1997 – 2009
Mister Brown came to live with us late in his life, following the sudden and tragic death of his beloved human companion, my brother, David Cole. Aging and ill with cancer, Mister Brown joined our family of two adults and two dogs and lived out his life with us in a manner most befitting a Chocolate Labrador Retriever–with acres of field and forest to freely roam and later gathump around, an ocean of water for swimming, an endless supply of sticks to retrieve, bones and toys to chew, delicious food, a selection of comfy beds, cuddles galore, and loving companionship. Although we did not ask for or expect anything in return, Mister Brown enriched our lives in ways that we never could have anticipated.
The circumstances that brought Mister Brown to us and his need for special care brought us to attention in a way that can only be called transformative. We are thankful for the relatively brief time he was with us and are still awestruck by the impact of his presence on our lives. Mister Brown is the inspiration for ElderDog Canada–the federally incorporated non-profit organization we founded after Ardra’s brother’s death and while Mister Brown was still alive. We know that there are many older and ill dogs, who lose their human companions, and then are not so fortunate to live out their lives in dignity, love, and contentment. We know that the bond between people and their canine companions is powerful and, all too often, cut short. ElderDog Canada is intent on helping aging dogs and aging people honour and preserve the animal-human bond.
The following story is reprinted here from the book, Of Dogs and Dissertations: Notes on Writing and Life (Cole, 2010). We include it here as a tribute to Mister Brown and to old dogs everywhere.
He’s showing his age. His once chocolate brown muzzle is now white with years. Eyebrows, white peaks over hazy blue eyes, contrast against the darkness of his head seeming even more expressive in their almost perpetual motion. The remains of a hematoma has left one earflap shrunken and curled disrupting the symmetry and silky smoothness of his ears. Thick calluses have formed on his front elbows; patches on a rumpled tweed jacket. His still shiny coat, now more milk than dark chocolate, has grown coarser to the touch. Small wart-like growths (papillomas) protrude here and there on his body. Hardened spots of hairless skin on his wrists evidence countless hours of licking. When I run my hands along his lean frame I feel more lumps and bumps of various shapes and sizes than I can count–all harmless save one. I notice how his rib cage curves in to a well-defined waist. The soft tissue sarcoma on his left hind leg, too embedded in muscle for safe removal, has gradually impeded his mobility. His leg has far too little strength to support the extra weight of the grapefruit-sized mass. Walks are shorter and slower; rest stops more frequent.
Our morning walk has taken us into the spruce forest. Through large areas where the forest floor is moss-covered and soft underfoot, the going is easy and he clomps along beside me with his even hop-step rhythm. Here and there the path is blocked by windfall from a particularly severe winter. The other dogs, up and over the fallen trees with ease, continue on ahead. We take our time; a bit of encouragement here, a boost there. Once through the worst part we catch up with the other dogs in a clearing known as ‘the dell’. Heads down, bums up, tails waving, they are in a huddle–something has grabbed their attention. He gathumps over to see what the fuss is about. Curiosity satisfied he lies down in the tall grass watching my approach. I lower myself to the ground beside him and we rest a few minutes in the morning sun.
Looping back through the woods we follow a deer track that climbs through a thick growth of ferns. I love the caress of the leaves against my bare legs and wonder how it feels to push through them nose first. He is panting harder on the incline and we pause for a minute at the top of the hill that leads down towards the sea and home. On the home stretch we pick up the pace. He matches my slow jog, hop-stepping and gathumping his way down the winding trail beside me. The path ends at the shoreline and I sprint ahead, my eye on a stick of driftwood on the beach. He catches on and scrambles down over the bank to the water’s edge. His gaze trained on the stick he backs into an anticipatory half-crouch. As I raise my arm back in preparation to fling the stick he plows into the water. The stick sails over his head and hits the water a good 20 to 25 metres away. Effortlessly, he propels his body forward in direct line with his target and, in a single motion, plucks the stick from the water, turns and heads back to shore, shedding years in his wake.
With love and gratitude,
Ardra and Gary