Wolfie and Cheyenne were German shepherds, already old and infirm, who’d slept in the barn no matter how cold the night, when the author and his wife took them in.So there’s me, and I’m pulling into this unknown driveway. It’s off somewhere on the edge of Vermont, and two large German shepherds are loping my way to see what’s going on. A lot of people might want to rethink this situation.
I didn’t. I was in real estate, and just a little focused. I was showing this very house to a woman who was, well, very interested. She wanted to see this particular house beyond all things, and there was nothing much to say beyond that except “Nice doggie.”
Actually, she did say that. What I did was sort of tiptoe my way up to the house, as I wondered how these dogs would feel when I let myself in.
As it happened, the dogs showed me right to the door and waited expectantly while I tried to find the right key. As soon as the door began to open, they bulled ahead and pushed their way inside. I later learned that this was because the dogs were never allowed in the house, and simply seized the opportunity.
And the dogs did love being in the house.
Actually, the woman did, too. With good reason: The atrium-style living room wrapped around a fireplace that looked out at the wilderness through large picture windows. She kept walking around saying, “I love it, I love it.” Then she stopped, looked out at the hills beyond the lake outside, and said, “I love it. The problem is, it’s not … near anything.”
I agreed. The difference was, that was exactly what I loved about it. I said goodbye to the dogs–and the woman–and took my wife, Ann, out to see the house the next day. We bought it that weekend. The dogs welcomed us to our new home.The only thing left was to work out a few extras with the owner: rugs, boats, tools, lawn furniture, the all-terrain vehicle, and the dogs, whom we now knew as Wolfie and Cheyenne. The dogs? Yes, the dogs. They had, she said, actually belonged to her partner, a man named Todd, who had passed away less than a year earlier. “Died right there in that closet,” she observed. Just possible that’s why she was selling the house in the first place.
Got it. But the dogs were his dogs, she said, and they were old dogs, probably 10 or 11, and she was going to try to give them “away.”
It didn’t seem promising. People don’t usually adopt dogs of that age, much less big dogs like German shepherds, who don’t usually live much beyond that. It wasn’t looking good for Wolfie and Cheyenne. However … I caught a quick glimpse of Ann’s face, and without even discussing it, said, “We’ll take the dogs.”
And we did. It was a weak moment, but in retrospect it was one of the best things we ever did. Ever. Having two dogs is a lot more than twice as much fun as having one dog. You have twice as many dogs who love you. And love us they did.
The dogs were in terrible shape. Wolfie had a bad case of Lyme disease; Cheyenne had not only Lyme but a serious case of heartworm as well. Both were full of ticks and other parasites and appeared to be underfed.
Ann went right to work. After both were rigorously attended to by the local veterinarian–Dr. Mary Menard, a great lady we came to know well–Ann began a daily regimen of eggs in the morning and chicken at night. “Just for the time being,” she said. “Just for the time being.”
That “time being” lasted forever, and both dogs fell hopelessly in love with the same woman I’d fallen in love with some years earlier, when she took me in. Ann not only fed them, she took them on walks and talked to them and played ball with them–and let them in the house. Until now, they’d been outdoor dogs, and even in the dead of winter had simply slept in the unheated barn. No more. There were now big dog pillows in the house, and two very happy dogs sleeping on them. Wolfie, the ferocious-looking male, was now permanently attached to my wife’s knee, and Cheyenne, his mate, spent her days largely trying to entertain Ann with balls, toy bears, and new tricks.
It was hard to know how long either of them would actually live, but it would be great just having them as long as we could. Our neighbor Donnie Hall, who knows about such things, said not to worry, that at some point Wolfie would just crawl off into the woods and die, because that’s what these types of dogs did.
And, shortly after that, came the day Wolfie didn’t come home. Nor did he the day after that. On the third day, Ann and I were about to have dinner, and Ann was saying grace. Her voice not quite cracking, Ann made the suggestion that Wolfie should be in heaven.
At that moment, there was a knock at the door. It was the young daughter of our neighbor from about a mile away. She’d come over on her ATV to tell us that their dog was in heat and that Wolfie had been there for two days now–and that they’d already had four Wolfie litters and didn’t need a fifth. And could we maybe just come and get him?
I did. With some difficulty, because Wolfie certainly was in heaven and wasn’t pleased to leave.
Still, it was too good to last. One Sunday afternoon, Wolfie began to gasp, and then lay on his side, breathing heavily. It was time, and we took him in, Sunday or not, to Dr. Menard.
We called Donnie, who knew Wolfie well; he fired up his backhoe and gave him a nice burial. Ann made a lovely cross with a portrait of Wolfie on it, and planted some forget-me-nots. It was, at that time, one of the single hardest things I’d ever done in my life. Ever.
We loved that dog. Short time, long love. Remarkable.
But we still had Cheyenne, and though her muzzle went gray within a month of Wolfie’s passing, she really began to come into her own. Suddenly, Ann and the dog weren’t just Mummy and Cheyenne anymore. They were friends. Close friends. Girlfriends. And they did everything together. Ann couldn’t go anywhere that Cheyenne didn’t want to be.
Ann liked to take one of the rowboats out on the lake to the float, where it was deep, so that she could swim. Now Cheyenne had to go, too. Into the rowboat, onto the float, into the water, back up on the float, back into the rowboat, back to the dock. Every day. The girls.
When Ann would sit in her studio and paint, Cheyenne would sit in her studio and watch. When Ann would go upstairs and watch Law & Order before going to sleep, Cheyenne would go upstairs and watch Law & Order before going to sleep. And if I put on a late football game, Cheyenne would groan loudly until I changed it back. Which I always did, because it became difficult to hear the game.
And they always had two, sometimes three, walks every day, down the long dirt driveway from our house, down to the final tree, and then back. And Ann, as always, would have her camera with her and would take pictures of Cheyenne. Every walk, every day. Ann has pictures of every walk she ever took with Cheyenne. Some of them became paintings.
Yet Cheyenne did begin to grow older, and how old we never knew. On one trip to the vet, Dr. Menard told us that she was probably two years younger than we thought. Two years?
This was as big a gift as I can ever recall, being given two more years of Cheyenne, just when we thought the end might be near.
But Todd’s kids, who still came by to see her from time to time, said it wasn’t so. The vet’s records were wrong, they claimed–that Cheyenne was really just a year younger than Wolfie. Who knew for sure? We didn’t, and Cheyenne never let on. But she looked and seemed, most of the time, awfully good for a girl who’d had 50 puppies and was 12 years old. Or 14. Or 13, our best and favorite guess.
And she remained playful. She would actually play ball–meaning that she’d nose the ball out eight or ten feet to whomever she was playing with, and then catch it, and nose it out again. She’d play three-cup monte, too–meaning that we’d hide a ball under one of three cups and move the cups around. She delighted in nosing over the correct cup.
In the beginning, Todd’s kids told us, “That Cheyenne, she’ll play ball all day long.” Not now, not all day anymore. But she’d play ball.
And then one day, Cheyenne began to hack. Not badly, and not all the time. But it reminded us of when she’d had heartworm, of when we used to have to keep her in a crate most of the time, so that the medicine itself wouldn’t kill her.
And so we took her to see Dr. Menard, who had been seeing her–and her puppies–for however many years it actually was. Ann listened to her heart, listened to her lungs, and finally recommended an x-ray.
It showed cancerous nodes on Cheyenne’s lungs. Dr. Menard said it was only going to get worse, and probably soon. We could take another x-ray in a month, but only if she lasted that long. The prognosis wasn’t good. It was four years to the day since we’d moved into our house.
The next two weeks were long, yet they somehow flew by as we tried to deal with losing someone so close to us. We couldn’t take long walks down the driveway anymore, because Cheyenne couldn’t endure it. She’d go partway, sit down, and bark at the other dogs within earshot. The other dogs would, after a respectful moment, bark back. They seemed to know. Cheyenne would turn around and walk home.
We finally set a day, a Saturday. And then, on the Wednesday before, she rallied. We sat in our living room with her and talked about it, and Ann said, “She’ll tell us when it’s time.” Cheyenne got up, walked into the other room to her bucket of toys, grabbed a ball, and walked triumphantly back with the ball in her mouth.
We postponed our Saturday trip. Donnie came by the next night to say goodbye, and was greeted by a girl who he pronounced had a good year ahead of her. We spent the next half hour telling Cheyenne stories. The evening ended with Chloe, Donnie’s enthusiastic Labrador, coming in and knocking over everything except Cheyenne. Then it was time to go.
As it turned out, it was time for Cheyenne to go, too. On Saturday, she ate hardly at all, and on Sunday, she ate even less. Ann called Dr. Menard, made a tentative date for Monday, and went to bed at 7:00. That wasn’t unusual. Ann is a nurse who works the overnight Sunday-to-Monday shift, and on the nights she works, she catches a few hours’ sleep first. I wake her up at 10:00.
When I woke her up that night, she said, “Why did you come in and wake me at 9:00?” I told her I’d done nothing of the sort; I’d been downstairs watching a basketball game. “That’s not true,” she said. “You came up and stood at the door and said, ‘It’s time.’ So I got up and started getting ready, and then I realized it was only 9:00, so I went back to bed. Why did you wake me up at 9:00?” I told her again that I hadn’t. “Well, somebody did, and if it wasn’t you, who was it?”
The only person I could think of was Todd, that his spirit had come by to tell Ann that it was time. It was time for Cheyenne.
We put Cheyenne down the next day at noon. Even Dr. Menard’s eyes were puffy, after all the years she’d known her.
I have nothing new to add to the death of a well-loved dog. If you’ve been through it, I don’t want to bring it back for you. If you haven’t, I can’t begin to help you understand. What it is, really, is putting an end to someone totally devoted to you, and who trusts you just as totally. You can only hope that you’re totally right. In Cheyenne’s case, I believed we were.
We have things we’ll try to do to take her place. There’s a monastery near here that’s famous for raising German shepherds. We’ll volunteer there, help with the puppies, and maybe one day take one home.
But there is such emptiness now. Even the cats don’t eat quite right. Even the birds on the feeders, beneath which Cheyenne used to sun herself, seem oddly silent. The house is quiet, the lake is quiet, the world is quiet.