As a young boy, I had a most wonderful companion. Poocher was his name. He had a dappled coat of black and gray and white, the result of an unintentional breeding of a Springer Spaniel and a Dalmatian. I grew up in a rural area, with farms and fields of what would eventually become Christmas trees. Large tracts of Scotch, red and white pine embraced by sprawling fingers of mixed hardwoods and sumac at the edge of abandoned pastures and apple orchards.
This was our playground. I climbed trees and forded little creeks and wandered into the darkest parts of the woodlands as though I were the first to discover them. Worrying about getting lost never occurred to me. At my command, “Poocher, home,” he would dart off and I knew he was going in the right direction.
If ever I met with a dangerous animal or person, I knew my companion would protect me. He already had a history of going after my dad for trying to wake me and actually bit a friend once, probably thinking I was being hurt. With this amazing dog, I always felt safe.
But young boys become wild-eyed teenagers. Off with my new friends, discovering new loves and interests, I started working, planning and living a life that didn’t include forays into our beloved playground.
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I still went out to his kennel every morning and evening—when I was home, that is—bringing him food and fresh water. More out of responsibility, I suppose. There he would wait, tail wagging, looking at me with those brown eyes, happy to see me. Occasionally, I would pat him on the head, scratch his ears or even talk to him a little. But I rarely made time to take him out and let him lead me through the woods and fields.
Then, wild-eyed teenagers become young men. Ready to conquer the world, we go forth to show all the people before us how we are going to change everything for the better. Off to the army, thousands of miles away. Never thinking of the old home, happy to be on my own. Discovering an entire new life totally free of responsibilities, or so I thought. I was in my own hedonistic heaven. I never gave a thought to anything not directly related to my so-called happiness.
Then one day, a friend came into my room. He was obviously in a sad state. When I asked what was wrong, he told me he had just gotten word that his boyhood dog had died. He spun story after story of his youth, how he trained and hunted birds with his dog, reminiscing about all the camping trips and hikes through the woods and trails. After he left, I sat there for a few moments, memories swirling in my head. I promptly called my mom and asked how things were going. At last, I got around to asking about Poocher. Though assured that all was well, I decided at that moment when I got home, I would spend more time with him.
A couple of years later found me back at the old home. There he was, happy and wagging his tail. But time touches a dog differently; I could see it in his muzzle, a shade of gray that only comes with age. He did not take off running when I let him out of his kennel. He moved slowly and deliberately, stopping in front of me. When I urged him toward the woodland, out of a sense of loyalty perhaps, he moved in that direction, but without the enthusiasm of his younger days. We stopped often so he could rest. We never did make it all the way back into our old haunts because he was having too much trouble walking. When we got home, he drank a little water, then lay down at my feet as I sat on the porch swing.
I looked down at him and at that moment, realized how little I deserved this animal’s devotion. For years, I had neglected him. I did little more than feed and water him when I was home. I could not even remember the last time I had bathed him. He shifted a little and let out one of those soft sighs that always makes me think of contentment. I gave him a gentle rub on top of his head, and his tail did one of those slow, lazy taps. First one, then two.
I decided he was too old to sleep in the kennel; that night he slept in my room on the rug. When I awoke in the morning, he was still asleep in the same curled-up position. With some uncertainty, I leaned over and gave him a pat on his back. Slowly, his head came up and I could see his eyes, still brown, but not clear and sharp as they once were. I could see years of waiting in that look. His longing expression seemed to ask, “Where have you been?” There was no judgment in that gaze, only a profound sadness.
I took him outside, bathed him, then gave him food and water. We paced around the yard a bit, me walking slowly, him by my side. Every now and then, I would pat him on the head and tell him what a good boy he was.
Several days later, he was gone. Carrying him into the woods we loved so much, I found a spot in a small clearing with maple and beechnut saplings. After placing the last few handfuls of soil on his grave, while lingering near that hallowed ground, a slight breeze began to move in the treetops. In the distance, I thought I heard a young boy’s laugh and the sharp cacophony of a dog’s excited barking.
It was difficult to leave. After all, he waited several years for me to return. He deserved better. All I could do was hope that the last few moments of his life were fulfilled by the few meager hours I spent with him.
Over the years, I have tried to take solace in the fact that every dog I have had since Poocher has had my utmost attention and care. And all those dogs have been exceptional companions. But I would give anything to run through those old woods once more—a young boy knowing nothing of the days ahead, with his wonderful companion, a motley mutt, nipping at his heels, and the absolute certainty that tomorrow, they would do it again.