Ruby

The following is a submission by Callum Saunders, from Glossop, England. Throughout the year we’ll feature different stories that have been selected to be part of our book. This is Ruby.

There are many stories I could tell you about Ruby. And many different ways in which I could tell you those stories. But after several weeks of gestation, I kept circling back to one driving force: the only way to truly tell her story from my own perspective, is through the lens of an old photograph. How a visual image triggers a written story, is less an irony, and more a confluence of currents.

And as those currents started to become words flowing from my fingertips, it became clear that I wasn’t writing ‘a story’ about Ruby, but more how her story continues to move through me today; how I see, navigate and sense a world of memories all around me, whenever I am back at the family home. Perception, space and time, dance up against each other in mysterious ways.

And the flow of Ruby’s energy can still be felt today.

I found a box pf photographs the other day. Real, physical photographs; glossy, tactile and wonderful. Even the most innocuous of images feels somehow more meaningful when it is committed to physical print.

One of these photographs was slightly bent in one corner, where it had clearly been squashed into the box. I picked it up and looked upon it, instantly transported back to a time and place as the beauty of what it captured drew me in.

The landscape is the Sussex Downs, right behind my mother’s house, up high on chalky downland that has curved and undulated for millennia. I am laying prone on the grass, giving a lower sense of perspective. The midpoint of the photo is the horizon, where the warm chalky earth meets a pastel sky. My three siblings are there, walking up hilly tussocks, towards an eternal July evening. I can feel their motion, and hear their chatter, right now.

In the foreground, plodding after them, is a black shadow with four legs. To say she is shapeless is not intended as factual, but a reflection of her age; the glossy contours of a Labrador’s prime long-gone.

There is no specific symbolism behind this particular photograph; no occasion beyond the very scene it captures. It merely frames a moment in time, when four siblings had managed to come back home together at the same time, and felt as if we had the Sussex Downs to ourselves on an evening when heaven and earth are seemingly fused as one.

And it’s this singular image that evokes everything that Ruby was to me. Her loyal following and slow gait; her subtle yet ever-present presence; her inquisitive and loving eyes. Her happiness just laying somewhere, being with her family, and taking in the world around her, seemingly on a time continuum slower than our own. I often see parts of my own personality in hers: the humanity of a dog is never to be underestimated.

The English poet Edward Thomas, penned a poem in 1914 titled, ‘The Unknown’. And within this, three lines have always struck me:

“The simple lack of her
Is more to me
Than other’s presence.”

I look upon the garden on warm summer days, and gaze longingly at the same patch of grass where she lay in her final years. Silent, content, and immovable, she was a black rock: steadfast and true, in the humming, pulsing rhythm of an English garden in August. Her ashes are buried right behind it, and feed a rose we bought for the occasion – a variety named Ruby (what else) – but it’s that patch of warm, baked earth, rather than the blooms her ashes send forth every year, that sings to me and speaks to my soul. ‘The simple lack of her, is more to me, than other’s presence’.

At the family dinner table, I can almost feel her head upon my thigh; Labradors and the eternal optimism of a tidbit from the table. How strange it is, that she has been gone all these years, and yet my soul still has the muscle memory to outline the shape of her head with my hands; to still know the very weight of that old head as it plodded down upon your leg.

As I move through the family home, there are tens of different spaces, worn patches, scratches, chewed baskets, that still tell her tale to those that knew her, and can read the inscriptions. Her story is not reimagined and retold in the minds of those who knew her. It’s there in physical space, while time dances around it.

‘The simple lack of her, is more to me, than other’s presence.’

As I look at this photograph now, I can feel her heat in dusty whispers.

My Ruby.

Author: Callum Saunders

Just a Dog

When I rolled out of bed Tuesday morning, my wife Tina called me into the hallway where she was kneeling down next to our thirteen-year-old Australian Shepherd, Tucker. “It’s time,” she said. He appeared to have suffered a stroke during the night. He couldn’t control his facial muscles, couldn’t see and couldn’t stand. But before I knew any of this, I knew it was time because my wife said it was.

We called the vet and told them we were coming by, and why. Our daughters said tearful farewells and my wife drove them to school. I took my time getting ready that morning. It felt as though my heart was a knotted fist punching down onto my stomach.

TALES OF DOGS WE'VE LOVED

Thirteen years earlier, when it was just me and Tina, Tucker went everywhere with us. They knew his name at our beach. He walked the streets of St. Augustine like the mayor. He was a constant companion and positive distraction for us the year my wife worked two jobs to put me through three colleges at once so that I could graduate and we could get on with our lives. When we moved from Florida to Charlotte in 2000, Tucker sat shotgun in the moving truck. When Tina and I bought our first home together, we selected one with a big backyard for dogs and kids. When daughter one was born, her first word was ‘puppy’ in large part due to Tucker’s watchful gaze. He was also a good shepherd in raising daughter two. Over the years Tucker helped shape a pack that has seen three other dogs join it. And since 2001, he’s been a daily companion for me as I sit at my desk and write.
TALES OF DOGS WE'VE LOVED

Thirteen years. They say that’s ninety-one in dog years. But it’s still thirteen in mine. Thirteen of my possible what, eighty? Or basically 16% of my own life when I’m done. Other than my mother, and now my wife, I haven’t been around another soul on this earth on a daily basis as much as I was with Tucker.

Tuesday was hard. Harder than I expected. Being privy to his sharp physical decline over the past several years as a result of bad hips (and questionable breeding),  I had tried to prepare myself for the day we’d eventually have to put him down. My wife kept hoping for a My Dog Skip ending, but I was convinced that his body would break before his spirit. He had been on anti-inflammatory medications for three years. He lost his hearing. I had to carry him down the back steps at night. Our measuring stick had become whether he was still smiling or not. But he did. He always did. Even right up to the morning of his death.

Instead of going directly to the vet, I drove to the park one last time. It wasn’t an attempt to see whether he was getting any better, or as a way to delay the inevitable, it was just me and him spending a few minutes alone together like we did so often so many years before. I carried him out into the field and placed him down. He crumbled. I stood him up, holding his rear legs, but he couldn’t find his balance and crumbled again. Despite this, he frustratingly tried to stand using only his front legs. That’s not how I wanted to remember his last few moments, so I carried him back to the truck and placed him on the rear seat. Then, as his blind eyes caught me standing in front of him, he smiled. And at that moment, I knew that he knew it was time too.

On the way to the vet, I stopped and got him a king-sized Butterfinger then sat sobbing in the vet’s parking lot until my wife arrived. They placed a blanket on the floor of an examining room and that’s where we said our goodbyes. I held him tightly and rubbed his ears as they placed the catheter into his vein. Then the doctor left us alone for a while longer. We kissed and hugged him and washed him with our tears. Then we gathered our strength as the doctor returned. Before she inserted the needle, I pulled out the Butterfinger. The way I figured it, God played a trick on dogs by making it deadly for them to eat chocolate. Letting Tucker indulge at this point was my way of getting God back for playing His trick on people – giving dogs such short lives.

As the vet pressed down on the plunger of the syringe, I wrapped my arms under his chest, pressed my face against his ear and whispered that everything was going to be all right. Then I shut my eyes tight, and waited. His breathing slowed and a moment later, his body went limp in my arms. And my loyal friend for so many years, was gone. But at peace.

TALES OF DOGS WE'VE LOVED

***

It’s impossible to describe how this feels. I haven’t been able to focus since Tuesday. I didn’t even grieve this way when my father died. And while Tucker’s death wasn’t a shock because we saw it coming, it does represent a significant passing. A passing of a great friend, and a passing of time.


Note from Laurie: This story, which Jim wrote in 2010 about one of the toughest days of his life, was the inspiration for the book. Now we’d like to read yours. Submit your story today.

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