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Maddie: A Plott Hound's Story



I saw her dark eyes through the gate of the Humane Society Kennel. She looked up at me silent, almost patient, observing me as I observed her. Most of the other dogs were either barking or cowering down in the back of their kennel. I looked up at the tag on the outside of the fence that read, “Maddie, Plott Hound, age 4.” 


I knelt down closer to her and she slowly put her snout against the fence for me to reach her with my fingers. A few moments later, I stood and went to the desk asking if I could meet her. They took me to a room, and within minutes, Maddie the Plott Hound walked in and without hesitation came to me, stopped when her chest met my knees and placed her head in my lap. That was it. There was immediate love between us, so I filled out the paperwork, sent Karen a selfie with Maddie at my side, “Meet your new daughter.” Karen was training at Columbia University at the time. She knew my current state of mind and that a dog could help calm it.


The next day, I brought my mom over to meet Maddie, and she walked to my mom and looked up at her with gentle eyes and stood without any movement while my mom scratched her ears and neck. Maddie would come to live with us soon, as she had to get her teeth cleaned and spade. She was a momma of four pups, found on her own in Richland Center. Her pups were taken after she cared for them, and Maddie was placed up for adoption. She was the first dog we rescued. Shadow, a wonderful mutt, was my very first dog. A farmer gave him away from the back of his truck as I walked out of MATC. He was eight weeks old. Payton, our German Shorthaired Pointer, we got at nine weeks from a hunt club. Maddie is the one who started us off on our adoption journey, knowing, understanding finally, how many beautiful souls are out there waiting for a family to love, and to be loved in return. 


Maddie came home with me on January 24, 2017. Schools closed that week for two days because of snow and Karen was still in New York City. We have always believed that Maddie thought it was just the two of us, and that is why up until the day she died every time I hugged Karen, Maddie would bark at us in jealousy, wagging her tail, until I went and kissed and hugged on her. I would tease her and say, “Now Maddie, you weren’t my first girl.” Oh, the things we say to our dogs, but they are good listeners. 


Maddie’s timing to become a part of our family was significant. I had been a month into anxiety, something new to me at the time, and almost daily panic attacks. It was my last year as a Dean of Students and the job and some of the people I was around had taken its toll. Looking back, the issues were many, but mostly me trying to control things that I had absolutely no control over. One cannot control others' unethical actions or how others respond to those immoral people. One cannot control someone else’s lack of empathy. I was trying to fix something that could not be mended back together. I was trying to fight something that was like a boxing match with endless rounds. Maddie was there through it all and when I’d come home with anxiety or in the midst of a panic attack, she was there, looking up at me with those dark eyes, putting her head tight against my chest, or laying close as she timed her breathing with mine. My mother always said, “We don’t deserve dogs. They are better than us.” Like many things, I believe my mom was right. Maddie had more empathy than those I was around each day. I knew I had her love to look forward to when I came home.


A few months later, we thought Maddie might want a companion, so we adopted Hazel. Hazel was about the sweetest soul you’d ever meet. She and Maddie fell in love right away and it was as if Maddie got to become a momma again. As we look back at pictures, there is hardly one of Maddie that doesn’t have Hazel by her side. When Hazel got sick, we think Maddie knew before anyone. We are sure of it. Hazel died on a September day after being with Maddie for over four years. Maddie grieved. She hung her head a little lower and her hounding sounded a little like a shallow cry. Maddie had lost her best friend. No one can convince me that animals don’t show compassion and empathy. 


A few months later, we got another friend for Maddie. Her name is Birdie. Birdie has been with us a couple of years, and we saw age finally start to take hold of Maddie’s legs and eyes. Yet, Birdie’s youth kept Maddie young. We got to witness again her motherly instincts come out as she would inspect Birdie and seemingly watch over her. And now, it is Birdie who grieves. 


We spent a few thousand days with Maddie. The stories write themselves after a while. She may not have been as athletic as Shadow or adventurous as Payton, but she had her own qualities. Some that supersede anything or anyone that I ever met, and that was her kindness, acceptance, and love for everyone who entered her space. What a gift that is to the world and one that we could all learn and benefit from.  


There is no rhyme or reason for the timing of death. You can sit around and ask “Why?” until it drives you to the brink of tears or insanity. You can feel guilt and you can wonder if you could have done more. You may even ask, “Did I love them enough?” This does not just apply to our pets. A human death brings out the same questions, and I will admit that some of my furry companions' deaths have rocked me more than the humans that I have lost. That is no disrespect to the many people I now grieve, but a dog’s love seeps deep into your soul and in such a short time, they become your life. 


Karen and I started this school year with the loss of my mom, and we will end it with the loss of Maddie. Her death has reminded me again that my way of thinking, way of being, is accurate. I believe that we all need to become more aware of those around us. We need to be mindful of the people we care about and truly be present for them. This means putting our phones down and listening. It means putting aside our petty differences and realizing that we are all on this journey together and it will one day end, so why waste time on animosity and useless bickering. Reach out to your loved ones and tell them how much you care. If a call is too much, send a random text and check in with someone you love and tell them. Don’t neglect your friendships or put off spending quality time together. Your excuses of being busy will one day be something you question because that friend may be gone, and then your calendar will be a little more free. A void will be there that you wish you could fill. It can all end in a moment. We have no idea when that moment will come, but it will happen. There will be a day when you think everything is okay and the next day, the next sunrise, or the next breath, your world will change. The person or companion that sits across from you will no longer be there, so cherish them and tell them you love them. 


We are all human, so we will falter and fail. We will get caught up in needless, senseless things that have no business occupying our space. If death has offered me any gift, it is having the wisdom to be aware and mindful of the people in my life. It has made me more reflective of how I conduct myself and enjoy a good sunrise and sunset because neither one is guaranteed. We all have an expiration date. Make your life meaningful and make it count for something good. Something kind.  


A dog’s life is a short one. They know all of the above already. They know how to be in the moment and grateful. Dogs are our greatest teachers. They are the Buddhas of the animal kingdom. 


I believe life is sometimes about finding your way back home after loss. The deaths start to pile up, which means you are living. The more years you get, you will have to learn how to navigate life without those you love. It’s the heartbreak of this journey we are all on. It’s what makes us breathe a little more shallowly and darkens our eyes. I know this, we have to find our way back to living, knowing that we hurt because we have been fortunate enough to love and be loved. Life is pain and beauty. It’s joy and suffering, and accepting both. 


Last Monday, as I sat thinking about Maddie, two days before she died, when I thought everything was okay, I wrote her a poem. I came home that day and read it to her as she looked at me, not criticizing my lack of poetic talent, but appreciated that I was spending time with her. She was aware that I was reading my verse to her, voice shaking because a couple of lines brought me to tears. 


Maddie will be missed. There is a void that will not be filled. It’s a kind of void we have felt before with Angel, Ziggy, Shadow, Ernie, Chloe, Payton, Hazel, and now Maddie. It was part of our responsibility, the agreement we made with them when we brought them home, that we would one day know when it was time to let them go.


Never assume that you have time. Don’t assume you can wait to see that friend you have been meaning to see. Don’t assume you will get to hug your family again, or scratch behind the ears of your furry baby that loves you for who you are. Don’t assume that you have time or that they do. It can be gone in a whisper. 


Maddie


She has grown older

and likes to place her 

head into mine

or against my chest

making her low, hounding sounds,

that are often in rhythm with 

my breath,

and that is when I realize

we have come to know

one another well.

Her begging for my love

and me happily telling her,

“I love you,”

time and time again. 

Telling my hound dog

how beautiful she is,

with her blackened eyes

and gray snout,

brindle being displayed 

brighter with the reflection 

of the sun’s rays,

or the glow of the lamp

near the chair where she likes to sleep.

When I think back I have to wonder,

“Is it her that I saved or did she save me?

Which one of us rescued the other?”

For she came at a time when I needed 

unbiased, unconditional love.

A time when fear had swarmed around me

seemingly out of control.

Her hounding, 

the rumble of it against my chest,

made me remember the cadence of my own breath

and calmed me.

I hold her now and tell her over and over,

“I love you. You are so beautiful,”

and by the look in her eye

and the deep, soft noise from her throat,

I know she understands me.

She understands love more than most.




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Eight dogs, named from A to Z, have walked with you through the years. More will follow. You are a good man and the dogs sense it

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