Dogs I’ve loved in life and fiction

Congratulations to Karen Walker, winner of my 50,000 hits contest. Though Karen lives across the country, we’ve shared a lot over the past year through the Blog Book Tours group. I invite you to visit her wonderful blog, Following the Whispers. Here’s the post I contributed to her blog for my Blog Book Tour last November.

Truth can be stranger than fiction:

the tragic saga of Lucky, my golden retriever

Lucky and Me (Author photo for Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders) Courtesy Hot Shot Photos

Dogs have long played a central role in my life and my fiction but Lucky, the beautiful golden retriever in my author photo for Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders, may have been the last dog I’ll ever own. Six months after the photo was taken, he died of lymphoma, and in the years since then, I’ve switched to cats. Setting up this Blog Book Tour, reading my hosts’ reactions to the photo, I realized I’d never written about Lucky. Since Karen’s blog focuses on memoir and nonfiction, this seems like the perfect time.

But Rishi, the dog before Lucky, deserves pride of place. He’s a major character in Mood Swing. In fact, his image is in my cover illustration, and his name is the first word in the first chapter:

            Rishi was halfway out the window and onto the fire escape when I tackled him. Arms around my dog’s massive shoulders, I groped for his choke chain and yanked hard. Half a dozen pigeons flapped skyward, squawking.

            I described him on Page 2:

            He’s leaner and rangier than a German shepherd, stockier than a Doberman, bigger than a Rottweiler. Despite his forbidding looks, he’s a basically friendly beast, but sometimes it’s in my best interests not to let people know that.

That last sentence was literary license. Rishi was wonderfully affectionate and loving, but only to our immediate family, and he was never adequately trained. Despite a near-death experience with a neighbor’s hammer that left a permanent dent in his skull, Rishi lived nearly ten years, a good long life for a big dog. But his death threw me into a deep depression.

Enter Lucky, a year or so later. He came into our lives with what seemed at first to be joyous synchronicity. At a Woodstock party given by friends of my daughter Stacey, someone mentioned having a golden retriever who needed a new home. I was instantly intrigued – we’d owned a beautiful golden named Shawna when Stacey was a child, and except for her propensity to chew up the woodwork during thunderstorms, she’d been a wonderful member of the family.

Right after the party, I paid a home visit to meet Lucky, fell instantly in love, called my husband on my cell, and within a week we had a beautiful four-year-old male golden. He came with a tragic back story: he’d been the beloved companion of an 84-year-old man who lived alone in the Catskills, and when the man was hospitalized, one of the nurses befriended both him and Lucky. Shortly after the man’s discharge, he was brutally murdered by a neighbor he’d known and trusted for years, a handyman in search of money for drugs.

The nurse took Lucky in, and in turn passed him on to the folks who gave him to us for adoption. The poor dog was threatening the family’s togetherness. They already had a couple of young kids, a poodle and a cat, and a rambunctious young retriever sent them over the top. The husband’s job took him on the road a lot, but when he was home, he told us, he and Lucky slept together downstairs while the wife, kids, poodle and cat slept upstairs. Not exactly a prescription for marital bliss, so Lucky had to go.

Soon after the photo session with Lucky, his health began spiraling downward. He couldn’t seem to keep food down, and he was weakening and losing weight. After extensive testing, the vet diagnosed lymphoma. In a futile attempt to buy more time, we opted for extensive – and expensive – surgery. In retrospect, that was a mistake, but he’d been so young, so lovable, that we thought it was worth the gamble.

He died in early fall. We buried him in the garden out back, marked the spot with a marble plaque bearing an iris design my husband had carved years before. I planted dozens of bulbs – crocus, daffodil, and hyacinth – and they’ve bloomed luxuriously in the three years since.

Dogs play a major role in both my novels, but they never, ever come to a bad end. In fact the villain in my suspense novel Eldercide nearly refuses an assignment when he thinks it might mean harming the victim’s Jack Russell terrier. And I could probably never write that scene where the neighbor tries to murder Rishi with a ball peen hammer, with me coming between them, shrieking that he’ll have to kill me first, screaming bloody murder until the neighbors call 911 and the police arrive. On the other hand, maybe enough time has passed – and after all, the dog survived in the end.

 As I write, my cat Lunesta is writhing around on the desk next to my computer, tempting me to rub her tummy and doing her best to bat the mouse out of my hand and onto the floor. Does she sense I’m writing about dogs? Is she demanding equal time? For now, she’ll have to wait.

Post script five months later: it’s a beautiful spring day, and the green shoots of the crocuses, daffodils and hyacinths are pushing out of the ground atop Lucky’s grave. Lunesta is sleeping in a basket by my side, soaking up the sunshine.

I did the cover illustrations for both my books, by the way. The medium is pastel.

How about you? Any pet stories you’d like to share? Have your pets played a role in your fiction?

 

7 thoughts on “Dogs I’ve loved in life and fiction

  1. Wow, I won! Yippee. Thanks, Julie. I’ll look forward to receiving and reading your books. I just love your artwork.
    I would love to read both of your books. Marvin Wilson and I just did a book exchange – swapped one of my books for one of his. Would you be interested in reading “Following the Whispers” and trading the other of your books for that?
    Karen

    • Yes, I’d love a copy of Following the Whispers. I believe we can really help each other in this online community. And my next book project is going to be nonfiction, so I’ll be especially interested – I expect mine will include a strong memoir component.

  2. I don’t know why it is that the death of pets in fiction is so much more disturbing to so many than the death of people — and I include myself in that category. It really is an odd thing.

  3. The last pet I owned was a Pug. Buster was one of those affectionate creatures who would have greeted a burgler by bouncing around crying, “Pet me, pet me.” I had to find him a new home when I moved out of the country to live for a couple of years, and I’ve felt guilty about it ever since (over 25 years).

  4. Hi Enid, Lisa and Patricia, thanks for your comments and for sharing. It’s never too late to adopt a pet, even if you’ve spent years without one. Among the many blessings they give us is the awareness of how transitory life can be. Losing them is painful, but I can’t imagine myself living without a dog or cat.

    Statistically, people who have pets live longer – they elicit all kinds of positive physiologial changes in us, like lower blood pressure. My cats bring me joy every day.

  5. Julie, I loved Rishi in Moodswing, felt that all of the descriptive writing about Rishi helped me to know the main character so much better, cause let’s face it, we all kinda project stuff onto our pets. Having a pet with your main character is such a smooth way of painting the character.

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