Hank was my first son, a gentle soul that kids loved and animals were attracted to. We were inseparable, spending every moment of our day together except when I went to work. They wouldn’t accept his kind because, well, Hank was a Great Dane.
Hank was what most folks would consider a lemon. He had Addison’s disease and dilated cardiomyopathy, demanding a regimen of shots and pills. His large brown eyes, which when pointed directly at you, were slightly crossed. The top of Hank’s head had ridge that made him look as if he were wearing an ill-fitting yarmulke. His fur was brown with a black mask, which meant he was a fawn like Scooby Doo though unlike Scooby Hank’s ears weren’t cropped and hung like an elephant’s. A dense swath of curly hair ran along his back like a bad toupee. But Hank’s gentle disposition and lumbering playfulness made him a neighborhood superstar. During our walks folks I didn’t know would approach us and stop to swoon over Hank, clearly knowing who he was as I stood to the side, ignored.
My dog had more friends than me.
Hank came into our lives when he was eight weeks old. He had been born at a Great Dane rescue shelter in Riverside, California. The young pups were quickly snatched up so by the time I called there was only one remaining. But before committing the last puppy to me, the lady on the other side of the phone, Angel White, had three questions:
“Are you going to neuter him?” Angel asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are you going to crop his ears?”
“Are you going to breed him?”
“Then come get your puppy,” she said. “I’ll meet you at the PetSmart in Riverside.”
Meeting Angel at a PetSmart and not her shelter should have been a red flag. Later I would find out her “great dane rescue” was under investigated by the county for mistreatment of the dogs, and in 2010 she would be convicted of animal cruelty.
We arrived at the PetSmart on what might have been the hottest day ever in Riverside. The Southern California town is typically hot as hell in the summer, but this day was brutal. She got out of their PT cruiser wearing hospital scrubs pelted with some unknown liquids in the brown to green spectrum. She was followed by an enormous Great Dane who turned out to be Hank’s uncle. The titanic dog immediately plopped onto its side in the grass in a manner that said, ‘Holy Crap, it’s hot!’ It was a flop we would later see on a daily basis from his nephew.
She put tiny Hank in the grass, and he looked at us in a way that could only be defined by one word – stoic. How a puppy is stoic I cannot say, but that is the way he looked at me. And he would carry that look throughout his life, a look that revealed his nature to watch and endure with quiet dignity, like the time he let a vet stitch a giant wound on his jowl from a dog attack with no anesthesia.
“That’s him,” I said to Elizabeth.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
At that moment Hank was a typical puppy with oversized feet and a bobble head with big eyes. We took him to a local vet for shots and a checkup, and other than a bad case of ear mites, he was fit as a fiddle. We drove home to Berkeley, each taking turns driving while the other sat in the passenger seat with a ball of fur and feet happily sleeping away the miles on our lap.
Hank got his name from my grandfather, Henry McCarthy, a man typical of his generation who proudly served in the South Pacific during World War II. He spoke seldom and loved beer, preferring the cheap stuff he could purchase by the pallet. In those days the aluminum cans had pull tabs that came off when the can was opened. He would hold it on the end of his finger, examining its curl, then rub my shoulder and tell me a wartime joke like: “You know why Italy’s shaped like a boot? Because you can’t fit all that shit in a sneaker.”
My grandfather was a worker. No matter the task, it had to be done with perfection – naval perfection. He owned a Pontiac Bonneville in the spectacular grandfather color of butterscotch. Hank loved that car and kept it impeccably clean, washing it every week and waxing every other. Grandchildren were a cheap work force, and he soon enlisted me to wash his car. I had just started scrubbing a wheel when he came shuffling out the back door and down the slate steps yelling, “No! No! Start from the top! If you wash the bottom first by the time you get to the top all the dirt will rinse down onto the parts you just cleaned!” I hated being told what to do, but the logic was clear, and this seemingly insignificant statement has stuck with me. When I was done with the car, my grandfather paid me with the currency he kept for the grandchildren: shiny bicentennial quarters and crisp two-dollar bills. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are integrally tied to my earliest entrepreneurial experiences.
I recently offered a kid in my neighborhood twenty dollars to mow my postage-stamp sized lawn typical of costal California. Had I been given such an offer as a kid, I would have sprinted for the mower with visions of purchasing some new and awesome toy. But this boy accepted the job with the enthusiasm of a sloth. Some time later I looked out the window and, aghast, ran out of the house and yelled over the mower, “You gotta hang the wheels over to get the edges!” He stared blankly at me until I went down and showed him how to do it on a stretch next to the driveway. When the boy was standing at my front door finished, I looked over his shoulder to see the edges long and ragged, leaving my lawn looking like a deranged poodle.
Hank my dog loved squirrels. It was an endless game to spot and chase them until they got beyond his reach. In the beginning his routine was like most any other dog, but as Addison’s disease took its toll, his once booming bark was diminished to a hollow trumpet. A series of his “barks” sounded like a congested model train going, “woo woo woo.” Squirrels that used to run from Hank now became brazen when hearing his diminished bark. They would get just out of his reach then begin taunting him, chirping and dancing a tango. Pissed at seeing a fourteen-ounce beast of a mammal question my dog’s honor, I would flank the squirrel and bark. It never failed to scare, or at least confuse the hell out of the squirrels.
Hank never did catch a squirrel. He once got face to face with one, and they both stopped as if in a Mexican standoff. They remained frozen, staring at each other until the squirrel began to slowly back away. Hank quietly let the squirrel leave. What he would have done had he ever caught a squirrel is debatable, but judgment tells me he simply saw them as apprehensive playmates, tiny dogs with a super power he was denied – the ability to climb.
My grandfather hated squirrels. He viewed them with the same ferocity he held for “The Japs” and was unshakably convinced squirrels lived solely to make his life hell by digging in the grass and emptying his bird feeders. Hank would sit on his screened-in back porch with a pellet gun waiting for squirrels. Once he saw one, he would pop out of his seat and open the screen door for his shot. One day I sat with him as he watched over his lawn with a beer in his hand and the gun racked against the wall by his side. A squirrel dropped out of the neighbor’s tree and crossed onto my Grandfather’s lawn with ease since there were no fences. Hank put down his beer then got his BB gun and moved to the door. He leveled the gun and shot. The squirrel jumped straight up then hit the ground and flopped about for a few seconds. Hank racked his pellet gun, took a pull from his beer, then shambled out of the porch and down his slate steps with me in tow. As we stood over the dead squirrel, he mumbled, “That’ll teach you.” What he thought the squirrel was going to learn wasn’t clear to me given it was dead. He picked it up by the tail and carried it to the garbage. Removing the lid from one of the galvanized steel cans, he dropped the squirrel in then replaced the lid. Throwing away a squirrel confused me. My grandfather religiously watched Nature on PBS and had a lifetime subscription to National Geographic Magazine. Yet he tossed the dead squirrel in the can as if it were trash.
As loveable as Hank the dog was, he grew protective of us with age. This was particularly true for his mother. At the time Hank was one year old, my wife brought home a violin. While Elizabeth was talented at piano and guitar, she was terrible at the violin and could make the thing produce sounds resembling a cat squeezed in a slow press. The moment she began playing, Hank would bounce up and down in front of her, trying to grab it with his mouth. Elizabeth would shoo him away, but he would only run a loop through the house and return to again confront the horrible noise machine. She tried to play for weeks hoping Hank would settle into the routine of her practicing, but he would have none of it. In his eyes the violin was a screeching threat to his mom. But his protective nature was never clearer than the day a wolf threatened her.
Elizabeth, Hank and I were staying with friends in their cabin in the California High Sierras near the town of Markleeville. It was a small house with an amazing deck overlooking Hope Valley. We were surrounded by pines, and in the distance rocky spires of granite stood like mountain sentinels. Our friends had three dogs, one of which was a behemoth named Atlas with piercing yellow eyes and grey fur, the traits of a wolf. They had gotten Atlas from as a rescue with a shady record, and I was convinced he was part wolf. I had seen such a dog before at my uncle Chuck’s in Ojai. Chuck’s dog looked identical and had been the offspring of a wolf and husky. The dog would pace the fence all day and was never safe near children and other dogs.
The first day at the cabin went fine until food was introduced. We had just laid out dinner for all four dogs, who were happily eating, except Hank, who was not a motivated eater. At home he would stand by his food, waiting patiently until our two cats were served. Only then would he begin eating slowly and methodically, typically leaving some portion of the meal. After finishing a few bites Hank lost interest and left his bowl, walking past Atlas. Atlas snapped, barreling over Hank and pinning him in the corner of the porch between the floor and wall. Atlas bit Hank in the midsection, leaving a few bleeding punctures. Hank did not fight back and sulked the rest of the night.
The next day we were getting ready to leave. I was in the living room at one end of a short hall, and Elizabeth and Hank were in our bedroom at the other end. Elizabeth went into the bathroom to grab her things, and on here way back, Atlas appeared, blocking her from the bedroom. The dog did not move and his manner darkened. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I moved to attack the dog. But before I could, Hank exploded from the bedroom towards Atlas. I froze as two dogs, each in excess of 160 pounds, faced each other growling deeply with legs spread. Hank let loose a torrent of barks and teeth, moving towards Atlas in several quick lunges. Atlas shrank and backed away with his head down. Hank had protected his mother from a dog I was sure would have dismantled my boy.
On our way home we stopped to have dinner at an outside restaurant in downtown Markleeville. We ordered dinner on the patio then settled in to enjoy the evening. Our waiter took our orders then asked, “Is it alright if I give your dog some meat ends?”
“Sure,” I said. Who would deny their boy such luxury?
“Great,” the man said. “We refresh our stock tonight and I really hate throwing it all out.”
The waiter soon returned with a massive glass mixing bowl filled with various meats stratified like sedimentary rock – a foundation of roast beef was overlaid with turkey, capped off with a thick layer of ham. It must have been three pounds of meat. The waiter put down the bowl, smiled then left. Hank sniffed the bowl’s contents then looked at us with his warm, brown eyes. Most dogs when confronted with meat – crack cocaine of the canine world – would tear in without pause. But Hank waited until Elizabeth said, “OK.” Those two letters were Hank’s release to move on with his business, like when we walked him off leash. At every curb he would stop and sit, waiting for “OK” to tell him now it was alright to cross the street. He waited even when full of excitement carrying home a new toy from the pet store. Countless car accidents almost happened near our house as people ignored the road to look at the Great Dane carrying a stuffed purple elephant or squeaky giraffe in his mouth. Hank returned to the bowl of meat and began slowly eating. By the time our food arrived, Hank was dozing contentedly near our feet.
The day came when Hank’s health took a turn for the worse. I was in Chicago for work when my cell rang. It was Elizabeth. Panic colored her words as she said, “Hank can’t stand or walk. I carried him outside and laid him in the grass. He’s not getting better.” I thought of that grass, the same patch where I once found Hank laying back to back with our neighbor’s tabby cat who hated dogs. “What should I do?”
The question settled as a hot mass in my chest. Elizabeth had worked for years as a vet tech and was comfortable with animal care. She never needed my help.
“Get him to the vet now,” I said, dropping everything to fly home.
Flying to an emergency is torture. There is nothing to do but sit in that infernal tube counting the minutes. Angry. Helpless. Scared.
Elizabeth picked me up at San Francisco airport without Hank in his usual spot in the back seat. She drove off yelling at the traffic, something she never did. Suddenly she pulled over and turning towards me said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. Hank died.”
A wave of numb sickness hit me. “How?” I asked.
“His heart just gave out.” She started crying then pulled out one of Hank’s plastic poop bags we kept in the car door pocket and threw up. Between waves of vomit she struggled to continue, “His head…was on my lap as…he went…I told him we love him.”
Elizabeth had brought Hank home from the vet, rather than leaving him to be bagged and tossed into their freezer. I found him in my shop, lying on the floor wrapped in blankets. I uncovered him and touched his chest. He was still warm. I rubbed his oversized jowls with my fingers and buried my nose in his ear, smelling the waxy scent that always put me at ease when my face was near his. Laying my head on his neck, my cheek felt his once powerful muscles now dormant. The fantasy that this was all somehow untrue broke apart, and I cried. I cried the way that comes with death – tears mixing with snot and saliva, dripping together with gravity.
I came out repeatedly through the night to hold my boy.
The next morning we took Hank to be cremated. I tried to convince myself that our yard was too small to bury him, but that was bullshit. I simply lacked the guts to put my boy in the ground and cover him with dirt. The thought came to me of wrapping him in a blanket I had had since my youth, an old and tattered thing, worn at every edge. It was originally a floral pattern with sunflowers on a cream background. When this began to fall apart my mother covered it with blue rayon fabric with a diamond stitch. It was so old, this too was now falling apart. As a child I would get under the blanket and chase our family dog Chelsea until the Lhasa Apso would attack the blanket. But Chelsea was not Hank. Nor was the blanket Hank’s, and it didn’t make the idea of burying my boy any easier.
After paying the lady at the desk of the crematorium, we took Hank to the back of the building. A cross-eyed man came out and met us. We asked for a moment alone, and he obliged. In those last few moments, my mind played the tricks of a mind dealing with death. It told me Hank was just asleep and would jump up at any moment, ambling over to the car to be let into his back seat. My thoughts screamed, Come on Hank! Get up, damn it!
The cross-eyed man returned with a stainless steel gurney. A wave of anger hit me, and I judged him as a lazy asshole. My small wife had carried Hank as his legs gave out. Why the fuck couldn’t he? The cross-eyed man gave a few condolences, and I hated even more. Maybe he really was sorry. Hell, maybe the guy loved animals and did this for some empathetic reason I’ll never know. But at that moment I didn’t care. He was taking my boy from me, and I hated him for it.
We left, never to see Hank again.
Riding motorcycles is my escape from life. I got home and jumped on my bike then headed south. Passing though King City, I came to the bridge over the Salinas River. There long groves of Blue Oaks grow in the gravel bed of the mostly dry river. As the eastern foot of the bridge came into view, so did a picnic grove behind a chain of restaurant. Dread hit me. A year back while returning from a trip to LA in August, our air conditioner died. The Salina Valley was over 100 degrees and even though we rolled all the windows down as we drove, Hank was not doing well. In his fashion he didn’t complain, but rather sat panting horribly. We stopped at this picnic area and bought a 5 gallon container of refrigerated water at the quickie mart and dumped it on him head to toe. Instantly he perked up and began exploring – something needed to be peed on.
Seeing the grove, I cried.
Tears on a motorcycle are something to be experienced. They don’t roll down your face but are blown horizontally towards along the cheeks, quickly evaporating to leave salty contrails of itchiness.
A couple in a minivan passed me, and the woman in the passenger seat stared at me with a furrowed brow before turning to the man driving. I imagine the conversation between them went something like:
Woman: “Honey, there’s a guy next to us on a Harley crying like a baby.”
Man: “Well now, would you look at that.”
Woman: “Guess those biker guys aren’t so tough after all.”
I had cried at my grandfather’s funeral, but it wasn’t the same. Those tears were less powerful, less exhausting. They went away quicker. In the months after Hank the dog’s death, it was hard to reconcile that I cried more for him than I had for my grandfather. But in time it made sense. Hank was my boy. He had lived with me and was there every day. And his canine flaws were silly in comparison to the calculated ones of humans. My grandfather’s flaws were complex, backed by speech that influenced those around him in an intimate way. Like how he had made my Uncle Mike, his youngest son, feel unwanted. Or how, while drunk, he beat my mother until she pissed her pants simply because she had not come home before the street lights came on. He was nice to his grandkids, but not his kids. Something about a generational gap seemed to have transformed him from a tyrannical drunk bastard into a loving old man.
In the days following my boy’s death, a steady stream of cards and flowers arrived from folks who knew him. He had touched them all, and only in his death did it become clear. Closing my eyes, I saw Elizabeth’s mother who once lay on the floor sleeping with Hank. I saw the children who would climb on Hank, unaware of how special it was to have an animal accept such treatment with quiet dignity. I saw the look in my wife’s eye when she would hide and how at the prompt “Where’s mama?” Hank would search until he found her. I saw my neighbors who helped carry Hank’s limp body after he died.
That night, Elizabeth and I watched a movie about a group of plane passengers who, unbeknownst to them, were dead from crashing into the ground. It made me think an aluminum fuselage is as good as paper when it comes to hard earth at flight speed. Their acceptance of passing to the afterlife was facilitated by friends, family, and for one man, his dog. Extrapolating to the obvious conclusion I said to Elizabeth, “Hank will come for us when we die.”
Elizabeth smiled, then looked to the hall corridor and said, “It’s time to go out.”
She got up, walked to the back door, and opened it.
She stood with folded arms as she always does when waiting, then said, “Hank has to pee.”
I looked out the door.
“Now it’s time to drink.”
“Move out of the way, Papa.”
Elizabeth closed the door and turned her head as if watching Hank’s lumbering return from his nightly business. Moving to the cupboard, she opened the door to his treats. The same door he learned to gently bump with his nose, producing a soft “bonk” when the gap between the door and jamb closed – his way of signally to us he needed a treat. She took out a duck-wrapped sweet potato then told him “OK. Time for bed” and watched him off.
Through tears, Elizabeth smiled and said, “If I can’t live with Hank, I’ll live with his ghost.”
* * *
A year later we decided to downsize the amount of junk in our closets. As we pillaged things untouched for years, Elizabeth came across her violin. The case was covered with dust and a few of Hank’s hairs, recognizable as his by the length and color – white at the base, tan in the middle, and reddish black on the very tip, a finishing touch that gave his body a slight amber shade. Elizabeth cleaned off the case, and I asked her to play as I took a seat on the sofa. She opened the case and unearthed the violin from years of neglect. Standing before me, she played an off-key and syncopated rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. She had not tuned the instrument before playing, but it didn’t matter. As bad as it was, she worked the violin with care and warmth. Below the violin, her belly protruded with the first signs of our coming child.
I listened to her play, thinking about how much Hank hated that damn violin.