I’ve been rather lax about posting here lately, but I have far better excuses than usual this month. Besides the usual difficulties and distractions that go with end of school year routines, I’ve been confronted with the death of my best friend over the past 14 years: a Springer Spaniel by the name of Mac. Given the role that Mac played in my life –– and the role he played in other people’s lives, both directly and through me –– it is appropriate that I take a moment here to commemorate the value that his life had.
Mac was an accidental puppy which came to a new breeder of spaniels and retrievers from just outside of the Helsinki commuting region. His mother was only 11 months old when she had her first litter, including the little fellow my sons and I ended up with. This was in the summer of 2001. During the previous winter our pet rabbit, Whiskers, had died rather tragically of an accident caused by blindness, brought on by diabetes we didn’t know it had. I promised my sons that after we returned from our long-planned trip to the United States that summer, to celebrate my father’s sixtieth birthday with the rest of the family there, we would get a dog as our next pet. True to my word, as soon as we returned from that trip I started scouring the classified ads for mid-sized dogs which cost less than a small car. The ad for this litter of spaniels without papers fit our requirements perfectly. I called the breeder and she happened to be bringing another of the puppies from the litter into the city that Saturday, and so she agreed to bring along a few of the puppies which hadn’t been reserved yet and meet us at a parking lot not far from my apartment. So we encountered these little bundles of cuteness there outside the local gas station that morning, and after playing with them for a bit my younger son, Kris, picked out one of them from among his brothers. It’s fair to say he made a very good choice.
My older son, Robert, in particular had the idea that the movie Beethoven showed the best way to name a puppy: by seeing what sort of music he responded to. Obviously in real life it doesn’t quite work like that, but with that starting point in mind we began a family project of searching for an appropriate dog name within my record collection. After tossing around various possibilities, Mac… as in Fleetwood… just seemed like the name which suited him best.
I should back up to say that at that time I was a divorced “weekend father,” and due to the absurdities of Finnish divorce law at the time, in spite of their mother’s conspicuous mental illness, she had been given sole legal custody over my sons. In practice it was my ex-mother-in-law who got to make all of the legal decisions regarding them, and it’s best if I don’t say anything about what I think of her. Suffice to say, she had nearly prevented them from attending the American get-together that summer and there was plenty of bitter tension left over from that struggle. On top of that I had just had a subsequent marriage collapse on me, in part due to the stresses related to my sons’ custody that I brought into that relationship. It was a very tense time in my life indeed. Under these circumstances the puppy was an instant bonding agent and source of healing for all of us, a role he fell into completely naturally, as though he was made for it.
From the moment he sat on my lap as we drove to an ATM to get the money to pay the breeder for him, he seemed to consider himself fully part of our family. The first time I heard him cry was when we had to leave my sons off at their grandmother’s house the next evening.
To refer to Mac as the bastard son of royalty was true on a number of levels. He never had any official pedigree, but a few years later his mother and his presumed father were brought together again, intentionally this time, to produce another batch of puppies, this time with pedigrees, with hopes that they would be just as handsome and good-natured as Mac. Many of his cousins and partial siblings went on to become champion show dogs. Mac himself once appeared on the cover of Finland’s spaniel association’s magazine, in a picture taken at a dog-and-child camp that he and Robert went to. There was no denying that Mac was particularly handsome, and that he carried himself with an elite air of self-confidence at all times.
Mac was the easiest dog in the world to house-train, at least as far as his droppings were concerned. He would mischievously get into various things that weren’t intended for him, and chew on various things that I didn’t want toothmarks on, but from his first week with us onward, never when he was healthy and properly attended to did he have any “accidents” on the carpets. After the first time I saw him squatting and moved him onto the newspaper he was like, “Oh, OK, not in here then. Fine. I’ll wait until we can go out.”
In other ways as well Mac proved himself to be exceptionally intelligent and an eager problem-solver. On one particularly memorable occasion when Mac was still quite young I took him along on a date. As the puppy, the lady and I were walking in the woods together we came to a bird watching platform overlooking a pond where migratory birds would stop on their way in and out of town. The lady and I proceeded to climb up to look around. The puppy sat at the bottom of the steep stairs and began to whine a bit. I then called him to come on up and his response thoroughly impressed me: He stretched his little legs to work his way up the first three steps and from there stopped to look at me. Then he looked back at the ground. After a few glances in both directions he turned around and tried climbing back down. He succeeded at that with no serious difficulty, and so, satisfied that he wasn’t getting himself into something he couldn’t get out of, he then proceeded from there to climb the rest of the way up to the observation platform. That made me think, if only more young people would have that much foresight in their learning adventures…
Mac would follow me anywhere he could, and he would bark up a storm if we weren’t together and he believed I could possibly hear him. In visiting a seashore cottage we used to regularly go to, it was impossible for me to get into a rowboat without either taking him along or locking him into the cottage. If someone accidentally opened the cottage door he would be out like a shot, swimming after the boat in seconds. He also became very adept at working basic door handles under such circumstances, and he could also climb remarkably steep stairs and ladders. Pretty much anything I could climb without using my hands –– stairs, ladders, rocks, mountain paths –– Mac could climb after me. Some friends who liked Mac a lot did not want to mind him for the afternoon when I asked mostly for fear of how he tended to complain if I wasn’t there. Robert perhaps summed it up best with his joke, after reading Dilbert and Dogbert cartoons, that perhaps we should call Mac “Dog-vid”.
For the most part he was also quite at home in all of the various cars that I drove during his life, though in his own funny way: On the motorway he could sit quietly for hours, but when we got onto country roads he always got restless, as if trying to say, “Hey this spot looks really interesting. Can’t we stop and check it out for a bit?” As he became too large to safely sit in my lap as I drove it was difficult for him to adjust to the idea of not being allowed there any more. For a long time he kept up a habit of trying to slowly creep into my lap as I drove, first sitting as close to me as the car’s seats would allow, then putting is left front paw on my leg to check my response, then resting his chin on my leg, then slowly trying to inch his way further across… until I finally had to pull him back by the scruff of his neck for safety reasons.
But though he was particularly attached to me personally, from Mac’s perspective there was was always room for new members in our pack. This was seen in particular in his relationship with the kids at the school where I taught. Whenever possible, when the temperatures were neither dangerously hot nor cold for him, I took Mac to school with me and let him sleep in the car during my lessons, then took him out for walks around the paths surrounding the school when I had breaks or skip lessons. At times I snuck him into the playground, the teachers’ lounge, and even some of the classrooms to play with my students and colleagues. If there was anyone with a fobia or an allergy, it was understood that he would not be allowed into the area, but when no one had that sort of problem… rules tended to get bent. In that way students came to appreciate his presence just as a matter of principle. Thus Mac became very much the unofficial mascot of Espoo International School during pretty much its entire time at the Louhentie building. He also became a very familiar face to the students of Etelä Tapiolan lukio over the years.
In all of my romantic involvements over those years Mac also played a significant role. One ex-girlfriend from that time, who became very attached to Mac, commented that “if only I could find a man with his personality…” Another long-term relationship I had essentially began with the friendship between Mac and that lady’s Labrador. Essentially it became something of a precondition for dating with me: I learned that it was best not to bother with any woman who had a problem with either my sons or my dog.
From an early age, however, Mac began having problems with his eyes and ears. These sense limitations as he got older never seemed to limit his general good nature or interest in meeting new people (and dogs) and making new friends, especially among children. They were sad to witness though.
I don’t think his vision was ever particularly strong: Playing in a park together, it was always easy to hide from him behind bushes and the like, and he always seemed to play fetch primarily on the basis of smell. But it was when he was six years old that glaucoma struck, painfully blinding him in one eye. There were fears that he might lose the other eye’s vision as well, or that the blind eye would have to be surgically removed, but neither fear ever ended up being realized. The condition was managed surprisingly well with some basic eye drops.
His ears were another matter. As a puppy he had very acute hearing. It was six months after he came into our family that I finished my master’s degree, and during those months of studying intensively for my very last exams he would be sleeping on my feet most of the time while I was on my computer. But whenever he heard the click of either my computer or my television shutting off he would instantly jump up, ready to go for a walk or for some other form of action together. But over the years, in spite of rigorous cleaning routines and careful diet regulations, bacterial and yeast infections under those big furry ears of his became chronic. By the time he was five he had notably reduced hearing, and by nine years old he was stone deaf.
The major crisis in my relationship with Mac came when he was 10 years old. Kris, my younger son, had officially become an adult, so I didn’t have children to care for in Finland any more. Another romance in my life had come and gone. Due to curriculum changes in the schools where I taught some of my favorite classes to teach were being discontinued, and overall I was starting to feel burned out with Finnish school teacher’s life as I knew it. At this time an opportunity arose to spend some time in South Africa, and to look into the possibilities of carving out a more permanent niche for myself there. But what about my half-blind and deaf old spaniel?
I searched around among connections from the breeder, among friends and neighbors, former students and anyone else I could think of, but didn’t find anyone willing to adopt him. I looked into the possibility of taking him with me, and even went as far as having a microchip implanted in his shoulder and buying an airline carrying cage for him… but those logistics weren’t going to work. I was starting to get desperate. Eventually I started placing announcements in every on-line advertising medium I could find, and finally a promising reply came: a family about an hour’s drive away, with two school-aged girls, had an old female terrier that they wanted an older four-legged companion for. It had to be an older dog, not particularly large, who was particularly good with children.
They had a lovely little lake shore home out in the countryside where the dogs could run free much of the time, and it seemed like the perfect ideal for an old dog’s retirement living. We arranged for Mac to go over and visit with them for a couple days to see if it would work, and after that they were fully convinced that they wanted to keep him. That brought me very close to crying for joy.
My South African adventure turned out not to be anything permanent, but when I returned to Finland the following year I decided that it would be fairest for all concerned if I would not ask to have Mac back. I was free to stop over and visit him whenever I chose (and whenever I could find the transportation to do so) and I got to have Mac stay with me when the family went on a vacation to the south seas over Christmas the year before last. Mac was always happy to see me, but things were different of course. He was clearly at home there and very much part of their family as well now; always “supervising” when their girls went swimming, always anxiously awaiting when their father would return home from work. Those were good years for him.
This month those years came to an end. It was last summer when the family’s old terrier had passed on, and though the two dogs didn’t seem particularly close, Mac’s health had taken a turn for the worse since losing this companion/competitor. When I had last visited him at Christmas time the most recent (presumably benign) tumor to show up on his back was getting rather large, he was having a hard time climbing basic porch steps, and though he didn’t appear to be in any pain the mother of the family said that he had been doing a lot more whimpering as he lay around the house lately. There was an unspoken understanding that the end was starting to come into view.
As I was leaving, Mika, Mac’s new man, promised to call me if/when any major changes would occur. That call came a couple weeks ago.
It turned out to be relatively short notice, but it was probably best that way. On that Wednesday Mika had called the vet to check on a time for Mac’s final visit and he was told that the best time for them would be already the following afternoon. So he called right away to let me know. It was sudden, but I could accept that it was time.
I skipped the university seminar I was supposed to go to between the lessons I had to teach that Thursday, and while Mika was still at work and no one but Mac was home, following his instructions, I let myself in to have one last visit with my old friend. Mac was sleeping soundly on the dining room floor when I arrived and didn’t sense me coming in. I took off my shoes and jacket and lay down on the floor in front of him. I gently stroked his head and he immediately woke up and struggled to his feet to come give me a kiss. He sniffed around my backpack to see if there was anything special there for him, which sadly there wasn’t, but he was cool with that. We then went out together for a walk down to his lake shore. He took a few sips from the lake, had a rather belabored bowel movement in the bushes, and basically seemed to say, “Let’s not bother with anything particularly strenuous, OK?”
I took him over to my old van then. He sniffed inside the door and moved in such a way that he clearly would have jumped in right away… if his legs would still have worked that well. I lifted him up to the bench seat, got in and we set off to drive into town together. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and though my appetite wasn’t all that great at the moment, I needed something to balance my blood sugar. In his youth one of Mac’s favorite foods to share with the boys and I had been pizza; any pizza really. For most of his life since this had been forbidden for him though: both dairy and wheat products brought on worse ear problems for him. That day, however, we didn’t need to worry about his ears any more, so I decided to take him out for pizza. Even eating pizza had become a laborious process for him though. It was an experience that reminded me of what my father had said about spending time “on the other end of the spoon” from his mother in her final days.
From there it was back to the house to meet Mika, for the men to have a sad cup of coffee together, for final goodbyes, and for me to return to work as Mac continued on his final journey in Mika’s van.
Even though he hasn’t been so much part of my day-to-day life for the past few years, of course I miss Mac strongly. In some ways the world is that much of a poorer and crueler place without him in it.
I’m not ready to toss out anything trite about animal souls and after-life expectations for them, or us, or the like. All I can really say to myself is something along the lines of what I said to my son Robert as he stood crying next to the fresh grave of our rabbit, nearly 15 years ago: One thing you learn in the theology business is that people will never be able to properly come to grips with the whole idea of death; we have no means of properly making sense of the experience. What we can know is that the most important part of life before dying though is loving and feeling loved. This furry friend of ours was certainly loved. In the rabbit’s case I’m not entirely sure, but in Mac’s case I know beyond doubt that he very much loved us back.
There’s a line from The Unbearable Lightness of Being where, as the couple at the center of the tale are putting down their old dog, Karenin, the wife says to her husband, “I loved her better than you; not more, but better.” It is beyond my literary skill to unpack that in a way that non-dog people would get it, but my feelings now are something close to that. For all the people that I have loved and been loved by during the course of my life, none have really appreciated me for who I am as a person –– without expectations regarding what they can get out of me or what they can train me to do for them –– nearly so thoroughly and purely as Mac did. And I in turn could appreciate him entirely as he was, without him having to help me hunt birds or attack my enemies or anything else he was bred for, besides just being part of the family and showing that he cared.
Someday I hope I will be able to experience that quality of love again. Someday it would be nice to relate to other people as purely and as satisfyingly as I could relate to Mac. For now though I just savor the memory of my most beautiful friendship ever, and I thank all of you who have cared enough to share this pain with me this month.
Rest in peace, dearest friend.