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I spend more time now looking back than looking ahead, sifting through the years and pausing over the important events of my life. Maybe it's rare, but aside from the occasional sadness that accompanies us all, there is no litany of disappointments for me. Instead, there is a storehouse of good memories and special times. We all have some defining moments in our lives. Mine was a holiday that seemed perfect.
Of my five children, three boys and one daughter are grown and employed, but none is far away from this old farm we've called home for four generations. They come back for the holidays and sometimes for dinners, unsolicited advice, to borrow tools, or to just sit quietly on the porch with their feet propped up on the rail, listening to farm sounds, which lift our spirits even in the worst of times. They grew up here on land my great-great-grandfather purchased from the Blackfoot Indians. Just south of our house, a large stand of iris has spread over an acre of forest ground and hidden the remnants of their settler's cabin. Our memories on this farm are good.
Mary Ann, my wife, teaches English and debate at the Crossing Trails High School, from which each of the four generations of the McCray family have graduated. The more recent generations were spoiled by a school bus. The older two rode horses nearly eight miles each way and were not shy about recounting the details of their burdensome journey.
Then, there is Todd, my youngest child. By that Christmas he was old enough in years to be on his own, to have a real job like his siblings, but the immaturity that naturally accompanied his disability kept him home with his mother and me.
Todd looked like any other healthy twenty-year-old, but he had his own way of thinking about things. You'd know from watching or even talking with him briefly that something was unusual. Over the years, we tolerated some stares and whispers, but learned to think nothing of it. We loved and accepted everything about our youngest child, born to us later in life, a good ten years after we thought we were finished with diapers. Mary Ann, my wife of nearly forty years, frets over Todd and connects his problems with her late-life pregnancy.
I've learned that for every deficit one might see in Todd, there is an ability you don't see.
Todd always had his hands in his pockets and never seemed certain which direction he was going when he went out the door. His clothes seldom added up to an outfit and his hair, the color of sun-bleached rope, was punctuated with cowlicks and curls. Sometimes he would sit near a herd of sheep for an entire day, just watching. Other days, he would find a river and follow it upstream, searching for the place where the water began. He never found this place, but that did not deter him from trying.
Todd also loved to paint. If I stood him in front of a building, he would paint it. However, there was one problem. His mother was convinced that our son would forget he was on a ladder and fall straight off and hurt himself. He was under strict orders to climb no higher than the third rung, which left many painting projects half finished.
To add to this peculiar feature, our neighbors seemed to enjoy giving Todd their leftover paint. However kind this may have been, it did not result in a harmonious color scheme. Our farm was painted with colors rejected by others, often for good reasons. Once again, we grew accustomed to the staring, and no one laughed harder at it than we did. We always thought of it as primer over which we would someday paint, but, like most eyesores, in time we stopped noticing. We took great pride in telling passers-by that we were the Midwest testing site for the Todd Paint Company.
Unless it was something he felt passionate about, Todd usually wasn't much of a talker, but he whistled from memory, and off-key, every tune that he ever heard from his friend and constant companion, the radio. I continually pleaded with him to take off the earphones so I could talk to him. He gladly complied, but rarely would he take them off unless he was asked first.
The one thing that defined Todd's life more than any other was his relationship with animals. He held them, raised them, loved them, and laughed with them. I am outdoors caring for animals all day. When finished, I want to leave the work behind, so I try to keep animals out of my house, but if one could be carted, crated, boxed, or stalled, Todd tried to bring it into the barn or garage and, more times than not, sneak it up to his room. This worked well enough for squirrels, rabbits, and baby birds, but not so well for skunks, snakes, and toads. To make matters worse, Todd's room was always a mess, which served as an excellent camouflage for a variety of uninvited guests.
As he got older, Todd finally accepted that he would have to set wild animals free. Not to do so was cruel. The only exception was for creatures that were injured or otherwise unable to care for themselves. As a result, every hurt, maimed, and lost animal within five counties somehow made its way directly to our back porch.
There was no money for veterinarians, so Todd became a bit of an animal medicine man. He was not at all shy about using the phone to ask for help. In fact, I often had to work hard to keep him off it.
He was very patient and determined in his rescue missions. And it was rare for anyone to turn Todd down because they were too busy. It wasn't that they felt sorry for him. He was one of those people who could capture you with his enthusiasm, and before you knew it his urgent need became your urgent need.
He would set out calling Jim Morton, our vet, who in turn would give Todd the number of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the National Park Service, depending on whether Todd's latest patient walked, climbed, flew, or slithered. One could amble into the room and find Todd talking to a professor of ornithology at the local university about a broken bird wing. Before long, it seemed like the entire American university system had abandoned world hunger and quantum physics. After all, there was the problem of Todd's bird that needed immediate attention.
Todd had a way of setting things in motion, and when he did, we dropped everything. I must admit, however, that I did not see this one coming.
One early December afternoon, Todd came running into the barn carrying his radio and frantically trying to scribble down a phone number. He handed me the wrinkled note.
"It's for a Christmas dog," he said.
"Slow down, Todd. What are you talking about?"
"The animal shelter wants you to adopt a dog for the Christmas holiday."
"Todd, they always want you to adopt a dog. That's what they do. Besides, we don't need another animal around here, and most definitely not a dog." We had been a dogless farm for many years, and I was not ready to change that arrangement. I had my own reasons for not wanting a dog--long-standing ones. It ended poorly with the last several dogs I let into my life and I was dead set against trying it again. I'd spent twenty years saying no to Todd's brothers and his sister and I saw no reason to change my mind now.
"It's just for Christmas," he said in what came as close to an argumentative tone as Todd could muster. "After that, you can take the dog back if you want. They have lots of dogs that don't have homes."
I pushed the scrap of paper into the front pocket of my jeans and hoped he would forget about it. But Todd continued with his innocent persistence that wore on you, yet was endearing. "Can I call them?" he pleaded as I tried to walk away.
"Todd, there is no use in calling. We've had this discussion before. We are not having a dog on this farm. We already have plenty of animals to care for. We don't need more. We've got work to do now." He was still looking disappointed. I wanted to give him time to adjust to a situation that he might have a hard time accepting. "Let's get some chores done and maybe we can talk about it later."
"It'll be too late by then. It will be closed and all the dogs will be gone." His voice quivered. He kicked at the earth with his large feet and hung his head. I knew he was only moments away from tears. Saying no to Todd was never easy.
I took the red handkerchief that I kept in my front overalls pocket and wiped the sweat from my brow. Just like the rest of us, it was sometimes difficult for Todd to accept that he could not always have what he wanted. It would take time to walk him through this one. I playfully grabbed him in a headlock and rubbed my knuckles across the crown of his head until he started to laugh, then I released my hold and held him by the lapels of his jacket and said, "Come on, Todd, let's go finish the chores and then we'll talk about it more tonight. Those dogs aren't going anywhere, and if they did, that would be a good thing for them."
We had a ritual of chores that started with the chickens, passed a hog or two, and ended up at a corral where I kept cows and their calves. We, of course, fed and watered the stock, but beyond that, without ever thinking about it, we made sure each animal was healthy. You can't take a chicken's temperature and cattle don't sneeze when they're sick. You have to sense something is wrong, usually by the way they move or don't move.
Todd slipped between the rails of the corral and walked freely among the cows, touching and assessing each animal that he passed. Cattle and sheep are less domesticated than horses and don't generally like to be handled or touched, which made Todd's ability unusual. I watched him as he made his rounds and called out updates.
"The twins look good."
"Yeah, they do," I answered back.
"Old Two Stubs looks thin. Do you think we should worm her again?"
"Probably," I concurred, readying a mixture of corn and sorghum to pour into a long cylindrically-shaped aluminum trough. The calves bawled as the larger cows jostled for a front-row seat. There are no manners in the feedlot. The biggest always win.
Todd stopped in his tracks as if he remembered something important. Surrounded by hungry, jostling animals but without the least bit of fear, he worked his way out of the corral. He closed the distance between us and then stood six inches from my face and just stared at me. I had no idea what was on his mind.
"What?" I finally asked.
"The cows are fine, Dad."
"Could I call--now?"
"Todd Arthur McCray, enough about the dogs. Okay?"
He frowned and walked toward the house. Todd was such a good kid, but I needed more time to think about this one. If I decided against it, Todd was going to find it difficult to accept, but I knew I should not let disappointing Todd get in the way of making the right decision.
Truth was that I missed having a dog, but there were a lot of reasons to move slowly on this one. Certainly, it would make Todd and his mother happy. In fact, I knew darn well that if I let Todd or his mother so much as look at a dog, it would own the farm by sunset and I'd be lucky even to have a place at the dinner table. I could picture the chaos that would ensue.
"Where's your father, Todd? I don't believe I've seen him for two or three years now."
"What do you mean, Mom? Dad is still here. He's been out on the back porch for the last couple of winters. You know, where you put him after we got the dog."
"Oh, yes, I remember now."
"Todd, get the dog and come to dinner, we're having prime rib. You know how Fido just loves prime rib. If there is any left over, put it out on the back porch for your dad and do tell him hello for me the next time you see him."
When it was time for dinner, or what my grandfather called supper, I walked past the porch on the south side of our home and into the mudroom at the back of the house. I sat on a bench and took off my muddy boots and overalls. I could hear Todd and Mary Ann talking at the kitchen table. He had started dog campaigning with his mother. As I expected, it took very little convincing. To her credit, she waited at least ten or fifteen seconds before she sold me down the river.
"Yes, Todd, I can see why you want the dog, and no, I don't understand why he would not want you to have one. Like you said, it's just for a week and then you can take the dog back if it doesn't work out for you. I heard the whole thing on the radio and it seems like such a nice thing to do for those poor dogs."
"I would take good care of him, Mom."
"Of course you would, Todd. Your dad knows that too. We'll just have to work on him, won't we?"
"Is there some reason I shouldn't have the dog?" I heard him ask.
"None. None at all," she said.
The discussion I wanted to have with Todd had just occurred in my absence. Our home is not a democracy. It is a benevolent dictatorship. Queen Mary Ann had spoken.
From the mudroom bench I stood up and walked into the kitchen, took off my leather gloves, set them on the kitchen counter, and jumped into the conversation. "I know there are lots of reasons to give this dog program a try, but I still am not sure that it's a good idea."
Todd was not too worried about my concerns. "The radio said it was a good idea."
"Yes, I'm sure the radio thinks it's a good idea, but still I want to check into it myself. Can you two wait for me to do that?" I asked.
"Yes," Todd said with no conviction.
I smiled at him and said, "Hard time waiting, huh?"
He knew I was teasing him and he smiled back and said, "Can't wait."
"They're closed tonight. Do you think we should call the emergency number to check on this program or could you and your mother hold off until morning to discuss this further?"
He paused and it was clear that he was seriously considering calling the emergency number. "Todd!" I said.
He pondered his options and finally said, "I guess I can wait."
From the Hardcover edition.