I’m not sure exactly when it was that I decided I wanted a Pug. I had always been a big fan of the squashed-face breeds, ever since a childhood encounter with a terrifying-looking but incredibly friendly and good-natured English Bulldog. I decided I always wanted to keep something around that was uglier than me. Wait, I think it was actually during my first viewing of Dune, when I started noticing little details to distract me from my Frank Herbert-fan dismay. During a battle scene, noticing people not only carrying weapons but Pugs, because in a life-or-death fight, you must always save the Imperial Ugly Dogs.
But purebreeds are expensive, and I was warned away from them because of the health problems inherent due to excessive in-breeding over the centuries. I gave up on the idea. Then in 2002, my wife, Lisa, was in a conference with one of her students’ mother, and the lady had to take a phone call. She listened to the other end of the line a moment, and said, “No.” Then a bit later, “No. My kids already have enough animals. I don’t want a Pug.” And Lisa said, “Wait a minute.”
So the Pug’s current parents brought her over to check out the house and us. They were moving to a place that did not allow animals, and they were hoping to get her into a nice house with a backyard where she could play, or else they would have to surrender her to a shelter. We’re nice people, and my son, Max, at that time age 4, thought she was greatest thing ever. So the transfer was made, hands were shaken, and we were given food, treats and toys. I am told her mother managed to hold it together and didn’t start crying until they got a block away.
At the time, she was called Clover, because she was born on St. Patrick’s Day. Lisa thought that was a horrible name, and re-christened her Mavis, which was later lengthened to Mavis Louise, because that is how my wife rolls (It was later shortened to “May-May”, because that is also how she rolls).
There was a period of adjustment, to be sure. Mavis kept running away, the first few weeks, looking for what she knew were her real parents, and I would have to chase her down, sometimes a block or two away. But as time passed, she realized this was where the food was, and where the love was, and we started the second phase of our relationship. This was aided immeasurably by Mavis meeting our then-neighbor’s dog, a little white furry foo-foo piece of fluff, and the two became pals immediately. They even dug a hole under the fence so they could visit each other. Fortunately the neighbor thought that was grand.
Pugs are very sweet-natured and incredibly energetic. They are known as being a lot of dog in a small package. Our house is two stories, and the first floor is arranged in a circle around the staircase, living room into kitchen into dining room into living room, and whenever anyone new came in – or heck, even anyone familiar – Mavis would get so excited she would run around the circle, sometimes twice, before she exploded with joy, or something.
I walked her every morning before work, and she would constantly strain at the end of the leash, practically choking herself with her collar, because we weren’t getting there fast enough. I bought a harness to fasten around her sturdy chest, and one of those extendable leashes. I used to laugh at how adept she got at stepping into that harness.
Mavis was the very essence of a lap dog. Whenever I settled down to watch a movie, she would leap into my lap, get settled, and soon be snoring contentedly. Pug snores also belie their relatively small size. Every living thing in the house at that time snored, so she fit right in. I didn’t mention to my wife that her snores sounded just like Mavis’, because I’m not an idiot. Max took Mavis into his bedroom every night. He didn’t seem to mind the snoring. Swear to God, kids can sleep through anything.
My niece gave me one of those magnets you can put on the back of your car, that said “My Pug Is Smarter Than Your Honor Student”. I put it on my car to humor her, but that was far from the truth. Mavis was the sweetest, most loving creature on the face of the Earth, but she was dumber than a box of rocks. That huge head held a brain that was, I am certain, perfectly smooth. I didn’t care. I’m a fairly intelligent guy, and smarts just lead to unhappiness and woe. My Pug-dog was relentlessly happy, and we lived to see that Pug grin.
Years passed. We got older, and so did she. She wasn’t able to jump up into my lap anymore, so I gladly lifted her up. More and more often, she wanted to end her walk early, and sometimes I had to carry her home. Eventually she grew to prefer just going out into the backyard, doing her business, and barking at the local squirrels.
My sister-in-law lives in the woods of West Texas on the Dry Frio River, with a bunch of strays she has adopted. One week my wife brought home Brownie, a mutt who was the smallest of the pack, and was getting bullied and starved by the others. Brownie was a traumatized little dog, and didn’t trust Mavis; but Mavis only wanted to make friends and play. Eventually she won Brownie over. The dark side to that was that Max took over Brownie as his dog, and started taking her into his bedroom at night instead of Mavis, who could no longer jump into, or safely jump down from, his bed.
I felt for my poor little Pug but Lisa didn’t want her in the bedroom, and since I eject the cats from said bedroom every night (I have a thing about things walking on me at night, ie., I tend to scream and hurl them across the room), I couldn’t really complain. We set a bed in the upstairs hallway for her, and by God she would laboriously climb up that stairway every night to be close to us in her sleep.
The trip down the stairs was getting more and treacherous, too. I would try to be downstairs when she attempted it, because the final three steps always resulted in a blind scramble, and stumble, and crashing into the wall. Her eyesight had begun to fail, too; too often I felt the heartbreak of watching her run into a wall or door. She didn’t always make it to the pee pad we laid out for her upstairs, or perhaps she couldn’t find it, or perhaps she didn’t care that much any more. Lisa lobbied to keep her in the kitchen, with its more easily cleaned tile floor, and I was forced to admit she was right.
We set up baby gates at the two doors. Mavis adjusted to this quickly enough. One of the gates was next to the back door, so it was easy to let her and Brownie out to do their business and romp and do whatever it is dogs like to do. Mostly sun themselves until it gets too hot, which doesn’t take too long in Houston. She usually found her way back and scratched at the door to be let in.
Then, one day, while I held the screen door open for Brownie and Mavis to go out, it happened: Mavis slipped, and lay on the concrete slab outside the door, convulsing. I scooped her up off the rough concrete and moved her over to the grass. She peed all over me in transit, but I hardly noticed. I laid her on the grass and stroked her head, thinking, God if this is it, please make it as painless as possible. After a few minutes she sat up, then stood up and waddled across the yard to smell the flowers.
A couple of days later, Max was home because they were testing at his school, and it wasn’t his day to test. Mavis had another seizure, and Brownie started howling, and Max reasonably enough freaked out and called his mother, who called me. I was already leaving work. I got home and Max was sitting with her; she was in her bed, and seemed alright, but over the last few weeks her breathing had become more labored. As someone with no appreciable nose myself, I can tell you that breathing is a chore anyway, but this was something new, and more difficult. She had been spending more and more time in her bed, only lying down to sleep. The rest of the time she sat up, because breathing was easier.
I relieved Max and sat with her for an hour until she went to sleep. I went upstairs to get a little sleep, because I had a meeting to cover that night. That seemed to be it for the seizures – that we witnessed, anyway – but I cleaned up a couple of pools of urine that were streaked with blood. One night Lisa slept over at a friend’s house because she had just moved and her dogs were still in the kennel, so she needed company. I had a bit of surprise the next morning when I got up, and there, sleeping in the bedroom across from the master, was a certain grizzled old pug-dog.
I gently picked her up and carried her downstairs. One of the baby gates had fallen over – on top of her bed – and she had climbed up the long, impossibly long staircase, just like old times, to be near us. She started struggling to be put down, because she didn’t like to be held too long anymore – I think it made breathing even more difficult.
The next week work was ridiculous – I had my morning hours, then running support at City meetings in the evening. The Wednesday night City Council meeting was a real corker, moved to a larger venue so angry citizens could complain about – well, let’s just say it was Classic Not In My Back Yard and leave it at that. My call time was 5pm. The meeting adjourned at 3:06am the next morning, and equipment still needed to be broken down and transported back to home base. It was almost 5am before I got home.
Needless to say, I slept in. When I got up and went to work, Mavis was in the kitchen, not in her bed, but lying on the floor under the dishwasher. That wasn’t too uncommon; it was right under an air-conditioning vent, and Pugs are notoriously hot little dogs. I petted her and went to work for a truncated day.
When I came back, she was still, there, and I realized what this actually was.
I quickly changed out of my work clothes and ran back to her, sitting down on the floor next to her. I grabbed a handful of paper towels on my way, because the tears were already coming, and I knew there were going to be a lot more. I didn’t try to move her, I didn’t want to make things worse. I just sat there, crying and stroking her, telling her how much I loved her, how beautiful she was, how she was Daddy’s Pretty Girl, and it was okay if she had to leave, she didn’t have to stay if it was too hard. Eventually, Lisa and Max came home from school, and found us there. Max tenderly touched her back, Lisa stroked her head and said, “May-May?” and she moved her head once, and stopped breathing.
She was just hanging on to say goodbye to everybody.
I’m not sure how long I sat there, my hand on her cooling back, still stroking it as if she could feel it in the Beyond. Finally, I got up. Lisa borrowed a shovel from our neighbor and the three of us started digging a hole in the back yard.
It’s good to have physical labor to do at a time like this. I was able to think about something else as we cut through roots and dug out discarded brick and rebar from the previous owner’s failed attempt at a herb garden. Finally it was deep enough, and Lisa wrapped Mavis in a tea towel – “Blue, to match her eyes” – and brought her out, because I couldn’t. Seeing those poor, gray lifeless legs as she carried her across the yard really brought home the finality of all this. She laid Mavis in the grave. I tossed a handful of dirt into it, and my family followed suit. We took turns filling in the grave, then we held hands while Lisa said a few words, because, again… I couldn’t.
While Max cleaned off the shovel to return it to the neighbor, I went upstairs, closed my office door, and gave myself up to the wracking sobs I couldn’t before. When I finally came downstairs, Lisa was cleaning the kitchen. It looked so empty without a little sausage-shaped dog with a curly tail, sitting in her bed, or maybe sidling over while I was cooking to see if I could spare some chicken, or hamburger. I usually could. I put the baby gates in the garage. They weren’t needed anymore.
They say that dogs were put on the Earth to teach us that unconditional love exists, and to show us what it looks like. Mavis was part of my life, a part of my family for 12 years. Max can’t really remember a time without her. I miss her. I miss her reedy little bark, I miss her smile, I miss her stench when she went too long without a bath, I miss her snoring, I miss her sneezing, I miss that bizarre sound, between a bark and a howl, that she made when I came home too late at night. I miss her sitting at the top of the stairs, looking down into the living room, trying to look like the Hound of the Baskervilles but failing because she was a lovable little pug dog with a goofy face. I miss going into the kitchen and having her immediately start hoovering and snurfling around while I misquoted a line from the show that Lisa and I met during, saying “Pug dog, you are hideously in the way.”
I miss my May-May. I miss her so much.
“I’m dainty. Daddy said so.”
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