(the picture on the right is of Sundance in 1987, taken by my landlady at the time. He was getting older then. I have been sad the past two days, and I suddenly realized why. It was 16 years ago yesterday, that Sundance passed away. )
This is a true story of two strays. In 1978, I was 23. I had landed in San Antonio, Texas, where I didn't know a soul, and I began to try to gain a foothold. I lived in a tiny little apartment on the ground floor, in the back of the building, across a dirt road from a seldom-used playground. At night, a small pack of loose dogs used to hang out there. In the daytime, one of them took to hiding underneath parked cars in the apartment lot. He was a beautiful dog, and I decided to try to coax him into being friends with me.
I would buy a pack of lunch meat and walk through the parking lot, making sure he was aware I had it. Then I would go into my apartment, but leave the door open. he was far too wary to come in unless there was a very good reason, and so I gave him one.
I would place a slice of bologna in the middle of the floor and then sit down and wait. Pretty soon, here would come the big handsome head, peeking around the door frame, looking longingly at the unattended meat. He would do some sort of canine calculation in his head, then dash inside to take the meat. Just as quickly, he would turn and dash back out to enjoy his morsel.
It took a while, but after a time, he would stay in the room with me for a bit. He seemed to have a war going on within him. He wanted to be liked, but he had also clearly learned to be careful. He began to allow me to pet him, but he would sit stock still and never really relax. Still, he was glad to have the food! And I was glad for the company.
After a few weeks, he was spending his days with me, then running off at night to be with his wild pals in the darkened playground. In the morning, there he would be again, wanting a cuddle and a snack.
After a couple of months, we moved to an upstairs flat a short distance away. In the day time, he would follow me everywhere. He even began to spend some of his nights at home. Our bond had begun to deepen.
Here is the part that makes me cringe for shame, even now. he wasn't used to human rules and things, and when he would commit some little transgression, I would treat him the same way I had been treated. I was unforgivably hard on him, yelling at him for these little mistakes.
Sundance--for that was the name I had given him...a fine cowboy name--had his own bed on the floor in my bedroom. One day I walked in and he was laying on it, and he cowered as I walked in. I was horrified. I realized that my dog was afraid of me. I sat down on the floor with him, took his big beautiful head in my arms, and told him I was sorry, and promised that he would never in his life have reason to fear me ever again. (I kept that promise.)
The first thing I did was to go to the used book store and look at a book about dogs. The book said, among a great many other things, to tell him something good about himself every day...that he might not understand the words themselves, but that he would understand the intention behind them. So, despite its feeling absolutely awkward to me at first, I did what the book said to do. Every day, I told him he was a handsome boy, a smart dog, a great dog. Today, you couldn't stop me from saying nice things to those I care for. But back then, I had to learn to do it. And I learned because of Sundance.
The dog who had been so wary, so careful, so unsure, became a dog who literally strutted. He thought nothing of flipping a guest's hand with his nose, to get them to pet him, because before too long, he simply expected to be adored! And why not? He was adorable indeed.
He was a very handsome fellow, and when we would go for walks, he would attract a lot of attention, especially from ladies. He loved it, the flirt! All of his life, he never lost his wild beginnings, and he would go off on night-time jaunts. In the morning, I would go search the neighborhood to find him, and more often than not, he had made a charming human friend, and I would find him smiling and full of himself, with her. (I would never dream of letting any of my dogs wander like that today...but that was a different time and a special dog. If I didn't let him wander every so often, he became impossible to live with, restless and unhappy.)
Sunny wasn't a dog who barked unless it was really necessary. He loved most people, and when he didn't like someone, I kept my distance from that person, too. So, when he woke me up in the middle of one night with his furious barking, I was sure a burglar or worse must be standing in my living room. Confused and panicked, I stumbled out of bed and grabbed the baseball bat I kept leaning against the wall for just such an emergency. Heart pounding, breathless and expecting the worst, I went stumbling into the living room of my upstairs flat, Louisville Slugger at the ready. What was the dire emergency, you ask? The downstairs people's cat had climbed the tree and was sitting on a branch outside the window. Ha!
Speaking of windows, Sundance had a little friend who lived next door. She and her little playmate would call up at the window, and Sunny would poke his head out through a round hole he had made in the screen (did I mention that rules were forgotten by that time?) and they would talk to him and he would smile and wag up a storm. He loved children dearly all of his life.
After six years in San Antonio, we both moved back to Michigan. I stopped letting him wander as of old, but he still found ways to escape. Late one night, I was laying around, watching some movie on tv with a friend. I had fallen asleep while my friend finished the movie. I was awakened by the telephone. A local policeman informed me that he had my dog. I said, no you don't, my dog is right here at the foot of the bed. Well....a quick check proved the policeman right. he had my dog! Someone had forgotten to latch the door at the bottom of the stairs (another upstairs flat), and he had gone down the steps, nosed the door open and gone wandering. I wonder if "Born Free" was playing in his head! the officer told me he had seen Sunny trotting along, had called him, and he had come straight over to him and sat down expecting a cuddle. So the officer loaded Sundance in the back seat of his cruiser and let him sit next to his desk at the station while he called me up. I told the policeman i didn't have a car, so it would be a while before i could walk down to the station to claim him. "No problem," he assured me, and fifteen minutes later, here comes a police cruiser with my dog in the back seat, happy as a clam. The cop opened the door and out he bounded. If dogs could say "woohoo!" he would have. I can say with certainty that no other dog of mine has ever been picked up by the police on a Friday night!
A year or so after that, I moved in with my new significant other, who had understood that to court me, meant to court my dog as well. Chew sticks were the order of the day. The first time I came home and kissed my (human) love before greeting Sundance, he sat back on his haunches and let out the most unusual howl/moan I have ever heard in my life! He was insulted, I had apparently forgotten that I was HIS!
Sundance appointed himself my son's protector. he would go on and stay with him until he fell asleep, before coming back to my side. Joe went through a period of being afraid of ghosts, until I assured him that ghosts are afraid of big dogs. Problem solved.
Even a dog as magnificent as Sundance gets old, to my great regret. He went deaf, but I devised a series of hand signals to communicate with him, and anyway, people always noticed that we had an almost psychic link anyway. I have never had that feeling of "we two are one" with any other living being but Sundance. Also, I took to sometimes saying his name very clearly, right into his ear, in case he could still hear it, and would like to.
He had a couple of strokes and several time i thought the end was probably near, but he always pulled through. He always had the heart of a lion, my Sunny. And for my part, i just couldn't let him go. He had taught me how to love, how to be kind, how to open my heart. How could there be life without him?
Eventually, though, I saw that it was time. On the last day of his life, he spent a long time laying in Joe's room as if saying goodbye. In the evening, i took him to the vet's, and came home with only his leash in my hand, which I still have. I had never cried so hard in my life. I howled. I thought i would break apart. My grief consumed me and turned the world grey and meaningless. It was during that time that I heard a song on the radio, by Neil Diamond,called "The Story Of My Life." It's on the music player here at Word Garden. That's my song for Sunny.
In time I realized that the wonderful things I had learned because of Sunny were still alive, in ME. And that's when I began to recover.
Flash forward ten years, to 2003: I had a psychic reading, and the gal told me that Sunny was there, and gave details that confirmed it. "He's such a charmer!" she exclaimed. Yup. Ha! Anyway, she said that he was concerned about "the spotted dog". I said I didn't know any spotted dogs. She told me to watch for one, that the spotted dog was important. A short time later, I was in the pet store and saw a Border Collie puppy, with spotted legs. I bought him on the spot. That's Bosco, light of my life. Thank you, Sunny. See you again, huh? My hero. *sigh*