Gulliver’s gone to the final command of his master
His watery eyes had washed all the hills with his laughter
And the seasons can change all the light from the grey to the dim
But the light in his eyes will see no more so bright
As the sheep that he locked in the pen
There’s four feet of ground in front of the barn
That’s sun baked and rain soaked and part of the farm
But now it lies empty so cold and so bare
Gulliver’s gone but his memory lies there
“Gulliver,” lyrics by Bernie Taupin
April 16, 1991. While the other dogs barked and lunged at me, held back by their wire cages, the small white dog cowered against the back of her cage as far away from me as possible. Her white fur was scrawny, revealing blue skin underneath. I could see each of the matchstick-sized bones that made up her legs. She was the ugliest dog I had ever seen.
She was also the only small dog in the pound on that April afternoon.
Emily and I had just left Kate’s baby shower. Kate, like many of my friends at that time, was expecting her first child. Bernice was supposed to host the baby shower at her house, but she went into labor the night before and so we held it at her house without her.
All my friends, it seemed, where married and pregnant, or married and trying to get pregnant, or in one case, just pregnant. I could see that our days of freewheeling socializing and antiquing trips to the countryside were coming to an end. Instead of going to bars, they would soon be going to “Mommy and Me” classes. Instead of driving sedans, they would soon be driving minivans. Instead of a townhouse in the city they would live near the best schools in the county. I was going to get even more lonely very soon.
I can’t remember if it was Emily or me who suggested getting a dog. In either case, after the shower we drove from Bernice’s house on the Northside to Chamberlain Avenue where the Richmond SPCA was then located.
We told the volunteer behind the desk that I was looking for a small dog to adopt.
“We only have one small dog available right now,” she said, and then led us back to the dog cages. Most of the dogs were labs or lab mixes. Richmonders love their labs. Richmond has more black and yellow labs than New York has black and yellow cabs.
The girl led us to a cage with no dog. I peered into it and saw the small dog shivering against the back of the cage. The girl opened the door, reached in and gently picked her up.
“We’ll take you to one of our adoption rooms so you can get to know her,” she said.
Across from the main desk, a curved wall with glass blocks led to a hallway with several small rooms painted red with chipped linoleum floors. We went into one of the rooms.
Emily sat in a chair and I sat on the floor. The dog immediately climbed into my lap, still shaking. The stress of being in the pound had caused her to lose much of her hair, the girl told us. The dog had a small narrow nose and dark eyes. What little hair she had stood up like white wires. She didn’t look up at me but instead settled down on my lap.
“She needs you,” said Emily. “And you need her.”
Emily was right. I had left our two golden retrievers with Billy in New Kent, and I missed having a dog. Billy and I got our first dog, Bear, in 1985. A year later after we moved to New Kent, we bought Lucy, another purebred golden, from a dealer in Chesterfield. Bear and Lucy would be the first and last purebred dogs we would buy. Starting with the scrawny terrier mix, we would only adopt rescue dogs from then on.
I was reading “Cats Eye” by Margaret Atwood when I adopted the tiny white dog, so I named her Margaret.
According to Johns Hopkins medical school, studies over the past 25 yeas have shown that stroking a dog can boost levels of serotonin and dopamine, the mood related brain chemicals. It doesn’t take a study to tell you that! Who doesn’t feel better after petting a dog’s head while looking into her eyes, those two pools of love staring up at you?
Margaret was probably about a year old when I adopted her. She eventually put on a little weight, although she never lost her girlish figure. Her skin turned from blue to a healthy pink. Her wiry hair became thicker.
We became attached almost immediately. If I left the room, she would come looking for me. She was my constant companion. I took her with me in the car everywhere I went. She learned which tellers at the bank drive up window gave her dog biscuits and so she would get excited if she saw one of them. Otherwise she would remain sitting on the front seat.
Because I had to take care of Margaret, I had to take care of myself too. I had to get up every morning and walk her, even if I felt too depressed to get out of bed. I had to walk her several times a day, in fact, which forced me to get out of the house and get some exercise.
When I took her backpacking with me, small as she was, she was always at the head of the group. Larger dogs were afraid of her, because she was fearless. Perhaps Margaret taught me to be fearless too. This was during the Missing Years when I went skiing in Austria, cruising in the Caribbean and backpacking in the George Washington National Forest.
Even though Billy and I got divorced, we never stopped seeing each other. Billy would watch Margaret for me when I travelled.
When we remarried and moved in together, we brought the three dogs together. As devoted to me as Margaret was during the Missing Years, once Billy and I remarried, her loyalty switched to Billy completely and absolutely. One of the issues we had during our first marriage was that Billy was not assertive enough in our relationship. He tended to defer to me. I paid the bills and made the financial decisions. Billy would ask me random questions, expecting me to know the answers because I had the college degree. When we lived in New Kent during our first marriage, we had a problem with Bear running away. A dog trainer told me it was because Bear was looking for the alpha dog.
We did not have this problem the second time around. We now called Billy “Big Daddy.” Margaret’s devotion to Billy demonstrated that Billy was the alpha dog in our house. Instead of sleeping under the bed as she did with me, she now slept on the bed, on Billy’s shoulder with her nose snuggled against his neck. When Billy came home from work and dropped his gym bag on the floor, she would crawl into it and growl at me if I came too close. She even snapped at me a few times when I tried to reach into the bag. Sometimes we joked that Billy only took me back in order to get Margaret. It was a package deal.
Margaret guards Billy’s gym bag
When the kids, came, Margaret became even more loyal to Billy. It was as if she knew that I was responsible for those noisy creatures. She wasn’t sure how to deal with them at first, but she learned to tolerate them after she discovered that they dropped food on the floor. She would sit under their high chair, and later under the table, looking down the entire time waiting for a morsel to drop.
Margaret waits eagerly for Audrey to drop part of her
dinner on the floor
As small as she was compared to the goldens, they seemed to get along. Bear pretty much ignored her, but she would intimidate Lucy, who outweighed her by about 100 pounds. She would jump up and bite the skin on Lucy’s neck and hold on no matter how much Lucy shook her. When the kids were babies and we would sit on the front lawn on a blanket, Margaret would guard them and chase off any other dogs who dared to enter the property (mostly yellow and black labs, of course).
Margaret lived a long life. First Bear died, then Lucy. After Lucy died we got Gus The Poodle, another rescue dog. For a while we had two small white dogs.
As she aged, Margaret lost her hearing and most of her sight. She slept through much of the day. She became crotchety and would snap at Gus for no reason. But she kept on living, 13, 14, 15 years.
In the early spring of 2006, we took the kids to Seven Springs for a ski trip. My mom took care of the dogs. When we returned, Mom told us that Margaret was missing. I had always heard that animals go off alone to die, and we assumed Margaret had done so, because she no longer left the yard. We had stopped walking her years earlier.
A few days later, some boys in the neighborhood found Margaret in a shallow stream at the end of our street. Billy brought her home so we could have her cremated. Because we found her on a Saturday and we could not take her to the vet until Monday, he put her in a pizza box in the freezer.
“How does she look?” I asked Billy.
“Like a frozen dog,” he replied. Billy always knew just what to say.
Margaret’s last Christmas, 2005