In thirty-five years on Earth, I've met a lot of dogs, and only two of them could be characterized as really great. One of them was my mother's dog Boswell, who had to be put to sleep this morning.
Boswell was always an unusual dog. From his earliest days, he reminded us of the other great dog we'd known -- an Irish setter named Watson, whom we'd had when I was a kid. Childhood dogs tend to fixate in the memory, admittedly, but Watson had set the bar very high. He'd been rescued from terrible neglect, yet his disposition was such that he willingly suffered a very small girl teaching herself to walk by pulling herself up by his ears (admittedly, with a look that read, "I am being very noble and suffering and I will be rewarded for this with Milk-Bones, later"). Boswell was of that stripe, and my mother suspected it when she first met him. In a roomful of standard poodle puppies bouncing over one another like a horde of Tiggers, my mother saw one that was interested, friendly, but even at eight weeks or so remarkably calm and placid and thoughtful. She said, "I'll take that one."
If you've lived with a really noble dog, you know what it's like. They have a certain grace and class about them. And they're beautiful dogs. Boswell was amazingly beautiful. He had big eyes and an elegant carriage at the most ordinary of times, and when he ran, and his long legs ate up the ground, he was really something to behold. His eyes weren't just deep and brown and occasionally gloopy; he had fantastic eyesight, and when we took him off lead in the country he could spot a deer from stunning distances. He liked to chase them, though not with malicious intent. The first time Boswell saw deer, he blinked in astonishment, and then ran after them -- not as a dog would, but like a deer himself, bounding along, sticking his pom-pom tail up in the air with every leap. He did that all through his youth, until the jumping didn't come quite so easily, and thereafter he just ran.
Foxes were a different matter. Foxes were serious business. When Bos saw foxes, he would tear after them as if they were the devil himself, and when he got close, he would bark, a high-pitched ki-yi of excitement. He never caught one, probably because he didn't want to, but he loved getting close.
He was very good with people. Like many dogs, he was a licker, but his licks were always very careful, and thoughtful. He ate his food much the same way, often stepping away from his dinner in the middle of it, and coming back to it after he'd contemplated some of the problems of the day.
He would not have been mortal without flaws, some of which were endearing. For example, when Boswell was quite small, he was able to sit on my mother's lap and bury his nose in her armpit, for security. At seventy-five pounds, this was beyond impossible. So Boswell found a new technique: he would lean on you. As in, he would walk up to you, brace his side against your legs, and just *sag,* whereupon your legs would buckle a little, because that was a lot of dog. Alternatively, if he was in the mood to be petted and suspected you might want to stop before he was ready, he would seek to keep you from moving away by the simple expedient of sitting on your foot. The standard poodle has a bony ass, and Boswell would quite unashamedly put as much of his 75 pounds as he could into pinning your foot between it and the floor. His greatest flaw was a tendency to wander, and to dawdle in coming back when he was afield and enjoying himself.
Boswell had other unusual idiosyncracies: he liked to drink from rivers, as do most dogs, but Bos always did it as if he were biting the water; as a puppy, he also liked to stick his muzzle under the water and blow bubbles through his nose.
He was also the only dog in our family to ever receive mail. The circumstances were thus: like many dogs, Boswell had a tag on his collar that bore his name and our contact information. One day, on a walk, he lost it. I went back to look, couldn't find it, and was going to get him another when an envelope arrived in the mail addressed to Boswell Hines, at Ma's address. The envelope had no return address. Inside it was Boswell's tag, and a letter that read:
My Dear Boswell,
Found this while walking along the path in Rock Creek Park at Kensington.
Hope nothing is amiss.
Your friend, etc.,
This literary correspondence, I am happy to report, did not go to Boswell's head.
Boswell made it to eleven, which isn't too bad for a standard poodle. He'd been pretty hale and hearty, though he'd slowed up in recent years. In addition to arthritis, he got mild cataracts, so he couldn't spy out the deer and foxes he loved to chase; but by then he'd taught my dog to do it, so he didn't need to. Recently, though, Bos, who had never been terribly motivated by food, went completely off it, and then started vomiting. We feared a bowel obstruction.
The weather in the Northeast played havoc with the schedule of the vet Ma had been referred to, and Bos kept getting worse. So Ma got an appointment with another specialist, who did a sonogram and found a very nasty stomach cancer that had been busily metastasizing. There wasn't anything Ma could have done that could have gotten Boswell more than a few months. She planned to keep him as comfortable as best she could, but his decline was rapid and precipitous. He'd already lost fifteen pounds; in short order, injections to stimulate his appetite quit working, and anti-nausea drugs did nothing. Then his legs started to shake alarmingly. It was clear that before long, he wouldn't be able to stand. It wasn't worth the hurt to him, so he went out this morning, with her telling him she loved him and now he could chase foxes forever. I hope to hell he does.
As I said, I believe, somewhere deep down, in the same place I hope wth all my heart that my peculiar, wished-for afterlife comes true, that we're fated to meet only a few great dogs in our life. Halfway through my Biblical threescore and ten, I've met dogs who go from the sublime to the ridiculous (my own dog pretty much embodies the opposite end of the doggy spectrum), and so far, the dogs I would rank as great number all of two.
Boswell was one of them.
Get those foxes, Bos.
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