She moved in with me on the maybe second- or third-worst day of my life.
It was a week after Thanksgiving, and I had just cooked my first full-race turkey dinner for the kids, and the memory of it they’re going to take to the grave is we ate it off a thirdhand card table covered with stains you wouldn’t want identified.
Besides which, their mother had just divorced me and Christmas was coming, which they were going to spend with her since they spent Thanksgiving with me. Over that slimy card table.
I was still puddling-up over the recent disclosure that my mom and dad made up that whole thing about Santa Claus, and now that: Christmas all alone in a home that looks like a room at the YMCA.
So I was sitting in a pack rat-infested chair that used to belong to my ex-wife’s golf-playing grandfather – I despise golf – watching Hallmark Christmas commercials on the tube, when my kids came boiling through the back door like a pair of terrorists hollering “Yo, Dad,” and carrying this cardboard box.
“Merry Christmas,” one of them said, and the other dumped the box in my lap. The contents of the box was about a double handful of white fur ball that began clawing its way up my belly and my chest, neck and face, and licked me all over the eyes, nose and ears.
Which is odd, really, when you get to know Mona, because she really never was a licker. Not after that first introductory bath she gave me.
That’ll be 15 years ago this Christmas, and I’ve never had a better present before or since – or will in the Christmases left to me.
I named her after an old dog Jones had that was named by an old girlfriend Jones had. I liked all three of them, and the name especially. Mona was alleged to be a yellow Labrador retriever, but the pet store obviously took advantage of my kids’ innocence and unloaded some kind of coyote mongrel on them. Mona turned out to be the best dog that ever lived.
She lived until last Saturday.
Adjusted for inflation, my puppy was 102 years old. In the 14 years and eight months of the Julian calendar, the two of us shared a bed and a life, she was more than man’s best friend: She was my savior.
She met me at the top of the hill when I drove home late at night. She raced around the living room with her butt skimming the floor and a grin all over her face when I came home from Montana. But mostly she listened to me, being the only other soul in the house for most of 13 years.
That will save a man, 9 out of 10. I only wish I could have done as much for Mona.
One Saturday two years ago, she just fell over. Jones gingerly lifted her, and she trotted away like nothing had happened. But it had. We took her to the vet and learned she had bone spurs pinching her spinal cord. The vet gave her steroids to reduce the inflammation, and aside from an appetite like a moray eel, everything was held in check.
But we knew she was circling the drain. Nobody gets out of here alive. We just kept on going to the barn to pitch hay to Zeb, Mort and Pauline, and Mona kept trotting down and back with us.
Last Wednesday, she hobbled halfway to the barn in the morning and headed back to the house. In the evening, she made it all the way there and back.
Thursday, she couldn’t walk.
Friday, she couldn’t stand.
Saturday, we drove Mona back to the vet in Nogales. There, Mona died, and we drove her home.
We laid her under the sycamore across the creek, where my whole family expects to rejoin her.
I have a picture seared into my memory of Mona’s face, just before we laid her blanket over her and began to fill the grave. I go out in the moonlight and see the sycamore and the stones piled over the grave, and it breaks my heart to picture her face and think of her lying under the weight of that dirt and rock.
My mom said when Dad died that she’d think of him – how he hated to catch a chill and how cold it must be in his coffin, 6 feet down, and December all around.
It’s summer and the earth is warm, but I can’t help thinking how Mona hated to be held still.
Reach Jeff Smith at (520) 455-5667 or firstname.lastname@example.org.