Essay by Lindsay Schumacher and illustration by Sam Morton
I am the person stopping traffic to help a turtle cross the road and the one pulling over to chase down the kitten in the ditch. I would like to say it is because I am such a good person, but the truth is that it is some sort of natural compulsion that I was born with. My father would often say “You can’t bring home every stray you meet;” which I admit was a rather valid point in regards to a few past boyfriends and the one time I picked up a rabid raccoon that in my defense seemed to have merely been sleeping soundly. This innate desire to help has always trumped my voice of reason; thus, I have been labeled by those who love me most as having a major case of rescue disorder. I personally view it as a gift that has enabled me to cross paths with amazing lives that have enriched mine beyond measure. There is a rare beauty that can be seen of another living being when you look into their eyes and see their soul staring back at you. This is what I experienced the day I met Red.
It was the winter of 2007; I was extremely pregnant and nearing the end of a graciously endured (if I do say so myself) four-month bed-rest sentence. I was in desperate need of a reprieve. I concocted a plan to make a quick escape to the convenience store up the street. There was no doubt that this solo freedom ride would cure all my woes but first I had to convince my level-headed husband (a.k.a. the aforementioned voice of reason) that there was simply no harm that could come from my fabulous idea. He hesitantly agreed. I rapidly waddled to the car and away I went. Windows down. Hair blowing in the wind. Willie Nelson on the radio. On the Road Again. Finally.
As I pull into the gas station, I notice something in front of the pump. I put my car in park and quickly realized that this object is actually a dog lying in a tightly woven fetal position. Scared. Lonely. Emaciated. The gas attendant explained that this poor animal had been lying there all day. So, I do what any other practical 8.99-month pregnant human would have done—I summon the man to help me load this poor creature in the back seat of my car. The dog was extremely weak and severely malnourished. He was so tired that he could not stand on his own. As we carry him, he looks up at me with the most grateful eyes revealing a gentle nature yearning to love and be loved. I drove house to house trying to find his owner only to find out that he had been wandering around this vicinity for weeks. One neighbor proudly explained in detail how he had “kicked and beaten” this dog numerous times to keep him away from his yard. This dude had no idea that the only thing that saved him in that moment from me doing the same to him was the fact that I was wedged behind a steering wheel with a baby in my womb, very swollen ankles, and a worried husband at home. The one that I promised to never exceed our three animals rule. We were at full capacity with two dogs and a cat. Uh oh. Voice of Reason.
No Vacancies. That is what my husband said initially but he agreed it could stay until we could find his owner. I am not sure if this was a direct result of his thankfulness that I had survived my solo freedom ride, an epiphany of sorts succumbing to the fact that life with me would always be a zoo, or the fact that behind his prudence is a heart of gold that spoils me rotten. Most likely all three and for that I was thankful because with each mounted sign, shelter registration, and day that passed it became increasingly evident that this dog was already home.
His pleasant demeanor caused our other animals to instantly welcome him to their pack. He possessed a wise spirit and old soul at his ripe age of two or three years old. As his body filled out so did the beautiful markings of a full-blooded red tick coon dog which was funny considering he never once barked. Ever. I often wondered if he had possibly been someone’s hunting dog who failed miserably at the task at hand so was dumped out and left to fend for himself. This was later proven to be a plausible theory when upon X-ray his entire body “lit up” with birdshot from an old, close–range gun wound. He had a distinct notch on his left ear that perfectly matched that of a raccoon that obviously won the one-sided battle with a dog that naturally was too nice to live up to his hunting heritage. It was amazing how his awful past never broke his positive spirit. Everyone who met him immediately loved him. There was just one thing we could not seem to figure out—the right name. Nothing seemed to work or fit until a friend looked at him and casually stated that his name was probably just “Red.” Well, that was it! He absolutely perked up. It was the first time we witnessed what we would later term his “pony prance,” where he would jump a few inches off the ground simultaneously with his two front feet. Ol’ Red.
He joined the family like he had been part of it forever. Years of happiness. Red was gentle, smart, easygoing, and, without question, our best dog ever. He loved beyond measure and was intrinsically loyal. After being around him, most of our family offered to help us with our overcrowding issue but there was not a chance we could part from him. He had that kind of effect on people. His soulful gaze would hook you and his easiness with everyone would keep you coming back. He was extremely spoiled by all of us but most of all his grandmother. Each time she would visit he would instantly begin his pony prance at the door assuming she was there to take him with her. Which she always ended up doing. He was the favored grand dog, and he knew it. He had an immense love of nature. His absolute favorite place in the world was at our hunting cabin where he would spend his days sniffing around the old mulberry tree and never stray too far. In his later years, he would simply lie on the porch watching the leaves rustle in the wind and the birds that played upon it. Red was so much to so many. He was our child’s watchful guardian, playmate, and dress–up friend. Bonds were formed. Memories were made.
Thirteen years. That is how long we were fortunate enough to have Red in our lives. As he grew older, he adorably became an ornery old man. He was obstinate, only doing things when he darned well wanted and we all respected that. He earned it. Even as his hair turned gray and his hearing dwindled, he never lost his spunk.
Father time continued his march. His joints were getting stiffer and his sight was nearly gone. It had been a while since he was able to visit the cabin. He would have bad days where we struggled with the decision of whether we should help him pass. Yet it seemed as if his eyes were telling us he was not ready and in true Red fashion he would give us some “pony prances” to make the thought pass. We knew we were close, but we decided to trust our instincts, and Red. He had a plan.
Hunting season arrived. We had company coming to the cabin and Red was going to stay at my mom’s house. Those plans fell through and he came along. As I held him in my arms and began to carry him up the stairs, he looked up at me with grateful eyes revealing a gentle soul that was extremely tired but finally where it was waiting to be. We treated him like a king all weekend. On our last day, we spent most of the morning on the land and returned to the cabin around noon where Red had peacefully been waiting for us on his bed. When our eyes met, I knew instantly he was saying goodbye. My husband, child, and I spent the rest of the afternoon holding him, petting him, thanking him, and telling him what a good boy he was. He knew it was time to let go. And so, he did.
Red was buried in his favorite spot beneath the mulberry bush. And his spirit will remain in our hearts for a lifetime. Until we meet again.
As Dan Gemeinhart graciously said: “Dogs die. But dogs live, too. Right up until they die. They live. They live brave, beautiful lives. They protect their families. And love us and make our lives a little brighter. And they don’t waste time being afraid of tomorrow.”