My shepherd will supply my need, Jehovah is his name.
In pastures fresh, he makes me feed, beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back when I forsake his ways,
and leads me for his mercy's sake in paths of truth and grace.
I sang this song with my high school youth choir ten years ago this spring, and I remember learning the chords and harmonies and relishing them, the way they flowed, and how the piano and flute made it feel like we were indeed floating on air. And in this moment I recalled all of that, and felt it in some measure, and tears streamed down my face in the second row of the balcony.
When I walk through the shades of death, thy presence is my stay.
One word of thy supporting breath casts all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes doth still my table spread.
[This is where we altos would move from the melody to the harmony, which I loved - it felt like the start of something new, fresh, a deeper beauty that I was part of]
My cup with blessing overflows, thine oil anoints my head.
Three days ago, my dog died.
He was our first dog ever, as a family, a rusty red miniature dachshund. My mom had grown up with dachshunds and my dad with beagles and my brother and I with years of allergy shots to try and make it possible for us to ever say we grew up with something other than teeny glinting fish who didn't last too long and those algae eaters, huge lazy slugs with no personality suctioned to the aquarium glass.
I don't really remember all the conversation that went into it, but the summer before sixth grade, we had had enough shots and determined that short-haired dachshunds were, well, short-haired enough for us to give it a try. Mom still gives my brother most of the credit, his 9-year-old curly-haired Harry-Potter-glasses self gleaming with excitement at the prospect of a dog, never dropping the subject, more excited than when he got his Supernintendo. Me? I don't really recall. I was excited, I'm sure, and maybe even a little nervous, perhaps even surprised that my parents were willing to do this after all our years of leaving friends' houses early from sleepovers because of the nasal disasters of dander and fur. But everything had fallen into place.
It was the end of summer, sweating August in Georgia, and we drove an hour and a half to a town called Yatesville. I couldn't even tell you what it's near or in what direction we drove. All I know is that we approached a ranch house on a hilly meadow. My memory etches it as the only building in sight, but that may not be true. The breeder welcomed us into her house. Her name was Jean, middle-aged with gray curls and a friendly face. Her mother lived there too, I think. And to the right of the doorway, there were little - and I mean LITTLE - puppies in a fenced in living room, rolling and playing and yipping, tiny and soft and sleek, with pointed noses and bright curious eyes and long floppy ears. How did this woman get anything done surrounded by this cuteness, and HOW was she ever able to give a single one away? Her heart must have broken on a regular basis.
I'm not fact-checking any of this with my folks. It feels so long ago, so hazy, like another life. Fourteen years is a long time, after all, at least when you're 25. I don't remember if we had picked this little red 7-month-old male puppy out over the phone, or if Jean had mentioned him as a possibility, or if we just saw him and knew. Now there is that weird frame of life and history that makes you say it could have been no other way.
I remember weird things about that day and those first weeks, like how I took my turn holding him in the back of the car as we drove home, hoping he wouldn't throw up (never; he loved car rides), and I stroked him and hummed - this is really embarrassing - "Sometimes" by Britney Spears. The only reason I can claim for this now is that it has the line, "all I really want is to hold you tight, treat you right..."
And I did indeed want to hold this cute, tiny, velvety puppy very tight, this tiny puppy who wouldn't grow much more, would never be like a Golden or a lab whose lap phase you have to savor and then get out of the way. No, he would never grow tall and big like that, so this was the first of thousands of cradlings. When we got back to the house, we took him out onto the back concrete patio (we had had our large yard fenced in preparation for this moment) and watched as he sniffed and wandered around his new home. We watched in quiet, giddy wonder. This simple thing that so many people had, that had seemed so off-limits to us - we had it. We had him.
He came with the name Frankie, which just didn't suit him (plus there was that awkward resemblance to my paternal grandfather's name, Frank - though he's always taken it in humorous stride), and it took us a couple of weeks to decide what we would call him instead. My memory is strong yet blurred, specific but did I make this whole thing up? No. Here is what I remember: One night at the community pool, probably one of the last nights before it closed for fall, the four of us - my brother, my mother, my father, me - met in the middle of the water, converging in the midst of laughing families and lifeguard whistles. One of us said it as we treaded water, I have no idea who, "Rusty!" and suddenly it was out there and it made perfect sense, because of his coloring, but there was something more. Rusty.
And so Rusty he became, really had always been. Over the years, we covered him with nicknames as his constant licks covered our skin. Rust, because it was a nickname that anyone would give. Ruckerton, because my brother started saying it. Sun Puppy, because so often he would amble out onto the sunsoaked patio and simply fall over, savoring the rays that glinted off his fur. Amblanimal, because he was always a slow walker, sniffing for an eternity. Obi-Rust, for when he had a blanket covering his childlike head, Jedi-esque. Fred Astaire, because he had an elegance about him, such a calm gentleman, and could have easily looked good in a top hat. Rusty Baby, because we changed Bert and Ernie's Sesame Street Rubber Ducky serenade: "Rusty Baby, you're the one... You make everything so much fun... Rusty Baby, we're awfully fond of you... Doo doo doo dee doo..."
In seventh grade, I had to read the novel I, Juan de Pareja. It was boring and English assignment-y except for the one line that I have never forgotten, describing a dog as having "eyes of liquid love." I remember nothing else about that book except for these four words that seem like they have always belonged to our Rusty only.
He could lick 99 times in a minute, and often licked for 45 minutes straight if we let him, feet and hands and necks and any bare skin in reach really. God knows how many thousands of licks he got in fourteen years. Not to be gross, but I'm sure pints of his saliva have permeated my skin for good. And the mystery was always: how can such a small body produce that much saliva and never strain his tongue?
Whenever Mom bathed him he shivered and we would wrap him in a towel warm from the dryer and rub the water out of his ears and sit in the sun so he could shine. He and our second dachshund, Tansy - who's a whole other mischievous, sweethearted story herself - spent hours together in their little fuzzy bed by the big bay window, the yin and the yang, angel dog and devil dog (guess who was the angel?), either sacked out asleep or standing strict guard over their home and their people. It had begun to feel, with each birthday and healthy checkup, and despite his noticeably graying snout, that he would actually find a way to stay here forever, snoring and cuddling and adding a bark here or there. Not even that he would find a way, but that it would simply happen, because, well, it had happened so far, every day for fourteen years.
At Easter, only three weeks ago, his cataracts had worsened and he was almost completely deaf. When we approached him to pick him up, we had to put a gentle hand on his bony back so he wouldn't be frightened, unable to see or hear us approach.
On Thursday night when I called my parents, he wasn't drinking.
On Friday morning when I woke up, I had a text from Dad. They were at the vet.
I can remember our first trip to that vet, for his first check up. We put on his nice patterned collar with the shiny tag and he sat on my lap and shook a little, nervous, but we left in the sunshine and he was sleek and healthy.
On Friday morning Dad called crying and I answered crying and I felt helpless and heartsick, four hours away and unable to do anything, only saying "I know" and "I trust your judgment" over and over again, and it sounded so trite ringing in my ears because I couldn't see the horror and heartbreak that I knew they were experiencing, it rang hollow but harsh because I knew what was happening. Mom was on her phone with my brother, six hours away, who had so deeply wanted this puppy dog, who had helped lead us to this gift.
This is the blessing and the burden, that fourteen years have seen us graduate from high school and college and go out on our own to live in different states and find employment and fulfillment. I'm so glad our Rusty lived long enough for that to happen. And I'm so sad that it meant we weren't there when he died. I'm so sad that I was in a coffee shop in North Carolina buying a muffin and a chai, wearing sunglasses to hide my puffy teared up face on my way to work, when Mom and Dad said a prayer over him and he breathed his last wheezing breath.
I always longed to bottle the scent of his tiny sandpaper paws, like fresh clean dirt and earth and also some kind of unnameable sweetness, a comfort, a cure. His sweet soul, embodied in smell.
Dad drove through to visit on his way home from a business meeting. As we sat in church on Sunday with tears streaming down our faces, all I could think of was how Rusty loved tears. They were probably his favorite treat, after milkbones and cheese and carrots. I'm sure it was the excess of salt he got whenever he licked my sorrowful face through the years, but I know it was also because he could sense that something was wrong, and wanted to make it better. And he always did.
As the music played on, I had to wipe my tears and snot on my own sleeve.
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days.
Oh may thy house be mine abode, and all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come -
no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home!
If my Rusty dog is not in heaven, I do not want to go. But I know I don't have to worry; I know he's there, lying in the sunshine, surrounded by loves, human and canine and feline and all others, fish of the sea and birds of the air. I know he's watching over us, and perhaps can speak and understand in different ways now, but with the same soul of compassion and unconditional love. I know that God holds him and says, "Well done, good and faithful servant," because oh, how good and faithful he was.
He's at home. And we'll meet him there.