The family was gathered in my parents’ kitchen for brunch on Father’s Day of 1993. I remarked that their terrier Beth, looked like a rag-dog, flattened out on the dining room rug, head on paws, staring in at the goings-on. Her long floppy ears were splayed out on either side of her head and she could easily have passed for a rug. “Yeah, she’s tired,” Mom said sadly, “Say goodbye to Beth. We’re taking her to the vet tomorrow and sending her back to Georgie,” Dad added.
“MacBeth” had been my brother Georgie’s dog. The night he died at age 33 of AIDS in 1986, my parents brought Beth home, spread George’s corduroy coat in a living room corner and she’d slept on it ever since. My parents hadn’t planned on getting another dog. They had put their 15-year-old collie-terrier Duchess down a year or so before George died, and agreed that life began when the kids moved out and the dog died. But Beth was like an orphaned grandchild, so mom and dad became pet owners one more time. I felt a pang at the announcement, but I had known it was coming. Beth had been going steadily downhill for the past year. She could no longer navigate the steps without turning into a furry tumbleweed. Lately she resembled a drunken sailor when she walked, leaning to one side and losing her balance. She either didn’t hear, see or care that she was under your feet, and tripping over Beth at least once while visiting mom and dad had become ritual. Mom described some of Beth’s other problems, all of which involved bodily functions which I choose not to recite here. (You’re welcome.)
Beth was almost 17-years-old, born the Bicentennial summer. I have pictures of Beth and her litter taken on Labor Day weekend that year at “the farm,” where George rented the carriage house. The farm, a collection of old renovated farm buildings outside of Peddler’s Village, Pennsylvania, was reached by a dusty ride up a dirt road cutting through the fields of a Christmas tree nursery, and housed an eclectic collection of tenants.
The picture shows me flat on my back on the ground, the carriage house in the background, playfully swarmed by six tan puppies chewing my clothes, my feet and my hair. George gave away all but two of the puppies, but the next year Beth’s brother MacDuff escaped his pen, wandered down the dirt road and was hit by a car. George was left with Beth, an affectionate, friendly companion but, according to her master, not much of a watchdog. The time he was robbed, George raved for days about how the wretched cur invited the thieves in for tea and led them to the silverware and jewelry.
That picture reflected the happy times, the days spent in sunshine, running down the hill and jumping into the pond, Beth nipping at our heels. Days spent recklessly riding in an open-backed Blazer over dirt piles left by bulldozers, while Beth barked furiously at our folly. (Yeah, we found out how stupid that was after my fiance was thrown out and had to be rushed to the hospital for stitches to his head). Hot, sleepy days spent sunbathing on the lawn overlooking the apple orchard (clothing optional), while Beth nosed at our hands, begging to be petted and scratched. Those were the carefree days of our youth, when Beth wasn’t the only one bounding around and enjoying the freedom of the farm. The days before anyone knew about AIDS.
Beth didn’t bark for a year after Georgie’s death. She was probably confused but grateful at being taken in by people who permitted her free access to sleep on Georgie’s long corduroy coat, off-limits until her master bequeathed it to “My Beloved MacBeth” in his Will. I don’t think Beth ever stopped waiting for George to come back. I suspected she was still crying inside. Like us.
And now, seven years later, it was time to reunite her with her master.
It’s always hard parting with an old cherished pet. But Beth meant even more to us. She was a constant reminder to my parents and siblings of our Georgie. As long as Beth was there to trip over, a little piece of him still lived on for us. As we lost track of George’s friends when they either moved away or died, Beth was still there. She was a trigger for many a humorous story about George. She was something real for the grandchildren born after his death to connect to the picture of the handsome, smiling young blond man that their mothers reverently told them was their Uncle Georgie, “a wonderful person who we all loved very much.” She was another being with which to share our grief.
We finally bid our farewells that day, but after driving a few blocks, we decided to go another route and backtracked. A block from my parents’ house, we saw a dog weaving down the middle of a busy street. Interrupting myself in mid-sentence, I exclaimed, “Is that Beth?!” “Yep, it’s Beth,” answered my husband, braking in the middle of the street. I got out, carefully picked her up (clad in white pants, my mother’s stories were fresh in my mind), and carried her to the truck, all the while thinking that Georgie HAD to have sent us back this way because my parents were leaving for the day soon, and obviously didn’t know she was gone.
We returned the prodigal home, my mother fussing about the grandchildren always leaving the gate open. I set the shivering dog down and ruffled her fur one last time. Knowing I had performed my final act of kindness for her, I took a breath to stifle the welling emotion, said good bye to my parents again, and left. But I was comforted by one thought.
I knew her master was waiting for her in a better place, where the days are always sunny, the grass always green, the sky always blue, and they will run free together again.