Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
It was a call for help, “Can you haul my dog away?” At first blush, I missed his tone and gave my standard reply. “Nope, we only remove dead horses. Sorry.”
What I had missed was the underlying plea, the helplessness that cried for recognition, the admission of an inability to be ultimately responsible for separating himself from his dog, forever. OK, I could fluff the story up for the man, tell him his best friend would be buried on a hillside overlooking the Roaring Fork River, just across from Triangle Peak.
The return call was quick and to the point. “I’ll come get your dog. Wait right there.”
Well-known, tall, at least 6 foot, 3 inches, with long, flowing hair and a well-weathered face, he was not the sort of man you’d think would need such help. He had an irascible personality and saw things mostly in a linear fashion. I’d previously seen him out with his mongrel mutt and the contrast was difficult to ignore: a striking, recently widowed, unsmiling man under a mane of billowing, white hair walking a relatively small mostly black, attentive dog around the rural, sparsely populated neighborhood.
Together, we solemnly carried the lifeless form, wrapped in an old sheet, to my truck and I gently closed the tailgate. Tears covered the man’s cheeks and the depth of devotion was made clear in an instant. With quivering lips, he asked “How much?” and barely able to keep my own composure, I whispered, “Nothing.” My instinct was to wrap my arms around him and say I understood, at least a little, but the moment evaporated before I could act.
“Only a dog,” some might say, but years later, I still look for the man when I’m in his neighborhood, wondering if he has a new dog, or if he silently endures the crushing loneliness, unwilling yet to give up an unfading commitment to his last faithful companion, the final remaining connection he had to his dead wife.
During the winter of 1957-58, my grandfather lived at our house, lying in the shadows while an insidious form of cancer drove him into the darkness of death. His only remaining dog, Tag, waited patiently on the front porch, ready to go the moment my grandfather called, but that day never came.
Snowstorms, cold snaps, visitors, all came and went while hired help offered romps in the snow, but 4-year-old Tag never left his post. My dad fed him every day, even though he ate very little and Dad always tried to coax him onto the hay sled or into the pickup truck, but with no response. Tag wasn’t going anywhere without my grandfather, and he knew Gramps was in our house.
On a cold March night, sometime between midnight and 6 a.m., my granddad died, changing our lives in ways we could not imagine, at least not at the time. My dad left the house about 7, and Tag followed him to the barn, instinctively acknowledging the fact that Grandpa was gone, even though his body still lay in the house.
The connection between man and dog is very strong, each of intrinsic value to the other, and is something we should never question, no matter how badly we want the answers. There is tremendous power and wonder in a lonely man crying over the death of his dog; likewise, the allegiance shown by Tag to my grandfather was unshakable and uncannily commendable.
When tragedy strikes and our pet is no more, some try to comfort us with the thought that “It was only a dog.” Said without thinking, such an uttering is ultimately demeaning to the human species and shows a serious lack of understanding of our place in the universe.
But to further think about it, when the owner lies lifeless, what can we say to the tragically struck dog?