I knew this time would come.
I knew it a few months ago when I taped Christmas bows on Toby’s crate and made him Facebook famous for recovering from surgery “at the Bemis Mountain Home for Aged Beagles.” I knew it a few years ago when I dubbed him The Beagle Loser and celebrated how he’d lost enough weight to sprint rather than waddle. I knew it way back when I first bought him a leash and a shiny new bowl to replace the ones I’d just thrown away because I was done with dogs. With every new nickname that was a different twist on calling him a silly old dog with issues, I knew. Someday, sooner then I could bear, I’d be talking about Toby in the past tense.
He was my wish list beagle.
Before Toby, I swore I didn’t want to talk about another dog ever again. Couldn’t handle it. We’d just put down Jasper, our second dog, who’d performed his duties as the girls’ growing up companion like a trooper. “Raising kids without a dog is just wrong,” I decreed after a brief spell of doglessness in the early ’90s. So we found a good dog, gave him a good ole boy name, and brought him home to fill the spot at the center of our family that Spunky, our “house warming beagle,” had left vacant. And there Jasper stayed, from kindergarten till college, faithfully watching for the school bus to bring his girls back to him. Then, just when his job was done, Jasper’s old beagle body just gave out.
I promptly tossed all the treats and the chew toys and had our carpet cleaning guy power-enzyme the whole house. “Now we won’t have to bother anymore,” I told Tom. “We can just take off whenever we want for as long as we want. It’ll be nice.”
Of course it wasn’t. While not having a dog might have been freer, cleaner and easier in ways that appealed to my rational side, my heart—my soul—couldn’t endure that kind of tidy, unfettered, unruffled nice. I started hanging out at the SPCA, became the local Reiki dog healer, just to get my dog fix and try to heal myself. When that didn’t work, I secretly let owning another dog creep into my thoughts. (What would Tom do? He’d said no more dogs before, too, and they kept coming anyways. Could he make room for one more?)
Then I dreamt of Jasper. He was young, healthy and not in pain, sitting atop his dog house like the old days. He thanked me, for his wonderful life, for making him safe, loved and comfortable till the very end. “You’re not done with dogs,” he told me. “You’ve got too much yet to give. There will be another. And his name will be Toby.”
That was all the permission I needed and then some! I began talking about Toby in the near-future tense, making a list. And it wasn’t long before I shared it with Tom. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t been telepathically inspired by a Spirit beagle, but he had been silently allowing new dog thoughts to creep in, too.
“I want him to be past the puppy stage,” I recited. “No endless nights whining because he feels insecure in a crate. He has to like being outdoors without barking too much when we’re away at work, but want to stay close when we’re around. Not too fat, medium-sized, so he doesn’t pull too hard on his leash, and smart enough to not run into traffic.”
“That’s quite the list,” Tom said. “And it sure doesn’t sound like any beagle in the known universe.” (If you haven’t already guessed, dog is synonymous with beagle in our house. Always has been. That’s because we don’t merely have a preference for one breed over another. We have a love crazed blindness that obliterates anything from sight except black, brown and white, floppy-eared, barrel-chested, braying babies with hearts and noses as big as the North Woods and brains the size of a pea.)
“Oh, yeah, and we have to call him Toby,” I said. “Jasper told me in a dream. I looked up the name and it means God Is Good.”
Well alrighty then, Tom must have thought. But I saw him start mouthing the name, imagining how it would sound if he hollered it repeatedly in the middle of the woods. And a few weeks later, he found Toby.
His first name was Boo Boo, bestowed upon him by our friends, Butch and Sandy, his owners since birth. He came from the best beagle stock, and could out-run and out-sniff the finest rabbit hounds in the land. But other than that, he was timid, afraid of his own shadow. “He’ll hunt like hell,” Butch said. “But then he just wants to come find you ’cause he needs people, doesn’t like to stay out on his own too long.”
Perfect, we said. When I petted him for the first time, he made a soft, snorty, purring sound we soon came to recognize as his signature “happy snuffle.” He snuffled all the way home, wagging and sniffing at his comfy crate and his repurposed dog house, then Velcroed himself to Tom’s side wherever he went.
“Are you really sure you want to be tied down to a dog for another ten or eleven years?” my mother-in-law asked when she first saw me holding Toby in my lap like no other beagle had ever allowed.
“Yes, yes I do,” I thought. “I want to tie myself to this dog, with my chin resting on his warm, snuffling head for a long, long time. And please use industrial grade, steel-core rope, double-knotted right through my heart strings.”
During our first summer together, Toby and I stayed tethered like that for hours on the porch. He could sit in my lap, watching the lake and the squirrels through the ripped screen door that used to be an escape route for beagles who wanted to get out, not get smothered. “But my Toby wants to stay with his Mumma,” I whispered, “and not be sick, or hurt or grow old too fast.” He always snuffled agreement and did his best to live up to my wishes, even when he started having seizures and other issues that weren’t on the original list. It was all good though. Toby was right where he needed to be, my “almost empty nest” beagle, a fairy tale with a few caveats. Over the years, Toby convinced me that raising kids without a dog was definitely wrong, and I was a giant eight-year-old. He even helped Tom and me feel like we were still young, trusting and foolish enough to bring yet another dog into our lives. Coaxed by Toby’s gentle ways, we opened our hearts just wide enough to let the math going flying out of our heads. Two dogs plus another decade or so added onto our beagle legacy? We could do that! So we welcomed Kineo into the family. Bred by Butch and Sandy from the same stock as Toby, we named him after a rugged mountain in Maine, the backdrop to my childhood happy place. And there we were, blissfully roped and knotted tighter than ever, our two beagles romping out ahead of us toward our new life past middle age.
Our beagle boys were like book ends, a tri-colored, two-headed bundle of brotherly devotion. On good days, they both had boundless energy, too. But slowly, try as Toby might to stick with the program of staying forever young, it became more and more obvious he couldn’t physically cooperate. Ever so gradually, like when a part of my own body is not really in synch but I refuse to rest, I could feel Toby unraveling.
Even before his last invasive procedure, Toby was really lagging behind. We’d kept his seizures medically controlled for 10 years, had him neutered in an attempt to shrink his prolapsed prostate, had half his chronically bad teeth yanked, and pumped him full of doggie glucosamine. Then, at age 12-and-a-half, the vet opened him up and found enough stones in his bladder to plug every culvert between here and Route 17. Plus, on top of all that, his heart murmur measured a level four on a scale that stopped at six.
“It’s OK, Toby, we’ll take good care of you at the Bemis Home for Aged Beagles,” I said as he lay snuffling in his crate post-surgery. He recovered valiantly and, for a few glorious weeks in January, could pee like a young stud dog. But then even the simplest pleasures a dog should have while surrounded by miles of pucker brush, plenty of food, and a loving family, started slipping away. And by late February, I uttered a new set of promises to Toby. “We’ll take good care of Kineo,” I told him. “And we’ll save you a spot out on the dock this summer.” He snuffled, held out his paw, and thanked me.
On a dreary March day, with a veil of late winter mist hanging heavy over the melting snow and the first hints of spring, Toby took his last whiff of the damp forest smells he loved so much and laid down forever. “We tried our best, Toby, and so did you,” I told him, stroking his soft, soft ears. Then we held him close as he went from struggling to be good and strong and always there for us to having done his job till the very end.
I’ve spent weeks now wondering how the hell I was going to tell Toby’s story, to write about him in the past tense while just the other day he was right here under my desk, sitting full weight on my toes till I’d finally get up for the fifteenth time in an hour and let him try to go pee. At first, I just had to let the grief of having him gone roll on over me like a freight train. And slowly, as I’ve begun to smile more than cry when I picture his old white face, I know what story to tell. Toby’s tale is about more than floppy ears and all the warm, steady things that made him my best friend. And it’s certainly about more than the long chronology of ailments that were at the center of our conversations for so long.
As much as I hated to admit it, Toby taught me impermanence, to live fully and freely, grounded in the knowledge that all things, however good, must pass. When he could barely toddle down to Indian Cove, he taught me to lead, to stay strong with a soft heart. Together with his brother, he showed the true meaning of “down to earth,” the natural balance of being as close to the land as his little barrel of a body could keep him, ever joyful along the journey. In his honor, I can dare to keep loving the nine-year-old beagle he left behind every moment of every new day. Thanks to Toby, I can hope to know when enough is enough, to be at peace when abundance eventually swings back toward scarcity and suffering. That’s what Toby was all about. And, ultimately, he left me knowing how noble it is to hold a blessed being, gently but firmly, across love’s final threshold.
Yes, my sweet, loyal Toby. God is good.