We rescued Bandy from the Pima County Animal shelter in spring of 2014; a dauntingly large albeit efficiently run facility – which sadly is also a kill shelter. There is just no getting around that hopeless fact. Interestingly when I was living in Los Angeles, it became increasingly fashionable to adopt from no kill shelters – when in fact that’s the diametric opposite of what one should do.
There is a profound sadness playing God with the lives of so many dogs and cats hanging in the balance. It’s gut wrenching watching braces of dogs sticking their noses through the grates of their metal cages; every single one of them with a “Pick me! Pick me!” beseeching in their eyes. I understand the temptation to go to a “no kill” shelter in order to assuage one’s sense of who gets to live and who dies – yet it’s the easy way out. One’s hands don’t get less dirty by simply avoiding the heartache.
The concept should be twofold: bring a beautiful beast into your life, and save its life at the same time. The reward is deeper than one can imagine.
Bandy was said to be about 2 years old at the time Marguerita found her scouring the internet (Marguerita was scouring the internet, not the dog). When Marguerita gets it in her head that she’s going to adopt a dog, she will spend endless hours into the wee morning on the www searching tirelessly until she believes she’s found “the one”.
And for what it’s worth, I had little say in the matter. Providence had been set in motion.
Bandy’s tale of woe is not an uncommon story. Trapped in a cage at Pima County’s Animal shelter with an aggressive and sexually assaultive “cellie”, it seemed Bandy cried for the quiet life she was purportedly born into. Her sketchy printed dossier in the plastic sleeve of her cage gate historied her as having lived rurally in a desertic, walled-in compound of an elderly person who at some point simply could no longer take care of her – and she was subsequently remanded to the county authorities for a house of rude awakenings.
Bandy was a medium sized, black and brindle dog with a long white patch along her throat and a fine white trim from between her eyes to the end of her nose. We knew she was part Pit, even though she had a long snout profile, so we figured her to have black Lab assumed into her DNA. No matter how one cuts it, she was proportionate and simply beautiful. Fact of the matter is that as a breed, Pit Bulls are the most wonderful, diverse, kid-loving dogs in the world. The mythology that surrounds them falls on the humans who are entrusted to care for them. The maligning of the Pit Bull is at its core of one of the greatest lies ever perpetrated upon the soft thinkers. It’s humankind that is capable of turning a breed into a vicious animal. The question I posit is, what’s the human’s excuse? I suppose we need to ask Michael Vick that question.
If you’re sitting on the fence on this question or have any doubt, I lead you to the Netflix documentary entitled: The Champions. I highly recommend you have a box of tissues next to you – or at least a mop at the ready.
I digress once again.
Marguerita was the first to run down to the Rescue Shelter to have a look at Bandy.
Predictably, her heart strings were being yanked from every direction from what seemed like a haunted coliseum for every dog in there – for if she had her way, she’d have saved all 1000 death row dogs.
But she fell in love with Bandy at first glance and was immediately fretted that Bandy couldn’t squeeze past from behind her larger, pushier cell mate.
The second visit to the Pima shelter was Marguerita, my father, and myself – and this time they transited Bandy from her confines, bringing her to an exterior “introduction area” that had some shade, sitting benches, and a few chew toys to see if there’s a potential compatibility.
Bandy was demure, a little shaky, gorgeous, nervously nudging her cold and wet nose against our forearms, and to our perception begging for a reprieve from all this insanity.
It was also during this time in the visitor’s quarters that the shelter handler was perfectly blunt about the fact that most of the dogs are scheduled to be put down. This might have been interpreted as a scare tactic were it not for the simple fact that it was so frightfully true. The handler let it be known that dogs sensed perfectly that something was horribly amiss in a looming Logan’s Run-esque sort of way.
Even then, I still asked Marguerita for one more night to sleep on this decision. My father with his drifting attention span was just sort of indifferently there and didn’t seem to register much of an opinion one way or the other.
And yet, my old man became an integral part of this melancholic yarn.
So now for the second time, we still don’t leave with Bandy so we can have ample time to mull this decision over. Or at least, I wanted to give it one last evening of pros and cons consideration.
It was around Midnight that Marguerita and I decided that Bandy would become ours, and we would retrieve her the following day. As a heart-skipping misstep, we had neglected to write down Bandy’s County I.D. # – and that very night, her profile seemed all but vanquished from the Pima website register.
We were later informed after we had left on that second visit, Bandy was so desperate to follow us out that she leapt through a small aperture atop the six ft. gate that defined her quarters, and managed to escape for a few nano-moments until one of the pound tenders recaptured her and placed her in one of the indoor vestibules a few heartbeats closer to Doctor Mengele’s dog chambers.
With great relief, we found Bandy again and officially brought her home the very next day.
In the beginning, Bandy was unsure of her new environment, predictably, but soon grew to become increasingly comfortable among us.
What began to emerge was a beautiful forging of an unlikely relationship between my ailing father and Bandy.
The desert bloom of this short tale.
The Old Boy
My father had been growing increasingly ill while still living up in Marquette, Michigan, starting with a diagnosis of dementia in late 2012, and moving right into a diagnosis of cancer in early 2013, which immediately required the one-two punch treatments of Chemotherapy and Radiation to be run concurrently for damn near 4 and a half months – in the middle of which he suffered an additional debilitating onslaught of shingles from his breastplate and around the side to behind his shoulder blades. It almost took more out of him than the cancer treatments themselves.
Yet my father survived all this punishment through June of that year. A revised prognosis suggested iffy but stable and marginally improved.
There was no getting away from that sense that a distant hourglass had been turned and that the mysteries of the universe would reveal itself in its own pace without consultation. There was no easy row to hoe from this point moving forward.
With the prospect of another pending brutal Marquette winter in the offing, it became incumbent upon me to make the decision to pack us both up – and simply git – before the descent of the early snows of November.
After selling off what remained of my father’s treasured library and belongings, my father and I took to the open road to join up with Marguerita who had just settled in Tucson, AZ.
As an Ottoman Historian, then later a United States diplomat, there were few corners of the world in which my father would ever feel alien. During the course of his life, he developed an unrivaled peripatetic capacity; a trait that I assumed myself by virtue of osmosis and my own personal experiences. The both of us had a way of subsuming ourselves into a culture and blending in virtually seamlessly enough so as not to appear garish amid the indigenous.
But on this last sojourn to Tucson it was a little different this time. For the first time in my father’s expanded life, he was no longer in control of his destiny. This trip was a little more peculiar. More surreal. Irrespective of the fact that he once saw slain corpses littering the streets of Port Au Prince or had to flee the Hutu genocide in Rwanda in a diplomatic cavalcade. This time, his hands were in my hands.
It was for the completely novel fact that my father’s growing dementia created a new dynamic – something akin to a lunar landscape during the course of our journey as we headed towards the Southwest. He really had no idea where he was going, why he was going there, nor the specifics of his own life as they became a matter of a moving tapestry to which he no longer required pressing answers. The time had come for him to trust me with his life.
It was a good journey, and it was to be our last. A great deal of my father’s last traipse across our country was spent gazing out of the window, watching the flat topography of the Midwestern farmlands slowly merge with rise and fall of the Southwestern mountain ranges.
When Bandy was finally introduced into our lives in the spring of 2014, my father’s cascading symptoms were headed in only one direction. With lockstep repetition, we did the doctors, the specialists, the CAT scans, the MRI’s, and the endless office visits, etc. It became so routine – yet to what end, really. For betterment. For worse. For maintenance. It becomes virtually impossible to know what the right approach is. In heart of hearts, one knows the outcome is going to be the same – the question becomes what is the path of least resistance.
Yet during that critical time, in a form of grace and ease did finally emerge its way into my father’s quavering existence in the form of the dog named Bandy. Our Dog. Our Rescued Beastie.
To place a bit of perspective on this, my father never really had a dog – either growing up or as an adult. As my father grew incrementally weaker, Bandy in turn was finally growing into her confidence — and yet somehow they became the unlikeliest of companions in both of their transitions.
My father didn’t move particularly well as this point. He might be sitting on the patio, and simply tips towards Bandy and say, “hey there black dog”. Instinctively, Bandy would rise from whatever soft lair she was comfortably nestled in, and reposit herself within arm’s range of my father’s spindly fingers. He would reach out and stroke her smooth head, and tousle her silken-soft floppy ears. Bandy knew not to budge from that specific spot until my father’s eyes closed from the Zen of it all and his hand dropped to the side as he was beckoned by his next nap.
Bandy’s ears were so supple that my father would bemuse that we should ply them with butter and cinnamon sugar for a snack. And since his dementia was in pretty much full force by this time, this whimsy was a daily iteration.
And truth be known, Bandy knew exactly what side her toast was buttered on – figuratively and literally. Come dinner time, she was always at the ankles of the most susceptible link at the dining table. My father would finger-flick chunks of steak, chicken, or any other extras he figured he could live without directly onto the floor tile where Bandy crouched like the royal taste-tester. Only in reverse; he was the tester, she taster. It became a full-on exercise in futility to try and tell either one of them to cease and desist.
I would be remiss if I said things weren’t getting increasingly more challenging with respect to the caretaking of my father, but we weren’t without tremendous moments of whimsy or even occasional hilarity. As long as everyone is alive, we were able to enjoy those moments.
Bandy did have separation anxiety and when Marguerita and I would have to dash out of the townhouse for a spell, often her crisp, persistent barking (the rare instance in which she ever barked) was more than my father could handle. Without thought he would take it upon himself to open the front door to our complex and Bandy would be off and running up and down the asphalt parking lot and into the arroyo of the foothills into which our apartment complex was tucked.
There was one bittersweet instance of tragi-comedy wherein Marguerita and I pulled into the complex to witness several neighbors and the postal delivery woman running around in circles in the middle of the parking lot in a valiant effort to regain control of Bandy who was running and darting in large circumferential swaths as if everyone was playing a game of “catch me”.
In the center of this encircling chaos was my open-robbed father unintentionally donning his near dropping Depends and his long, lanky limbs, holding an inordinately long rope that had been fashioned as an exterior tether, beseeching aloud, “Black Dog! C’mere, dog! Right over here Black Dog!”
Once we drew up in our car, Bandy was easy enough to lure back into place, but ultimately the concerned citizenry felt as obliged to wrangle in Bandy so as to redirect this 6’2”, bearded and hoary-haired old gent who seemed to be turning in circles like a wobbly dervish extending loops of light white rope from his wrists.
It was just one of those a picture is worth a thousand words type of happenstances.
By Mid-summer of 2014 it was determined by the Los Doctores that my father needed a radical surgery regarding his rematerialized and now quickly advancing cancer. Without getting into too much detail, suffice it to say it was all a nasty bit of work. Further exacerbated by his dementia. I often pondered if his dementia was a bane or a blessing. In conclusion I would now say both in equal parts.
Toward the end of the summer, my Pops was admitted to the U of A Main hospital where he underwent this complicated procedure, after which he was hospitalized in one Medical location or another for close to twenty days. Then one afternoon, he was finally discharged back home.
Naturally, Bandy welcomed and sniffed around Dad like a Curious George, giving him the proper homecoming. Yet my father’s personal quarters were always off limits by Bandy’s own determination. She never felt the urge to breach the threshold of his bedroom or jump up on his bed. Bandy respectfully accorded my father his space.
Not long after the surgery, we all moved to our new townhome. By this time, I was extremely fortunate to have the lenitive and desperately needed assistance of Casa de la Luz Home Hospice founded here in Tucson. With their help and our collective efforts, my father improved to the point where was actually discharged from hospice care – at least for awhile. The good news meant that he had stabilized to a large extent. The bad news was that now I had to figure out how to bathe my inordinately tall and unsteady father without any backup. But we managed, and for a few moments, life settled back into a pleasant pattern.
During the course of this entire mid-winter, the tacit bond between Bandy and my father grew deeper into one another like cozy fleece blankets. Whenever my father ambled out unsteadily from his bedroom towards the back patio via the living room, Bandy would take this as her cue to slide off the couch, yawn, stretch, shake off the ‘sleepies’, then escort him to the outdoor table where they would both juxtapose themselves for a bit more of rest and relaxation. Cool winter air, mountain views – who could ask for more. They were starting to interact like an old, familiar couple who had no intention of deviating from their intimate routine.
Late winter of 2015 brought on a new manifestation of my father’s cancer. Located in the same general area, yet completely different in nature, appearance, and fearsome tenacity. Bring back the battery testing, doc visits, and whatever else that comes with feeble attempts at prolonging life. And… Welcome back Casa de la Luz.*
The news simply wasn’t good, and the hourglass has been turned again.
When late spring gave way to summer, every physical motion became more challenging as my father grew perceptively weaker. The true satisfying constant in his ebbing life was, “black dog” – now forever his steadfast companion.
On the evening of Friday August 7th, Marguerita and I wheeled my father into his bedroom early for the night, deciding that we would also sleep on the tandem bed in his room as the situation had grown worrisome. Yet even more telling was that Bandy had now taken up the gauntlet and propped herself at the edge of my father’s bed as we wrangled this large, extremely frail man into position.
As a reminder, in the past, Bandy would never interlope on my father’s inner sanctum, only on this occasion she was intuiting something far more important. This had now became the classic notion that dogs quite literally feel that something is amiss, and it became her duty to lend what comfort she could. To witness it wasn’t only touching, it was enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. To see a dog compassionately closing ranks on the infirmed is quite something to behold.
The tenderness with which Bandy rendered herself pulled the entire universe into a celestial perspective for all of us. Her animal nature and concern was mystifyingly pure; dissolving all notions about the separation between man and beast.
Her care for my father was like a girding against everything that was rotten and incomprehensible in this world. Bandy’s presence and her response helped us become more ethereally attuned to the fact that there were but a few grains of sand left in the hourglass.
On Sunday morning Aug. 9th, I walked passed my father’s room on the way to the kitchen and noticed his lamplight was still on. All I could perceive was the ticking cadence of the oxygen machine. I took a brief moment in the kitchen to brace myself – as I knew a moment such as this one was upon me sooner or later.
Slowly, I returned back down the hallway, turning past the door of his bathroom and fully opened the door to my father’s room.
And there he was. Still as a monk. Mouth slightly ajar. Eyes, slightly open. And eighty two years of a rich, eclectic, and full life had ascended into the firmament. Painless. Quiet. Peaceful.
Even posthumously, Bandy had jumped upon my father’s hospital bed and laid herself at his cool feet. This from the Black Dog who never before invaded his space.
Not long after, we needed to shift my father’s body, and discovered cherry pits beneath him. It was, in fact, his very last meal.
How fitting. A bowl of cherries.
Joshua McGowan l firstname.lastname@example.org