When I was in high school a dog showed up on our back porch. He was mostly legs and personality, and he managed to make his home with us for the next decade or so, enlivening our lives with his antics.
For reasons I don't recall, I named him Ralph, and the name stuck — well, it stuck as much as a name will stick with a dog, as he responded to it whenever the mood suited him. If he was involved in an adventure or studying some subject of great interest, well he might as well have been deaf for all the attention he paid to your calling of his name.
He liked afternoon naps and hated the mail man, loved to find a fresh roll of toilet paper and would come bringing it from the bathroom clenched in his jaws, showing it off to us.
He and I occasionally took road trips. We would start out with him sitting close beside me, like a teenager's girlfriend, but soon he would leap over the front seat and climb up into the back-seat window, where he would watch the world passing him by until he fell asleep.
Once, traveling south of Odon on a country road, we passed an Amish family out for a ride in their horse and buggy. I was checking the rearview mirror to see if we were safely around them when I saw Ralph's head suddenly rise up, followed by the rest of his body. He turned to look at me then back at the horse, which was starting to disappear into the past, then back at me.
He got down and jumped back into the front seat beside me, occasionally peaking over his shoulder to see if that strange animal was still back there.
He liked chewing on old tennis balls, then once in awhile we'd play his version of fetch: I'd toss the ball and he's chase after it, and take a circuitous route back to me, running to and fro, sometimes dropping the ball to sniff around a bit, then running without the ball, which he'd suddenly realize and have to turn around and go find it.
We'd be out for an hour and I would have only tossed the ball once or twice.
It was on one of these excursions that he suffered the scratch from some rusty nail or other sharp object that led to the tetanus that eventually killed him. It happened quickly but painfully, and he died with his head resting on my leg, looking up at me, grinning from the muscle contractions pulling back his lips.
He's buried in Daviess County, in what was at the time a peaceful corner of a field, where he could get his rest. Now it's been paved over by Interstate 69.
We and our pets, what is it about this relationship that becomes so complicated as we age?
This week, our home suffered the loss of another pet, a black-and-white cat, called Oreo by my mother. She, too, showed up at the house, a tiny little thing, hungry and afraid. She was fed and checked over, and then while no one was looking slipped away. We eventually found her, curled up in the middle of a bed fast asleep.
And that's pretty much what she did for the next 15 years — eat and sleep — though she also kept my 93-year-old mother company, sitting on her lap for hours, sort of helping with genealogy research, following her about the house to be there if ever needed for some task.
She loved to be combed, and especially to have her head stroked; she would sit still for hours if you were willing to spend that time stroking her head.
When you came in the front door she would greet you from the back of a chair, briefly giving her a nearly eyeball-to-eyeball view of you.
When I worked from home her favorite place to be was curled up under my desk chair, and when I'd get up and come back, there she'd be, curled up in the chair, feinting sleep. Occasionally she'd sit on the corner of my desk and watch me work, offering an editorial comment now and then by stomping across the keyboard.
She was mostly good natured, but in the last few years she had “spells” when she only wanted to be alone; she would growl and hiss, although the growling and hissing wasn't very intimidating. Mostly she just wanted to be left alone.
Sunday night it seemed she was again lapsing into one of the spells, and we left her to herself. But by Tuesday it was clear this was different. We couldn't see the veterinarian until the next day, so it was a long night, as she occasionally gave that low guttural growl animals will emit when in great pain.
On Wednesday she lay under my chair, and I would stop work to make sure I could still hear her labored breathing. Then she let out another growl, this one deeper yet fainter. I sat on the floor beside her, and with what probably remained of her strength she raised her head, pushing it against the palm of my hand, inviting one last stroking.
She no doubt died soon after. She may have been small but her heart turned out to be huge. She bore her suffering with dignity.
With Ralph, I had made it a point not to be emotional about his death, believing that a young man should be tougher about such things, more in control, show more maturity.
It was years before I ever drove down by his gravesite, years more before I got out and visited. And then I quit going altogether.
Eventually he became a memory; I remember him as I remember good times with old friends I rarely see anymore, recalling his antics and laughing. Every time I pass by a horse and buggy I can feel his presence beside me.
I'm older now, and I find maturity to be somewhat overrated. The years go by and you (hopefully) gain wisdom, which tells you not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
So as an old man I do what I couldn't do while mostly still a boy — I mourn the passing of a little black-and-white cat and, belatedly, of a faithful dog from long ago.
Gayle R. Robbins is editor and publisher of The Sun-Commercial. He can be reached at email@example.com.