I was in elementary school when America was in love with disco music, Reggie Jackson, and mood rings. Looking back, it was a great time to be a kid. Most days in the summer, I would eat a quick bowl of cereal, head out the door and off on my bike I would go. My friends and I would exchange baseball cards, ramp our bikes of off most any sloping stationary object, and if we could put together enough pocket change, buy a Slurpee from the 7/11.
My parents parents and their brothers and sisters all lived within short drives of each other. We would routinely spend Sunday’s afternoons at Grandma and Grandpa’s house (dad’s side) or frequent the houses of aunts and uncles for birthday gatherings, summer barbecues and cook outs. My siblings and I had many cousins to play with at family get-togethers.
In our large extended family, only my Uncle Jim and Aunt Marie had no children. As a kid you just assume that all married men and women have children and when they don’t it is an odd situation. When you go for a visit there aren’t other kids toys with which to play.
I recalled overhearing the adults talking and picking up bits and pieces like “…they have been trying” or “…it’s really a shame”. Of course, later in life I would come to understand that Marie was barren and could not have children. That fact would seem to explain why Uncle Jim and Aunt Marie always had dogs.
Jim and Marie lived out in the county and had several acres surrounding their house. Compared to our home on a small lot in the city, they were “country folks”. When we’d visit we would always run around their huge back yard area and play with their dogs who would sniff us up and down. “They smell your dog.” Jim would remind us.
Uncle Jim, though when asked how many dogs they had would reply “one too many”, loved those creatures. Jim and Marie often watched other people’s dogs when they went out of town. It was not surprising that, when a friend of a friend had to relocate across country and could not take his dog, Uncle Jim got the call.
Jim and Marie took in “Candy” a black and brown mix with floppy ears and soulful eyes. Candy was about 18 months old her owner told Jim when they met and he dropped her off. Candy became a part of the family quickly and I soon met her on a weekend visit.
During one visit I heard my parents and Jim and Marie talking about how they had “assumed” that Candy had been spayed. It turned out she had not been and one of the neighbor’s dogs had “gotten to her”. Uncle Jim acted annoyed, but deep down I think he was excited too.
It was not long until we kids had puppies to play with at Uncle Jim and Aunt Marie’s house. Candy had five of the cutest puppies you could imagine. Of course, all puppies are cute. Jim had made arrangements for four of the five to be given to friends or friends of friends. We already had a dog at home and my dad said that one was enough for us. Jim and Marie kept one of Candy’s puppies and named her “Lady”.
The life of a kid moves in high gear. School, friends, tree forts, skinned knees from bicycle and skateboard crashes. I don’t remember how much time had gone by since the puppy birth, but during one visit to Jim and Marie’s house, Candy was put up in the laundry room away from the family and other dogs. Jim said she needed to be alone for awhile so she could learn to behave. Although I was curious about the circumstance surrounding her incarceration, five minutes later I’d forgotten all about it when food was being served.
Although kids don’t always understand the circumstances, they have a keen sense when something is not right and adults are not happy. I caught the tail end of a telephone conversation my mother was having in the kitchen. “…oh, that is an awful shame. I’m sorry Marie, I really am.” were the words I walked in and heard. I immediately received that look from my mother, the one that says you should be in your room or somewhere else, and slipped quickly out of the side door.
The next weekend we drove the short twenty minutes to Jim and Marie’s house. We kids burst into the house to play with the dogs. Lady greeted my little sister eagerly and nearly knocked her down. I called for Candy but she didn’t come. Marie was in the back room and she said something to my mom who came over to me and said. “Candy is gone.”
What? Gone, gone where? Where did she go and when would she be back? My ten year old brain started to process the information. Gone? When adults said things they often did not come out and say exactly what they really meant.
My Uncle Jim was outside on the back porch sitting in a folding lawn chair. All my life Jim had been a joker. He would tease us kids and he always joked with my mom and dad. He wasn’t joking today. He was just sitting there sipping beer from a brown glass bottle. “Hey buddy.” he said to me acknowledging my presence.
Kids have no real tact and I blurted out, “Uncle Jim, where is Candy?” Pointing to an empty lawn chair he said, “Have a seat.”
My Uncle Jim explained to me that some time after Candy had her puppies her mood turned and she started to act mean and aggressive. Jim and Marie assumed that it was a natural part of animal motherhood and that she would work past it. However, even after the puppies were weaned and given away, Candy would bark and snap at Lady and the other dogs.
When we had visited and Candy was put away in the laundry room it was because she had attacked one of Jim and Marie’s other dogs. Jim thought that secluding her from the others would give her time to adjust. She was kenneled at night and put outside by herself.
My Uncle Jim explained that Candy seemed to be back to her normal self, but she would lash out unexpectedly, for seemingly no reason. The last straw had come when Candy viciously attacked Lady. Marie had intervened to separate the dogs and Candy bit Marie. Jim assured me that the bite was not too bad, but it was a bite just the same.
“Your Aunt Marie thought we should take her to the pound. We could have, but we would have had to tell them that she had gotten mean and would bite. We could not risk her being adopted and biting someone’s child. The people at the pound would have put her down, but probably not until she spent a day or two alone and scared in a tiny cage. That would not have been fair to her, spending her last days alone and frightened only to have a stranger put her down.”
I could tell that it was difficult for my Uncle Jim to relate the story. It seemed like he might be going to cry. But he continued. “We could have called the Dog Warden, told him she bit a person and he would have had to take care of her because it is his job, but that would not have been fair either. Why should he have to carry the burden of putting her down? That wouldn’t be right to ask him to clean up our mess.”
The entire time he talked and I listened, Uncle Jim had been looking out toward the tree line behind the house a few hundred feet away. Now he turned and looked me in the eye.
“People are always looking for reasons to have others take care of their problems. No one wants to accept responsibility for their own lives any more. Some day soon you will be a man and I want you to remember this; being a man is not about having fun and doing anything you want. Sometimes being a man means you have to do what you don’t want to do. Being a man means not asking people to take care of your problems for you, but taking care of them yourself because you know what needs to happen, even if it hurts you, even if it is the last thing in the world you want to do.”
I could see that his eyes were glossy and he was holding back the tears. His gaze turned back to the tree line. In the most upbeat voice he could muster Jim said, “How about you run inside and ask your Aunt Marie if I can have one more beer?”