Take one petite yet feisty Chicagoan with clear blue eyes and dark hair, and one Old English Sheepdog puppy with his baby coat of white and black fur, and what do you have? A perfect friendship. Rosie and Reggie. Dressed up for a day on the town: Rosemarie and Reginald.
My mother had this idea one day that it was time to get a dog. A shaggy kind of dog. My father, on the other hand, was not so enthusiastic about the plan. Shocking to all of us kids, Mom had her way. There must have been an otherworldly reason for that because Dad usually had his. She traveled to Laurel, Md., to pick out her dog, a purebred Old English. As the family story goes, one dog approached the car, sniffing out the caliber of the visitors, placing his paws on the side to swallow up the window's view. Facing all the family members in the car were camouflaged eyes and a black nose as round as a golfball. Reggie's brother. The size of dogs to come. Reggie was a pup, an infant after all. He was only tall enough to confront the car tire. His brother had the height of the car tackled when he stood on his back legs.
Reggie came home that day and found a spot to hollow out in the back yard and eight spots to carve out in the hearts of all of us who loved him dearly. He would win Dad over eventually sliding up in front of the floor-based air conditioner when Dad would work at the kitchen table. Reggie's was a gentle disposition, one that was grounded in a thoughtful understanding of the human condition. When Mom was suffering in any way, his instincts guided him to her and his head would cradle itself on her lap. At night, by her bedside you would see his fuzzy behemoth self on duty, on call, oh so ready if she needed him. He was her Galahad, her Lancelot of Canine Camelot. She loved that dog in a way that I cannot put into words. And I know he loved her in the same way.
He could be funny. After I had gotten a Keeshond puppy named King, the two became acquainted and for the most part good buddies. How could we not have made the immediate connection that the name Reginald means "king." They had the same name, though I am convinced that Reggie felt the multisyllabic character of his version gave him a leg up on his Dutch pal. They faced life, the better days and the harder days, with their own brand of resilience. I remember when life was not at its easiest my brother and I decided to take the two dogs for a ride and we headed to a small town on the Chesapeake Bay. Out we went to the shoreline and Reggie and King came with us. We started tossing a stick, not exactly a game they ever enjoyed. That type of activity was beneath them usually. This day we had a grand game of fetch. King was darting in and out of the water, content to let Reggie be the grand retriever. At one point the stick flew out in the Bay and before we knew it, Reggie bounded after it. Despite his bulk, he was fast. He got out to the stick and stood around with this fabulous look of triumph, stick in mouth and soaking wet. Then his face transformed with the speed of a Star Wars special effect. The stick never wobbled in his mouth; it had become an horizontal exclamation point -- as if Churchill himself were condemning us with a marbled look of utter indignation. I heard the look transformed in my head as, "I am sitting out here in the Bay with a stick in my mouth and you two are responsible." There is an old photo somewhere, maybe in storage, or lost to time, (my fault) that captured that moment of Reggie's declaration of disgust, for us and his own unfortunate leap into being just a dog. He sat there a while and then came back to the shore. For those who don't know it, when sheepdogs get wet, it is as if you have surrounded yourself with a basket of clammy damp almost moldy sweaters and the drive home that day was less than pleasantly fragrant. This time, his face was as bright and happy as any sheepdog can offer.
Reggie left us when severe arthritis deprived him of any quality of life. I was not there the day my brother took him to the vet for the last time. It was awful for him I know for I was dealing with poor King who had many of the genetic abnormalities that often plague his breed. Instead, I was with my King in the vet's office in Bay St. Louis, Ms., my arms supporting him, our eyes locked as his acknowledged mine, and the pain left his face and he died in my arms. I buried him in the backyard of the house in the Bay. That other Bay. Years later, after Katrina, my husband and I would seek out the old house and unlike the rest of our town, the house was fine and the gravesite for King-dog out in the back was exactly as I left it. The earth had settled in a depression over his grave and I knew it would always be there.
Two kings were gone. My mother had truly lost a noble champion. She had wanted to write a children's book where a woman and her Old English Sheepdog were together on life's adventure. He was gone too soon for adventuring that way. And now Mom is waiting for her next adventure. Her Alzheimer's is taking her from us. It has been an agonizingly slow process, for her and for us. She still, miraculously, is mentally present in her dwindling body, though that body will not allow her to speak to us clearly. Her four sons and two daughters, all Caesarian born to this world as a result of her strength, courage and four feet eleven inches of Irish-German don't mess with me attitude, are finding we understand her new language. One brother does a little dance and she smiles. One brother brings her a stuffed dog, a blue blanket and sits and watches a Notre Dame football game with her and when the fight song plays, she raises her arm and points to the screen. And she kisses him. One brother on kidney dialysis, her first born, comes to see her from the West Coast and on his knees before her, he leans into her and there is that light in her eyes. Her little boy is home. One daughter, of curly hair and a blessed beginning, brings her daughter to visit and together, they bring back to Mom her own gift of song. Music is the joy of her granddaughter and like my Mom, my niece loves to sing. You don't need to know about me because I am the archiver, the keeper of the family legend. One brother. What can I say. He loved Reggie with the same passion as Mom. He is the baby of the family but that is only because that is how you describe the last one born.
This past weekend, Mom greeted us from her hospital bed, but it is a bed that is in her own bedroom. That is because my youngest brother is her principal caregiver. He changes her and cleans her wounds. He feeds her and gives her the gift of continuity. Within the last few weeks, the diagnosis finally went terminal and now, there is hospice care and nurses. But there is always Chris. Chris who could throw a pretty good fetching stick and who places the giant stuffed Old English Sheepdog toy on a chair near her bed. He told us when nurses and aides first came into the room, they thought the dog was real. He assured them otherwise, but are they convinced? I am not so sure. Not eerily but nevertheless, spiritually, with an ode to C.S. Lewis, all of us when we admit it to ourselves feel Reggie's presence when we are near Mom and Chris.
We lost our father almost 25 years ago. He was 57. My Mom is 81 and never remarried. My parents' 60th wedding anniversary would be this coming Dec. 30 and somehow when Mom is ready for that last adventure, I have this marvelous feeling that my father will be there, an elegant Old English Sheepdog at his side, waiting to welcome her. I hope so.