I’ve always loved Cocker Spaniels. My mother always loved Cocker Spaniels. Be they American or English.
We came from Ireland, where English Cocker Spaniels were the breed we knew. I didn’t really know them back then before we moved to Canada. I was too young. By the time we reached Canada, I was nearly old enough to know about Cocker Spaniels. And, the second I became of requisite age, we had a Cocker Spaniel. But this was an American Cocker Spaniel. And he was a beauty. I named him ‘Rory’ which, in Irish, means “Red King”, for so his golden coat was smattered with errant puffs of a sunset red.
In retrospect, knowing English Cockers in Ireland, and American Cockers in Canada is a bit of a cock-up geographically. But never mind. I loved them all. I do love them all. All dogs. All animals. All sentient creatures. If they aren’t human, that’s a big plus for me.
After Rory (American) came Taffy (I think he had a bit of the mailman’s dog in him, but mostly American), then James (an actual Englishman from England, who visited us in Canada with my aunt and uncle and, for reasons far too complicated to relate, remained with us). During James’ life with us, Joe Cocker was at the apogée of his musical career. More folk than I care to recall insisted on referring to my Jimmy as ‘Joe Cocker,’ his fellow Englishman. He accepted the comparison graciously, as did my dog.
When it became James’ turn to end badly (a theme among my Cockers), I found Oliver, another English pup born and bred just a town over from where I lived. He had the same blue roan coloring as the delightful James. Oliver was of that nature that transcends species and breed and even mortality. He was ephemeral in some way; too good for this world in his loving innocence. And he had been born with a few birth defects that – had I given a tinker’s toss about dog shows – would have excluded him. His wee, droopy red-rimmed right eye caused him to adopt a certain tilt to his head when he looked up at me from beneath his long black eyelashes. At those moments, he reminded me for all the world of Princess Diana. They were much alike in many ways, my Ollie and the glorious people’s princess. Even unto death, as both were the victims of car accidents.
After English Oliver’s tragic passing in Canada while I was in Ireland for a month, I was distraught that I had been 3000 miles away when death tore him violently from my life. And blamed myself, of course. Had I been there, perhaps the car wouldn’t…perhaps the person may not have…perhaps he’d have been safely at home with me…perhaps. Perhaps.
Many other breeds, mostly of the mixed variety, followed, every one as adored and cared for as lovingly as the last. There was, however, rarely ever but one dog. Three seemed to be the number that would find me within a set period coincident to canine lifespans.
It was during a dog trio off-season, about 15 years ago, that I felt a sudden pang of longing for the Cocker. I imagine it was because my daughter had never experienced the singularly loving and playful nature of Cocker cuddlers. And we had only two dogs at the time, so nothing would do but that I scour rescue organizations for one Cocker Spaniel.
She was American, not of the typical golden color but, instead, a lovely black and brown mixture. Her wee nose was a tad on the pug side, but it happened that Oprah Winfrey had two that looked exactly like this new girl. Had I paid attention to American Kennel Club dictates over the years, I may have had an inkling that standards had changed. I don’t know. I didn’t care. She was lovely.
As a dog, like any dog, she was wonderful. Her hirsute condition, however, was deplorable. Her matted and reeking (of what I chose not to know) brown and black fur made her look like a giant tumbleweed, though one of substance. She was decidedly overweight, even allowing for the overblown mass of fur. She was called ‘Peggy’. And that was just nonsense.
So, Peggy was dematted and deprogrammed from the savagery of her previous life, and renamed Coko. It suited her down to her wiggly bum. ‘Bum’ is not a word I tend to use but, for her, it was appropriate. It wiggled constantly, even when she was attacking an unsuspecting other dog. She was jealous, was our Coko. Territorial. Possessive. But, nonetheless, perfect.
A few years after Coko joined our menagerie of species, some human, we moved to my parents’ small farm. My father had just passed away and my mother was in the throes of Alzheimer’s coupled, heartbreakingly, with regular tiny strokes, each one robbing her of yet another faculty. But she did love our Coko, who lay across her feet, content to be appreciated, oblivious to whether or not the feet were welcoming of her. (They were.)
With my mother’s passing, I wanted to put to use the farm property that had been a major part of my life. Being an animal rights activist and vegan, I wanted no animals who would become food for anyone, and the arable land was insufficient in acreage to support a crop-growing operation. At the time, we were lucky enough to have been entrusted with a few old rescue horses, and hadn’t I had a horse for 27 years (he was buried between the two barns)? Perhaps, this farm enterprise could be a horse boarding stable?
And so it became. I left the dealing with people to the spouse who liked people and I dealt with the horses, collecting their gifts as I cleaned stalls, sending them off for their hard days on pasture and welcoming them home with dinner and a drink. But this I did not do alone.
Parked strategically at the main door into the stable, morning, afternoon and well into the evening, was Coko. No one could arrive unannounced, none could escape the ritual canine inspection for treats of any sort (all were welcome). No prouder a dog ever strutted aside a horse en route for tacking and trekking than our Coko. She investigated indefatigably, put errant equines in their place with but a well-timed growl, and managed to bite me above my lip as I tried to intercept a snappy mouth aimed at a canine interloper who had no understanding of how things worked around Coko’s barn.
For so it was: Coko’s Barn. And she was the Official Barn Manager.
All our boarders (the human ones) would call for the Barn Manager when they arrived, sometimes by name or, sometimes, with “Oh, where’s the Manager?”, all the while secreting some lovely treat within a pocket. The Barn Manager had a good thing going, and was constantly praised for her dedication to duty and rewarded with all manner of Cocker (American) goodies and tidbits.
If it happened she were in the house when goings-on were ongoing barn-ward, she’d lament long and demand vociferously in a strange (annoying) bark that hinted at a throat injury in her long-forgotten past, that she be released from such common containment as a house…immediately. She was needed in the barn! Once sprung from her loving family confines, she hurtled, howling to high ‘do’ toward the new arrival, assuring one and all that dereliction of duty was not the preserve of any self-respecting Cocker Spaniel (American), especially one with barn in her blood.
Funny thing, though, Coko was unpredictable. I suspect this is because of whatever cruelty had sullied her early years. You wouldn’t want to get between Coko and her intended victim (as the scar above my lip yet attests). She had her moments of what I began to suspect were dementia. We had never got an exact answer as to her age when she bewitched us all as Peggy of the Matted Tumbleweed. When she was a fulltime Barn Manager, she had little time for the cuddles and the petting that we as family wanted to shower upon her.
But, as life goes, so went the hair-trigger catapulting of Coko out to oversee horses and their people. She spent time in the general area, occasionally deigning to give advice but, mostly, sleeping by her appointed post, content to know that, if needed, she could be easily summoned.
And, as she aged, she became more attached to me. Animals will do this as their senses start to fail them: Keep their most-loved one close by. I was honored that Coko had chosen me, and would wait outside in the evenings for me to return from wherever I might have been. I was rarely gone from home but, when I was, Coko would be waiting upon my return. Near the barn, at least until the darkness took the fun from it.
This is where my tears begin to fall. Always. The sobs are audible, the guilt overwhelming.
I don’t know where I’d been that evening, only that, when I returned, it was about 10 p.m. and, of course, dark. There was no light emanating from the barn, nor were the outdoor houselights on. Nothing unusual. As I turned the steering wheel to the right, circling the smokehouse, to my regular parking spot, it happened.
I didn’t know at first. I have a way with flat tires and was in the first millisecond of a thought along the lines of at least it waited until I was home. It was just sort of a … not a bump, but a soft ‘bip’. Inanimately, the car ignored such dearth of impact. But I felt it, at first in a ‘wonder-what-that-was’, noncommittal sort of way, followed sickeningly by a wave of prayerful disbelief. My stomach was churning, my breath quickening and my heart dropped as a realization started to form.
Already shrieking hysterically at what I knew had happened, I forced myself out of the car desperately willing to be wrong. At first, I saw nothing untoward in the near pitch dark. For a brief moment, I summoned my breath and thought processes, reasoning logically. It was dark. All the inside animals were always inside when it’s dark. Unless…
Just then, I saw her tiny dark form wobbling towards me. I watched her wee docked tail wagging slowly as she tried to make her way to me, the person she had entrusted as her guide now her faculties were failing. I cradled my faithful girl as best I could, trying not to hurt her further. She was looking at me, with those deep dark pools of her eyes, wagging her tail: “I waited for you, I always will. Tell me I’m a good girl.”
Inside me, in my agony, I was howling and screaming loudly, de profundis clamavi. The gates of Heaven and the denizens of Hell would not have escaped unscathed had I given actual voice to the torment finding its voice inside me.
But, for my wee Barn Manager, I merely smiled, looking for something in her glorious eyes, something that would hold me accountable. I deserved that. She never stopped smiling, panting a wee bit, in the way dogs do. I cuddled her, stroked her soft head and proclaimed her the best girl and (here the tears began) most wonderful Barn Manager ever.
When she was still, the screeches inside me found every aperture and orifice from which to release my utter despair and devastation to the world. From inside the house, people rushed out to see what was happening. They found me lying gingerly beside my Coko, sobbing into her fur and choking out apology after apology for what I’d done.
Yes, it was an accident. But, within an hour, the people were suggesting I go to the hospital as they feared I needed to be tranquilized.
We buried her the next day, beside so many other dogs and cats and rabbits and birds that have graced my life for the short terms that life accords them.
Every horse boarder who came for months afterwards would inquire as to the whereabouts of The Barn Manager. Every time I wanted to tell them she was gone because of me, but that would just lead to more tears and the need for one of the pills that calmed me enough to continue along the path I have left strewn with Cocker Spaniels from different countries and origins, each of them special, each of whom I adored.
But there was only ever one Barn Manager.
Old vegan, animal-rescuing, ex-corporate communicator with lifelong crippling shyness that made expressing myself verbally near impossible.So I took my weirdness to paper, then to typewriter and, now, to computer screen. I write all wrong.