Used to be that when my Mom and Dad traveled, they’d take their Boxer dog, Mugs, with them. But sometimes bringing a 75-pound bundle of goofy energy along wasn’t practical, so they’d kennel him at the local vet’s office. They never liked to; when they picked him up he was always sad, skinny, and had managed to catch a dog-cold. They felt guilty and it would be a week before Mugs got back to normal and fully forgave them.
Dad died in 2005. Mom hasn’t done a lot of traveling since then, but when she does, she can’t bear to put Mugs in the kennel. And so I dog-sit while she’s gone.
We always laugh when we do this. And it is sort of funny, the idea of baby-sitting a dog. But Mugs is very special. I know – all pet owners think their little darlings are special. Mugs really is.
In 1998, my dad had heart surgery. It was the second major heart operation he’d had – the first was a valve-replacement in 1986. This one, 12 years after the first, replaced the wearing-out replacement valve. Both surgeries were dicey and the second far more dangerous than the first. He was older. There was more disease. They had to do bypasses too.
Mom and Dad’s previous Boxer had died two years before. They missed him – we’ve always had a Boxer in the family – but he and Mom traveled frequently and, finding themselves dogless, decided they didn’t want the hassle of kenneling yet another dog.
It was a rough surgery. Dad was on the operating table for nearly 10 hours while they replaced the valve and did three bypasses, discovering the need for those after they’d opened him up. At some point during those hours he suffered a small stroke.
Dad survived the surgery, but spent two-and-a-half more weeks in the hospital, recovering very slowly. There were several set-backs. It was a miserable experience for him.
We knew when he came home, his convalescence would be long and arduous. Dad was an avid golfer, and in the years since he’d retired following his first heart surgery, he’d become a very active senior citizen. He was always busy – doing taxes for seniors through the AARP, volunteering his time with the local Sheriff’s Dept. in their senior program, and getting together with his buddies. He played poker, he golfed three times a week, he gardened. And he and Mom traveled frequently.
Now all of those things would be out, at least for a while. The doctor estimated it would take him six months to a year to regain his strength, and at that point we didn’t even know how the stroke might affect him.
My sister and I decided that what Dad needed when he came home was another Boxer. Mom was a little reluctant – she didn’t want to have to look after a messy, rambunctuous puppy and Dad – so we decided to check out the local Boxer rescue organization, hoping to find a full-grown, house-trained, nicely mannered dog.
We found Mugs. He’d been picked up by the dog catcher. His owners had disappeared. He was pathetically skinny, about two years old, full of energy and friendly in the way that only Boxers can be. The rescue people had bailed him out of the animal shelter and set about finding new owners for him, people who really loved Boxers and would give him a loving home for the rest of his life.
That was us.
When Dad was finally allowed home from the hospital, Mugs was there waiting for him. Oh, was Dad surprised. He was absolutely delighted with his new Boxer buddy. See, my sister and I sat down with Mugs before Dad arrived and explained to him what his job would be – he needed to be gentle with Dad, keep him company, and make him laugh. Dad really needed to laugh. It sounds strange, I know, the idea of explaining such things to a dog. But we believe dogs can be very special people.
Mugs was. He knew exactly what to do with Dad. Though he was only a couple of years old and full of young-dog energy, he was incredibly careful – and incredibly gentle – with my Dad. When Dad regained enough strength to walk slowly without a walker, he’d go out onto the deck that stretched the length of the house and overlooked his garden. He’d walk from one end of the deck to the other, over and over again, enjoying the sun and the fresh air while rebuilding the surgery-wounded and wasted muscles in his legs. It was painful and exhausting. But Mugs would be right there with him, walking alongside. Not in front. Not behind. Right next to Dad. He walked slowly. Steadily. Dad talked to him and Mugs listened with his big silly ears cocked, his droopy brown eyes on Dad’s face. His ridiculous stub of a tail wiggled madly. He was Concentrating.
Mugs understood what his job was and he did it. It was amazing, really. He helped my Dad through that long, long recovery time, and when it was over and Dad was strong again, he remained central in both Dad’s and Mom’s lives. They spoiled him rotten. He was a “talky” dog, making the funniest “mwah-mwah-mworf-mwooo” sounds in response to questions, or when he wanted to be walked or fed. He cracked us all up. Both of my parents were delighted by him. They loved him dearly, and we were all convinced that without Mugs, Dad would have had a much harder time recovering.
The stroke hadn’t impaired Dad physically at all. We noticed a few small changes in his personality and the way he dealt with frustrations, but they were minor. Dad made a complete recovery. He got almost all his strength back. He started golfing again – twice a week! He walked on his treadmill every day, even though it hurt his feet and legs something awful. He picked up his volunteer work again. He and Mom traveled, together and with friends, all over the country.
And then, in May 2005, the chair Dad was sitting on slipped out from under him while he was tying his shoes to go play poker with his buddies. He fell and bumped his head on the tile kitchen floor. He was all right, but he had a big knot on his head. He went out and played poker anyway – it was just a bump, after all. He told my Mom it didn’t even hurt. But a few days later – after he started getting a little sleepy and disoriented and, finally, developing such a severe headache that he could barely hold still – Mom took him to the ER. And it turned out that there was a massive bleed between his skull and the membrane that protects the brain, caused by the bump on the head and the fact that Dad was on Coumadin, a blood thinner.
This was to be my Dad’s last stay in a hospital. Although the bleed stopped by itself, he never recovered. The damage to his brain was too massive. Two weeks later he died, peacefully, in his hospital bed.
As you might imagine, we were all devastated. We’d called Dad the “Miracle Man” because he’d survived his two earlier heart surgeries – and not only survived, but thrived. He’d refused to give up. Dad had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances, made during his many years as a CPA, and even more after he retired. We all knew we’d lose him someday, but we figured it would be his heart, not a silly household accident. He was 77 years old.
And where does Mugs come back into this story? Well, after the funeral, after everything was settled back down to something like normalcy (though it could never be truly normal again without Dad), Mugs turned his full healing attention on my Mom.
She was lost in grief. She and my Dad were one of those lucky couples who never fell out of love. They were together for 49 years, and he’d been her everything. Now she was alone, trying to figure out what to do with her life post-Dad. Mugs did with her just like he’d done with Dad seven years before. He never left her side. He was with her constantly, whatever she happened to be doing. He started “talking” even more, which made her laugh in spite of herself. He took her for walks. He curled up with her on the sofa for naps and hogged most of the queen-sized bed at night. He kept her company, filling her long hours alone and giving her a reason to get up each morning.
Mugs has this way of coming up to you and laying his warm, hairy cheek up against yours, just holding it there, being gentle. Understanding. He knows.
He’s 12 years old now. He’s got arthritis in his hips and knees, and his muzzle has gone white. So when Mom decided this year, for the first time since Dad died, to go on the yearly trip to Monterey she and Dad used to take with several other couples, and asked me to baby-sit Mugs, I was delighted to do it. Spending this week with her dear friends, people who’d also loved my Dad, was a big step for her, a new step into life. Mom will be 78 in two weeks.
She’s healing. And Mugs, that sweet old dog, is still doing his job perfectly. Keeping him company 24/7 while she’s gone is the least I can do.