Time Heals all Wounds - Dog Therapy and Bull Mastiffs
There is a saying, “time heals all wounds,” that has been around it seems like forever. It is the fact that the distance is put between the tragic or sad event helps in the healing process, almost like the sting from a cut, eventually scabbing over and healing back to healthy skin. But, with the healing also comes the forgetting. With the erasure of pain, and by pain, I mean the saying “goodbye” to an old friend, also comes the erasure of those memories that made our time here on earth special. In April of 2016, we said goodbye to a close friend and her name was Carmen. She was a dog. A bullmastiff to be exact. And like all the other dogs that have come into my life, she made an impact and this writing, in some cathartic way, will hopefully help me deal with her loss.
I grew up with dogs, bullmastiffs to be specific and this gentle breed has always been a part of my life. Called the “gamekeepers night dog” from the early days of England, this breed is known for it’s loyalty, strength and protection of it’s owners.
My earliest recollections of our first bullmastiff were those of “Hardy.” A fawn colored male, almost white, giant of a dog. I must have been all of 5 years old, but remember throwing stones down a large hill into a heavily wooded area and watching Hardy retrieve them. I’d laugh and throw them down into the darkness of the woods at the bottom of the hill and Hardy would run down, grab, what seemed like giant boulders to a small child, and carry them back up the hill loyally, to his best friend…me.
I was very young and his memories are faint in my mind. I can see his shape running down the hill to grab the rocks that were thrown, but cannot see his face or hear anything in my mind. I can see my Dad and Russ McDowell, an old farmer whom we had bought the land from, leaning against a fence and chuckling, pipe tobacco smoke puffing out of Mr. McDowell’s pipe as the two men discussed how to maintain the property. It’s like my computer’s hard drive has been fragmented and there is only a ghost of an image left to memory…whether this is a true memory or simply a repeated story that has dissolved into my mind like the trail of a jet in a clear blue sky, I don’t know.
It is strange how your mind makes room for the good things and filters out the sad material. During this time of my life until probably my early teens, all I can remember is warm, comforting thoughts. I know there were tough times, I know we were scolded and spanked when we were bad, but it is really hard if not impossible to recall. All I can feel is a sense of warmth and love when I recall my life at Maple Avenue in Delafield, Wisconsin during the mid 1960s. In the winter, I can remember sledding down the community hill in our neighborhood. It seemed like there were hundreds of kids there, even though I’m sure only about 20 would really make up the hillside. There would be screaming and laughing echoing all around and if you stood still and held your breath, you could hear the snow as it landed gently onto your jacket. When you got cold and the fun of being outside was overpowered by the cold temperature seeping into your body, you’d march home, shag off your clothes, grab a few hot cookies Mom had made and warm up in the den watching reruns of Beverly Hillbillies, The Wild, Wild West, Gunsmoke or Star Trek. On really cold days, when it was too cold to do anything outdoors, Mom would pull out stuff to make “craft.” This consisted of Mr. Potato Head, Play Dough, crayons and drawer liner paper to draw on. When she was really desperate to keep us occupied, she would even give us real vegetables to make characters with using the plastic Potato Head pieces. But to me, the most fun of all was drawing. Spending hours upon hours with a long, almost panoramic piece of paper, strewn across the table as I drew elaborate cities and landscapes.
When summer came, TV was a rarity except on Sunday night when Disney was on. On those nights we’d eat in the den by the TV and not at the kitchen table. Mom would fold out the metal coffee tables and we’d all watch Marlin Perkins on Mutual Omaha’s Wild Kingdom first, before the new episode of Disney aired.
I guess the thing I remember most about that period in my life is the fact that I was never alone, ever. I always had my older siblings nearby or my parents and I always felt safe. The neighborhood was our playground and as soon as breakfast was over we’d be out the door and ready for a new adventure. This consisted of playing with Hardy in the backyard, racing down the steep hill behind our house in a wagon or on a tricycle, playing “war” with plastic machine guns or sticks…depending on what was available, making cities in the sandbox and using Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars while avoiding cat dung and on the days when it was really hot, laying in the small, inflatable pool.
There were many things in life that a small child doesn’t understand. But, one day Hardy would be gone and it would be the first time I would experience loss and not understand why.
All I can remember was hearing my dad tell me that Hardy had eaten his leather leash and it had lodged in his intestines. Surgery was out of the question for dogs in those days, so they put him to sleep. I can still remember standing by his empty cage in our barn and feeling the confusion and sense of loss and sorrow, almost clearer than the memory of the dog while he was alive. His collar and nameplate inscribed upon it hung on a nail by his now empty kennel.
It seemed that my parents were always one step ahead of a trend in population growth. When they moved to Maple Avenue in Delafield, all that existed was a nearby farm and a few homes scattered about. But soon more houses were springing up and my parents needed more space. About 6 years later, in 1969, we moved to a very rural place, further west in the country, to a community called Waterville. My parents bought about 25 acres and were surrounded by swamps, woods, fields and cornfields. At night, there were no sounds of cars, only crickets, owls and frogs. On some nights, we’d hear a baby raccoon talking to her mother as they searched for prey and the sounds drifted through our screens and into our bedrooms. The deep wallow of bullfrogs on a cool summer evening while distant flashes of heat lightening lit up the horizon were typical. Being a boy, this new environment was exciting. Oh, there were so many wild creatures around and with few children nearby to play with, I made my fun alone most of the time.
Being that we were so remote, my parents felt it was time to get another big dog for protection, so my dad contacted a breeder he knew and on one warm, summer day his old friend drove out to our house with two young bull mastiffs. It was a brother and sister and we could purchase both of them together or just one…it was our call. My Dad chose the male and we named him Mack because he was built like a Mack truck, stocky and strong.
That first night was a tough one. Even though Mack would get to spend the night in my parent’s room, he was very upset and cried all night for his sister. I’d always been taught that animals were not like humans…they don’t have emotions like we do because their brains were not as developed. But Mack was clearly suffering just like I’d be suffering if I lost a family member. He actually was mourning the separation of his sister from his life. In a way, this experience gave me insight to the fact that animals do feel emotional pain like humans and this animal loved his sister.
That would be the only time I would hear Mack cry.
The next time I’d witness an animal missing another would be when I was playing hunter with my Daisy bb gun and shot a blackbird overhead. The bird died almost immediately when the bb pierced his chest and he fell directly to the ground a few feet away from me. Feeling a bit surprised that I actually hit and killed the bird, I moved closer to see my victim, but as I moved closer to the writhing creature I noticed another blackbird screeching and flying overhead. Soon this bird was flying down at me, nearly hitting me in the head. I kept thinking what in the world was wrong with this bird…then it finally hit me like the bb had hit my prey…this was family. I had killed its mate and I was being cursed, yelled at, and condemned by this other blackbird. I felt awful. This was not just some target in the woods. I had destroyed something loved by another. I had caused this bird to feel pain just like a human and this creature hated me for what I had done. There are many lessons in life. This one stayed with me forever.
For the next 3-4 years my dad made Mack a champion in the Midwest dog show circuit. I went with him and Mack to Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota, traveling from one town to another and racking up trophies and points as Mack gained notoriety. One of the key things I remember about this dog was his calmness. Nothing bothered him and when we’d go to a show with hundreds of dogs barking, flashes going off and foreign sounds everywhere, he’d sit next to us in the ring, eventually lie down and fall asleep. That was Mack. I remember my father exclaiming joyfully that after a few shows, the other breeders would see Mack coming into the ring and shake their heads. Many would just leave. Mack was going to become a champion and he had the build and temperament to do just that.
Weighing over 100 pounds, Mack was a large dog and intimidated many. One neighbor wouldn’t even come in our house and would say “get that dog out of the house or I won’t come in!” I can remember asking my mother why this neighbor was so frightened and plainly obstinate when it came to being around Mack even though he clearly showed no interest in her or aggression. Her response was that “she had had a bad experience as a child and that had scared her.” Even so, at times we’d slip and let Mack in the house when she was there, listening to yelling and shouting as we ran as fast as our tennis shoes could carry us in the other direction.
Our neighbor’s fear was not unfounded, even though Mack would never hurt someone we knew. As a teenager, there were many boring nights in Waterville. We were past the stage of wanting to spend family time together; we wanted to be with our peers and be away from the parents. But with only two working TVs and my parents having prime time control over them, we were at a loss. Many nights we’d spend out of doors, playing hide and seek with walkie talkies and flashlights, while trying not to step in a hole, be slashed by berry bushes or come home itching from chiggers. One night, about five of us were walking down our ½ mile driveway towards the house and I could see yellow glow of the outdoor spotlights shining through the woods. The dogs were out! Without light, this could be bad and sure enough, within seconds of that thought passing through my mind, I could hear growling and toenails scratching the paved driveway ahead of me as Mack charged for an attack like Napoleon’s Calvary. And there ahead of me, a mere 50 feet away, was the animal we had come to love, snarling and in full attack mode! My friends panicked and ran the opposite direction and I tried desperately to gain Mack’s attention and convince him we were not foe. Finally, he recognized my voice and the shadow silhouette that was now visible, went from being low and symmetrical to standing with his head up and tail wagging.
Being that Mack was a champion, my Dad thought it prudent to find him a mate and have his bloodline continued. I remember one night, late, probably around midnight, my Mom and Dad came home exhausted from a trip to Michigan where they found Mack his partner. Her name was Mandy and she was a brindle female that was afraid of everything. She was sweet and gentle and even though every time a thunderstorm would approach she’d run and hide under a table, we loved her.
One of my favorite memories of my Dad and our dogs was the walk we’d take religiously every evening. It was like clockwork, Dad would get home around 5:40pm from work, he’d glance at the mail, go straight upstairs and change into his casual clothes. Of course, I’d follow him to his bedroom and after he emptied his pockets and his change into an old wood bowl on his dresser (I was permitted to keep the pennies), we’d catch up on the day’s events. I can remember even following him into the bathroom…the poor man had no privacy! But, I was so excited to talk with my Dad that I was with him for the rest of the evening. Dinner was at 6pm and the whole family would be called to come to the table. Right after dinner, the dogs were fed and after a few minutes we’d go for a long walk on our property. It was usually dark, but Dad had created wide, mowed, walking trails that followed the perimeter of the property and were easy to navigate once your eyes adjusted to the stars or moonlight. I don’t know who enjoyed the walks more on those evenings so long ago, the dogs, myself or my Dad. But, those walks are solidly locked into my mind as some of the best times I had ever had with Dad. I loved to hear my father’s love for nature, his explanations of why things grew or why things died. I loved to hear about the different species of trees, birds, reptiles and mammals and his interpretation of life itself. As we walked, every once in a while Dad would whistle and call for the dogs so they didn’t wander too far off. Soon, we’d see two lumbering silhouettes running down the path towards us. As I think back now, those walks were a huge part of what shaped me into who I am today.
Because my Dad had been a sergeant in the Marine Corps during World War II, he would make a point by shouting. Sometimes, shouting loud enough for our neighbors to hear. Neighbors that were not next door, but more like half a mile away. And when Dad would try to teach something, especially to an animal like a pony or a dog, he had very little patience and usually his mouth made matters much worse. Of course, when Mack met Mandy, it was love at first sight and right away he did what animals do…sniffed her rear end. But, we were not ready for puppies yet and my Dad would scold Mack every time he even sniffed Mandy. When the day came to let them do what nature had intended, Mack wasn’t able to perform. He was an obedient dog, one who became a champion by following orders and because my father had ordered him to stay away from Mandy, all hopes of them breeding was forever gone. It was sobering and very sad to see a powerful animal, one of superior strength and a gentle loving heart, not having the ability to procreate. Eventually, Mack and Mandy both developed tumors, which were cancerous, and eventually, both dogs were put to sleep.
As kids who grew up with lots of animals and we experienced life and death on a regular basis. Usually, with the dogs, our parents would wait till we were at a friends home before taking them away to be euthanized. When we came home they were gone. We felt bad for awhile, but my Mom would distract us with something good she baked or a new toy. Other times my Dad would do the deed himself using the .22 caliper pistol to end their suffering or as my parents would say “put them out of their misery.” I personally don’t know how my Dad was able to euthanize some of our dogs himself by using a pistol. How do you look at something that you have loved for years, something that has been loyal to you and shown you nothing but affection and then put a gun to it’s head while it looks back at you and pull the trigger? I still remember coming home from a friends house to see our Cairn Terrier named Toto wrapped in a plastic garbage bag and on the woodpile, left there till the winter thaw came and the ground was soft enough to dig her grave. As I say...life in the country.
The personality of a bullmastiff is unlike any other dog. They are not like tiny lap dogs, which yip and run around a room when they get excited, jumping off chairs and running around furniture. The bullmastiff likes to stomp on the floor with both front feet and then freeze, staring at their playmate like an opponent in a chess match waiting on the next move. When you counter and hit the floor with your hands, then and only then will they jump and run, but look out, it could get messy. Usually, furniture is knocked over and saliva is thrown about, landing in your hair and clothing. The animal also usually body slams you with over 100 pounds of brute strength and muscle. Play can be rough, but it is a lot of fun if you don’t mind being tackled by a football player with four legs and an issue with drool.
Bullmastiffs are not athletes. Unlike hunting dogs and other breeds that require lots of exercise, this breed likes a walk, but only a few blocks maximum. And by no means is the exercise that of any cardiovascular workout. Bullmastiffs like to smell everything along the way…everything. They travel at their own pace and if they see something that is interesting, hold on, you’ve got a 100+ pound tank that is taking you with them!
In the mid 1980s I met my wife Sarah and we fell in love. In 1987 we were married and I feel like I misled her. You see, I really knew that even though she was not into raising a dog, I was going to get one. I knew it from the moment we decided to marry. It was like buying our first car together, our first house, our joint bank account…the dog fits in there right between the house and joint bank account. So, a short time after we moved to Augusta we got our first bullmastiff. I bought her only a few miles away from our house with a local breeder. I had told Sarah that I was just going to look at the dog and not make a decision without talking it over further with her. I think she knew that wasn’t true. Once I met this dog, she was coming home with me. Her name was Red…short for Ready…as in Ready or Not! Kind of the situation I put my wife in when I brought Red home that day in the late 1990s.
Red was sweet. And like our first child, she was spoiled by us…spoiled rotten. I remember how we allowed this large dog to sleep with us. Which as an adolescent, it wasn’t too bad. But when Red was over 100 pounds it became very difficult. What made it really tough, was when she would dream. She was always barking and running after someone. And when she dreamt, it meant either my wife or I were kicked and jarred nearly out of the bed. But, even though we knew it was not helping us get our rest, when we tried to make her sleep on the floor, she’d put her head on the bed and whimper and cry, usually causing us to succumb and then up she’d come wagging her tail and kissing us.
Like our first child, Red was our pride and joy. We took her religiously to obedience classes and she passed with flying colors getting the honorary “canine good citizen” award and her picture taken when she graduated. We’d force poor Red to wear stupid things like birthday hats when it was her birthday or elf hats at Christmas and then take her picture. Afterwards, at least we let her destroy whatever it was she had to wear.
As a young dog, Red loved to play in our backyard. I’d run, then stop, then run again in another direction. She loved that. I’d then run behind a tree and hide until she came to find me, repeating the drill until both of us were panting. I remember large plastic milk jugs were a particular favorite and she loved to crunch them with her powerful jaws. I also remember bubbles were a particular favorite and as I blew them out of the plastic wand, she’d try to eat each and every one! She loved to be be close to her human companions, by that, I mean she was very happy taking a nap next to you on the floor or laying half her body on top of you while you were watching television. My dad loved her too. Whenever I would go down to visit my parents in Statesboro, Georgia, I’d take her with me. And if my mom and I would make a run to the store, we’d leave Red with my dad. Usually when we returned dad would be stretched out on the floor with Red next to him. Like our time spent in Wisconsin, the tradition of going for a walk after dinner happened in Statesboro too. We’d explore the old path that ran behind their house and deep into the woods as the dogs sniffed, smelled and peed along the trail behind us.
The years between 1995 and 2000 were generally good years for my family. Sarah and I moved from Savannah to Augusta and I started a new job working for Morris Communications in 1995. My parents moved from Bluffton, South Carolina to Statesboro and a brand new home with 30 acres of land that same year. It was an exciting time! And, as I mentioned earlier, in 1996 we owned our own Bullmastiff. But, things don’t stay the same. If there is one thing that has sunk deeply into my thick skull about life, it is the fact that all good things must end. As the 20th Century came to a close I can remember how excited everyone was at my office. We were entering a new era, a new century! For me, the next few years would be the worst of my life.
In 1999 we found out my Dad had prostate cancer. It is devastating when you hear the “C” word, but my Dad and Mom seemed relatively unscathed by it. I remember my Mom telling me “the doctor says that prostate cancer is a relatively slow growing cancer and your Dad could easily die of something else before the cancer even takes him…like by me!” At that point, we’d both laughed and moved onto something happier than cancer. We’d put our heads in the sand and hope that it would take years before my Dad would succumb to pain and/or death. But, the doctor was wrong. Dad did not have long left to live and the cancer was spreading rapidly. Soon, he was told it was in his bones and he would have 2 years left at best. Our walks with the dogs became less and less frequent. Some days we’d just sit in the sun on the back patio. The warmth helping to calm the chill that ran inside my mind as I watched my father’s inevitable decline. We’d tell stories about our dogs and watch them sleeping at our feet…my Dad would chuckle gently.
To my Mom, as long as she fed my Dad, well they were going to beat cancer and he was going to survive. She had done this all her life as a woman, healer and mother. She was the reason I survived Asiatic Flu during my childhood, as she bribed me with toys if I’d just take one more bite of food on my plate.
She was the one who helped me shower with a trash bag around my leg when I had to have a bone spur removed on my knee and was immobile, she was the one who made slurpable blender meals for me when I had oral surgery and had my mouth was sewn up for 8 weeks while my jaw healed. She had done this with six children and innumerable pets and wild animals her whole married life. In her mind, she would make her husband of 50 years well again.
But, eventually, as my Dad started seeing childhood friends and people who had long since passed away, we realized he was on a train that was slowly leaving the station and no matter what we did, no matter how hard we tried, he would soon be gone. He was making a transition. He still loved us and at times cried out loud; something I had rarely ever heard him do, when he thought about his terminal condition and leaving the world of the living and his family. It hurt so desperately when this happened. I really didn’t know what to say or how to handle the fact that my father was breaking down…the Marine Sergeant was faltering and in pain. What can you say? Except “I love you Dad.”
As his condition grew worse and worse and his time awake with the living became less and less, my two closest siblings, Laurel in Hilton Head and Craig in Columbia, South Carolina spent more and more time helping my Mom care for him. We took turns driving to Statesboro and spending our vacation time and weekends with Mom, giving Dad morphine through patches, drops and IV to keep him free of pain and speeding up dehydration and organ failure. Our goal was to keep him as free from this miserable disease as possible. To keep him in a drug-induced coma until death came and relieved him of this horrible torment.
I didn’t celebrate my birthday on March 13th of 2000. There would be no cake or singing of happy birthday. I was dealing with a dying father and had no interest in the fact that I was another year older or celebrating anything. By this time we were all exhausted from being caregivers, sleeping when we could and grabbing something easy to eat to fill the void in our stomachs when we were hungry. Taking turns giving the doses of morphine to my Dad during the night and sitting by his bed while we talked about good times to a cancer-riddled, shrunken man that we knew and loved. Dad would breath erratically at times and I thank God for hospice and their help in educating us on the dying process. My father’s physical being was fighting to say alive, while his spiritual being was fighting to leave. And his spiritual being was winning. Even though he seemed completely unconscious and in another dimension, far away from his home and family, he came to me as he left our world. I don’t remember seeing him or hearing him, I just remember being startled out of a solid sleep and sitting up in bed. I knew he was gone, it was 4am in the morning and my Dad had passed by me on his way to somewhere else. He had let me know the struggle was over and he was alright. That I now needed to take care of Mom and the 30 acres of land and our smaller family in the south. I now needed to think more like my Dad. Just as my father’s doctor had predicted, two years after he was told he had terminal cancer he died at the age of 77.
A year later, my brother Craig, died of a massive heart attack at 34 years old. I remember thinking to myself, how can this be happening? But, as I looked into the rear of our car as we drove down to tell my mom the bad news, I felt some comfort knowing that we still had her. We still had this dog that connected me to both my dad and brother Craig. It was like, Red was a piece of their memory and when I looked at her, I could still see them.
As time went on, Red became less and less active and more reclusive. She was almost like a cat in the way she acted when guests would come to our house. When we went to visit the in-law’s home she would run to the back of the house and not return till later in the evening. And when we’d have company, they doubted if we even had a dog because of her scarceness. I’ll never understand why she became so scary of people, but to us and my mother and father she was fine.
Her joints hurt and the walks became shorter and shorter. We put her on medicines that helped with the pain, but they were short lived and we knew the day we had dreaded since she came home as a bouncy young dog was coming.
We still could do rides in the car, even though I had to carefully help lift her in to the back seat and every evening, we’d sit in the front yard and watch the cars go by. I think Red loved to watch the shapes of people walking by windows in the house across the street, but we’d usually always spend about an hour out there every night. It was something she loved to do and it was something I could do for her.
At about 13 years old Red let us know she was tired of the pain and was ready to move on. She stopped eating and was very lethargic. I knew she hurt. And even though I wanted her to last forever, I knew it was time. So, Sarah and I loaded her up in our car and made the drive to our vet’s office. I wanted to stretch this drive as long as I could. Even though I hoped our vet would have a miracle in his chest of medicines, I knew this would be our last trip in the car. Our last time with our girl before she would only be a memory. Our connection to those we had lost in our family was about to leave us too. Our vet told us what we already knew…he did not have anything else to help her and really, the only humane thing to do was to let her go. As he slowly injected her with the poison and her body became limp, I felt the overwhelming sorrow seeping through my body. I wanted to stop this. No, this can’t be happening! And then it was over. I cried for a long time after that and I remember that my wife told me to leave for awhile that afternoon while she put things away to soften the blow of the empty house. When I came home Red’s collar was gone and her toys along with her bed. We wouldn’t need them anymore and they would just stretch out the sorrow longer. Better to make a clean break. But, I’d never forget her.
She is buried by the place we used to sit in the evenings and watch cars. A stone with the name “Ready” inscribed on it marks where her ashes are buried.
After Red’s passing we decided to wait at least a year before getting another dog. And we did. We used to the time to do some traveling with a trip to Hawaii and other escapes. But, something was missing and of course, that piece of life was another dog. So, in June of 2009 I found a bullmastiff rescue organization for the southeast and started searching. Within very little time, I found a connection in Nashville, Tennessee where three bull mastiffs needed a home. From here, Nashville is a pretty long drive; about 5 hours to be exact. And all for a dog? Some would call it crazy, but with no children of our own, this was like adopting a child as far as I was concerned.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love bull mastiffs. As you have heard in my writing, they have been part of my life since I was a small child. But, it is still just a dog, it is not a human, even though sometimes I feel like the dog is gentler and kinder than most humans I have ever met. Dogs don’t ask for much of anything, except food and love. Let them know they are loved and feed them and you will have unconditional love and a friend for as long as they can be it. Which isn’t long enough in the short lifespan of a dog compared to a human. And when you have had the most rotten day in the world working with humans, being stabbed in the back by humans, being told cruel things by humans, you can come home to the safety of your home where those who care about you live. Your wife and your dog. There have been so many nights when I have left work literally talking to myself in frustration and anger. Fuming as I drove the 10 minute drive home and ready to drink myself into oblivion and stay in bed for the next day. But, as I drive my car into our carport, I notice the silhouette of our dog in the storm door window. Her ears perked and her body shifting from side to side as her tail wags uncontrollably. Work? What work? I’m home now and work and those idiots are behind me. When I walk through that door my dog will be wanting one thing – to be able to give me a slobbery kiss on my cheek and welcome me back to the pack.
So, we made it to Nashville late in the afternoon on a Saturday in June. Sarah and I were both exhausted and I had reserved a hotel room for us right off the highway. We checked in, rested for a few minutes and then went to meet Susie Hughes, the woman who had one of the rescue bull mastiffs and who I had talked to over the phone prior to the trip.
As we pulled into Susie’s driveway I noticed two large bull mastiffs outside. They were very busy and obviously young by their actions and size. We parked and went over to say hello and both dogs were friendly enough, but very distracted. Maybe there was too much stimulus, but they really had no idea we were there. Susie told us their names and said “there is one more inside if you’d like to see her?” At this point I really wasn’t sure if the trip to Nashville was worth the drive. I really wanted a dog, but these two males were not showing much of a connection to us and seemed like they would be a lot of work.
We followed Susie into her home and inside were two dogs, a smaller mixed breed and a female bullmastiff. The bullmastiff’s name was Carmen and by her looks, she had had a very hard life so far. When we came into the room she was carrying a Christmas cookie tin in her mouth. It was her toy or as Susie said “maybe because she had had so many puppies and carried them around, the tin in her mouth gave her comfort.” Either way, it was very pitiful. We noticed scars on her body where hair would not grow and her nipples were hanging well beyond normal length – a sign that she had recently nursed puppies.
According to Susie, Carmen had been found wandering the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. The vet that examined her upon her rescue said her urethra was paper thin from over breeding and that she probably had bore many puppies in her life to this point. Carmen was about 6 years old, but her body looked much older.
Immediately, she came over to us. Wagging her tail in a crooked manner, almost like a conductor conducts a symphony…two times to the left, then three times to the right and so on. All I can assume is that somehow in her past it had been broken and never really wagged properly afterwards. And as though she had known us forever, she went right for Sarah and sat in her lap. After Sarah, she came to me and did the same thing. At this point, Susie asked us if we had made our decision…this was the dog, no doubt about it.
I guess since Carmen’s life with us is recent, she’ll get an uneven amount of coverage compared to the other bullmastiffs in my life; her memories are fresh and sadly, even though I wish I could remember everything about the other dogs, I can’t.
But we almost lost Carmen. We drove the whole way home took her to the fenced in back yard and I let her loose. Forgetting one important thing…the back gate was open. Like a magnet, Carmen went straight for the gate and out to the front of the house. I ran behind, trying to figure out some way to get her attention and then I found her. She was standing next to the back door of our car where she had just come from moments earlier. Staring at the door and wanting to be returned to Nashville. Susie was her home and she had no idea who we were. I hooked her lead back onto her and brought her into our house. We’d enjoy Carmen for 7 years.
As time went on Carmen became more and more of a fixture in our house. I’d occasionally call her Red, but eventually, it was only Carmen. We’d spend time laying on the couch together watching television and going for walks together in the neighborhood.
What a joy it was to have a dog in the house again! And such an affectionate dog at that! Unlike Red, she really didn’t care to stare out at cars passing by, but she did love people and was very social. It was great to have a dog that everyone could enjoy and my mother loved her. But things were changing in our lives. My mother had developed dementia and was losing her memory. Soon we had to move her to Augusta and put her into an assisted living facility. Of course, she hated the idea and it was a battle trying to convince her that it was necessary. And even though I spent time with her almost every weekend, she was not totally happy. But there was nothing I could do. Unfortunately, I developed severe anxiety and panic attacks. I felt guilt for putting my mother into a “home” and taking her away from her spread of land in Statesboro. Soon, my health started to decline and I started having afib or erratic heart beats. These strange heartbeats were not healthy and on many occasions I had to receive special medication to bring my heart back into normal sinus rhythm. During this time, I even had problems sleeping. And spent many a night wandering the house and trying to relax. It seemed that sleeping in a different room, other than our bedroom helped me relax, so on the really bad nights I’d sleep on the couch in the den or on the spare bed in my office. And, true to form, Carmen would sleep next to me…either by sharing the couch with me (which she eventually claimed as “her” bed) or by sleeping on the floor next to my office bed, close enough so I could reach my arm down to her and pet her until I fell asleep.
All during this time, my family made visits to see Mom and would stay at our house. And of course, Carmen welcomed them all like the good dog she was.
But she also had a very destructive side. Carmen did not like to be left alone and there were many casualties in our house. We hated to crate her, but it seemed slowly but surely, she was destroying our home. First a remote control, then a cheap camera, then a nice wicker basket, then a chair leg…and the list went on.
Eventually, we had to crate her during the day, until finally, after a couple years, the destruction stopped. She then had free range of the house. Another trait that Carmen had which we loved, was the way she always carried a “baby “ in her mouth. She never really chewed or destroyed it, she just carried it everywhere like a pacifier. At times, I’d grab it and throw it, hoping we could play catch, but she never really understood that concept and I guess due to the fact she was in a puppy mill, she never really had the chance to play or be a puppy. She was more than likely bred at a very early age and from then on she was part of a factory of puppies for greedy, cruel people.
Like Red, Carmen loved a ride in the car and we would make certain to go extra slow with the windows down when driving in the neighborhood. This made her very happy. She’d hang her head out the window and the wind would cause her ears to flap and her eyes to squint, but you could almost see the smile in her face. Oh, so many smells and so little time!
During her life with us, you never really had privacy. Not that it mattered…after all, this was just a dog. But Carmen would take her head and push doors open to be with you. Even when you were on the toilet. It would always make me laugh and from what I hear, when we went to visit our in-laws, she did it to my mother in law!
And we never really needed an alarm clock. Like clockwork, every morning at 6:30am, Carmen’s job was to come into our room and awaken us. Somehow, I don’t think it was to help us get ready for work, more than likely she was ready for breakfast.
As time went on more sad events hit our family. My mother’s dementia got to the point where she could no longer live in an assisted living facility. She needed 24-hour care at a nursing home and my older sister Gail, offered to take her in and carry the weight and stress for awhile. We all thought it was naive to assume mom would be happy at Gail’s home, but we wished it would work desperately. Gail needed the income and my mom needed a place where she could get care round the clock. But, our idea did not work. Gail was sick…we didn’t know at the time, but she was very ill and having the stress of my mother there, with her repeating conversations over and over again, made things unbearable. Eventually, Gail found a nursing home for my mom in Milwaukee.
Then the call came. It’s like a really bad dream that you wake up from and are so relieved that it never happened, but it was happening and it was real. One morning early, before the alarm went off, my sister Gail called. I picked up the phone hesitantly…”Mark, I hate to break this to you honey, but I am dying of cancer.” Then, while my brain tried to process what was happening there was a pause, which seemed like forever. “Mark are you there?” My sister asked and as we talked I learned her body was filled with this rotten disease and her prognosis was grim.
Immediately, I, along with my sister Laurel, hopped on a plane and went to help Gail and her two daughters get through this awful situation. Within a month, my sister was gone. I remember leaving just a few days before she died to go home and saying to her “I’ll be back again soon Gail…I love you!” And then she was gone.
I was worn out and at home I could rest and recover from the sadness. Sleeping on the couch with Carmen and fighting off my anxiety and sadness.
We kept the news from my mom. It would be a cruel deed to tell her that Gail had died. And it would play over and over again in her mind. We all determined that telling her would probably make her dementia even worse and she’d never truly understand how Gail could be gone.
About a year later, my sister Sue called to inform me that my mom was dying of heart disease at 84. Again, my sister Laurel and I hopped on planes and converged in Milwaukee for the 3-hour drive to mom’s nursing home in Shawano, Wisconsin. Honestly, I didn’t think we’d make it in time to say goodbye. She had already had one heart attack and was breathing erratically that morning. But, my mother wanted to say goodbye to us one last time and even though she had almost died three times before we arrived, she kept hanging on. When we saw her, she sat up and hugged us both, saying “You’re here! You’re here!” And then she laid back down in her bed and closed her eyes. In less than 30 minutes she was gone. Within a year’s time, we had again lost two more members of our family. Then, just a day after I returned home from Wisconsin, my wife, Sarah lost her father.
She has always said to enjoy those who are with you while you have them and I can't think of better advice. We take our lives for granted and we somehow expect those around us to be with us for our journey, but that is really not the way life works.
Sadly two years later in 2015, we lost Sarah's younger brother Steve to complications from kidney disease. With all the sadness and loss we had endured, we wondered if there would ever be light shining through the dark cloud that seemed to hang over our heads.
Steve had always loved our bull mastiffs. Whether it was Red or Carmen, I think he enjoyed the gentleness and demeanor of these gentle giants. Steve needed a companion and he lived alone just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, so soon, he purchased a bull mastiff puppy...naming her Fiona.
Whether it be a holiday or just a Sunday visit to be with Sarah's mom, Steve would come, and with him would come Fiona. I can remember how Carmen used to love making a road trip to see Sarah's family. The minute we went in the door, Carmen knew where the chew toys were hidden; she knew that in a small, plastic trash can in the corner of the sun room was a slew of Nyla Bones, rawhide treats and tennis balls. And she knew that if she gave the container a good swift kick with her foot, everything would be spread onto the floor like candy from a night of trick or treating! Sorting through the assortment, she'd find the perfect chew toy and proceed to devour it in one sitting. But Fiona had different ideas. These were her toys and she didn't take too kindly to Carmen destroying them. So, she would usually grab a big bone and proceed to chew it right next to Carmen. Minutes later, Carmen would drop the bone she was chewing and steal away Fiona's bone. This went back and fourth in what seemed like hours and this is how they played.
At the time of Steve's passing, Fiona was about 6 years old and was a big girl. She still loved to play, but middle age had slowed down her energy level and playfulness considerably. She needed a home with people who were used to big dogs and within a short period of time, Carmen had a new family member sharing the house with her.
Watching the two interact was always entertaining. Carmen was older and this was her home, so we made sure to keep a strict balancing act of priority and seniority between the two dogs. Carmen was always fed first, given a cookie first and received petting first. Always. Even though they could not talk, it was obvious that there was tension here and Carmen was not jumping for joy upon having a new house guest sharing her domain. But, I think having another dog here, during the days when Sarah and I were at work was good for Fiona. She had been used to having Steve with her all day, everyday and it would become pretty quiet at our house from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday. I also think Fiona was melancholy and really didn't understand why her owner had left her. In her mind, Steve was taken away in a big truck with bright lights, but why did he leave and never return? Had she done something wrong?
As time went on we watched the signs of age taking their toll on Carmen. We knew when we adopted her that she had had a rough life before she was taken in by the bull mastiff rescue organization and fostered by Susie Hughes. There were old scars on Carmen's body, her tail didn't wag straight, but on an angle, her teeth were worn and she was much smaller than the typical bull mastiff. We knew that the cruel toll of abuse she endured would probably mean her life span would be shorter than most, but it didn't matter. We fell in love with this dog from the start and we'd take whatever time we were given.
Usually our vet always had options up his sleeve. But, during our last trip to his office he had forewarned us that he had no more good solutions. A cancer was inside her and her diet was becoming very limited. She became much thinner than normal and would become chilled at night. And she would look at me with those eyes, those piercing eyes which said without words "I am really tired of being in pain and I will be leaving you soon." Finally, one morning we knew it was time. We loaded Carmen into the car and drove the 10 minute route to our vets office. I tried to go slower than normal, just like I had done with Red, and hoped that when we arrived at the office, our vet would have a miracle up his sleeve. We took the frail dog into the waiting area and the staff knew too. Immediately, they escorted us to a private room in the back of the building. There we waited and there we said goodbye one last time. Carmen knew it was time and had accepted her situation, but that didn't mean we had. In fact, almost the entire staff at our vets office came in, one by one, to cry and say goodbye. Within seconds of injecting the bright purple liquid into her vein, her breathing stopped and Carmen was gone. As I wept uncontrollably, I realized that this was the last time I'd feel this dog laying in my lap. She was gone.
Fiona was our only dog now and in many ways I feel like losing Carmen was equally hard for her. They were not especially close, but they did play together some and "Fee" as we call her, had just lost her owner; Sarah's brother Steve. So, we noticed almost immediately a much quieter dog...almost as though she was depressed. There were times when she would stare at us with a gaze of sadness and I almost could hear her asking us "what happened to my owner and now Carmen?" And we found ourselves comparing Fee to Carmen. We missed being awakened every morning at 6:30 like clockwork, we missed the way she would push open the bathroom door and come join us, we missed her bark when she was excited and how she would almost reprimand you if she was hungry. This was not Fiona's home and it showed. And she was a very different dog. For one, Fee never ever barks...ever! The only time she barks is when she is dreaming and then it is a muted effort, while her paws flinch back and forth and her breathing becomes faster. Fee has a horrible underbite and when she stares at you, many times her bottom teeth are exposed. And Fee drools, everywhere! So much so, we find ourselves carrying an old rag to wipe her face on a regular basis. Many times Fee will make us laugh. She seems to think that if she walks very slowly and moves behind one of our azalea bushes no one will see her. She'll stand there watching like she is a spy wearing camouflage. It is hilarious!
We give her lots of love and tell her how glad we are that she is here with us. Even if she can't understand, it makes us feel good to have her here. Sometimes though, sometimes I'll stretch out on the floor next to her so that I can see her eyes amongst that stoic expression and wrinkled face. And I see her eyes watching me. Those big, soulful, brown eyes. I know she understands us and I know this isn't home. But, I hope she is happy with us.
If there is anything i have learned about this, it is to live life like your dog. Enjoy those fall days when the sun warms your face and take the time to lie in the grass. Greet everyone as a friend, with a smile on your face and your tail wagging, savor the good things about life - those you love, good food, long walks and above all, love your dog.
11/8/17: Sadly today, at 11:06am Fiona was euthanized due to cancer. Her symptoms came on suddenly. The vets in Athen's Georgia at the University of Georgia Veterinary Hospital went through everything possible that they knew to do, but after looking at her x-rays and seeing how weak and unstable she had become, we decided it was best to say goodbye. After lots of hugs, sloppy kisses on the cheek from Fiona and many tears we saw her one last time.
We came home this afternoon to an empty and cold house. Chew bones still left on the living room floor, dog bed empty in the corner. A home without a bull mastiff like Fiona is very empty and very sad. I hurt deeply.