Back in college I took classes at night so I could run my photography studio up on the south hill during the daytime. It was June and I was in my final speech class for my communication degree. I just had one more assignment to complete before graduation. The final project was a 10 page manuscript speech. This should have been no problem for me but for some reason I didn’t have a single idea for a topic!
I went through a week of procrastination and angst as I attempted first drafts on numerous topics that I ended up rejecting. I don’t know if I was too busy at the studio to focus or if I just didn’t have any good ideas.
On the due day for the final presentations I still didn’t have a manuscript. I decided to close the studio a couple of hours early and visit a friend who worked in communications. I stopped off at her house on my way downtown to class. The front door was open with a screen door so I announced my arrival and let myself in at the same time. Her toddler son came running out of his room with poop on his hands smiling and shouting an incoherent greeting to me as he was headed straight toward me with both hands outstretched. I was wearing a suit and tie and was terrified at the prospect of shitty handprints on my slacks and shirt. His mother swooped in at the last minute and carried him back to the bedroom to change his diaper.
I was left alone with my thoughts in the front living room. There was a set of book shelves in the front corner and the Shel Silverstein book The Giving Tree caught my eye. I picked it up and read it while I waited. After a fresh diaper the boy and his mother returned to the living room and we chatted over a cup of tea. I still didn’t have any ideas for a speech and knew it was too late to write one. I was going to fail and not finish my degree.
I left my friends house feeling dejected and resigned to failure. I just had to face the fact I wasn’t going to pass the class and I would have to retake it in the Fall.
I sat in the back of the class and kept my eyes down when the professor asked for volunteer to go first. She made it clear that you could not go up to the podium without a manuscript. One by one I listened to my classmates deliver their speeches. It was a four hour class with a short intermission half way through. As the time passed by I sat there with a panic staring at blank pages. After everyone else had gone it was now my turn. The professor called my name and I slowly walked up to the podium with 10 blank pages. I gathered myself and balanced my weight on both legs. As I looked up from the podium I suddenly recalled the Shel Silverstein book. I also thought of my dog I had left behind at my parents house when I moved out into my first apartment. I was going to go visit him and take him for a walk after class because it was his birthday. He was turning 14 and I felt a pang of pain in my stomach thinking about how I had left him because the landlord would accept pets and I couldn’t accept staying in my parents house any longer.
A speech formed in my mouth. It was a retelling of the story of the boy and the apple tree that was giving throughout the boys life. When the boy was a child the apple tree let him climb his branches. When the boy was older he would leave for long periods of time only to return briefly. The tree let him eat its fruit and carve initials into the trunk. The tree gave everything to the boy until one day all that was left was the stump. The boy eventually returned as an older man and even then the tree gave the boy a place to sit and rest.
For 10 minutes I recounted stories of my childhood adventures with my husky-wolf dog named Thunder. I had been a lonely boy living on a remote dirt road. I asked my parents for a dog but they refused for many years. I would often go for walks alone and one day I saw a female husky with a litter of puppies. Somehow my begging and pleading convinced my parents to drive me there to take a look at the puppies.
My parents were poor and my mom worked nights and my father and I delivered three paper routes to put food on the table while he was between jobs and going back to grad school. We got to the house with the puppies. I had $15 dollars to spend on one. The woman wanted $20. My mom agreed to go back home to get the extra $5. My father had wanted the female puppy but there was a brown and white male that had quickly adopted me and it was clear that was the one I wanted.
We named him Thunder because there had been a huge thunderstorm the night before. It seemed like an ominous sign worth marking his name with. Thunder and I went everywhere together. He slept on my bed. He went running with me, cross country skiing with me, and hiking in the mountains.
As I continued giving my speech about Thunder I described with sadness the guilt I felt for leaving him at home for the first time when I got my drivers license and the process of gradually spending more and more time away from him as I grew older. Our days became separate as I got a job. Thunder would wait patiently at night until I returned home from dates or parties. We would eventually settle into a routine of late night walks under the moonlight.
Our time together gradually reached the point where I no longer lived at home and he was left waiting for me to visit on the weekends. I would come home and pick him up in my K5 blazer with the top off and we would go for a swim and swing through a drive through. I would get him a cheeseburger and a cup of water. These were special summer days together. But they were few and far between.
As I gave my speech I occasionally would look down and shuffle the pages of blank paper. Miraculously I didn’t stutter or stammer at any point in the presentation.
As I came to the end of my 10 minutes I told the audience about it being my dog’s birthday that night and that it was my intention to turn back the clock and return to my adolescent self and spend more time with my dog before it was too late. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room by the time I finished.
I choked up as I returned to my seat. I think that was what was blocking my ability to write a speech. I had missed my dog and couldn’t figure out how to navigate adulthood with the joy of just being alone in the woods with my dog.
I eventually bought my first home and moved my now elderly dog in with us. At night we would walk down Manito Boulevard to the park under the moonlight. He moved a lot slower but was always so happy be with me. My son was born shortly before he died.
Thunder made it to his 15th year but had developed hip problems that made it so he could hardly walk. He stopped being able to hold himself up to eat his food and eventually stopped eating. I couldn’t watch him suffer any longer and made the inevitable appointment with our vet. I took him through the drive through one last time and I caressed him as he faded away. I still cry just thinking about it.
It took me over 20 years before I could bring myself to have a dog again. They are such special creatures who give nothing but love.
When Sarah’s parents decided to move out here from New Jersey they arranged to fly their dog and cat and have me pick them up and watch them for a week while they finished packing for the movers. By that time Sarah and I had adopted our own four legged furry love child named Murdoch. He is a neurotic border collie but he is ours and my special friend. Her father’s Cairn Terrier was named Mac.
Mac and Murdoch didn’t get along and for a week I struggled to maintain my sanity as they seemed to make a contest out of marking territory throughout our house. Once my father in law arrived things settled down. It was clear that Mac and Andy had a strong bond and that Mac had missed his friend.
I really grew to love Mac. I enjoyed spending time with him whenever we visited Sarah’s parents house. As is always the case, the happy dog grew older and finally passed. There is something about the way a dog remains pure of heart all the way to the very end. They never lack the motivation to play and to express love even when they’re in tremendous pain.
After Mac died Andy was very sad. Andy had a stroke and we were worried about him. We finally convinced him to get another dog. Sarah knew a dog would help with his recovery from the stroke. A few months after Mac had passed they brought home a little Corgi named Bernice. Bernie is full of energy and love. She isn’t the same as Mac and Murdoch isn’t like Thunder. Each dog has their own personalities and rituals. One doesn’t replace the other but each one teaches us that our hearts have unlimited capacity to love. That I think is the greatest gift our dogs bring us. They teach us how to love without limits.
A couple of years ago my mother gave me a gift of a couple of small paintings of Thunder and Murdoch. They hang in my writing room. I think she did a beautiful job of capturing their essence. She also keeps this photo of me and Thunder. It was made while my father and I were out doing some 4×5 B&W landscape photography together.
I hope today brings you happy memories and love and joy.