A Big Little Life Read online
A Big Little Life
A Memoir of a Joyful Dog
To Gerda, who shared the wonder
and the loss, who knows that the pain
was so great because the joy before
it was even greater, and who had the
courage to do it all again.
Bliss to you.
Dogs live most of life
in Quiet Heart.
Humans live mostly next door
in Desperate Heart.
Now and then will do you good
to live in our zip code.
—TRIXIE KOONTZ, Bliss to You
A Spooky Moment Around Which the Entire Story Revolves
Life Before Trixie
Anticipation, Adventure, and Anal Glands
“If This Dog Does Something Wrong, the Fault Will be Yours, Not Hers”
If She Could Talk, She’d Do Stand-Up Comedy
She Poops On Command, But Not Just Anywhere
Cnn, Cci, Tv, and Tk
I Screw Up, Dog Takes the Rap
This Is Where I Belong
Please Don’t Send My Sweet Dog To Jail
Things That Go Boom
Things That Go Bump in the Night
A Nose For Trouble
Freedom of Speech
Water, Wonder, Work
Time and Memory
Dogs and Death
Elbow Surgery and Meatballs
“May I Tell You a Wonderful Truth About Your Dog?”
Dr. Death and Dr. Berry
Critic, Author, Dog Entrepreneur
Endings Always Come Too Fast
“In My End is My Beginning”
a spooky moment around which the entire story revolves
THE SPOOKY MOMENT central to this story comes on an evening more than ten years ago.
Trixie, a three-year-old golden retriever of singular beauty and splendid form, adopted the previous September, is in her fourth month with my wife, Gerda, and me.
She is joyful, affectionate, comical, intelligent, remarkably well behaved. She is also more self-possessed and dignified than I had ever realized a dog could be.
Already and unexpectedly, she has changed me as a person and as a writer. I am only beginning to understand the nature of those changes and where they will lead me.
Our first house in Newport Beach, in the neighborhood known as Harbor Ridge, had an exceptionally long upstairs hallway, actually a gallery open to the foyer below. Because this hall was carpeted and thus provided good traction for paws and because nothing breakable stood along its walls, I often played there with Trixie on days when the weather turned foul and on cool winter evenings when the sun set early.
Initially, I tossed a ball and sometimes a Kong toy down the hall. The Kong was about six inches long, made of hard rubber with an inch-wide hole through the middle. You could stuff a mixture of peanut butter and kibble in the hole, to keep your dog occupied for an hour or longer. I tried this twice, but Trixie managed to extract the tasty mixture from the Kong in five minutes, which was less time than I took to prepare it.
One evening the rubber Kong bounced wildly and smashed into a small oil painting, splitting the canvas. The painting was very old, and it was one of Gerda’s favorites.
When she noticed the damage a few days later, I fessed up at once: “The dog did it.”
“Even standing on her hind feet,” Gerda said, “the dog isn’t tall enough to do it.”
Confident that my logic was unassailable, I said, “The dog was here in the hall when the damage occurred. The Kong toy was here. The Kong belongs to the dog. The dog wanted to play. If the dog wasn’t so cute, I wouldn’t have wanted to play with her. Hall, dog, Kong, cute, play—the damage to the painting was inevitable.”
“So you’re saying the dog is responsible because she’s cute.”
I refused to allow my well-reasoned position to be nitpicked. I resorted to my backup explanation: “Besides, maybe she isn’t tall enough, but she knows where we keep the stepstool.”
So, because the dog had damaged the painting, in subsequent play sessions in the hall, we could not use the rubber Kong. Furthermore, I would not throw the tennis ball anymore, but would only roll it.
I explained the new rules to Trixie, whose expression was somber. “This is a valuable teaching moment,” I concluded. “You see, I’m sure, that if you had gone to your mother immediately after you damaged the painting and had taken responsibility, you would not now have this blemish on your reputation.”
Following the new rules, I always released the tennis ball with a snap of the wrist that gave it the velocity to roll the length of the hall. Trixie thundered after the ball, either snaring it near the end of its journey or snatching it out of the air if it ricocheted off the leg of a console and took flight. She returned it to me with dispatch, and at once I fired it off again. After twenty minutes, her flanks heaved, her tongue lolled, and though she still considered the tennis ball to be a priceless treasure, she was prepared to entrust it to me for a while.
Lying on the floor, facing each other, Trixie panted and I stroked her luxurious golden coat as she caught her breath.
From the week she came into our lives, Trixie and I had spent some time most days lying on the floor together. I found it relaxing for the obvious reason that a cuddle with a loving dog is always calming. I also found it strange, because she would stare into my eyes as long as I wanted to meet hers—ten minutes, twenty, thirty—and she would rarely be the first to look away.
These sessions were meditation but also communication, though I can’t explain what she communicated other than love. I can say that I frequently saw in her eyes a yearning to make herself understood in a complex way that only speech could facilitate.
Staring into Trixie’s eyes, I was sometimes silent but at other times talked to her about my day, my problems, my hopes, whatever came into my head. Those who love dogs know well this kind of rap. The dog does not react—and is not expected to react—to any of this, but listens and wonders. Dogs swim through a sea of human speech, listening attentively for words they recognize, patiently striving to interpret what we say, although most of it is and always will be incomprehensible to them. No human being would have such patience. Counting the many commands she had been taught when in training to be an assistance dog and all that she had learned on her own—cookie, chicken, walk, duck, stepstool, oil, painting, restoration, electromagnetism—her vocabulary was at least a hundred words. It would more than double over the years. This got me thinking…. The recognition that words have meaning, the desire to remember them, the intention to act on those that are understood—does all of this lead to the conclusion that the dog also yearns to speak?
On that January night, because Trixie had been an undiluted joy during the previous four months and had already been a force for positive change in me, I said, “You’re not just a dog. You can’t fool me. I know what you really are.”
As if in response, she raised her head, eased back slightly, and regarded me with what might have been concern. Golden retrievers have versatile b