How can I write this now? Because I must. Writing and remembering can be like a painful solace when nothing, or no one else, can help. As I write this, the same flock of starlings is back swirling around the top of the ridge. I noticed them at this time yesterday, around 3pm, before I left to get our boys at school and when, we would realize later, Lucy likely went in the woods to die. There are thousands of them and the beat of their wings is like rising laughter and applause. The sun, also, is shining again after a gray drizzly night and morning. After our search before the cold, dark rain set in, and so much worry and fear of the inevitable, Temple found Lucy in the woods this morning, not far from the edge of the field where she was last seen sunning herself.
Lucy in her new home, by the fireplace in Kentucky • January 2008
Lucy was my friend and silent companion. She was a beloved member of the family who never complained. She was a large and lovable bullmastiff who would nuzzle bunnies and let our boys clamor all over her as toddlers, never nipping or bothered once. About the time our son Henry was born, and while she was recovering from her hysterectomy (ghastly thing, we realized later), my father sent four small stuffed TeleTubbies as a baby gift for Henry. When we came home from an outing, we found that Lucy had taken each one and made a small nest of them in the living room. She never chewed them, as young dogs will do with stuffed animals, but had brought each gently by the neck to a small bed she had made in the middle of the carpet. Hormones are a powerful thing. She would have made a fine mother and we somewhat regretted our decision to change that (except for that roaming unfixed lab on Main Street who wouldn't leave her alone).
I’m convinced, if necessary, that Lucy would have defended any family member to the finish but she was never presented with the opportunity. The bullmastiff, a cross between the English bull dog and mastiff breeds, was bred to patrol the perimeters of English estates to keep watch for poachers. If they came upon one, they would knock them over and hold them by the neck until their master came and called them off. Think of the bullmastiff as a stealth bomber in the animal kingdom: they are gifted at watching and sneaking up on you unawares. In many ways, Lucy was more mastiff than bull dog with her large leonine stature and longer jaw. But she was as gentle as a kitten.
Lucy in the grass behind our Kentucky home • Spring 2008
Twelve years ago, just before Thanksgiving, my husband, then 8-year old daughter Addie and I brought four-month old Lucy home with us. I had just learned of this majestic breed when seeing a person in town walking her dog down the road. It was faun-colored with a black, slightly smashed-in, wrinkly face. There was great beauty in this juxtaposition of features. I stopped the car to ask: “What kind of dog is that?” I had always wanted a bull dog but had read that their popularity had bred in things like bad hips and respiratory problems.
A bullmastiff seemed the next best thing. Thanks to the wonders of a recently installed dial-up Internet I was able to research the bullmastiff breed a bit more: devoted, not prone to barking (important in a small village), loving, large, great with children, relaxed (think major "Type B" dog personality). We soon found a woman within driving distance who had a pick-of-the-litter bullmastiff that she had decided not to keep. Overwhelmed with another child of her own, Lucy’s mother and several other dogs, the breeder realized one more pup was too much. Within two weeks we had Lucy.
On that rainy weekend we drove up to meet Lucy, not sure yet that we would be bringing her home. When the door opened, there she was in the front entry as if waiting for us. She looked at us with her deep brown eyes, quietly taking us in as she always would in her lifetime. Then she scampered off under a box. The house was in chaos: Lucy and her mother and siblings were getting into a box of cereal in the kitchen and ripping it to shreds, there was a baby crying, the usual family scene with several large dogs running around. Lucy was only four months old and yet had an older, wiser serenity about her amidst the clamor. At one point I remember her sitting apart from the cereal box onslaught--just watching it. While she had been well cared for, it was easy to see that we would be doing her a favor, and ourselves, by bringing her into our home. On the hour ride home, she crawled into my lap, fell asleep and stayed there. I was in love.
About a year ago, Lucy started to lose weight but only recently had it become more pronounced. As I look back at pictures of her from the past year, I see how rapidly her stature continued to diminish. We brought her to Kentucky last December and she adjusted beautifully. As long as she knew where I was, she would stay close to home on the porch or back field or inside. In the spring, she still had energy for walks and we took several around our farm. She did not patrol the borders like she did of our one acre in Hancock—often straying over property lines to visit a neighbor or the library. Her homing device was never good and we frequently had to go pick her up, just a street away.
On one occasion when she was young she ran off for the night after the annual fireworks display which boomed over the village from the lake. Since then she had also been terrified of thunder and any loud noises. Last April on the ridge we had a terrific spring thunderstorm that came up very quickly. We were not home, she was outside and off she went. The storm brought in a spring cold front: it was raw and rained for the entire weekend. When were just ready to give up looking a neighbor on the ridge, whom we'd happened to meet on the road the day before, drove in the driveway with Lucy. Here was this aging, frail dog who had walked four miles down the road from fear and was found curled up sleeping in a pasture, wet and cold. The neighbor said it was lucky that the sheep farmer next door had not seen and shot her. We were grateful we had met the neighbor just the day before to tell him about Lucy or he might never have noticed her. I was so thankful and knew that God had given us some more time with this magnificent dog.
The last picture taken of Lucy (by Addie) • July 2008, in the myrtle
We had another eight months with Lucy. It was a precious gift. We brought her back to New Hampshire for one last time (for all of us) in our old home for the summer. It was her second, long cross-country trip in less than six months and she was an excellent traveler. Back in New Hampshire she stayed mostly on the porch or in the kitchen, enjoying long drinks from the frog pond or the cool shelter of the myrtle bed where she loved to hide out and watch us, thinking we didn't see her. A few times when my husband was away, she slept on my bed upstairs, especially during summer thunderstorms. She clearly remembered her old house. She may have visited our neighbor Andy, on occasion, or made a "deposit" or two behind the town library next door (something she had done with alarming regularity the following year) but mostly she kept close to home. Several robin families even nested and raised their babies on our porches and were never as bothered by her presence as they were by ours. On return to Kentucky on August 1st, this time for good, we celebrated Lucy's twelfth birthday later that month. I knew that this, also, was a gift for a breed of dog that often doesn’t live past eight. Lucy has always defied the odds.
Yesterday was the first day I was out of the house in weeks. Having been sick myself, Lucy and I have recently curled up together in the den, she on her bed by the fireplace, me in the cushy old chair. Yesterday I got lunch for a crew of people helping take down an old barn. I even dropped the casserole dish, which landed right side up, and was able to still stick in the oven (I have never dropped food in the kitchen before and seemed unusually rattled). I had Lucy help me clean up what flew out of the dish, thinking she might enjoy the bits of turkey and noodles (we rarely gave her table food). How was I to know it would be her last supper?
Lucy and the children • Hancock, New Hampshire • Christmas 2003
After lunch I went in my office. Lucy came in, as she often did throughout the day, around 1:30pm to check on me. “Do you want to go out, Lucy?” Usually she will come up to my desk where I will pat her and nuzzle her face. But she just looked at me with those eyes and turned around and walked out again, as if she wanted me to follow her (I am sorry now that I did not). Given the chronology of who saw her last and when, I don't even know how she got out of the house again because I checked with our aunt and she had not let her out. We figure it may have been one of the workers coming in to use the bathroom but I'll never be certain. It's the kind of thing I do when I'm wondering "why?" and "how?" and "when?" Useless thinking, really.
At 3pm my husband came home. I was planning to get our boys from school, my first time in weeks, but he had come back to offer and was holding off on bulldozing the old leaning tobacco barn over until they were home. (How I wish now I had let him get them as I may have been able to be with Lucy or found her sooner.) I looked at Lucy’s bed on the porch and didn’t see her so I asked Temple if he had. “She’s sunning herself on the hill.” He went back to preparations for the barn demo.
As I went to the car, determined to get out of the house for the first time in a while without coughing, I was overwhelmed by the sound and clamor and darting of easily a thousand starlings flying about overhead and in the trees. Usually when I go to the car, or come home again, Lucy is right there to greet me. Not yesterday and I didn't think to say goodbye to her as I often did, reassuring her that I'll be home again soon. When I came home at 4pm, and she was not waiting on the lawn, I sensed something amiss but figured she was now in the house so I just waited in the car for the boys to change. At 4:45 after the barn was raised and I came home ahead of everyone else. That is when I noticed Lucy was gone. We looked around until an early winter dark. Calling was futile as she had gone deaf--but we did it anyway.
Lucy photographed surveying her domain a day before she went missing in an April 2008 thunderstorm. I had an ominous feeling when I took this photo, but thankfully she was found a few days later.
I drove on the ridge when all that time I should have known that she was close by. There had been no thunder to scare her and she has been so deaf the starlings likely didn’t even bother her. We left all of the outside lights on, feeling otherwise helpless, and I had a fitful sleep hearing the cold hard rain coming down. I checked the ridge again this morning. And we looked closer to the house again, too, and I asked my husband to check the woods and ravine behind the house. He came back a few minutes later. She was not far behind our home, just inside the woods near where she often sat and slept and watched her domain. She was not a woods girl unless accompanied and she had gone off to die. As I write this I am relieved to know what happened, but it doesn’t make the pain any less. I needed to see her and so we both went back to the woods together. There had been no struggle. She is now under shelter, where I have visited her again, and we will bury her tomorrow near where we hope to build one day, on a piece of Kentucky land that has become our home.
Lucy and her frog pond (with our boys and their cousins) • June 2007 As a toddler, our son Henry fell in the pond and Lucy went right in there with him, despite her not liking to swim or get wet.
Lucy never complained, she never cried, she barked only a handful of times when someone came into the yard that she didn’t know, and then only rarely. She always had a soft wet nudge for people that she liked and remembered. She was devoted and dutiful and loving and truly a most precious being on this earth. She has been with me through the most interesting, and often most difficult, quarter of my life so far. She was a watcher: she’d sit and wait and observe. But Christmas Day and being near the kids out playing in the yard brought out the shear joy in her. She'd get right into the thick of things as much for the fun of it as the watchful protection of the children. When I went to visit a neighbor or to the store across the street, Lucy would sit and wait, like a sentinel, in the front yard of our house.
I treated her like another daughter, really, and my own daughter, especially, bonded with her as I did. (Yes, we even had a voice for her and talked "Lucy" freely. And Addie nicknamed her "Snarf" when, as a puppy, she inhaled all of her food noisily from her dish and made, well, a snarfing noise. We also had many other names and expressions as people crazy about their dogs will do.) Addie said to me, "Mom, Lucy was a real presence in our lives...and she was never needy." She is now living in a house with a dog that whines and carries on and wants attention all the time. Lucy didn't make demands and yet she took all of us on in a way that now seems so unfair. This, I suppose, is the ultimate unconditional love of a dog for her family.
Selfishly, I hadn't taken her to a vet for her annual check-up, partly because of our move, but also because I did not want to hear what they had to say. Approaching twelve, I knew our time was limited with a large breed dog like Lucy who once weighed, at her prime, 130 pounds. This past year, especially in recent months, I knew she was at least comfortable and slept most of the time and yet I was aware that her rapidly diminishing physique was not a good sign of how she was doing. Because she never complained, she may have been in more pain that I realized.
Lucy in her favorite hillside spot in Kentucky • Spring 2008
I wish she could be here forever with us but I know that nothing is permanent. God gave us a heart to feel and to love and right now mine is breaking. I so want to hear the jingle of her collar or see her peer around the corner of my office door like she always did, and as she did when I saw her for the last time yesterday afternoon, or just curled up near my feet away from winter weather. I will ache when I look out of my office window every day and not see her on the rise of the field, like a lioness on the Serengeti. I will miss her soft, warm ears and distinctive smell.
I almost wonder if she wasn't hanging on, despite her suffering, through this transitional year to make sure we were all OK. There is something reassuring about the presence of a loved pet: they are just there, nearby, dependent but so giving to us. Despite our human frailties, they are loyal and true and fill the house with a certain spirit. What a part of our lives our pets become and yet they ask so little of us in return! I have read many near death encounters where people dying are greeted by beloved pets. I believe they go ahead to prepare a path and a place for us, with a waiting fire and a cozy dwelling place.
When I called our daughter today, whom I miss even more with Lucy's loss, she reminded me of the time when Lucy was a young puppy and came inside from an afternoon of playing with her in the snow. Lucy immediately went missing and we all searched the entire house looking for her. We soon found her in the kitchen where she had crawled up into a little basket of hats and mittens and gone to sleep. I pray that her passing was as warm and peaceful before the cold night rains came. I am only sorry I wasn't more diligent in finding her so that I might have been with her. Yet I know that instinct makes animals want to flee from their familiar when they are in pain or trying to die. I have to know, in my heart, that her spirit soared off with those starlings on a warm December afternoon on a ridge in Kentucky. I do know, with every part of me, that I was so very blessed to have had this majestic being in our lives on earth.
Tomorrow we will bury her on our new farm just across the road. We have picked a spot near where we will eventually build our house, by an old sturdy apple tree that, just yesterday morning, I made sure would be saved before the old barn was taken down. We are planning a small orchard around that one heirloom tree and eventually a kitchen garden, and hen yard, beside that. I hope Lucy will like it there where she can survey the fields and buildings and keep a watchful eye on all of us, where she will help prepare a place for us. When I walked up to the farm with my husband to look at the spot towards dusk, the same swarm that I had seen earlier of several thousand starlings gathered up in a chorus of noise and stirring of wings. From the top of the knob behind our double-wide, they flew down and settled on the lower fields and trees around us, as if in benediction.