Cherokee is old. His joints ache. His nose can no longer distinguish between the scent of bacon and a clump of dirt. His eyes see only shadows. On the eve of his death, he lies in a cage in an animal hospital, with a needle in his forepaw, and reflects on his life and purpose of being a faithful companion to his beloved mistress and best friend, Alicia Baxter.
Alicia and Cherokee’s friendship begins when Alicia wanders into a pet shop and finds herself drawn to the puppy prancing before the window with his food bowl in his mouth. From the moment Alicia brings him home, Cherokee becomes an integral part of her journey of self-discovery as she struggles with insecurities, a lack of identity, and an unimaginable loss. Even as Alicia makes a life-altering decision to start over in a place where she is forced to rely on herself, Cherokee’s love and loyalty to her never waver.
Narrated in a voice filled with wisdom, humor, and astute awareness, The Seasons of Cherokee’s Life tells the story of a dog’s deep bond with his mistress as he walks beside her and watches her transform into the courageous and independent woman he has always believed her to be.
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THE Seasons of Cherokee's Life
A CANINE'S FINAL REFLECTIONS
By Sandra Y. Roberts
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Sandra Y. Roberts
All rights reserved.
My Last Night
I am spending the last day of my life in a cage, with a needle in my forepaw. The hope is that the fluids will help to bring down the elevated numbers in my kidneys, or some such thing. That's what I heard, at least. The veterinarian's recommendation did offer some hope to my two best friends, given the fact that I am below the life expectancy for my breed. I am only ten years old. I guess that's considered young. But like humans, we all age differently and die when we are supposed to.
This is not quite where or how I had imagined I would spend my last night of breathing. But, oh well, what are you going to do? Naturally, I would much rather be at home, spending my last hours surrounded by my stuffed toys and the people I love.
What dog wouldn't? Despite what my desires might be, however, in the long run it's better this way. I cannot bear the thought of my friends finding me dead under the desk, in the closet, or in some corner of the house. I know that would be too much for them, especially for my Alicia.
As I became increasingly aware that the end of my life grew imminent, instinct and love had me isolating myself a little more each day. Distancing myself from their everyday life was my way of easing those I held most dear to accept the inevitability that soon I would no longer be with them. But sadly, in the end, it will not matter. They are still going to hurt. And that is too bad.
The poor golden retriever across from me had surgery today. He woke up a little while ago and is whimpering in pain. Not too long ago, I would have stood up and wagged my tail in acknowledgment. Show him a little support, you know? But I no longer have it in me. He will be fine, though. He is young and will be chasing after tennis balls in no time.
As for me, I could not chase my own tail even if I wanted to. Despite my cute, little puppy face (well, that's what everyone says), I am old. My joints ache. My nose can no longer distinguish between the scent of bacon and a clump of dirt. My eyes see only shadows. And the worst indignity of all? Loss of control over bowel and bladder.
Am I afraid to die? No. Not at all. Unlike our human counterparts, animals are not conditioned to fear death. We are born to serve a purpose and then leave. And my purpose has been to be a faithful and loyal companion. I have to say, I have had a good life. The love my two friends feel for me is very much reciprocated. In fact, I might have been a little spoiled, if truth be told. But not to the point where I was a ball buster and made their lives miserable. I may have been a bit finicky when it came to my food, and I might have refused to eat until a bribe in the form of table scraps was tossed into my bowl. Oh, and then there was my tendency to take whoever was walking me hither and yon in my quest to find the perfect place to do my business. Other than that, I have been a peach.
We were close, the three of us. So close, in fact, that I can feel their anguish over my failing health. Not to mention their conflicting emotions over whether or not to put me down if they get a bad report—which they will. I will not die during the night. That would be too devastating for them. I will give them the opportunity to say good-bye. But when they come to see me in the morning, I will definitely make it easier for them to let me go.
In the meantime, I am going to share what life was like for me and all that I have learned and observed.
Dog owners, more often than not, like to attribute human emotions and characteristics to their pets. While we are by no means just a dumb dog, we are not human either. For example, people will often mistake a dog's territorial behavior for jealousy. There was a little dog named Sombrero I once knew who would always growl whenever anyone came too close to his master. The woman, who lived alone, would often say to people who commented on it, "Oh, don't pay attention to Sombrero. He doesn't mean anything by it." Turning to Sombrero, she would say, "You're just jealous, aren't you, sweetie? You want Mummy all to yourself, don't you?" Well, no, not really. The poor woman was lonely and projected her need for love onto her dog. Since boundaries were never set with Sombrero, he saw his owner as belonging to him, like a toy or a bone.
But are we intelligent? Most definitely. Naturally, our thought process is limited. We do not possess the kind of intelligence where we can interpret the meaning of an abstract painting by staring at it. Nor can we verbalize that we are tired of being fed the same kibble day in and day out. I learned to get around that little impediment by turning away from the food that was placed before me. Inevitably, some tasty tidbit would always be added.
We are not driven by ego, so we do not know how to be, say, self-serving or disingenuous. We are steadfast in our loyalty, love unconditionally, do not judge or hold grudges, and can always be counted on to be there for you. And our intuition allows us to read humans better than you can read each other. No offense intended. According to my Alicia, dogs possess the right qualities that more people should try to emulate.
As for social grace, we have not perfected the fine art of etiquette and decorum while in the presence of polite society. We will hump a leg or lick ourselves when the urge hits. We live in the moment, so life for us is carefree. There are no regrets over what happened yesterday or anxiety about tomorrow to bog us down.
But enough of that. With time being limited, I need to get on with my story. I am sure that by now you must be a bit curious as to what breed I am. I am shih tzu. For a male, I am smaller in stature and have a petite face. I was often mistaken for female. My hair was kept short because Alicia did not want a dog that looked like a walking mop.
I was born in what you refer to as a puppy mill. As newborns, my siblings and I never had the opportunity to blindly jockey for position at the trough of my exhausted mother's teats. Unfortunately, my mother died shortly after giving birth to us. The poor thing had been subjected to repeated breeding that resulted in her giving birth to litter after litter in rapid succession. After we were born, her body had given out on her. Lucky for us, there were plenty of lactating females for us to nurse from.
While my time there was short, relatively speaking, the one distinct memory I have is of the incessant barking, crying, whimpering, and howling. There were no comforting murmurs or affectionate pats on the head to soothe us. As I am relating this to you, I am suddenly struck by the irony. We are bred for the purpose of becoming valued members of a loving human family, but while we are there, we are shown no tenderness whatsoever.
We are simply chattel and a means to an end. When I was finally taken from my siblings and transported to an unknown destination, I found the silence and solitude unsettling. As a result, I gnawed at the little holes of my crate for comfort.
* * *
I am sure you already know where I ended up. Yes, in a mall pet shop with the high-priced, fancy accessories that we really do not understand or care about. Before I continue, I want to express how grateful I am that Alicia never got into the trend of wanting to dress me in gold lamé tuxedos or a bathrobe and slippers. Could you imagine?
There was a Maltese, named Freddie, who lived up the street from us a few years ago. What did that poor slob not have to put up with? One Halloween, his owner decided to dress him up as an Elvis. I am not sure what that is, but did he look ridiculous—not to mention, miserable. The little black thing on his head kept falling over his eyes. Fortunately for me, the extent of my wardrobe consisted of warm winter sweaters and a little hat with flaps that covered my ears.
Anyway, when I first arrived at the shop, I was scared and confused. I was poked here and prodded there before being placed in a large sink and doused with water to clean me up. The whining and yipping I heard coming from the other puppies offered little consolation. It only reminded me of where I had just come from.
I was not used to the bright lights, unfamiliar sounds, and the numerous hands that handled me. It was too much for me to take in. I wanted nothing more than to hide and to be left alone. All this changed, however, when I received my first genuine cuddle. On the day I was to be put in the display pen, a young woman who worked at the store took me out of my cage and held me up in the air.
"Look at you," she cooed. "You are so cute." She then brought me down to her face until our noses touched. "If I could afford you, I would buy you myself." Well, it was at that moment that the intuition inherent to dogs sparked to life. Her sweetness enveloped me like my mother's womb, and for the first time, I felt safe and secure. When she opened the door to put me in my next temporary home, she gave me one last squeeze and then said, "Knock 'em dead." Knock 'em dead? I had no idea what she meant by that.
I found myself walking gingerly in a nest of shredded paper. What is this? I wondered as I sniffed at it. Whatever it was tickled my nose. I did not like it at all. All this was forgotten when I found myself looking through the glass at a strange, new world. There were a lot of people milling about, looking at this and that. They seemed to congregate the most at the glass-covered rooms like the one I was in. They were pointing and smiling at whatever was behind the glass. So that is what I had become: a furry, little display.
For the days that I was there, I had to contend with strange people peering at me and making funny faces, not to mention being taken in and out for potential owners to see if they wanted to take me home with them.
While I was being checked out, it did not take long for me to figure out that I needed to be doing the same thing myself. I did not do well with having my ears and tail pulled by rambunctious youngsters. One of them poked me in the eye and giggled. When I let out a yelp, the little one burst into tears. I think he mistook me for a stuffed toy. No harm done. He was wailing so loudly that I actually felt worse for him than I did for my stinging eye.
There was one couple that I spent some time with. The female was more enthusiastic about me than the male she was with. "What are we going to do with an ugly, little rat dog like him?" he asked, eyeing me with distaste.
"Oh, come on," she said as she picked me up. "I don't think he's ugly at all. He reminds me of one of those cute gremlins from that movie." She began to rock me like a baby. "Just give him a chance. You'll grow to love him. Why do you always have to be so negative?"
The male abruptly stood up from the little bench where they both had been sitting and began to pace the small area. "Listen, I don't like him," he replied impatiently. "And I'm certainly not going to pay through the nose for him. If he's ugly now, he'll only get uglier when he's older. Look at his face. It looks like he ran into a truck." When the female began to protest, he made a sharp gesture with his hand and said, "Give him back, and let's go."
She began to plead. He began to get angry. I began to squirm. All I knew was that I did not want to go home with these people. The negativity between them would eventually spill over onto me. But most importantly, at that moment, a certainty that I was not meant for them came over me.
I knew I had to get away. So I ended up doing the only thing I knew would get me out of that situation: I urinated on the woman who was holding me. I was promptly handed over to one of the minders who had been standing close by. I had never been so happy to be back in my pen. That was a close call. After that, I began to pay attention to everyone who approached the glass. If I did not see or feel the one I was intended for, I would curl up into a ball and turn my back to the audience. I learned to be very patient.
Now, you might be asking yourself, How could he have known who his owner was going to be? The only way I can express it is that knowing and certainty give off a vibration in the pit of the belly. It is what you refer to as a gut feeling. Since my role was to serve as a companion rather than a working dog who herds sheep, there was already a soul connection in place. People can be looking at a litter of identical-looking puppies but find themselves drawn to a particular one that stands out in the bunch. Why? Because that is the one that is meant for them. Then there are the instances when it seems to happen by accident, as was the case with Alicia.
On the day when she finally came, I sensed her before she even walked through the door. I sat up alert and waited.
There she was. Alicia was a slender woman. Not too tall. Not too short. She had light brown hair that reached down to the top of her shoulders. The smile she gave the store worker who greeted her was warm and friendly. I noticed that she was browsing at nothing in particular. I got the impression that she was simply whittling away the time. Yes, she was definitely the one. In a moment of precognition, I knew that my presence would help her get through a very difficult time in her life.
When she finally began to stroll in my direction, I knew I had to get her attention quickly. But how? What could I do besides scratch at the window? I saw my empty food bowl sitting in the corner and picked it up with my teeth. I pranced back and forth until I got the desired result. When she was standing before me, I kept the bowl in my mouth and stared at her. My tail began to wag of its own volition. That was the first time that happened.
She stared back at me and then gave me a smile that lit up her face. I felt my heart light up in return. She placed her finger on the window. I saw her mouth move, but I could not hear what she was saying.
I watched intently as she approached the young male who had greeted her when she first walked in. She said something to him and pointed to me. A little while later, the door to my pen opened, and I was taken out.
Gratefully, it was for the last time.
My New Family
Fortunately for me, my new family loved me at first sight.
When Alicia pulled up to the house, her two children were in the driveway washing their father's vehicle. After getting out of the car, Alicia waved her two kids over. "Melissa! Bryan! I need your help carrying a few things into the house."
She opened the door to the backseat and took me out of the carrier she bought for me. "I can't wait for the kids to see you. They're going to love you." Her energy level was high and excited.
"Hey, Mom," Bryan called out as he walked toward the car. "Dad's letting Mel and I use his car tonight. Johnny Ellis called earlier and invited us over to check out the new flat-screen television they just—what's that?" Coming closer, he asked, "You got a puppy?"
"Puppy? What puppy?" Melissa asked as she came up behind her brother.
"Meet the newest member of the family," Alicia said before handing me to her offspring. Melissa let out a squeal of delight and surprise while Bryan simply grinned in pleasure. I was passed between the two like a little football. I was so relieved to see that her children were older and way beyond the age of eye poking and tail pulling. At that time, they were both seventeen years of age, with only five minutes separating them.
Well, my tail was whirling like a propeller. If it were possible, I would have taken off into the air like a balloon. I liked Melissa and Bryan instantly.
"What made you get him?" Bryan asked as he scratched my neck while Melissa held me.
"I don't know," Alicia answered, sounding puzzled, before handing her son a couple of bags. "I wasn't even aware they'd opened a pet store in the mall. I decided to go in for the heck of it. Then I saw this little guy." She began to stroke my ear. "It was the way he sat staring at me. It was almost as if he was trying to communicate with me. I can't explain it. So here he is." Alicia finished with a shrug.
"I can see why you couldn't resist him," Melissa said. "He sure is cute. And he looks like a proud little warrior, don't you, buddy?" She placed me against her chest and zipped up her jacket to keep me warm against the cool air.
"Let's name him Cherokee then," Bryan suggested. "He'll grow up proud and strong."
Excerpted from THE Seasons of Cherokee's Life by Sandra Y. Roberts. Copyright © 2013 Sandra Y. Roberts. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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