I grew up hearing tales of amazing dogs my grandfather had known. There was Mike, a Springer Spaniel who guarded my mother when she was a toddler. My grandmother would place my mother in the backyard in the sandbox with a few toys, and then she would call the dog and say, “Watch Cody, Mike.” He would sit down and begin duty. Mike would patiently and repeatedly pull her back from the busy street when she pushed her doll buggy too close. He was the best of babysitters.
Mike was a valued member of the family and when he vanished one cool fall day, my grandfather searched the County for him. Several days passed before a neighbor on the edge of town called with the sad news that he had found Mike, dead, caught in his wire fencing. His collar had strangled him as he tried to free himself. Mike and his remarkable fidelity lived on in stories that I begged to hear and my grandpa loved to tell.
When my brother Nick was born, my grandfather dropped in daily to hold the baby. For the first few weeks, despite my mother repeatedly telling him that his name was Nicholas Joseph, my grandfather stubbornly called the baby “Mike”. After a month or so, when he saw my mother was unyielding in her choice, my grandpa finally gave up his attempt to christen my brother after his dog.
I had my own faithful guard dog as a child. Hershel the beagle lived with my paternal grandparents on their farm outside of town. Hershel had wide and knowing eyes, a gentle disposition, and an almost human presence. In the many pictures I have of myself on the farm, Hershel is always sitting a few feet away, observing me with his liquid and soulful eyes. Though he usually watched with benevolent boredom, he wasn’t afraid to voice his displeasure if I ventured into trouble and more than once began barking like crazy to alert my grandparents when I snuck too close to the barn. A particularly vicious bull lived there and I was fascinated by his dangerous horns. Hershel had more sense and thwarted my every attempt to get a closer look.
One fall day some trigger-happy hunters mistook Hershel for a turkey and blindly shot toward some low brush. After he was killed, it felt so alien to be alone on the farm without his ever watchful gaze; I pretended he was still there, a few feet beside me, keeping silent vigil.
Canine fidelity was a trait respected by my family, but I think one dog will forever be linked in my mind with true devotion. My brother Nick brought home a small black and white rat terrier from the pound, and named her “Orbit”. She had the frustrating qualities that many terriers possess: a willful spirit, a devotee of the dangerous art of moving tire biting, and a relaxed attitude about peeing wherever and whenever the mood struck her. Nick thought she was perfect, however, and even wrote songs in her honor. One I recall was sung to the tune of “O Christmas Tree” and included the lyrics, “O Orbie Dear, O’Orbie Dear, you’re the best dog in the hemisphere!” And she was.
They would often play a game of mock battle: Nick would grab Orb through a blanket and Orb would bite his hands and spin about in a delighted fake attack mode. Nick called the game “Pit Pup” or “Ninja Pup”. There’s was a perfect example of a dog finding her true boy.
When we lost Nick, suddenly, unexpectedly at age 12, we each were caught in our own waves of grieving for many months; we struggled just to keep breathing.
Absorbed with my own misery, Orbit was present, but not foremost in my thoughts until I noticed her sitting in the front window one fall day. Nick had died shortly before school had begun and now, weeks later, children were streaming down the street, released from school for the day. Orbit watched each child intently. Particular children were given extra scrutiny. Boys on bikes, boys with a familiar walk, boys with tee shirts and knobby shoulders, or a boy with dark hair – these traits excited her. As they passed by, and she recognized each not to be hers, she would sag a bit, and then resume the posture of patient waiting. Every day, she waited.
We moved to a new house and Orbit immediately took up her vigil in the front window. Each possibility that walked or rode by elicited brief excitement. A tiny quiver of hope. A black and white canine candle in the window.
Ten years passed and a much greyer Orb still watched with cloudy eyes. Too arthritic to jump up, she barked for a boost to her perch. She would keep waiting for as long as it took.
In her 14th year she had a stroke and fell down a long flight of steps. After an emergency trip to the vet, mom called to tell me Orbit seemed to be paralyzed. I rushed home armed with bags of Orbits’ favorite treats and we worked with her all night. By she was up, pudgy with treats and although unsteady, she was walking. We said how proud Nick would be: Orbit was healed by the power of Pupperoni.
Eventually, more strokes struck and the day came when Orb could no longer walk at all. Our family knew what needed to be done, yet it was excruciating to take that final trip to the