined-up staring at Dr. Phil, watching without audio from their recliners as aides brought around tiny cups of pills to keep them placid.  Some slept slumped in their wheelchairs with a sandbag draped across their laps so they wouldn't fall out.  Others carried around life-sized dolls, talking to them like they were their babies.  I stopped going at mealtimes because I couldn't bear to watch my dad dribble red Jello down the front of his cashmere sweater.

One fall sunny day in 2011, I decided to take Spanky to visit my dad in the 'home', for even in his demented state, he would have moments of lucidity and ask, "How's Spanky?"

After punching in the code to escape, I wheeled dad outside and locked his wheels while I went to retrieve Spanky. When I opened the car door, he leapt out and ran over to my dad, licking his face, whining loudly. My dad stared blankly and then the light of recognition for his old pal sprang into his eyes. Patting Spanky's head, he lamented, "Well, there, old boy, I wish I could take you for a walk."

And in a way, his wish was granted. I unlocked the wheels to his chair, handed him the leash and off we went like a grand parade with Spanky proudly pulling my dad as I guided them from behind. What a memory!

Several days before my dad died, I found him all alone in his room, sitting in the dark, talking to himself.  "I need to work the tractor today, Son.  You take over the combine."  He's letting go.  He's going back to his deepest roots---farm and family.  He's passing the torch.  My heart wept but, as I tiptoed into the room, I had already accepted that no road goes on forever.  Good-bye, sweet Dad.

I sat down beside him and put my hand in his.  "Hi, Dad, it's Maggie."

He held my hand for a long time before acknowledging me.  "I know that."

He may not have known me at first, but as the visit progressed, it was obvious he had important words---important thoughts---he wanted to share.  "Jesus came down on a long rope," he imparted.

I smiled.  "That's amazing, Dad."

"He did, he really did."

I squeezed his hand.  "I believe you, Dad."

"I just want to go, so I can give you some of my money..."  He knows who I am.  Relief washed over me like a fresh cool stream.  I turned and gazed at him so he could see the light of gratitude beaming from my eyes.  What would I do without you?  You care so much about my welfare and always have.

Two days later, Dad quietly slipped into a coma and went to join Mom, fulfilling his long-awaited wish.  His generosity and consideration for his children allowed me to realize my wish---a home of my own.

In the spring of 2012, I closed on an 1800 square foot home in stellar move-in ready condition. In fact, there were so many bells and whistles---air-conditioning, sprinkler systems, smoke alarms and doors that locked---I needed quite an adjustment period. I was slated to move in June. My dilemma: should Spanky make the move?

Both my daughter and I kept this concern to ourselves, but as the move loomed closer, we finally confided in one another.  We were in the kitchen packing and the dogs were sleeping nearby.  I turned from clearing a cupboard.  "Penny for your thoughts.  Do you think Spanky can make the move?"

"Mom, I can't make so many changes.  Can we take a 'let's-see' approach?  I know he isn't going to live much longer, but I can't bear the thought of not having him.  Please can we talk about this after the move?"

I smiled. I love you, Paxton.

On the 'big' move day, June 13, 2012, we boarded the two dogs at Rock Creek Kennel, a 'home-away-from-home' for them both. As we unpacked and settled in our doll-like house, I became overwhelmed with sadness that Spanky would never be able to navigate or live comfortably in there. The whole downstairs living space was inlaid with Brazilian cherry hardwood and the sleeping arrangements involved two flights of stairs. I was torn. I had purchased the house knowing that Spanky was literally on his last legs, and yet, I wanted to make his final move, whatever that would be, comfortable. Before picking up the dogs that afternoon, I ran off to Target and bought five yoga mats in hopes to help Spanky stay upright when he walked into his new home.

As my daughter and I drove out to the kennel, unaccustomed silence filled the air like fog filling a valley. We kept to our own private thoughts.  I can't let him go yet.  Maybe he can live another year.  Am I being cruel?  He drags that leg...he pants...Oh, God, I don't want to make this decision.

Before they brought the dogs to us, the owner of the kennel pulled out his smart phone and showed me a picture. "You know he has a tumor protruding in the back of his mouth and it's making it painful to eat." He hesitated.  "He had a heck of a time getting up from the floor."

With tears streaming down my face, I looked at him, " I know."

Both dogs howled and licked our faces, greeting us like we had been gone for months. We loaded them up in the jeep and headed for our last journey as an intact family.

Verdel, our little Shih Tzu, pranced through the door of his new home without a care in the world; Spanky, however, sniffed around every corner, approaching his new environment like a competent detective. I had placed his dog bed downstairs in the family room, so he wouldn't have to climb stairs in order to go to bed. That afternoon, Spanky had followed me from room to room, not letting me be out of his sight, but I was cautiously optimistic.

As night fell, I 'tucked' Spanky into his bed and headed upstairs to mine. Paxton came running up the stairs. "Mom, Mom, Spanky is crying."

I went to the open stairwell and looked down. He was trying to climb the stairs, but could not even take the first step. Grabbing a down-comforter from the linen closet, I ran down the stairs where I slept on the leather, stroking his head throughout the night as he slept beside me.

When we woke up, I patted his greying muzzle. "Good morning, Spankers, time to get up and go outside." He looked at me with his big brown eyes and for the first time in his twelve-plus years, growled at me. I knew that this day would be his last.  He'd fought his last battle.  You will leave huge paw prints on my heart, I thought as I reluctantly picked up the phone.

I called the vet from outside in my new cul-de-sac (because cell phone reception was not very good inside the house) and made an appointment for two that afternoon.

My new neighbors were outside visiting with one another on a sun-filled day. They waved and smiled at me, but they could see that I was weeping uncontrollably, so one of them came towards me to see what the matter was. I had been in the neighborhood less than twenty-four hours, so they all must have worried what they had in store.

Through gulping sobs I explained, "I have to put my big dog down today."

One of the women put her hand on my back. "I'm so sorry...I'm Mary, by the way." She pointed toward my front door which had been left ajar. "Is that him?"

I turned to look. There stood Spanky with his head held high and two tennis balls in his mouth. He had managed to get his arthritic hips up and now he was ready to go. He had no idea today would be his last.

Spanky ambled into our circle in the middle of the cul-de-sac and fell down at our feet, placing his paws on top of his tennis balls.  "He's so beautiful, but it's obvious you're making the right decision."  One of the men said as Spanky began flirting, trying to get him to steal his ball.

When Spanky lifted his paw, gravity took one of the balls, and it rolled down the block. When he tried to get up to chase it, he struggled in visible pain. When he finally got up, the roughness of the pavement had scraped and bloodied his back legs.

My new neighbors hugged me and gave comfort the best they could, given they had only known me for less than a day.

My daughter and ten-day-old grandson came to say goodbye. Spanky greeted Laurel like he always had, whining and thumping his tail. My daughter laid my grandson on the rug to have a moment with our beloved family dog. Spanky did not disappoint, sniffing and licking my grandson as if he were passing the torch---the torch telling him to promote the bond of family. My daughter left, waving limply as she drove away, and I waved back in kind until they turned the corner. One life ending and another just beginning.

I walked back inside and laid my heavily burdened body beside Spanky. He licked the strands of my soul.  I put my arm around him and nuzzled him, letting my memories carry me back in were the smartest, the most powerful dog I've ever completed our family...loved us without pause...thank you.

Jolting me from my walk down memory lane, Paxton came through the front door. "Mom, we've got to get this over with."  I know, I know. God, how?

Using a tennis ball to get Spanks up, I kept it in front of his nose while opening the back car door. He jumped in and, with an extra boost from my knee, made it into his familiar spot, riding shot-gun like a human. He sat in the middle of the back seat with his legs resting on the middle hump, thrusting his massive head forward between my daughter and me.  I patted him on the head, trapped in silent thought. This is his last car ride, his last journey, and he's unaware, acting as if we were headed to one of his old haunts.

I was inert...

"Let's go, Mom."

When we arrived at the vet, Spanky couldn't jump down from the back seat. In his attempt, he had wedged himself between the front and back seats. Two vet technicians rolled out a gurney and proceeded to pull him from the car. "Wait, wait," I cried. "You need to muzzle him because he's in pain, and he'll snap at you."

As they snapped the extra-large muzzle on my beautiful red dog, I looked at him and mumbled. "I'm sorry, Spanks, I'm so, so sorry."

My daughter averted her eyes and walked off into the street behind the car. They strapped him onto the gurney, and I walked beside him as they wheeled him into the room where a soft blanket lay amidst the glow of muted candles.

My daughter and I got down on the floor with Spanky. He was panting wildly and struggling to stand. "Please hurry and administer the first drug, please." I implored.

The sedative flowed through his body, his panting slowed and his body relaxed. I bent down in the child's pose, grabbed his gorgeous head in my hands and kissed him goodbye. Unbeknownst to me, my daughter took our picture and captured a moment that I will cherish forever.

When I walked through the front door of my new home, I stumbled over Verdel, who was awaiting our return. He looked up at me and saw the blue collar with the rabies tag dangling, and then he plopped back down, putting his head on his paws. I knew I would not be grieving alone.

Spanky was a once-in-a-lifetime dog---my lemonade and pink cotton candy. He had been my most loyal companion for twelve and a half glorious years and had fulfilled every promise---a promise that has been kept since man and dog cemented an unbreakable bond thousands of years ago.



Many of my reviewers have seen a longer version of this story called Spanky and His Gang. It was one of my first posted stories on this site, and I have reposted it once. I decided I needed to have part of this story in my book. Spanky was such a big part of my life, I couldn't leave him out. Some of you, who have been following my memoir, have not read or reviewed this story. Personally, it is my favorite chapter. When I started writing this today, I found a picture on fanstory art that looks exactly, I mean exactly, down to the blue collar, as Spanky looked in his old age. I cried. Thanks for reading.
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Artwork by cleo85 at

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