February 9, 2012

The clumsy grace of my dog, Millie

My toes were a little cold and I was pressing my nose against the small back window of our pickup truck trying to catch a glimpse of as many stars as I could. The sky was wide and cold in early December, I was tired and kind of crabby -- we had been Christmas shopping all day in Minot -- and I knew dad had to stop in a town halfway home to look at a tractor or something. I could've cared less, I just wanted to get back to our farm. 

But somewhere in the back of my mind, I let my thoughts flicker to a deliriously good thought -- maybe we were stopping to get a puppy rather than a tractor. I had heard my parents talking about getting another dog on the farm a few weeks before, but I didn't think there was any possible way I would be lucky enough to get a puppy for Christmas.

We pulled up to a house but I didn't see any sign of a tractor. My mom, dad and I got out of the truck and I heard the yelps of little puppies. In what seems like a flourish of a second in time, I had a wiggling pitch black lab in my arms and I was laughing and crying and all I could mutter out was, 

"She's mine?!"

That was 1999 and I was in the sixth grade. We decided to call my puppy Millie after the millenium, but over the years it affectionately turned into Mildred. She was the dog that never lost the puppy in her.

Thank goodness for the acres and acres of yard we had for her to run free and chase birds, cats, horses and other "tummy aches" as my dad called them. Millie would always do this funny little hop with her front paws and when they slammed to the ground a noise that was half woof and half whine came out. 

She was the least graceful critter I've ever met, always clumsily barreling through the house door or into our farm truck with this mischievous look in her eye as if she was trying to be sneaky and was surprised anyone noticed that she tagged along. But Millie was impossible not to notice, she was a big black labrador retriever who was rarely without a dopey grin and a wildly wagging tail that paid no notice to anything that might lie in its wag zone.

I broke my leg a year after we got Millie and she had plenty of rambunctiousness in her adolescent body, but she managed to calm down when she was around me and we would lay on the couch for hours -- me with my full leg cast, and she on her back with a few paws stuck straight in the air as if she couldn't bend her limbs either.

Shortly thereafter I discovered I could make Millie smile. Really smile. You know when you're petting a dog's ears or cheeks and you hit the nerve that makes their lips shoot up so they have a cheesy grin? I could do that with Millie -- just me -- not my dad, mom or anyone else. It was our little trick.

Millie was very particular about her toys, she had two that I swear she thought were her puppies in different life. One was a toy hedgehog that made this awful snorting and roaring noise that I have not heard in any other dog toy before. Through the course of her lifetime, Millie chewed through about a dozen hedgehogs. Each time she got a new one she cried with happiness and took great care bringing it with her everywhere in the yard. 

Her second toy was a lopsided, ugly bulldog that I attempted to sew in eighth grade home-ec class. She only got that toy when she came in the house, so my bedroom was the first place she would bolt as soon as we let her in. She always knew where to find it and would make a few laps around my upstairs room before finally returning to the basement.

When she turned three we welcomed a batch of nine impossibly cute puppies: six brown ones, two gold ones, and only one black one. Millie was an expert at making sure her pups never felt alone. Whenever she'd go outside or eat her dinner, she would snatch up a stuffed animal and carefully place it in the large crate my dad had built so her puppies would always feel the secure presence of their mother.

We kept one of the gold puppies and named her Jules. They turned into quite the duo. Millie was a natural hunter and was fearless of guns, whereas Jules would run and hide at the sight of a shotgun. Jules was cuddler and was rather polite and dainty (as much as a dog could be) when it came to treats. Although Millie loved people, she didn't demand constant attention and she would jump and have a treat swallowed before she even had a chance to see what it was.

The only thing I ever encountered that Millie didn't like was grapes. She was especially partial to chokecherries and grasshoppers and frequently grazed right off the tree and snacked off the car grills in early autumn. 

Within a few years I went off to college and shed more tears for Millie and Jules when I left home than for anything else. Dad always said Millie knew the sound of my car and could sense me coming from more than a mile away. Even as she was getting older, I was still the only one who could guarantee a smile from her.

Three nights ago Millie was barking at coyotes, keeping my parents awake. Two nights ago she seemed like she wasn't feeling very well. And last night she died. Thirteen years of mischief, goofy antics, and brilliant pranks only a dog like her could be brilliant enough to pull off ended in a matter of a few short days.

For most of us we have that one pet who grew up with us, the one who was endlessly loyal and undoubtedly the greatest pet that ever lived. Mildred was mine.