A DOG'S LIFE by John Mills
"Our first entry is a short story written by John Mills from British Columbia. John's life has also been colorful and adventurous having worked in many varied careers all over Canada as a young man. Everything from a logger, mill worker, ship's mate to a night editor for the Vancouver Sun.
John, although very dyslexic, has developed many ways to overcome his problems and turned dyslexia into an impressive strength.
John has been telling us stories our whole life, some sort of true with a degree of artistic license and others as wild as a Mark Twain tale. He started writing as a hobby years ago and has kind of a spare "Hemingway" style. This particular story brought our family to tears. I hope you appreciate it as much as we did.
Enjoy! Karen Hope - Co-founder of Dyslexia Victoria Online
He and Priscilla made a pact. Priscilla was his dog. He was not sure how old she was but he knew she was on her last legs. He was 84 and also on his last legs. Both had been diagnosed with cancer. His was terminal. The doctors hadn’t been able to tell him how long, but they did say, not long. That squared with his level of pain and increasing weariness. The drugs were having less effect all the time. Priscilla’s cancer was also in its advanced stages and the vets said she could go anytime. In fact, they recommended that she should be put down because of her high level of pain and the increasing ineffectiveness of her medication. He hadn’t been able to do that, he loved her too much.
When he was trying to remember how old she was, he also remembered that it was his wife, Jane, who got her. Priscilla was a border collie and when Jane brought her home, she looked like a small ball of black and white yarn. He wanted to call her “Woolly”, but Jane said, “Her name is Priscilla”. She said it in a tone familiar to him that eliminated further debate.
It turned out that Jane had a favourite dog, a border collie also named Priscilla, when she was a really little girl. It was a family dog and it died of old age when Jane was five. He could have asked Jane how old Priscilla was but Jane had developed heart disease and she had died three years ago. He was with her when she died and so was Priscilla. Although it offended his ego, he believed that Priscilla gave Jane more comfort than he did in those last moments. Jane’s death was kind, if that can be said about any death, but not for survivors. God knows he had missed her every hour of every day since. For Priscilla it had been worse.
He gave up the sheep, pigs and chickens on their small farm after Jane died. They were her thing. It wasn’t as if they needed money. They were more than comfortable and, anyway, Jane never made a dime off them. She collected eggs from the chickens and wool from the sheep but no bird or animal was ever butchered or sold. Any creature that died, died of old age. When Jane died, he gave all the animals and birds to a young farm family who were neighbours and paid them enough to keep them through their natural lives, just like Jane would have done.
If he had it to do over again, he would have kept them. They were a nuisance, but he came to realize what they meant to Priscilla. On top of Jane’s death, their absence devastated her. She moped and had little interest in anything. He knew what the animals and birds meant to Jane, but he didn’t anticipate how their absence would affect Priscilla until it was too late. Later, the young family next door agreed to let him and Priscilla baby sit their farm on a regular basis. Priscilla would lunge and hover for hours, herding everything she could find. The image was so poignant that he could see Jane in a flowered dress that fell well below her gum boots and an old coat sweater, dancing through the yard playing counter point with Priscilla while they pretended that the task of herding was the most important in the world.
When he realized what not having the animals did to Priscilla, he tried to fill in. On their babysitting tours, Priscilla did her best to hide her disdain at his pathetic efforts, but it was clearly better than nothing. He proved more successful at filling in for the daily walks he and Jane had taken for several years with Priscilla. Their usual path ran along the stream that divided their small acreage and then through the woods to the fields beyond. It was a long time before he could bring himself to resume those walks. It was on Jane’s last walk that she died. They were coming back through the woods and she paused to rest on a log. She had started the practice of resting that way a month before, but this time she slipped down off the log and laid out flat on the trail. They said later that she had a massive heart attack and died almost instantly.
Priscilla was the first to realize that something very wrong was happening. She went to Jane and carefully sniffed around her face. He followed her, patting her head and looking closely at Jane. She had lost colour in her face and her breathing was rapid and shallow. He did not realize immediately how serious it was but Priscilla did. She laid down with her head at Jane’s shoulders and pressed herself tight against her body. Jane was able to raise her hand to pat Priscilla and Priscilla responded by reaching gently to lick Jane’s face. As Jane’s hand fell, Priscilla licked it and then, in a low-voice, howled one truly mournful howl.
After the funeral, which Priscilla attended, she did not lie on the grave. He was not sure if dogs do that or if it was just another urban legend. But Priscilla did go to the log where Jane had died and stayed beside it for several days and nights. Despite repeated efforts he was only able to lure her away when, on a sudden impulse, he walked along the trail on the same path he had followed daily with her and Jane. When he got to the log, he called Priscilla to heel and kept walking further into the trees. She lurched stiffly to her feet and followed him. He was able to get her to pass the log on the way back and to eat and drink. After that, she would come to him every day at the same time and beseech him to walk with her. Sometimes she would go past the log. Most frequently she would stop and have to be coaxed away and some nights he would have to go looking for her. He always went first to the log and she was always there. The walks and babysitting the animals were her only interests. Otherwise, she lay on the porch in summer and on the back of a chesterfield in the living room in winter. From that perch she could see the trail through the window.
Their walks with Jane were always suspended when winter came and the snow was deep on the trail. Most often it would drift against the trees. Sub-zero weather was a common occurrence. When winter came the third year after Jane died, he woke up one morning to find that it had snowed heavily overnight and covered the trail. Priscilla was gone but he wasn’t alarmed. With the dog door she could come and go as she pleased, but when she did not return, he became anxious. He followed her tracks where they led through the snow to the trail. It was bitterly cold and the snow had a hard crust.
He could see deeper tracks in places where Priscilla had broken through the crust. With his heavier weight he was constantly breaking through. He waded through the deep snow with great difficulty. When he got to the log, he found Priscilla lying behind it. He didn’t know how long she had been there but he couldn’t get her to follow. With great difficulty, he lifted her and carried her back to the farm house. At 84 years old it was an arduous chore. She was obviously nearing death and, following what he understand to be canine instinct, he guessed that she had gone out in the snow and the cold to the log with the intentions of lying there until she died.
When he got Priscilla back to the house, she appeared grateful to be out of the cold but he could see from her body language that she wanted to go back to the log. That is when he made his pact with her. They would go back to the log together that very night. When it was growing dark he put on heavy wool pants and a heavy wool shirt. Then he put on his warm parka and felt shoe packs to keep his feet warm. He gave a thought to taking a blanket for Priscilla to keep her warm, but rejected it as foolish and started out the door with her. She was moving painfully behind him, but anxious to be gone. Then he turned back and got the blanket when he realized that was what Jane would want.
Experts say that dying from exposure is preceded by a euphoria that makes it a painless process. Maybe that is something that is known instinctively by dogs. The weather remained cold all day and the sky was clear with a full moon. The area of woods where the log sat was birch. In the moonlight with scattered snow on the bare branches, the trees were pure silver. It was a spectacular sight. There was no ground light to interfere and the stars were in random array in every direction, right to the tree line. It was the kind of night when he and Jane would clean out the fire pit and build a decent sized fire, big enough for warmth but small enough to yield to the spectacular light of the moon and stars. Priscilla would position herself beside Jane and the two of them would practice their gift of remaining immobile and quiet. It was one of his most enduring memories.
On this night, he and Priscilla moved with near quiet down the trail. The only sound was his feet breaking the crust and the occasional click of Priscilla’s nails. On the occasions when she broke through the crust, he paused to lift her out. The trip was helped by the fact that they were going where they both wanted to go. With him breaking trail for her and helping her out, she was able to make the walk. When he got to the log, he sat on it for a minute and Priscilla came and laid her head on his knees. He took her head in his hands and looked steadily into her eyes for a minute. Then he softly kissed her muzzle and began flattening the snow behind the log to make room for the two of them.
He spread the blanket, leaving room for him to lie between it and the log. He wiggled around until he was lying in a loose fetal position with the edge of the blanket in front of him. Then he called Priscilla. She moved to lay on the blanket ahead of him. He pulled the rest of the blanket back over her and moved her back until he could feel her comfortable and warm against his body. He adjusted his parka hood over his head, pulled on his heavy gloves, and then put his arm over the blanket and across Priscilla’s chest. Soon he found himself falling asleep and could feel Priscilla breathing regularly as she did the same. Her muzzle was the only part of her protruding from under the blanket. As he slipped into unconsciousness, he was comforted to know that he and Priscilla were on their way to meet Jane. That is the way the neighbours found them the following morning, covered with a light blanket of snow and resting peacefully.
© John Mills/April 2008