A Great and Terrible Sadness [Revised]

youngish John H. Farr with dog

Guess who still has her choke chain

Something deep and dark has found me. The trigger came yesterday morning when I remembered Lady the Wonder Dog (above). The locale in that photo, though probably irrelevant, is Camden, Maine in ’78 or ’79. A few years later my wife went on sabbatical, and we were set to go to Europe for six long weeks—or was it more? The only problem was the dog.

My wife had planned her musical pilgrimage for years. We’d be going to London, Amsterdam, Cologne, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Florence, and Paris. All on the cheap, of course, the only way for us to manage it. (I’m talking scary cheap!) We even moved out of our house and stored our belongings in my grandmother’s garage to save the rent money for the trip. We had another place lined up to move to when we got back, an old colonial manor house on the bay, but we couldn’t find anyone to take Lady in while we were gone. That left boarding, but no one was prepared to keep a dog that long.

Finally, as we were getting desperate, we learned about someone who had a farm and boarded horses. As it turned out, he was open to long-term boarding for Lady and wouldn’t charge too much. We made arrangements. As awful as it sounds, we had to drop her off by chaining her to a gate without ever meeting this person and simply trust that everything would be all right. I can’t believe I did this, but I did.

The trip was long and strenuous and probably incredible. I thought about Lady and our new home every day.

I remember so clearly driving back out to the farm to pick her up when we returned. Again I’d only spoken to the man by phone; he couldn’t be there for some reason, just the same as when we’d left her. He told me where to go inside a certain barn, and there she’d be. I forgave that, anxious as I was to get her back, but what we learned was horrible. It looked as if she’d spent the whole time we were gone inside the dark and empty barn we found her in. Lady took a long, long time to recognize me. I was shocked. She was like a different animal. Had she even seen the sun? It was obvious that no one had spent time with her or taken her for walks. That was heartbreaking, but at least we were all together again.

It’s a good thing I never met the man who did that or I might have killed him. Perhaps I’ve done so in my sleep.

Oh, what turmoil and disruption followed. The rental deal fell through and we had to borrow an apartment for a while until we found another. Eventually we had a home again. Lady got better, but she never was the same. Within a year she developed cataracts and started going deaf. Soon her hips went bad the way they do sometimes with German shepherds, and she had trouble lying down. The spirit of my friend returned, her health did not. All at once, it seemed, she’d become a poor old dog.

Then came the afternoon she stood there looking at me, wagging her tail, and shit a great big pile in the middle of the rug without skipping a beat. Angry and scared, I drove her to the vet. He was kind but told me Lady’s time had come. It was all over in a matter of seconds. I stood there stroking her head as she went limp. Me, who’d raised her from a puppy. There was no place to bury her where we lived. I came home with a collar.

That was thirty years ago. Yesterday it all came back and hit me like a freight train. I knew I had to write about this and wanted a photo of Lady for the post, so I drove to the storage unit to find the plastic bin with all the artifacts. So many photos, so many slides… Naturally, I couldn’t believe the things I found: pictures of me at age sixteen building trails in Olympic National Park, slides from trips to Mexico and Germany, photos of friends and family when everyone was thin and sexy. There were images from everywhere we’d ever lived in Maryland. The gardens, all the things we planted. My beautiful wife was right there by my side. (Look, I’m even smiling!) The richness, depth, and glory of our lives was overwhelming. In the fifteen years we’ve been here, I hadn’t looked at any of these until that afternoon. Everything made me cry. These emotions go way beyond my years with Lady. Something buried deeply in me wants attention and is forcing me to look.

Taos is in many ways a life-quiz. The mountains get you close to energy and mystery few people know. This is to be prized above all else. One can dedicate one’s life, and so on, and in important ways I have. The images I have of this adventure on my hard drive are a revelation, too. But compared to the totality of all that’s gone before, there’s something vital missing. What if I’m the one who’s shut up in a barn?

  • Marti Fenton Whitedeersong May 22, 2014, 11:57 AM

    Yesterday, coming back from the post office I had a sudden attack of homesickness for the way things used to be. Taos is not the power place it once was. Perhaps, no place is. The creativity, hope, and sense of belonging has faded away while the violence and poverty remain. Maybe its just my time to move on. Animals hold the truth of our souls. I feel for you and felt like crying in reading this. When we betray our animal friends it is also a betrayal of our own connection to the good things of this world.

    • JHF May 22, 2014, 1:23 PM

      “Almost cried”? I cried all yesterday afternoon! (At the time, I didn’t think I was betraying her, of course…) But this is something really. Lots more than Lady, certainly.

  • Rita May 22, 2014, 3:27 PM

    Damn. I was already crying. I have been reading a book by Freeman House called Totem Salmon. He is one of those amazing souls dedicated to restoring the salmon rivers. So when I just now read that the last big old growth Alaskan rain forest is slated to be clear cut, I started bawling.

    And then I read your post. I see it, too. Everywhere is changing so fast. It is dying. Was it worth it, I wonder. I also jetted around, drove a million miles, had four kids, used a ton of resources, and I am far more frugal and eco-sensitive than most. I, too, am responsible for dogs that were not cared for because of my leaving. I am so sorry about Lady. You could not have known.

    So I sold everything, as I have said before, and went looking for a better place, because it is a heart break to see everything slipping away. I think you might like it here in Ashland, Oregon. I am sure it has changed, too, but still it is pretty nice, and all kinds of music, and art. I think it is hard to make new friends at this age, but you could certainly find good housing and there is wilderness nearby, and the ocean is not far.

    • JHF May 22, 2014, 3:35 PM

      Thanks. Good point on the dying. So much is on the cusp of major change. I like that about the isolation here. Just took a look at Ashland. Nice! One of my old-time commenters was from west of there, I think, and had a little, uh, farm, a few years back.

  • Carmel Glover May 22, 2014, 5:36 PM

    No wonder the guy didn’t want to meet you!

    • JHF May 22, 2014, 5:45 PM

      One could say that, yes!

  • Bob May 22, 2014, 7:13 PM

    Very touching and thought provoking piece, John. You rarely fail to move me with your posts.
    This one made me think about my little home town in Southern Colorado and how much it’s changed since I left. Then I thought about my teens in Northern Colorado and how much my home for those years has changed. It occurs to me that you have to keep moving to avoid the change but by doing so, you create yet another change. And I thought death and taxes were the only certainties in life.
    You made me think of my own dog. The last time I saw her alive she in her usual night time spot in our old shed on a broken bale of hay. She wasn’t much of a dog and I wasn’t much of a dog owner, but by damn she was my dog and that was that.
    We were days away from moving to the big city. It was evening and my newly acquired step-father peered from over the top of his Shooting Times magazine as he informed me that my dog wouldn’t be making the move with us. It wouldn’t be fair to leave her with family and she wouldn’t like it in town. There was only one solution. He put down his magazine and took one last swig of beer before getting to his feet. He got my shotgun from my room. The back door slammed and I sat still and tense waiting for that sound. Muffled, it came. The back door slammed again and then the refrigerator door. He came back in and handed me a beer. He opened a fresh one of his own and went back to his magazine. I was barely fourteen.
    The next morning after everyone was gone, I crept into the shed. There she lay in her usual spot with little red-rimmed holes from the bird shot scattered across her side. She hadn’t expected a thing except for maybe an extra helping of table scraps.
    Towns and pets come and go and there’s no satisfaction in it. My satisfaction comes from being reminded how miserable the last drunken years are for the man who killed my dog. Thanks for that, John.

    • JHF May 22, 2014, 11:07 PM

      Jesus, what a story. Well done. I think I’ll just leave it there.

      The thing with Taos is a thing with me. It’s all about walking out of the barn.

  • Duncan May 22, 2014, 10:45 PM

    I too had a special friend, two actually.
    One old, whose time was up and one, a German Short-haired pointer, not so old who needed to see the vet.

    My pointer, it turned out was terminally ill.

    I felt them both go limp, and returned home with nothing except an emptiness in my soul and tears running down my face.

    Just “talking” about this once again brings me to the brink of tears.

    • JHF May 22, 2014, 11:13 PM

      I guess I really struck a chord here. I wonder what that means.

  • Dean Hanson May 23, 2014, 1:19 AM

    A mere star on a Twitter post would be woefully inadequate for the feelings your writing has evoked in me tonight. Sixteen days ago the life of my dear, sweet, deaf and old “Doc” ended in a similar manner. Your posting of this the day after “Doc” came to visit me, for the first time ever in a dream last night, makes me believe powers much stronger than coincidence are at work here. Doc was a nearly fifteen year old Border Collie Heeler cross, white with blue merleing and blue eyes, a sign of a propensity toward deafness. This is most likely why his was turned over as a puppy as an owner surrender to the shelter. We knew this and adopted him anyway. He became ours and our then four year old daughter’s best buddy. As his deafness became evident we began to use hand signals to communicate with him. Sit, stay, come, lay down, eat, no, go-for-a-walk, go-to-bed, his name, good dog and I love you, all of which he understood and responded to were learned and used by all of us. As the years and seasons, measured by holidays rolled past, Doc developed pains in his joints, begin to lose his vision and developed severe separation anxiety as he lost his connection with all he had known. He would startle easily and as his illnesses progressed began to lose fur and developed a smell as if rotting from the inside out. Toward the end he lost recognition of all but me, often growling and snarling and occasionally snapping at everyone but me. He spent his final weeks curled up mostly sleeping, to avoid his pain on the floor beside my bed where I could easily reach down an touch his head to help a tremor pass or remind him he wasn’t alone when he was suddenly frightened. As much as I hoped God would take him, for whatever reason he choose me to show Doc how much I loved him by ending his pain…
    And then it was done. The last thing he saw with the remainder of his fading vision, as I began to feel him go limp in my arms was the hand signal for “I love you.”
    I don’t ever recall having a dream with Doc in it during his entire life. I don’t consider that unusual since I don’t seem to be much of a dreamer. Last night I dreamt, or was awoken by two bumps to the side of the bed, much like Doc, with his poor vision would make while circling to lay down next to the bed. In my (un)conscieness I reached down and felt his tall ears and scratched between them feeling the fur, puppy soft and perfect. My hand naturally dropped to his mouth where it got two long licks with none of the scent of rotting breathe which I remembered from a little over two weeks ago. My hand then traveled back toward his ears for the second scratch which always followed the licks, but he was gone.
    I have been told their is a Buddist belief that pets hang around for about sixty days after their passing where they were happiest. I don’t know if its true but I have talked to others who have been visited. Maybe it was my minds way of dealing with his passing or what I want to believe, is Doc came back to tell me it’s all ok, I’m better now.
    Thanks John, I never would have taken the time to write this without your prompting. It’s all ok Doc.

    • JHF May 23, 2014, 8:36 AM

      Thank you for this, Dean. What a tale and what a dream. I’m especially glad that something I wrote prompted this deeply felt response, and that you and others feel free to share.

      I had no idea dogs could learn that much sign language, but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Lady would just do what I told her, as in “Go to your spot,” etc. I’m thinking I’ll write some more about Lady, whose actual life was barely touched on here.

  • Katy May 23, 2014, 3:58 PM

    Because the pain of mourning our pets it so sweet, accessible
    and so much less dangerous. Same goes for loving them.

    • JHF May 24, 2014, 12:17 AM

      One is encouraged to think in symbolic dream terms. I try to be skimpy with the clues, but it’s all there.

  • terri o May 25, 2014, 10:58 PM

    You, Johnny are quite the fine looking young man.

    • JHF May 25, 2014, 11:41 PM

      Was just thinking the same myself. If only I had known that then. I have a lot of catching up to do.

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