Driving Miss Daisy

If there is a heaven, it’s certain our animals are to be there. Their lives become so interwoven with our own, it would take more than an archangel to detangle them.” – Pam Brown

It’s just a dog.” How often our words come back to haunt us in life. The dog in question belonged to a lady in the townhouse condo complex where I lived. Its owner an emotional woman given to theatrical displays that were often Oscar worthy. My callousness may have been unwarranted but in my mind reasonable given the fact the lady’s tiny canine companion had lived a long and what appeared to be good life. 

I was never an animal lover. Sure, as a child we had dogs and cats that appeared and disappeared with frequency, but there was never a real bond formed. Some were discarded when we moved, which was often, others, like Laddie – a beautiful butterscotch Collie – were sent to better homes. Laddie, whose life consisted of a small yard and, after he’d gotten bigger and grown out of the puppy phase, not near enough attention, was retired to a farm where he could live out his days running in fields, free from his small prison in town.

There was a dog when I was around eight (its name and gender long ago assigned to the graveyard in my mind) that spent its days chained in the front yard half insane from lack of attention. I don’t know what happened to this poor pup – one day it was there, the next it was gone. I do recall it’s desperate cries for affection. Cries that went unanswered. The image of this sad animal going nuts when anyone came near it – which only happened during feeding time – is a deep scar on my soul. 

One diminutive ball of fur did enjoy a privileged life in our household. When I was in my early teens, Muffin came to live with us. Muffin was a black poodle that was the first animal to enter the Sterling household and actually live out its life with one owner. I say one owner, because the dog became my mother’s only child. Muffin was treated like a princess; whatever home we occupied became her kingdom. She could do no wrong and was treated better than her human siblings. 

My mother often accused me of teasing Muffin because the dog didn’t like me. Truth is, outside of my mother, my one brother and my dad, Muffin really didn’t like anyone. She was a moody creature with the personality of sandpaper to anyone who wasn’t one of these three people. Did I resent the dog? Yes. More because it was treated better than anyone else in the household. Did I tease the dog? Of course I did. I might not have hated Muffin, but I was far from her biggest fan. The dislike was mutual. 

As she aged, and once my parents where happily divorced and the family scattered – everyone off living their own lives – Muffin softened, as did I. We were never going to be best friends, but sometimes she would come and say hi when I visited my mother. She would even sit on my lap the odd time. We came to a mutual cease-fire, me growing up a bit and realizing it wasn’t her fault she was given the role of mama’s only child; her growing old and realizing I wasn’t all that bad after all. 

She may have softened, but right up until she died Muffin wasn’t afraid to remind anyone and everyone of her place in the familial chain. A call home while I was travelling and working found my mother distraught and barely audible. Muffin had taken sick and had to be euthanized. My poor mother, the one thing she had in her life that was always consistent was now gone. My heart broke for her, and I even felt a bit of sadness for Muffin.

I told my boss I was heading home for a few days. He was angry. Is this not something that can be handled by phone? It wasn’t. He didn’t care. I explained to Mr. Bossman that family came before his business and he could fire me if he liked, but I was going. I left his trailer/slash mobile office and early the next morning caught a cab to the bus depot (Mr. Bossman wasn’t about to offer a company truck for such nonsense). 

I arrived at the bus depot only to find there were no busses heading to the small town where my mother lived until later that evening. I wouldn’t arrive until well after dark. I caught the next bus that would get me as close to my destination as possible, then I had a taxi drive me to the outskirts of that community and I hitchhiked the rest of the way. This was in the summer of ’89, and I’d been hitchhiking since I was 16. 

Standing on the side of the road with your thumb in the air seems somewhat antiquated and dangerous in this day and age, but back in the ’80s it was a good way for a young man to travel on the cheap. There were times when it took all day to move two hours (mostly because people would be going short distances but were still kind enough to stop). Other times hardly anyone stopped and the day would drag on. I was never one to just stand there with my thumb out, so I would walk until someone eventually stopped. If anything, it was good exercise. 

On this afternoon I was fortunate to be picked up quickly by a man who was going to the small town where my mother lived. Once we’d sussed each other out and determined neither was going to murder the other, we began conversing. It turns out I knew his older boy, who had been a local hockey hero in the early days of my obsession with the sport. This gentleman not only regaled me with stories, he was interested in my travels and stories as well. It was a blessing he was the one who picked me up. 

After kindly depositing me at the front entrance of the trailer park where my mother lived, I bid a fond farewell to my new friend and headed toward my mother’s trailer. I hadn’t told her I was coming. As far as she knew I was still hours away in the city, working. When I landed on her doorstep, she was happy I was there, but quickly broke down in despair over Muffin’s death. I comforted her and we spent the rest of the day (and half of the next) visiting and reminiscing about her lost companion. 

Seeing my mother so deeply wounded by the loss of her furry friend was sad, but like my experience with my condo neighbour a decade later, it didn’t register completely. I was hurting after Muffin died because my mother was hurting, I didn’t yet understand the connection, the profound and lasting love that exists between animals and their humans. The bond between two and four legged companions (I’ll be honest, I first typed pet and owner) is indescribable. 

My attitude regarding the emotional condo neighbour and her hysterical weeping weeks after her beloved Mooki died was more ignorance than annoyance. Granted this is the same woman I once found neurotically wailing on her front step one afternoon because she could see into the backyard of another neighbour’s property from her upper spare bedroom window. Her distress? The yard was a mess. After her doggy soulmate died, I figured it was simply another overreaction. 

I had no idea my words would come back to haunt me like a curse. A few years later, Daisy arrived. For so many years I was dead set against getting a dog. Sure I loved playing with other peoples’ little companions, but I was never getting one. Then Daisy and the universe decided they had other plans and my life changed forever. How could such a tiny being hold so much power over humans? I was about to find out. It may be cliche` to say, but that little golden Multi-Poo stole my heart. 

Of course there were rules to be followed when Daisy arrived. No going in the car except for emergencies and trips to the vet. No sitting on the furniture. No barking. No sleeping in human beds. Anyone who has ever loved, and I mean trulyloved a four-legged ball of fluff knows these rules lasted about five minutes. Actually, I think Daisy was forced to follow the rules for less than a week. After she was pad trained, she had the run of the house.

Any possessions – cars, furniture, stinky socks, etc. – became Daisy’s possessions. All humans in the kingdom of the dog belonged to Queen Daisy. She made it clear that anyone was welcome to share her domain and the things in it, but she was the ruler and sole decision maker. And for the most part she has been allowed to live under such construct for her fourteen and a half years (although deep down we know who the alpha is – well, I know who the alpha is). 

The years have flown by, and Daisy has gotten older. Her gait is not as strong and authoritative as it once was. Her eyes have grown dim and she has trouble seeing in the dark. Although she rarely complains, it is apparent arthritis stalks her in the early mornings and on damp days. She doesn’t play as much as she once did, and the time she spends sleeping grows longer as she grows older. Still, she can run like hell some days, and she still loves to play ball in short bursts. 

At fourteen and half, Daisy is more than 72 years old in dog years. As her face thins and her colour fades, people often remark “what a beautiful puppy.” They are shocked when they find out her age. In many ways she still does look like a puppy. But I notice the cloudy eyes and the slowness in her movement. How she bristles sometimes when you rub her hips or her back. It is during these times my heart hurts and I ponder her mortality.

When she was only a few years into her reign as Queen of the World, Daisy loved playing hide-and-seek. The game would begin with her manically tearing around the house with the the kind of joy that can only come from being well-cared for and loved beyond measure. She would race up and down the stairs, run around the living room and the kitchen, taunting me to chase her. And I would. Up the stairs, back down the stairs. Eventually I would remain upstairs and hide in the master bedroom. 

As I hid, Daisy would continue ripping around the house, oblivious to the fact I was no longer chasing her. Or maybe she knew, and I was the one being set up. Either way, she would eventually stop. I could hear her grunting downstairs as she cased out the main floor. Then the search would begin. Up the stairs and down the hall she’d run. Every room on the third floor would be thoroughly investigated. She was now Daisy P.I., Doggy Detective. 

I would stand behind the door in the bedroom holding my breath. Daisy would come in and hunt around. Sniffing. She knew I was close, my scent was everywhere, but she couldn’t pin me down. Back out she’d go, down the hall, down the stairs. I would chuckle as I listened to her running around on the main floor and then hold my breath once more as she tore up the steps and did another search of each room. Her second time around she would give a little whimper after coming up empty in the spare rooms. 

Once she made it to the master bedroom for one more search, I would burst out from behind the door. “Boo!” She would jump about a foot in the air, dart around me and head back down the hall and back down the stairs, ears pinned back, legs at full-throttle. The chase was on again. She could do this for a half an hour straight, sometimes longer. She was tireless in her youth, and playing hide-and-seek was third only to a good game of ball, which sat just behind going in the car in the order of her favourite activities. 

When she was just a tiny peanut, maybe three pounds, I would put Daisy in my jacket and zip it up so just her head stuck out. I would drive around with her like that, and she loved it. After the first few times of her letting me drive her car, Daisy wanted to go with me every time I left the house. The second I began putting on my shoes, no matter where she was in the house, she would magically appear and demand to go with me. Those times when she couldn’t go, her little heart would be broken; her expression one of deep sadness. 

Daisy loved to watch tv in her younger years. She would stand in front of the television set and give a little cry. All it took was a flick of the switch to make her content. The sound didn’t have to be on, she just wanted to see that screen flicker. It was cute. No matter where she was in the house, when she heard the clicking sound of the television, she’d go nuts and blast up from the basement or down from the third floor wailing like she was on fire.

At some point the Queen decided the tv should be turned off when she was ready to go to bed at night. You could be in the middle of a movie or a tv show, and Daisy would let you know it was time to shut it all down. She would stand by the stairs leading to the third floor and whimper. Although she often got her way, this was one battle she rarely won. Queen of the World or not, the tv went off when the two legged animals decided. 

Back when I still enjoyed the occasional beer at home, Daisy would be right there on my lap eager for a sip. The odd time I would let her lick the mouth of the bottle when I was finished. She loved the taste of Corona and hated Labbats Blue. The few times I had Blue in the house, she would run to the outstretched bottle for her taste; a quick sniff would reveal it was the cheaper stuff. She would crinkle her nose and turn her head away from me and the bottle.

The turning of the head in doggy language means I am very disappointed in you, once again you have failed your duties and let me down. Daisy has perfected this skill over the years. Take her for a ride in the car and dare to leave her in the vehicle while you run in to the store for a minute. Upon your return, you will be greeted briefly, sniffed and then given the silent treatment and a turned head. At this point you know the Queen is unhappy and you are in the dog house (so to speak). 

Same goes when you leave Daisy alone at home. She will greet you when you return, but only for a brief pat on the head and a kiss, and then she’s off to her bed to sulk, facing the opposite direction of any human in her sightline. Haircuts elicit the same response. She is a ball of fire and love when you pick her up, but once in the car, the silent treatment begins and usually lasts well after we get home. Eventually she will come sniffing around looking for an apology. 

Little did I know there would come a day when my words would come back screaming like a debt I have to pay” – Rodney Crowell (“Wandering Boy”)

The relationship between human and canine is enigmatic, it is one built on love and respect and not easily put into words. There are those who can’t fully understand, but then they have never been inside the walls of the secret society. They look upon animals as pets, but that term only cheapens a very real bond. With Daisy in the gloaming, my words from years ago haunt me. I don’t yet know the extent of the pain my former neighbour (and my mother) felt when her beloved companion passed away, but soon I will.

(February 2021)