Sometimes, you just can't love enough
But it was worth it, Taffy dog.
Think Taffy. Think sweet. Think sticky. Think candy and treats. Think the very opposite of all those conjurings and you will have a first insight into Taffy, the dog I loved who hated me. And the dog whose demise is scrawled in jagged letters across my memory. I loved him desperately and would have done anything for him but life, and what people had done to him – humans one would have thought responsible and caring – made him hate and mistrust me. I had Taffy as my pet dog between my ages of 8 and 15. And I have the scarred hands he left me to prove how very hard I tried to love him into fearing no longer.
The happiest day of my life, until the day my daughter was born nearly 40 years later, was the day I got my first dog. It was a total surprise. I had been wanting a dog for as long as we’d lived in Canada, a year at that point. And, for Christmas that year, I got a puppy, a lovely wee black mongrel of I-certainly-didn’t-care-what combination, who I immediately named, “Toto”. Don’t get me wrong. I loathed “Wizard of Oz”. I’m not sure why exactly. I did love The Cowardly Lion. Bert Lahr was brilliant as “The King of The Forest”. Everything else I put up with for the momentary sightings of Toto. Toto in the basket, Toto on the Yellow Brick Road. I was annoyed Dorothy didn’t keep Toto in her arms and safe at all times. He was sacred to me.
A very happy Christmas that was for me, getting my Toto. I know now as an adult with decades of animal rights activism behind me that animals are not presents. But, I do think my parents – both animal-lovers, dogs particularly – believed I would take wonderful care of this puppy. And I did. In those days, a four-year-old out walking a puppy alone wasn’t fodder for horror and rebuke. I fed him and made sure he had water. I walked him when it was time and was trying to train him to do his wee bits of business outside. And I demanded he sleep on my bed with me. We were inseparable inasmuch as that is possible with lives involving school and such, with a mother who taught Kindergarten and in whose two classes daily I was a participant. But, at home, that wee black handful of a dog was my world. I was deeply in love, as heartsick as any teen in a figurative case of ‘puppy love’. Toto was my everything.
As it happened, and continues to happen, chronology and time being such as they are, my birthday falls shortly after Christmas, on January 13, to be exact. Being the extremely shy sort that I was, I’m a bit surprised that there was a birthday party planned for me three days ahead of my Tuesday birthday, on Saturday, January 10, 1959. Toto wasn’t well that morning, definitely not his usual playful self. His lethargy was soon compounded by bouts of vomiting and, as my mother prepared the house for my fifth birthday party, my father took Toto to the vet, with me trailing behind him out the door, wailing about wanting to go with him and my young son.
But such was not to be. I remember, a few hours later, we were in the midst of a memory game for which my mother had prepared a tray of random items for the party-goers to peruse. We were to memorize the objects, after which she covered the tray with a cloth, giving us pencils and paper upon which to print or draw as many as we could recall. I remember that I’d cheated and had surveyed the tray, prior to the guests’ arrival, so as to wow everyone with my amazing power of recall (I missed two, nonetheless). As the game was ending, I glimpsed my father coming into the house and disappearing up the hall. Without Toto.
Immediately I raced – to hell with the guests – to find him and ask about Toto, unsure what to expect, but childishly assuming all would be fine.
“Toto had to be put to sleep,” my father told me.
“What?” I don’t know exactly what I said, being not quite five, but it was along those lines.
“He had distemper. He was sick, so the vet had to put him to sleep.”
And there the world as I knew it ended.
It was the one and only birthday party I have ever had. To this day (and I’m less than a day short of 68), I have never wanted another natal celebration because that sadness, that horror found its way deep into my subconscious and disordered mood troubles, and I hold Toto deep in my heart and soul as a sort of talisman of the grief that came to punctuate my life.
About 1 ½ years later, when I was six, my father took me – as he was wont to do – with him on a Saturday to visit one of his job sites. He was a general contractor and I spent most of my weekends with him, going about those sites that weren’t too far afield. On this particular day, we were somewhere deep in the heart of the nearby countryside and he pulled into a farm lane. He parked the car by the house and told me to get out and come with him. This was, most assuredly, not a construction site, but I didn’t think much beyond that. Perhaps one of his foremen or construction workers lived here.
He knocked at the door, me cowering by his side and, when a woman came to answer, I heard him ask, “Is this where the pups are?” This did strike me as odd, but life had taught me already never to expect anything pleasant. The pair of them chatted a bit, and I know I wasn’t listening because I was besotted, watching the cows just beside the house. I’ve always loved cows (and, yes, I’m vegan), and they had transported me elsewhere into the deep dark pools of their eyes.
Back in the car, I asked about “the pups”. What did that mean? My father told me it was something they used on construction sites, and referred me to the fact I had just got a ‘pup tent’ for the backyard. This made perfect sense and I thought no more about it.
A wee bit up the road and around a bend, we happened upon another farm lane. Up we went, car was parked, out we got and, again, the pair of us at the front door, him knocking, me hiding behind him.
A different woman came to the door. They chatted and he told me to follow him into the house. I hesitated because I was terrified of perhaps having TO TALK to people, but in I went nonetheless. Into the heart of the kitchen. Where there was a woodstove, and a box, and a Cocker Spaniel – gold – with so many puppies around her I started to cry. Talk about Heaven! This was mine. I wanted to get down and be part of them.
And then, before I could do anything so silly, my father said, “Pick one. Which one do you like best?”
For this there could be no answer. I think I smiled the biggest smile I ever smiled and disappeared into it head first. I know I kept right on crying, with disbelief and delight, and didn’t know what to do because I wanted them all. To be honest, the rest is beyond my powers of recollection. I know we got one, a male - eight weeks old – with the rustiest blonde coat, redder than his mother’s – and headed home. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if I didn’t breathe from the time I arrived in that kitchen until we drove the half-hour it took to get back to our house in Waterloo.
En route, we discussed possible names. I don’t know if I had any suggestions but, as soon as my father reminded me (our being from Ireland) that ‘Rory’ (‘ruadh ri’) means “Red King” in Irish, “Rory” he was. And he was mine. My Rory.
I took good care of Rory, as I had Toto. At least I walked him after school and, sometimes, after dinner. I adored him and, despite what I’m certain were many childish bits of mishandling, he was quite fond of me. He seemed to know he was my dog. And he grew to be an absolute beauty of a boy, in looks and temperament. His lustrous coat and long silky ears augmented the delight of his stubby wagging tale and deep, warm eyes.
During the winter of my Grade Four year, when Rory would have been about three, there was a terrible ice storm, one that had police warning people to stay off the roads. For some reason I forget – though perhaps I wasn’t walking Rory as much as I should have been – my mother had taken to letting Rory out during the 11:00 p.m. news. He’d come home before the news finished, having done what he needed. Back then, dogs roamed relatively freely, so it was nothing uncommon for him to be out and about at large.
One particular night during that stormy, icy spell, something took hold of me and I became hysterical, begging my mother, “PLEASE, PLEASE, DON’T LET RORY OUT TONIGHT! HE’LL GET KILLED. HE’LL GET HIT BY A CAR!” I don’t know how long my pleading lasted, but I do recall her promise not to let Rory out.
I was getting dressed for school the next morning. I remember very clearly that I had removed my pajama bottoms, but had yet to put on underpants. The top of my pajamas was long enough to cover my naked bottom, but I was still mortified at my state of undress when my mother opened my bedroom door and came in.
And I knew. I said, “Rory’s dead, isn’t he?” And she apologized and cried and begged forgiveness, saying she had never thought it possible. However, about ten minutes after she had let Rory out (despite her promise to me), a policeman came to our door with his collar and license tag. He’d been killed on the next road over from ours, by someone who couldn’t stop his car given the icy conditions. What sticks in my mind to this day, as horrible as it was, as much as I should have been furious at my mother, is how embarrassed I was being caught without my bottom covered. I still see myself in that pajama top, buttoned up, shirt style. I never thought about forgiving my mother. I think I just did. But, had I been her, I never ever would have forgotten that breaking her promise had cost me so dearly. And, yet, she never mentioned it again, and she lived until I was in my late 50s.
We each of us deal with things in our own particular way. It has taken me a very long time to learn that, much longer than it should have. I spent years trying to understand why others don’t consider animals as important as I do. I don’t understand how anyone can kill or eat an animal, yet I don’t get involved in that argument. I live as I love. A cow is no different to me than a cat or dog. But that’s another tale.
Despite – or, perhaps, because of - her seeming willingness to forget the catastrophic “Rory” betrayal, it was only a few months after his death that we were watching a local children’s after-school program. Every Thursday, the area Humane Society would bring on to the show a few cats and dogs available for adoption. I think the general consensus in our house at the time was there had been enough misery and grief about dogs and, perhaps, we should wait awhile before contemplating bringing another home for me.
As luck would have it, there was a dog on the show that day, who looked SO MUCH like Rory it was near eerie. My mother, my Nana and I were all watching and in immediate agreement that this could be Rory’s twin. And the dog seemed very friendly, lapping up the children’s cuddles and hugs. The lady from the animal shelter said the dog was a female, spayed and about four years old. Not only was she fully-trained but she was used to – and loved – children. All thoughts of postponing my having another dog forgotten, this seemed truly meant to be.
That very evening we went to the Humane Society and adopted “Taffy” who, despite what the nice lady had said, was male and not neutered. He didn’t seem very happy at all to see us and, before we left the shelter, my parents were already trying to talk me out of adopting Taffy. It quickly became obvious, even to me, that he must have been sedated to get him through the TV show and all the on-camera handling. He looked much less like Rory, seen in the flesh and fur, and his tail refused to wag. He seemed absolutely miserable, even a bit scary, but my heart ached for him. I wanted to make him happy and shower him with love and kindness. I soon came to learn that he was assuredly NOT interested in receipt of anything from me.
Within a few days, the true tale of Taffy became known to us. The more my parents heard, the more they urged me to take him back to the shelter. And the more I heard, the more I absolutely refused to let him go. His life had been a tragic one, a living hell I’m sure, and I couldn’t add to that.
He had been the prize in some ridiculous raffle. I recall such despicable treatment of animals as being somewhat of a norm in those days, and remember how envious I would be at movies or other child-centric events when other children would win puppies or ponies and such. The insanity of a child winning any animal aside, what would happen to ponies given as prizes? Not every family had a barn and pasture in their back yard. In fact, I imagine virtually none did. But I don’t want to dwell on that thought.
Taffy had been just over two-months-old when he had been won by, not a family where he would have had a chance of a normal, loving life, but by a girl in the local reformatory. I don’t know all that much about reform school, as it was also called in those days, nor how one qualified for residence, or even what age of girls would live in such a place, but I knew it sounded horrible. And, so it was.
The very day after Taffy came home to live with us, my mother got a call from a lady who worked in the kitchen at the Galt Reformatory. Taffy had been treated in every cruel and painful way any creature could. He may have had some love and kindness, but this lady talked of how he’d been teased and tormented, hit and kicked. In fact, he’d been kicked so hard in his stomach that he’d sustained a rupture. And, yes, the rupture was yet visible; worse yet, it was still painful. We came to learn that rather quickly.
We also came to learn that Taffy hated (was terrified of, more like) young girls, and who could blame him?
The lady, God bless her, had managed to convince whomever needed convincing to let her take Taffy home where she lived with her daughter and son-in-law. In a house of adults, all being kind to him, Taffy settled in quite well; treated properly and with concern for his rupture, he didn’t revert to the self-preservation mode of snapping and biting. That happy home life may have lasted his lifetime but for the daughter’s becoming pregnant. They kept Taffy through most of her pregnancy, but they knew he couldn’t stay once a baby came on the scene. There was no telling how Taffy would respond and react to a child of any age. They tried to find him another home but, sadly, could not and Taffy became a ward of the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society for about a week, before he came to us as, ostensibly, the spayed female who adored children.
Taffy loved my mother. She was the only one who could handle him. And he followed her everywhere, including down to the basement. Because of his rupture, managing stairs was always a tad dicey and, as he aged, he became round and heavy. And one couldn’t just help him up the stairs when he’d followed her down. Not even my mother could do that, likely because touching him anywhere around the rupture would cause pain. I don’t know how many fingers or hands I would need to count the number of times my 4-feet, 11-inch mother had to get Taffy on to a food tray then carry him up the stairs as his personal escalator.
I would need many hands and feet, of many people, to count how many times Taffy attacked me, more often than not resulting in a deep bite. It terrified me every time, yet I’d forget and do the exact same thing that set him off again and again. However, there was very little about me and my movements that DIDN’T set Taffy off. It could be something as innocent as my walking into the living room, where Taffy would be sitting on the piano bench looking out the window. THE CHEEK OF ME! Taffy would turn and see me, then leap off the bench and across the room to jump up and attack my hands. I’d scream, and cry and Taffy would be removed. My wounds would be bathed in warm salted water, and examined for depth. My mother and/or father would plead with me to let Taffy go but I…JUST…COULDN’T. The sadness and tragedy of his life, the terrible treatment he’d endured just made me more determined to give him as many chances as he needed to learn how much I loved him.
There really was no end to what would set him off, but it always involved me. This I understood completely, given it had been young girls who had terrorized him. There were more than a few times that I would have a rake or a baseball bat or something similar in my hands, in the back yard where Taffy would be on a long leash, always just long enough to tackle me for my presence within his sight. I know he feared being hit with whatever I was holding but, likely, my mere presence would have been enough to enrage him.
There were many times I’d sneak him outside, leashless, and hide at the side of the house, sitting with my back leaning against the wall, and just let him ‘be’. I didn’t try to get him to do anything; I hoped that if he saw that I wasn’t going to touch him (though I could), he would come to realize I was anything but a threat. But, no matter how slowly or quietly I would try to stand up, he would charge viciously at me. That’s how I got a few of the bite marks on my face.
And, unless a parent or my Nana was witness to a Taff-attack, I’d usually say nothing about it, nursing my wounds secretly, and crying – always crying – about poor Taffy and how badly he must have been treated to be so vicious.
As for other children, it was a good thing I didn’t have many friends. I certainly didn’t want any of them coming to my house where Taffy lurked, ever keen to savage. I had let down my guard one day, as a friend was interested in learning how to play the piano. No doubt eager to show off my keyboard skills, I brought her – Marlene - into the house and the pair of us sat down on the piano bench, Taffy’s usual spot for watching the world through the living room window. I’m not sure where Taffy was, and was engrossed in helping Marlene play chopsticks.
At almost the exact moment I realized Taffy had come into the room, Marlene turned and saw him. She moved a bit, and the growling started. This scared her into rising from the bench, which triggered Taffy to leap towards her, fangs bared. Before Marlene had stood completely up, Taffy managed a nip of her upper lip. I knew that THIS was serious and prayed as many prayers as I could in that millisecond to St. Francis (the patron saint of animals) that this not be the end of Taffy. There was neither blood, nor a discernible bite mark and, to her credit, Marlene was fairly undramatic about the attack so, despite how truly dangerous it had been, neither of us mentioned it to parents.
Of course I know now that Taffy should never have lived with us. Of course, I realize that he may have been in constant pain, though he never fussed about it unless someone tried to pat his mid-section. He may have been able to have found a home with just adults, who understood his circumstances and special requirements. I suppose it was selfishness on my part, wanting to keep him but, at the time, I just wanted him to know love and to have a life free and unencumbered by his horrific and tragic past.
Eventually, when I was 15 and Taffy was a very old and unhealthy boy; when the rupture on his belly had developed a fetid odor, my mother became ill. While she was in the hospital, Taffy was heartsick. I was afraid even to feed him, or fill his water bowl, as just my bending down could trigger his attack mode.
It was time. It had been his time for much longer than I want to remember. A few days before my mother came home, my father took Taffy to be euthanized. I’m ashamed I didn’t go with him but, likely, my presence would not have been appreciated. Of course, I was racked by hysterical tears of grief and guilt that, to this day, have yet to abate completely.
Most people have heard of The Rainbow Bridge, where all the pets we have ever had throughout our lives are waiting to greet us. If so, I hope there’s an extension wing for me because, given how many dogs and cats and horses and rescue animals and pet cows and so on I’ve been lucky enough to have with me through the years, it will be a very busy spot that day. And I look forward to it because I demand that it be true.
And the first of my beloved pets I want to see is Taffy. I want to see him running, free of leash, free of pain, free from the horrors of his earthly days, and I want him to let me tell him again and again how much I loved him. Always have. Always will.