July 19, 2005
As I write, Autumn is lying on the floor beside the desk in my office. She is dying. Her body is shutting down. We have an appointment with the vet this evening. I keep thinking it will be like the last few times I thought she was done, but she is so much more DONE now.
It reminds me of getting ready to give birth. I would feel the Braxton Hicks contractions, and they would hurt, but they were nothing like the real thing. Autumn has had some bad moments, moments that made me drive her down to Dr. Fletcher, only to have us sent home – thank God, a reprieve – but this is it, the real thing. Her life will be over; mine will start something different. I am looking forward to some of the differences, but I would take all the bad just to have her in my life, have her the way she’s been until recently.
She barks too much. She gets into trash and takes food she shouldn’t. But she’s also my shadow and my friend. She loves me with a devotion I do not deserve. All of her life, she has followed me wherever I go. She is my guardian angel. She will be gone too soon.
Pigs danced in sequins and cowboy hats, corpulent tubes in clothing, their mistress equally as lovely, with cowgirl boots and a twang. As our send off to college, we were watching pigs dancing. Was this for real?
I wanted to go to school in the south. Yes, there would be writing and riding, my two very favorite things, but the real allure was that the school was in the southern hemisphere. What the hell was I thinking?
My boyfriend wasn’t coming for writing, riding, or the south. He was following me. What the hell was he thinking?
As part of our goodbye, his parents planned a party and invited all of our closest friends and family. They insinuated that they had planned an incredible surprise. Dan and I were certain it was air-conditioning for our car. We were crossing the country in July and the car had none. This seemed like the perfect gift to us.
We were wrong. As we sat in the cool midday sun watching the pigs crossing mini bridges wearing mini skirts and fringe, Dan and I eyed one another, despairing that we had not purchased the air conditioner ourselves. The pigs had certainly been a surprise, just not what we expected.
The following day, the car loaded with everything that had not already been shipped, we waved goodbye to our family and prayed to one another that the drive would not roast us alive. But really, we were not worried. We were excited about the upcoming journey, and I was all the more so because I knew, deep in my bones, that I would get a dog. I saw her sitting in the front seat of my car, going everywhere with me. I felt her presence there on the seat beside me. I had no doubt that she would exist. Driving across country, I brought it up several times that my top priority upon arrival would be finding a dog.
“Don’t you think we should think about jobs and things first?” Dan would ask.
“We can look for jobs with a dog, or we can look for both at the same time,” I replied, undeterred. “Plus I will have the work study job at the barn already, so I can look for a dog while you look for work.” Dan did not look convinced, but did not argue with me.
Once we reached Bristol, the town that lay on the border of Virginia and Tennessee, finding a dog remained my top priority. Dan had not yet experienced my enthusiasm. I think he really did not want to get a dog and thought having one would be a hassle.
I was adamant though, and I told anyone who would listen that I was going to get a dog. This proved to be a fruitful tactic. Jeannie, one of my new coworkers at the horse stable, had a roommate with a pregnant dog. She offered me one of the puppies when they were born. She warned me though, that the puppies were likely to be very large dogs, as Maude, the mother, was a beast.
“She is half mastiff,” she informed me, pushing the broom up the aisle. “Half lab, half mastiff, we think,” she added.
“I don’t care if it’s a big dog,” I told Jeannie, helping her to scoop the sweepings into a dust pan. Dan, at the stable with me to help out until he found gainful employment, only shook his head.
“We can at least look!” I exclaimed to him.
I told Jeanne that I wanted to investigate the so-called beast, but that I would likely take a puppy anyway.
The apartment we lived in was not large, by any stretch of the imagination. I marvel now, that we had managed to locate and rent an apartment across country in those pre-internet days. I had somehow figured out the name of the local paper and subscribed, then located the apartment through the classified ads. Over several telephone calls with the landlord, we rented it, sight unseen.
Considering how we procured the apartment, it really wasn’t as awful as it could have been, but it wasn’t that great either. It was out of town about five miles, lying nearly on the border of Virginia and Tennessee. We were on the Tennessee side of the line, but could actually throw gravel into Virginia, we were that close to the state border.
The owner and landlord had turned an old shop into eight apartments, four on each end of the building, two on top and two on the bottom. He did not have much imagination in using the space, and each apartment was designed like a single-wide mobile home. Our apartment was on the second floor. We climbed stairs to a wide deck we shared with our neighbors and entered through a sliding glass door that opened into the dining room and kitchen on the left, and living room on the right. A narrow hall ran the length of the apartment up the right side of the building, with a bathroom and bedroom opening to the left of the hallway. Our bedroom was at the end of the hall, its width that of the apartment. The walls were covered in mobile home wallboard, the fake wood kind with brown stripes. The place was carpeted in pure 1970s gold shag. I could not complain, however; there was a washer and dryer in the bathroom.
The landlord’s own actual mobile home sat up near the street. Our apartments and the parking lot next to them were in the field behind his trailer. Beyond our building were pastures full of cows and deciduous trees. A bubbling brook ran through the field next to the fence separating our field from the cow pasture. While the apartment was rather small, there was a lot of space outside, which reduced my concern about the size of whatever dog we obtained.
Dan continued to advise me to wait, and continued to insist that we should get a smaller dog. Through the phone and thousands of miles away, our parents counseled us against getting a puppy, and they certainly felt we should not get a big dog. They had heard us complain all too frequently of our diminutive and ratty apartment.
I ignored them. I cannot say what single-minded determination drove me on. I did not care if my new dog turned out to be an elephant. I wanted a dog and my new friend had puppies coming. It wasn’t rocket science.
I wonder now at my intensity. Was Autumn’s spirit out there, forcing me to make the choice? Did she want me to choose her after her birth? I don’t know. I had wanted a dog in Oregon, but for some reason, the move across country gave me the encouragement to make sure it happened.
We also were not one-hundred percent certain the dog in question would be huge, in spite of Maude’s size. There were two potential fathers in the litter. One was a German shepherd mix named Jasper. The other was a border collie named Cody. Both of these dogs were smaller than Maude. Genetics worked in both directions.
When I went to work at the barn the morning of August 16, 1993, Jeannie looked like the cat who swallowed a mouse. One look and I knew – the puppies were born. Dan still had not found a job and was helping me at the barn. We all worked impatiently to finish, then drove quickly to Jeannie’s house.
It was already hot when we pulled up the winding, dusty driveway late that morning. Jeannie’s house was also out from town, near the end of a gravel drive. A rambling, green, two story house with pointy gables, it was surrounded on three sides by a wide, wraparound porch.
On the porch, away from the front door, Maude was stretched on her side, twelve puppies in various states covered her body. Some were suckling. Some were sleeping. Some were crawling over the others. Some just lay there like lumps letting the others romp all over them. None had eyes. None had ears. Every dog color was represented. They were utterly adorable. I had no idea how I was going to choose.
What finally helped me choose was the moon. One wee puppy had a white, crescent on the back of her neck right behind her ears – a moon. It was about three inches long and a perfect arc. The rest of her body was a creamy golden brown. She had white tips on her paws and a funny, white hourglass on her chest, but the tiny moon stood out, a beacon ensuring I would choose her.
On our drive home after making our choice, I asked Dan, “What should we name her?”
“I have no idea. Mooney?” he answered.
I laughed. “Should we give her a human-type name like Edith, or a doggish name like Spot?”
“I don’t know. It depends on the name,” Dan said.
I thought for a minute. “She is such lovely autumn colors. Maybe we should call her Autumn,” I mused. “All that beige, with brown, and some white. She is colored like the end of summer, with the moon shining over all of it.”
“Maybe we could call her Summer?”
“Summer,” I said. Then, “Autumn.” Autumn seemed to flow from the tongue.
“I like Autumn,” Dan told me.
“Me too. I think that is what we should name her.”
Over the next few days, we made some other suggestions, but Autumn stuck. The name seemed to suit her. After we spent some time visiting her and calling her Autumn, no other name fit.
Two days after the puppies were born, Jeannie called to tell me her roommate’s father had cut off the puppies’ tails. We were both furious. These were mutt dogs, why cut off their tails? I went immediately to see and discovered that, thank heaven, Autumn’s tail had been spared. The guy had only cut the tails of half the puppies. One had bled to death as a result. What an idiot. Unfortunately, Jeannie’s dog was one of the dogs chosen for a docking. He now sported a stubby, black lump.
How different some things in my life would have been if Autumn’s tail had been cut. I would still have some Christmas tree ornaments she wagged off the tree, and several beverages whacked from low-lying tables would not have had to be cleaned up. But those mishaps were small compared to having a dog who showed her emotion so readily with her tail.
Over the next few weeks, Dan and I went to visit Autumn every day we could. We would sit with Jeannie and her roommates and watch television or movies in the evenings and hold Autumn in our laps.
At first, her eyes and ears were sealed shut. She held her four legs out stiffly, her claws splayed until we settled her next to the warmth of our bodies. She would fall asleep in our laps until we rose to leave.
A little over a week after she was born, we could see tiny slits in her eyelids, shiny brown eyes peaking through. Not long after that, it was obvious she could hear us. When we would make noises she would turn and look at us. The girls had moved Maude into their basement and off the porch to escape the ravaging humidity and heat, and to keep the puppies dry during the near daily rainstorms. Pretty soon the puppies were waddling around in the makeshift pen in the corner.
When Autumn was five weeks old, Jeannie called to tell me it was time to take her home. I had not been expecting to do so until she was eight weeks old. But apparently Maude, tired of feeding eleven babies, had stopped allowing them to nurse. They had been eating puppy food for over a week. They were rambunctious and growing, and the girls wanted them out of their house.
I was thrilled, and Dan had come around as well. All those visits to see our baby had warmed his heart, although I think the size of her paws had him nervous. She looked like her paws were going to be huge, which meant she would probably be large as well. We still weren’t sure if she was Jasper’s or Cody’s, although it was obvious from the puppies’ colors and various sizes that both fathers had impregnated Maude.
The two of us had gone shopping and bought Autumn a new, grey collar and matching leash, dog dishes, and toys. Like parents waiting to give birth, we were ready to bring our new baby home.
When we arrived to pick Autumn up from Jeannie’s house, she asked, “Are you sure you want Autumn? Because if you don’t, we have lots of puppies looking for new homes.”
I stared at her, incredulous. Why wouldn’t we want her? Was she kidding? We had gone and visited her nearly every day. I had held her for hours, even before she had ears that could hear or eyes that could see. “What makes you think we would want another dog?”
“My roommates want you to take another dog because Autumn is the friendliest of all the puppies. You know that she is the first to come running whenever anyone goes into the basement,” she informed me, smiling. “And she most loves cuddling and petting.”
It was true. Autumn loved people and had no reservations about visiting anyone who was nearby. I read later that the younger a dog is exposed to humans, the more socialized and happy the dog will later be. I believe that all that hugging, cuddling, and petting I did when Autumn was little made her the friendly, sweet puppy who came running ahead of the pack.
Jeannie knew there wasn’t a chance we would leave Autumn in favor of another puppy. She smiled as we gathered Autumn in our arms for the ride home.
Dan drove. I rode in the passenger seat, my little baby on my lap. She had on her huge collar. She put her paws on the edge of the door and looking out the window. I snuggled and cuddled her, thrilled she was finally with me.
First thing upon arriving home Autumn had her first bath. She was covered in fleas. The fleas were so dense it was like she had a second, dark, wiggling skin. I had to lather her up about three times to kill all of them. She also had a little pot belly, so I was sure she had worms. I had purchased dewormer ahead of time, knowing that with all those fleas, tapeworms were a guarantee.
We had planned that Autumn would stay in the bathroom for her first night. We were worried about potty on the rug. I bundled together some towels and blankets and made her a bed. I brought in a ticking alarm clock because I had read that the ticking reminds puppies of their mother’s heartbeats. We snuggled and kissed her, placed her on the floor, and closed the door.
She began immediately to howl and yelp. Loudly. We climbed into bed and waited for her to calm down.
She didn’t. The howls only grew in intensity.
Dan, finally employed, had to get up at four in the morning for his job. He was never going to get any sleep with this noise, plus I was worried about the neighbors.
“What are we going to do?” he moaned, trying to cover his head with a pillow.
I could not stand it. I could not let my baby be so sad. I clambered out of bed and went down the hall to let Autumn out of the bathroom.
“If you give in,” Dan informed me, “She will never learn.”
“If I don’t give in, neither of us will sleep,” I retorted. I snuggled Autumn a bit, then tried again to leave her and go to bed. I did not even make it down the hall to my bedroom before the bedlam began again.
I decided to erect some walls at either end of the hall and place newspapers all over the hall floor. I looked around for something that would work as a barrier and finally settled on cardboard boxes.
“What are you doing?” Dan hollered from the bedroom.
“I’m trying to make a place for her to sleep,” I informed him, cutting into the boxes and attempting to tape wide sections to the wallboard. The tape would not stick. Damn.
I then used push pins to attach the cardboard to the walls. This worked to keep the walls up. However, the pen I created did not make Autumn any happier. As soon as I placed her on the newspapers, she sat down and howled and yelled, louder this time.
I headed back into the bedroom to wait and see if she would quiet down. Amid the screeching, we heard some rustling coming from the hallway.
“What is she doing?” Dan asked me.
“I’m not sure, but I don’t want to go out there because she will see me and it will be worse.”
We waited. After a few minutes, there were some rustlings again, and then I heard Autumn immediately outside our bedroom door. I opened it to see our puppy, the cardboard walls felled behind her, waiting to be picked up.
In spite of the fact that I did not want poop or pee on the rug, this wasn’t working. I brought her into our room and into our bed.
Dan and I settled down into the covers with Autumn between us. She was so small, I was afraid she might fall and hurt herself. I turned off the light.
Within minutes, she started whining and then yelping.
“Seriously?” I asked her. “You don’t want to sleep with us either? What do you want?” Sighing heavily, I sat up, holding Autumn close. This seemed to be the only way to keep her from crying. After a time, I laid back down with her between us. She yowled for a few minutes, shuffling around in the darkness. I then heard her jump off the bed, but she wasn’t barking. The silence continued unabated and we fell asleep.
The following morning, I discovered her slumbering beneath our bed. There was a piddle on the rug. I ran Autumn to the patio and down the stairs. When she squatted again, I shouted, “Good dog!” Autumn regarded me as if I were a fool then sniffed the place she had peed.
We repeated a shortened version the next night. I tried the bathroom, but Autumn yowled before I even closed the door. I skipped the failed hall kennel and took her to our room. We started on the bed, and she barked until she jumped off and crawled underneath. It seemed that under the bed was where she wanted to be.
Over the next few days, whenever she slept, she went under the bed or under the couch in the living room. We had purchased some drops to place on newspapers that mimic the smell of urine so puppies will pee on them. This worked about two-thirds of the time. During the day especially, we could see that she was going to pee because she would sniff the floor and circle. We would either toss her on the newspapers or outside, whichever was closer. Sometimes she peed in response to our hollering when we saw her circling.
The floor in that apartment though, especially the hallway, was getting peed on. The carpet was smelly anyway, and the pee covered in various chemicals wasn’t an improvement. I finally broke down and bought a small carpet cleaner. It wasn’t much help, but it covered the chemical pee smell.
Autumn was so tiny. I have pictures of her standing on the edge of an upholstered chair, looking down at the floor that must have seemed so far away. I would put her in the laundry basket on the dryer when I was doing laundry. She would sit in a pile of clean clothes and watch me work. She was too small to jump out, and seem disinclined to do so anyway. Her paws were enormous in comparison to how little she was, so we were certain she was going to be a very large dog, but I didn’t care and neither did Dan; we were in complete love with her. She had won our hearts. Forever after she came to live with us, I described her as my first child, this little dog we plucked from a litter of twelve on the day she was born.
Read Autumn — Chapter 2