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March 28, 2010

A Dog Story and A Cautionary Tale

(Talk of the Town art provided) Susie's love of furry friends has been lifelong...and seems to have been inherited genetically. Above, a cartoon captures the kind-hearted, sentimental, animal-loving Roy Duncan, Susie's father, looking after an injured family cat -- despite teasing from friends and co-workers.

By Susie Duncan Sexton

Winter of 1983 settled in, and my freshly dismal world crashed around me.  Saddest  season of my 37 years of living.  Daddy, aged 37 the year I was born, died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage one month past, when October leaves turned orange, yellow, red.  Surrounding, oppressive gloom weighed heavily as I slouched all nestled into my old, tattered, forlorn winged-back chair.


“Presenting George Steven’s  DIARY OF ANNE FRANK” filled the television screen. A symphonic, poignant, haunting soundtrack melody underscored the bleakness of the director’s cinematic endeavor.  I nearly switched channels.  Three o’clock in the morning.  Voice-over within my groggy mind:  “I do not care if all of the other girls in your 7th  grade class plan to attend that film…you are not allowed…too depressing.  No.”

My over-protective mother may have displayed wisdom decades earlier I realized, as I, at long last, guiltily commenced to kibitz Anne’s unspeakable dilemma housed in a Secret Annex.  Edgy claustrophobia seized my psyche. Tears welled in my eyes. My heart pounded for the duration of two and one half hours.

Prelude to absolute terror.  Movie concludes.  I grappled with monumental uneasiness deep within my soul.  I vowed that I never wished to view that powerhouse production again; the realistic non-fictional suspense would resonate for a lifetime.  The most somber of unbearable open-ended denouements left dangling for the imagination to complete after viewing closing credits.  The puzzling inhumanity of mankind.

Why the inclusion of Peter’s pet cat, diarist Anne (who remorsefully abandoned three at her own home)?  Why, Broadway play-wright?  Why, movie director Stevens?  Why was the breathless, suffocating nightmare encroaching upon two families, hiding from Nazi captors, not sufficiently despicably, harrowingly frightening enough for readers or viewers?   We additionally need to worry that a noisy, klutzy, meowing cat will cause the protagonists’ undoing?  

“What was that sound?” asks one young, armed German inquisitor of another prowling soldier. “Ah, nothing here. Ha. Ha. Just a cat!”  The families Van Daan and Frank safe from capture and unconscionable torment for the moment.  As the story unfolds, the beloved feline effortlessly, accidentally escapes through an opened window to what end we know not, perhaps to wherever freedom may be found within a war-torn world; both families endure imminent discovery, separation and banishment to their fates incarcerated within concentration camps.  Truth stranger than fiction.

After a few hours of sleep, I arose to read the morning paper’s headline: “Lovers’ Quarrel Terminates in Murder of Female Cashier at Downtown Murphy’s Five and Dime”.  Odd.  Our family planned to visit the Botanical Gardens, all freshly decorated for the approaching holiday season, not far from the crime scene.  

Mildly sleety, windy Saturday afternoon.  Swathed in mittens, boots, scarves, knit caps and car-coats, the three of us, daddy and mommy and eleven-year-old son, parked and then scurried to grab a quick lunch near our ultimate destination.  “Oh, you poor, dear, old boy…come here for a pat on the head.”  We encountered a very ancient-appearing, dejected Australian Shepherd mix of a dog whose eyes squinted tightly as he faced into the frigid gusts and who shyly skittered the opposite direction as we approached him.

“Four cheeseburgers to go please!”  We left the restaurant with a sandwich for the stray mutt.  Worked like a charm.  Lured him into the Murphy’s Dimestore, bought a collar and leash, and in a spirit of cooperativeness ‘tween man and beast, we acquired a new pet now rescued from heavy city traffic and no longer in harm’s way.  However, as we somewhat hesitatingly ambled to the intersection and waited for the light to change to green, our new charge stopped in his tracks, whimpered and gazed longingly over his shoulder at the store which had been the scene of yesterday’s homicide.  Why?

Once back home, this fellow seemed disconcerted and frightened, and our family dogs, Ben and Pippin, behaved in a predictably frenzied manner.  A quick call to the local humane shelter emerged as a logical step, for perhaps this mutt rightfully belonged to some member of the gathering crowd of on-lookers beyond the yellow tape designating  yesterday’s crime scene…or to the victim…or to the shooter himself?

Quickly, two blue-uniformed female officers arrived at our house, and the possible fugitive from justice chose to remain crouched beneath our piano bench, refusing to budge.  “We have attempted to catch this girl since yesterday’s tragedy, and she evaded us quite successfully, as if she held allegiance to someone and was waiting for her owner.  Thanks for performing our job for us.  We’ll load her up now.”

“Whoa there!  We’ve decided to keep... HER,” I blurted out.  And we did so through that holiday/Christmas season as well as 13 additional festive Thanksgiving/yuletides.  Murphy learned to ask via repeated faux-growls during her very first year as our child, upon our return from church, shopping malls, or grocery shopping all of which never included her, “Where were you?”   She became my alter ego, a one-person pooch, and we pranced and danced through the following years as if we might be an ole cowpoke and loyal herding dog straight from a tale outta the old, wild west!  The two of us never spent a night apart.

We agreed to spay this girl of ours never, as a previous family pet‘s hysterectomy altered more than that girl’s sexuality. “Rabbit’s” personality ALSO changed markedly.  We felt that that we were protecting our new girl in some wildly misguided manner and chased her about the house, during “estrus” seasons, with sanitary pads galore attached to a type of chastity belt.  However, several years later in emergency mode, we confessed to our veterinarian that indeed we harbored a non-neutered pet and that her uterus had not miraculously grown back …and he removed her diseased organ which fell to the ground post-surgery and exploded upon impact with the floor.

Murphy’s medical dilemmas remain legendary!   

Her nobility and valor as she eventually developed epilepsy, during each seizure pressed close to me inside my arms and upon my lap as a blue spark of electricity shot from her quaking body to my anticipatory one, imparted great lessons in caring as well as in withstanding painful afflictions in order to live and love yet another day.

Murphy displayed her understanding empathy during my husband’s life-threatening bout with colon cancer as well as throughout those years which brought the deaths of my son’s three remaining grand-parents.  

Herding two antagonistic, momentarily pugilistic pet dogs into their own prospective corners of our impromptu, driveway-boxing-ring, my tri-colored girl quietly, instinctively saved my wounded pride as well as my hide as I refereed unsuccessfully.  “Hachi-Ko, stay!  Bogey, enter the porch and climb into your chair.  Arrogant ‘Dog-Whisperer’, stand up from your precariously prone position; go inside the house to repair your shredded blue jeans; restore your right kneecap into its socket and then doctor your bite.  I’ll lie down beside the agitated Akita .  All is well!”  Murphy, the Talking Dog?  Her graceful, swift movements spoke volumes to both man and beast--her lineage and her pedigree intact and at the ready.  

During the travails of co-existing alongside human frailties, this more than impressive canine launched into sprouting a series of sequential tumors located between her shoulder blades—a total of ten removed within eight surgeries. Cats, achieving notoriety for heinous over-reactions to rabies shots administered at the scruff of the neck, already rated inoculations shifted to the leg so that subsequent amputation could remove the compromised site of injection.  Murphy’s re-occurring camel-like humps should have earned her sainthood as one of the canine martyrs who gave rise to mandated rabies shots now recommended once every three years rather than annually.

I slept with Murphy on the tiled kitchen floor during the endless night prior to her euthanasia and applied pot-holder/hot-pad poultices to that final, debilitating, inoperable, bulging tumor, erupting and oozing through her skin.  I did not cry, after achingly arriving at my 3:30 a.m. broken-hearted decision as I phoned our vet to schedule an appointment.  His answering machine’s robotic greeter’s message-chant sounded incredibly similar to his own sleepy voice.  Mistakenly I had called his home.  I hung up.  As soon as his office opened for the day, I connected with him.  He “put Murphy to sleep” as she lay on a small, braided, kitchen rug.  Yes, a house call.  Everyone on site, including his assistant who had recently lost her young son in an automobile accident, began to sob.

Murphy’s beautiful, serene countenance remains memorialized as a portion of a wall mural in our veterinarian’s front lobby.  Morticians embalm, counsel, direct services, and distribute floral arrangements throughout viewing rooms.  A very, very special friend, coincidentally a funeral director, realized that this magnificent creature soothed and calmed our family throughout our episodes of grief and worry for more than a dozen years as well as brightened all of our days.  We appreciate his intuitive and kind generosity each time we gaze upon Murphy’s grave marker, all polished and dignified, which continually shines and glistens amongst the summer geraniums, the fallen autumn leaves, the snow drifts.  Yes, our all too brief encounter with Murphy, this instinctive angel who mothered a human family as well as nurturing our other adopted pets frequently involving clusters of cats snuggled closely to her each evening, sustained us in real time and taught us the sanctity of all life.

Now, why my recall of the sweet, little, furry, devoted feline wafting in and out of the heart-wrenching, profoundly disturbing, true story of Anne Frank and her family?  “Just a cat...” sneered the young German officer.  Frightened families--fleeing from their houses and happy routines, establishing a well-meaning, yet pathetically lacking, mere semblance of home-life--purposefully, graciously included an innocent animal for petting and protecting and nurturing during a holocaust of hate swirling around themselves, that creature nearly exposing their hidden, crucially secretive existence.  This animal, of no significance to the hunters, simply got brushed aside since the thugs’ primary prey of choice consisted shamefully, startlingly, of fellow human beings.  “Just a cat…”   Tragically, it might follow “as the night the day” that our otherwise civilized collective lexicon darkens to conclude with a resultant downplaying of all of humanity itself.  “Just a person…”   

EPILOGUE with a hint of PROLOGUE:

“Snooks, I need a kitchen knife?”

“Whatever for?” asked my mother of my father.

“I need to clean some puppies’ poop off the car seat?”

“Puppies?  More than one?”

“Don’t worry…they are brother and sister.”

(Sounds of divorce rumblings now)

“Alright, we’ll keep one, and ask John and Darlene to adopt the other.”

Thus, my first childhood pet, named “Timmy”, followed me everywhere for a solid year until our darling Toy Manchester got struck by an automobile and died within my mother’s arms.  My father skipped not a beat, contacted an Amish farmer, and replaced that dog with another “Timmy” who died of natural causes after a long, sheltered life the year in which I married and left home.

My father never met Murphy who healed my soul and mended my heart and strengthened my own little family, but most days I feel certain that he directed her straight toward my side in 1983.  When she died, we adopted another homeless mutt, and we named her Murphy II, nursing her through severe diabetes.  My son, now grown, braved the congested, whizzing, thundering traffic of Detroit's Twelve Mile Road to scoop up his Black Labrador named Valvoline, who lives happily with him in Ann Arbor, and rescued Chihuahua-Dachshund mutt Lucy from an over-crowded inner-city shelter.

 “L’chaim”, to life!  Reverence and respect reign, advocating LIFE in all of its forms.

              I dedicate this story to Rebecca and Roy…and to my cousin Linder.

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