To some people he was just a dog; probably brought home to keep the kids occupied until they became too busy with friends, video games and other technological distractions. Then, becoming old and in failing health, he became one of the many strays picked-up by Animal Control and brought to Pound Buddies where nobody came looking for him.
That was August of last year.
Without any kind of identification, he was given the name Hobbitt and housed in one of the many kennels along with scores of other homeless dogs. He stayed there for several weeks, while the staff hoped someone would give him a safe home to live out his days.
Initially, that someone was Heidi Yates of Muskegon Humane Society. She knew it was unlikely he’d get adopted, being old and in poor health, but she couldn’t bear the thought of him being in a place where elderly, sick dogs rarely get a second chance. Heidi has a real soft spot for senior dogs.
So, she brought him to her shelter, renamed him Henry and took him to their vet for evaluation. The results weren’t encouraging. He had a serious infection throughout his lower jaw from rotted teeth. He also had an enlarged heart and a heart murmur. But, despite the poor health, he remained a friendly, easy-going boy that everyone at the shelter immediately fell in love with.
That’s when I came along. I’d known Heidi since she became Director of Muskegon Humane and shared her love and sympathy for the plight of homeless senior dogs. Because of our friendship and shared sentiments, Sandy and I had already taken in Buster and Peanut, two elderly cast-offs, earlier in the year.
I met Henry, heard his story, talked it over with Sandy and brought Henry home a couple of days later to see how he’d adapt to his new surroundings and family. Before he’d even entered the house, Sandy had renamed him Hogan, because it just seemed to fit him.
Although he was a gentle, easy-going and well-mannered ol’ boy, it was obvious from the beginning that he was not accustomed to being a valued member of the family. He acted as if kisses and hugs were forbidden and being on the furniture not allowed. But, within a few days he learned that affection was now part of his life and it agreed with him.
He also learned that, while it might be our house, it was now his home just as much as it was our’s.
He seemed to like that idea, because his happy nature began to flourish. His tail would swing back and forth whenever Sandy or I returned from an errand or work. He trotted out of the bedroom in the morning to take his business outside. Then he pranced expectantly while awaiting his treat.
At night, in preparation for going to bed, he’d dash to the bedroom where he knew that Sandy would be handing-out a bedtime treat to each one of the gang. He began to enjoy being part of a family that enjoyed him.
Most nights he’d sleep on the floor on Sandy’s side of the bed, probably because there were too many bodies on the bed for him to find a comfortable spot. But, whenever there was a storm approaching, he’d let us know that he wanted to be nearer to us and would sleep on either Sandy’s pillow or tucked under my arm.
We tried not to think about how many times he cowered alone and terrified as a storm raged around him, either because no one cared or he was wandering alone as a stray.
During his first few days with us, Hogan got to meet our vet, Dr. Erica Faith. She did a thorough examination and confirmed what we already knew. He was in a dismal state of health. His health was so bad that she couldn’t address his dental issues, because she feared he would not survive the anesthesia. But, there was medication for the infection and medication to help his heart and lung function. She’d do her best to keep him comfortable for the three to six months she estimated he’d live.
However much time he had left, we were determined to make sure it was the best time of his life.
Although he was initially a stray, Hogan was a natural with our off-leash walks. It took him no time at all to learn the routes and was soon leading the parade. He loved those walks. Even as his energy and endurance began to ebb away, he refused to be left at home and would pad along the trails while his brothers raced ahead.
He also loved hanging out in the yard while Sandy and I did projects and yardwork. Once he knew his boundaries, that’s where he stayed, always nearby and always eager for a quick scratch behind the ears and a loving “good boy”.
As three months went by and then six, we began to think that, maybe, enjoying his life was giving him a stronger will to live. He still had a nasty, gagging cough that we made light of by referring to him as “Honk Hogan”, but it was a constant reminder that every day he was with us was a gift to be cherished.
We made it a point earlier this past summer to get him down to the beach, because we didn’t know if that’s something he’d ever experienced. He loved it. That is, until we had to make the long climb back up the stairs to the top of the dune. That was a struggle for him but, he made it.
As soon as we’d all made it to the top, my grandson realized he’d left his soccer ball on the beach. So, I headed back down the stairs to retrieve it for him. I wasn’t halfway down when here came Hogan, trotting right down behind me. It didn’t seem to matter how much he had struggled to get up the stairs the first time, he was having too much fun to let that stop him. We got the ball and, as I was preparing to have to carry him back up the stairs, he went up, slowly but determinedly, until reaching the top on his own.
As summer turned to autumn, it was becoming more obvious that Hogan was slowing down. He was coughing more and straining for air after even the briefest exertion. We began to accept the inevitable but, we needed some kind of sign that he was ready.
That happened this past Sunday when we took our usual walk with the kids. By this time, we were used to Hogan no longer being able to keep up with the other guys. We’d just let him walk at his own pace and then, once the other guys were through the route, we’d retrace our steps until we’d find Hogan plodding along, following the trail and our footsteps.
Last Sunday, we could not find him. So, we looked a little further down one of the trails until we reached a clearing that our neighbor had made and where he’d buried his own dog a few years ago. That’s where we found Hogan. He was laying, breathless, on Blondie’s grave. It was both poignant and symbolic, like he was telling me that he was ready to leave this world and join those who’d walked these paths before him.
It was the sign we needed.
On Tuesday, we made the arrangements and, with the help of Dr. Faith, bid a peaceful farewell to our gentle friend.
The following evening, before placing Hogan’s body in the grave I had dug in front of the fence section that bears his name, we carefully unwrapped his burial blanket so his fur-brothers could pay their final respects.
It was a touching moment as they circled his body, sniffed at it and gently pawed as if to will him to get up so they could play one more time. But, then they seemed to understand that Hogan was gone and would be roaming the meadows near the Rainbow Bridge, until we all joined him some day.
As the daylight faded and the last shovel of dirt was packed onto the gravesite, I wanted to write something profound to describe the missing piece of my heart that followed him into the grave. But, all I could write on the fenceboard was,
“Goodnight to a beautiful and gentle soul.”
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