Distant Memories

My mother, who, by her own admission, always joked she had a “mind like a sieve” for most of her life, was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she died in 2007. I was her caregiver after my father passed away in 2005 and it was so sad to watch her mind disintegrate to the point where she forgot everything. In the early stages of my caring for her I tried a lot of different things to stimulate her memory, one of which was to get her a journal and suggest she write down everything she could remember about her life. The tragedy and confusing part of this horrible disease is that you can’t remember what you did two minutes ago, but the longer term memory is incredibly sharp. She could remember her wedding day, but not that she had just eaten. I was frustrated that she wouldn’t even try, but one of her caregivers explained to me that she had lost the ability to write. This was confirmed when she could not sign her name to something I asked her to sign. It’s not clear if this disease is hereditary, although it does appear to be passed on to female members of the family. Given this history I am going to take my own advice and write about things I hope to always remember, but may forget. Hopefully I remember having this website and I can look back to recall things I may have forgotten by then.

If it was not for a dog, whose name I have long since forgotten, this would have been a very short story. When I was a little over two years old, we lived on what was known at the time as Donalda Farms, which would eventually become Don Mills. My Dad was a caretaker on the property because the Dunlaps, who owned it at the time, never lived there. For some strange reason, although I could not verify it in my internet research today, I remember my Dad referring to him as “Bumpy” Dunlap. No idea why. My Dad recalled that one day they heard the dog barking more than normal. No idea why I was wandering around the property at that tender age, but somehow I had made my way down to the pool. In those days there were no security fences around pools. Of course no one knows, even me, if I was actually heading for the pool, but being naturally curious at that age I can only assume I was and no doubt would have fallen in and drowned, had it not been for that dog. He had positioned himself between me and the pool and there was no way he was going to let me anywhere near the pool, so he saved my life.

The strange part of the story was that, at the time, I was suffering from horrible allergies to pets and I had an extreme case of eczema as well. If I was exposed to any fur-bearing animal my eyes would swell up, almost closed and my sinuses would plug up completely. In subsequent years, until I was cured, I could walk into a home that had not had any animals for ten years and I would still swell up from the dander. I hated the fact that I could never have a pet of any kind. This dog belonged to one of the workers on the farm at the time, so the fact that he protected me is even stranger, but thanks to you, my savior anyway.

Like, I assume, most people, our memories of those early years are very spotty. Although we tend to remember the more traumatic moments forever, an incident like being saved from drowning isn’t known to be traumatic at the time, so we forget. No doubt my parents never forgot the time they nearly lost me. During the years following that incident maybe my father wished I had not been saved. My eczema was so bad that they spent hundred or dollars, which they certainly didn’t have at the time, trying to cure me. I would scratch the skin right off, it was so bad and they tried everything to stop the itching. The nights were particularly bad because my Mum had to sew little bags to tie over my hands to stop me from scratching. At one point they had to tie my hands down so I could not get to myself. It was the stuff that lifetime trauma comes from.

When I was about eleven my Dad somehow heard about a chiropractor who had cured conditions like mine. Remember that we are going back to a time when chiropractors were considered quacks, so it showed my father’s desperation that he would try anything. Also remember that this was long before OHIP so it all came out of his hard-earned money. The chiropractor began by taking x-rays of my neck. He found a tiny bone that was out of place and putting pressure on a nerve, which, he said, was causing the eczema. He began a weekly series of sessions where he would be massaging my neck, then, without warning, crack my neck. It all sounds, even now, like scary stuff and it was. When I look back on it I often wonder if one of those misplaced cracks could have snapped my neck, killing me. Over the course of about a year and a half of traveling down to Oakville from Streetsville every week new x-rays showed the bone was where it should be and not only was my eczema completely gone, but, to everyone’s surprise, so was my allergy to pets. I have no clue what the connection was; maybe I just “grew out of it”, but who knows?

My reward for no longer being allergic was to get my very first pet. Maybe it was a sign that my Dad wasn’t sure it would be okay to have a fur-bearing animal in the house, so he didn’t let me get a dog, which, naturally I would have become attached to, so he got me a cat. Bootsy, so named because she had little white paws that looked like she was wearing boots, soon became a member of the family, but everyone agreed she was mostly mine. Having never been able to have any kind of pet, there is no way to describe how much I became attached to that cat. To go from puffy eyes and blocked sinuses to having her sleep in my bed was amazing. I couldn’t wait to get home from school on the bus to see her. Like most cats, she probably couldn’t have cared less if I came home or not.

We lived in the country, on the fifth line, north of what was called Streetsville at the time, so I took the bus to school. One fateful day as the bus approached our lane-way and I moved to the front of the bus anxious to get home to see my Bootsy, The driver slowed, not just to let me off, but because there was a dead animal in the middle of the road. My heart sank and I could feel the tears well up because I knew in an instant that it was her. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced great loss and I fell apart, shaking and sobbing. The compassionate driver knew what I was going through and he helped me to pick her up and cradle her in my arms. My mother has often said that the sight of me walking up the driveway, carrying Bootsy, balling my eyes out, was one of her worst moments. When my Dad came home from work he dug a hole and we buried her, with some kind words of remembrance. I was too upset to speak but I had made a little cross and I sat by her grave until dark. I vowed then and there to never get attached to any animal ever again.

Like all kids I eventually got over it, although I never again cared as much for any of the many cats we had over the years. Even today I don’t care much for cats. That might also be because my wife eventually had three of the worst cats God ever put breath into and I loathed them. Not too long after losing my beloved Bootsy, my uncle, who owned a dog, Hobie, had moved into an apartment and they couldn’t keep him, so he asked my Dad to take him because we lived on the farm and he would have lots of room to roam. He was a cross between a hound and a boxer, so he had the muscular physic of a boxer, but the longer nose and ears of a hound. He was an amazing dog and he became an instant member of the family. We took him everywhere with us, including an ill-fated trip up to Thundar Bay to see relatives, a thousand mile trip in the car in the summer heat. First he was huge, so fitting him and three kids in the back seat was no mean feat. Hobie also suffered from the worst gas ever by any dog. His farts could clear a room, let alone when he let one go in the cramped confines of a hot car. I still remember the car overheating north of Sudbury and we were parked to let it cool down and he let one of the worst ever go. Made your skin peel.

Eventually he got old and he got cancer. Although my Dad took him to the vet, it was going to cost eight hundred dollars to treat him, which, back then might as well have been a million. There was no way we could afford that, but I know my Dad would have somehow found a way it it had made sense. The vet said even if he operated Hobie would not survive more than a few months and he would be in pain as well, so my Dad made the gut-wrenching decision to put him down. We dug yet another hole in what was quickly becoming our pet cemetery and buried our most beloved family member, Hobie. I have never forgotten him or the good times we had. One of his unique traits was that you could always tell when a thunder storm was coming, because Hobie would be under a bed somewhere, shaking and wining. Sure enough, within a few hours there would be a storm. The funniest part was that, although he was so scared that he could get under the bed, once the storm passed, he couldn’t get back out from under the bed. We had to lift the bed to let him out. He would go crazy, wagging his tail and slobbering all over us in thanks, so relieved that he had survived the peril.

Somehow I have got on a pet theme here, so I may as well continue with that. After Hobie I truly felt that I would never again feel that much loss again, so I was in no hurry to get another dog. Actually a couple of years after we had lost Hobie my Dad got a dog, Champ, from another relative. He turned out to a holly terror, biting everyone and jumping up on people. He was untrainable, so we gave up and gave him back. We never again had another dog, nor did my parents after moving out west. They did have a couple of cats in th early years, but then they started traveling to Yuma for the winters so they gave up their cat to a neighbor and never had pets after that. Part of the tragedy of Alzheimer’s is that I found my mother wandering looking for something. When I asked her what she was looking for, she said the cat that they had not had for years.

My next experience with a pet was when I met Tracy and the kids in 1999. After I moved in somehow we connected with a family who had a dog to give away. It was a sad story and one I identified with right away, because they had got the dog shortly after the birth of their daughter, but then she had developed severe allergies to the dog, so they had to give him up. We assured her that she could come and see him anytime she wanted to, and she did visit some time later. Spade, or as we offered called him, Spader, was yet another amazing dog. He was mostly Lab with a small bit of pitbull, which never showed, ever. He was so patient with the kids, who were young at the time. They would literally maul him and lie on him and he wouldn’t move. If they got really annoying he would give a little yelp that told them they had crossed the line and he had enough. He was as lovable as Hobie had been. His trick was to place food on his nose and he would not eat it until you told him to. We did everything with him and he was like another kid in the family.

I eventually moved out (another story). Tracy let me take Spade once in a while and sometimes, even though we had split up, we did things together with the kids, like boating, and Spade would always come along. My parents loved Spade to death, more than me, I think. We would show up with all the kids in tow and the first thing she would say was hello to Spade and not to us. Somehow, even though we split up, having Spade around made it feel like we were still together. Desperation maybe.

One day I got a call from Tracy telling me that something was very wrong with Spade. She told me he was having trouble walking and there was something wrong with his rear end. She asked if I could take him in to the vet to see what was wrong. After I had moved out, whenever I knocked at the door and Spade heard my voice, he would go completely nuts at seeing me. I often said I wished I could get a girl to be as happy to see me. This day was no different. I knocked and spoke his name and I could hear him barking like crazy. As I opened the door though and he was at the top of the stairs, he came bounding down the stairs as always, except that he was just bumping his rear down the stairs. He could not stand or walk. It broke my heart to see that. I took him to the vet and it was heartbreak all over again. He had lumps and the vet said it would cost thousands to treat him, but, again, his life would be short. I went back to tell Tracy the bad news. She said that there was no way she could handle it and asked me to and I agreed.

When I came back later, dreading every minute of this, they had Spade wrapped up in a blanket. He struggled to look happy when he saw me, but somehow he knew this was not going to be the same. My darling little Madison was bawling her eyes out and asked if she could come with me. I had not thought I could possibly dread this moment worse, but now I had to be strong in front of Mads. When we went into the vets she asked me if I wanted to stay with him until he had passed, but I just couldn’t do it. I was on the edge of totally losing it anyway and I knew I could never keep it together in front of Mads, so we left. Losing a trusted friend is hard no matter what the circumstances. For me the end of the relationship was tragic enough and I saw putting Spade down as the final nail in what had been the best relationship of my entire like. I had now not only lost my friend and lover, and her wonderful three kids, but we had also lost the “family” pet. Tearful memories, even now as I write this.

Even after these tough times with dogs I have often regretted not having a dog. They are such a wonderful and loyal companion. You are never truly alone when you have a dog who loves you unconditionally. Truly man’s best friend. Maybe someday I will live somewhere that I can again have a dog. Who knows?

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