A Rub Behind the Ears

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her dog house
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.
~Billy Collins, from “Dharma” from Sailing Alone Around the Room

We all should know, at least once in our lives, the complete and total enthusiastic and worshipful devotion that comes without hesitation from a dog. No other living creature grants us this: not a spouse, certainly not our children, never a cat or a horse, but dogs worship the ground we walk on.

It doesn’t take long when living with one or two dogs, to realize they are only human too – with insatiable appetites for independent defiance as they follow their noses rather than respond promptly to a call and whistle.

I love them anyway, even though they are wholly misinformed about my apparent divinity on earth.

In my view, our farm dogs exist solely so I can rub behind their divinely designed corgi ears.
Is that not reason enough?

Going Gentle Into That Good Night

Drawing of Dylan Thomas by Emily Vander Haak Dieleman

Dylan Thomas and his kids in 2002, by Karen Mullen
Dylan Thomas and his kids in 2003, by Karen Mullen

Dylan, a week ago

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
~Dylan Thomas
This pup came to us almost 13 years ago through a family friend, as we were mourning the death of Dan’s father, Tom, after a series of strokes.  Tom had rallied with amazing emotional strength against his growing weakness, until the final event took him quickly from us over a few short hours.  At home on the farm, we were watching a similar decline in our 16 year old Belgian Tervuren “Tango” who was deaf, blind and increasingly forgetful.  Our farm desperately needed the invigoration of a young vital life.
So Dylan Thomas, Welsh Cardigan Corgi puppy, moved in.  He was a most unusual color, with spotted eyes that laughed and mused at life.   He loved to cuddle and spent plenty of time in our kids’ laps.  When Tango’s time came after a sudden paralyzing stroke, as I held a flashlight for a young vet as she searched for a vein to administer the final medication outside on a freezing November night, I was very grateful we had Dylan’s calm face, strong back and short legs to carry us through another death.
He was asked to carry us again and again.  When he and a new dog to our farm went to the vet on the same day to be neutered, Dylan came home alone when his good buddy died from a devastating anesthetic reaction.  He watched another dog arrive as a pup and die a decade later of a rare muscle cancer.  Alone, Dylan would howl pitifully in the night.   He got grayer, barked more the deafer he grew,  and moved through farm chores with somber deliberateness.

When young Sam arrived two years ago, Dylan was obviously ambivalent about training up another pup.  He would put up with Sam’s lavishing kisses all over his face, but would never relinquish a bone or a preferred bed.  Sam was company but too much a bundle of energy to cuddle with, just a young whippersnapper who didn’t understand the serious business of life as a farm dog.

Dylan watched through his spotted eyes as our children grew up, got busier and moved away.  He watched them return for visits, accompanied them for walks to the top of the hill, but knew they would soon depart again to places far away.  Dylan’s world was a pen that felt like all the home he needed.  His farm, his family and his food were all he wanted.
He decided two weeks ago not to get up when I went to feed him in the morning.  He lay flat on the grass, weak, looking at me through those eyes as I petted and stroked his deaf ears, unable to hear any words of reassurance I spoke.   Our daughter was taking her semester finals at college in Chicago and I reluctantly let her know that I thought Dylan was not long for this world.  She asked if there was any way he would last until she arrived home on May 14 for a brief visit and I said it simply wasn’t possible.    That evening, anticipating that I was about to call the vet to come to the farm, Dylan struggled to his feet, clearly not ready to check out.  He was willing to take some special treats from my hand and decided that it was worth sticking around if it meant fresh steak meat and farm eggs to eat.
Remarkably, he grew strong enough to come to the barn again for chores, raid the cat food dish and even climb the hill one last time two nights ago.  He was clearly hanging on, raging against the dying of the light, until May 14, the morning of Lea’s arrival back home, when he wouldn’t accept the special treats from me any more.  When she arrived late that evening and came to say hello to him, it was clearly goodbye.  His eyes were fading, his strength waning.  But he had hung on in an old age that burned and raved.  He had made sure one of his kids was home so he could now sleep sound.
Yesterday, he didn’t get up in the morning, and laid quietly in his little house, watching the farm around him, the light fading from his eyes.   He napped in the warm spring afternoon and didn’t wake back up.  The light had flown into the skies above.
Many of us tend to measure our lives in dogs.   Dylan was the one who took us from a full house of young growing children to a house that longs for those arms to return home every once in awhile.   Dylan clearly waited for the arms he loved to come home and then he was ready to let go, going gently, oh so gently, into that very good night.

Sam watching the clouds from the hill after Dylan's death
Sam watching the clouds from the hill after Dylan’s death

The light last night
The light last night