My grandparents’ dog, Casey, was put down this past Tuesday. She was 112 in dog years so she was getting up there. Unfortunately she was in great pain before she died, which came on very suddenly when she started coughing up blood and a mass behind her left eye forced the orb out of its socket. If anything can be called a mercy killing, her euthanasia by a veterinarian was that, but it was still a tough way for the poor pooch to go out.
My grandparents are old school, in their 80s so while they’re sad she’s gone you won’t see them in deep mourning over a pet as if a child or a sibling was lost, which seems to be the norm for many people today. No funerals or headstones for Casey, just an urn for her ashes to be placed in Grandma’s china cabinet. I’m the same way actually because while I’m sorry she’s gone and hate that she suffered so much in her passing, I’m not feeling any great grief. My heart was already broken over a canine many years ago when Champ was put to sleep.
Last season on The Simpsons, Marge and the kids were aghast at Homer’s blasé attitude towards the disappearance of the family dog, Santa’s Little Helper, until they found out from Grandpa Abe that he had suppressed his love for any animal after he mistakenly believed his childhood dog, Bongo, had abandoned him just like his mother did. That and a fatal addiction to doughnuts is something I have in common with Homie. When my dog, Champ, was put to sleep when I was nine, I lost all desire to ever claim any pet as my own again.
I don’t kick dogs, drown kittens, or clown the love others may have for their inter-species companions, even though I’ve seen and read about people who have lost their everlasting minds when it comes to how they spoil their animals. No, I tolerate them just like I did the now dear, departed Casey. After loving Champ so hard and losing him so abruptly as a child I knew even then that I wasn’t going to put myself or my little heart out there again to get broken when the creature died.
Champ was my Uncle Chuck’s dog originally. He was a purebred German shepherd my uncle bought when he lived up here in New York with my grandparents for about a year or so as a young man trying to find his niche in life. Before he found his lane, Uncle Chuck was a terror and poor Champ caught the worst of it after Chuck brought him down fully-grown and mean as a snake to our ancestral home in Georgia when he left behind the bright lights of the big town.
Uncle Chuck is a minister now and has been for about thirty years but he’s been a hustler all his life and that trait didn’t go away when he became a man of the cloth. I could be a smartass and say being a preacher is the perfect hype for a born hustler like my mom’s brother but the Right Reverend Hall’s conversion was legit so I won’t sniff at that but I still remember the Chuck who was running cons left and right before he turned his life over to God. I’ll never forget him because that’s the Chuck who threatened to whup my cousins, Stuff, and me if we fed Champ when he purposefully starved him to keep him especially ornery or told Granddaddy and Grandmother when he tried to set up neighborhood dogfights.
I’m the oldest of Chuck’s nephews and my great-grandparents’ oldest great-grandson but I was just eight then so the only way I could help Champ was ignore Chuck’s threats and do the right thing. Champ was a living creature but back then he was Chuck’s possession just like his fly leather shoes and his custom tailored suits. Chuck made it very clear with his thick leather belt that there would be consequences and repercussions if his four nephews and one niece trifled with any of those possessions including Champ. The damage that belt could do scared me spitless but seeing Champ suffer like he did made me risk a few welts when I gave him some scraps on the sly whenever Chuck left the house to see what was happening in the streets.
I was scared of Champ too at first because Chuck had raised him from a pup to be vicious and he only got meaner the more Chuck starved him. Dogs scared me in general as a kid because I had been chased by too many of them walking to school or when older kids sicced their mutts on us when we were roaming around the ‘hood. One of those dogs, a Doberman, chased me into our backyard one day and Champ was waiting for him, to the mangy bastard’s regret. My protector snarled, leapt, and ripped one of the mutt’s ears off. After that Champ was mine and I was his. Screw Chuck.
We were inseparable for a little over a year. I loved that dog hard and unconditionally just like little kids do everything this side of steamed broccoli. But Champ was so special to me because he was there when my mom had sent Stuff and me to live with the Great-grands for a few years while she stayed and worked in Philly. My father as usual was in the wind doing his own thing. Granddaddy and Grandmother, along with my father’s mother, Grandma Fields, gave Stuff and me all the love in the world. But there’s always a hole when a child is separated from one or both of his parents that surrogates can’t fill during those crucial years before the hurt from the abandonment scabs over with cynicism.
Just like Bongo with Homer, Champ was able to fill some of that parental void for me because he was my protector against all threats physical and psychic. Yeah, I hated that months would go by when I didn’t know where my father was or that my mom never called down enough times to check on Stuff and me but Champ helped relieve that gloom just as much as my three caregivers. I was too young and he was too big for me to take him for walks around our block and our yard wasn’t big enough to play a good game of fetch but I knew when I got home after school or from church that my Champion would be there waiting for me.
One rainy morning I guess Champ couldn’t wait because he jumped the makeshift gate around his house in the backyard to follow us to school. The driver of the car who hit him probably didn’t see him. Accidents happen so I could forgive whoever did it even at nine years old but I never forgave that person for not stopping to check on him. Whoever it was left my dog to suffer that day. Left Champ to be found by me and Stuff after the school day ended and the sun had come out.
The accident hadn’t killed him but the car had torn open his side and he was in a bad way when we found him. Stuff ran home to get Granddaddy to help us while I stayed with Champ, stroking his head and crying my brown eyes blue begging him to forgive me for not protecting him like he did me. I don’t remember the ride to the vet’s but I do remember Granddaddy holding my shoulder in his firm but gentle way to keep me from going into the operating room with Champ.
The doctor came out shortly afterward to tell us to go home and he would call with the prognosis and an estimate of how much any surgery would cost. Yeah, Champ could have survived being wiped out by that car if the Great-grands had signed off on the operation to save him. The operation wasn’t free though and my Aunt Belle, one of my mom and Chuck’s sisters, convinced Granddaddy and Grandmother to just have Champ put to sleep. To her, $150 was too much to pay to keep some raggedy dog alive. One hundred, fifty dollars.
I have at least $150 in my change jar right now and I’m sure despite Aunt Belle’s protestations to the contrary that my Great-grands had the money on hand to save Champ too. Neither side of my family is wealthy but we’re not destitute either, even back in the 70’s, but priorities were a little different then. Why spend that much money to save a dog when one of us kids could be taken out by a car ourselves the next day? My folks weren’t unfeeling, well, Chuck was then, but there was a pecking order and pets were at the bottom of that list. If I didn’t learn anything else as a little one, I learned that lesson. Me and Champ both learned that family truth.
One of the last times I talked with my son, Jason, he told me he wanted me to get him a dog, a Golden Retriever. I told him maybe when he got older and could handle the responsibility of a pooch but I was probably just trying to subconsciously protect him from the trauma of losing a friend at a young age like I did. That was stupid because I couldn’t even protect myself from losing him even though that’s a story for another time. Let it just be said that I’ve grown enough to cherish the joy I shared with him just like I did with Champ much more than I dread the pain.
I’m living proof that Life will lacerate your soul and losing Champ like that was one of the unkindest cuts I’ve ever experienced. That’s pretty ironic because just like Homer and Bongo I had buried that pain so deep that it takes an outside stimulus to even make me remember him. The old cliché that time heals all wounds is patently false because it doesn’t heal a damn thing. If I can get Hobbesian for a moment, all the passage of time does is tamp down the hurts with the compost of everyday living. But that hurt is always going to be there, ready to be retrieved when unfaithful memory leads you back to it.
Hearing of Casey’s death made me remember my Champion and why I’ve never had any four-legged companions since. Why would I need another one when I already had the best?
–Jason O. Logan
Dedicated to Homer and Bongo, me and the Champ, and Jason and his promised Golden Retriever