I also hoped someone was listening

“Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.”

– Orhan Pamuk, Turkish novelist, screenwriter, academic, and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature

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Energizing! That’s the best way to describe being outside this time of year. East Texas Spring at Mother Nature’s best.

Venturing out into the back yard one afternoon last week came with one slight distraction. A dog barking somewhere in the neighborhood.

Dogs bark because they’re dogs. They bark at cars. People. Bugs. Leaves. Sometimes they bark for reasons known only to dogs. But here’s the deal. A dog’s bark is understood only by those who have known the unconditional love of man’s best friend.

Forty was in my rear-view mirror when daughter Robin wanted a puppy. My excuses as to why she shouldn’t have one were creative, but futile. The terrier mix puppy we adopted, she called, “Bug.” A happy little creature someone had thrown away. In the trash. Literally.

Together, those two taught me that anyone who says, “it’s just a dog,” is missing one of God’s greatest gifts. Watching them got me in the game, but the hound that touched my heart was a basset needing a new home. “Max.”

Max lived with Bob and his wife in Lufkin. But then, they moved from the country farm to a city condo that just wasn’t big enough for two people and a big dog. That’s where we met.

Again, I made excuses to my kids, but …

Heading back to our new home in the Hill Country that afternoon, Max had no idea what was in store. Neither did I.

Bob had taken great care to tell me about Max. He gave me baby pictures and a letter of apology. One of Bob’s friends wrote it to Max after she casually referred to Max as “just a dog.”

“He’s a fine dog,” Bob said. We usually go for Saturday morning rides and burgers. You can cut the veggies on Max’s. Then, after that, we just ride around and smoke a cigar.”

In addition to his culinary and recreation history, Bob added, “If he ever barks at night, check on him. He’s hungry, lonely or hurting.”

Home late that night in Bandera County, it was quick to bed for everyone. We tried to make the old boy comfy on the big back porch with a bed, water, and a midnight snack. I had no more than turned out the lights when I heard it. “Oof.” First, one bark, then two deep bass notes, “Oof, oof.”

As I stepped out onto the porch in the dark, I heard a rhythmic “Thump, thump, thump.” The big dog’s tail pounding the porch.

I stroked Max’s head, scratched his long floppy ears, and assured him he had been adopted by a good family. Then, with another “g’night,” I headed back to bed. I was scarcely settled when I heard it again. “Oof.”

I’d known Max less than 24 hours when I sat down beside him again. The rising moon down toward the Medina River suggested it was past midnight. “Max,” I said. “We both need some sleep.” He rested his head on my leg, and I began to understand what Bob had said.

“I get it, Max,” I said aloud. “You’ve lost your home and your cigar-smoking, burger-eating best friend. And now you’re a day’s journey from East Texas alone on a dark porch that smells like nothing familiar.”

A couple of minutes later, I was pounding my pillow into just the right shape and making sure my feet were covered. “Got enough room there, Max,” I asked?

The adopted dog that would teach me many life lessons and I settled in for the night on the back porch. Watching the moon and counting Hill Country stars while we drifted off to sleep.

Many moons raced by. Max and I traveled Texas, raised two kids, and shared a few burgers. I never developed an appreciation for cigars, though.

Kids grown and gone and me back in Center, I was awakened one night by another, “Oof!” I knew the tone too well. Max was long in the tooth; arthritis was taking over his joints.

“You’ll know,” Center vet, Dr. Hughes had told me when I asked how I would know when it was time.  

I went to the living room and stretched out by the fireplace next to the old dog that had schooled me in devotion, friendship, and loyalty. I stroked his head and rubbed his long floppy ears as I had for several years. He rested his head on my leg and drifted off to sleep long before I did. We both knew.

I looked out the window at the East Texas moon rising, knowing the phone call I would make in the morning. Knowing that the old dog and I were spending our last night together, just as we had spent our first.

Last Saturday, I hoped the dog speaking his or her heart somewhere in the neighborhood was barking for some reason known only to the dog.

Even more, I hoped someone who understood was listening.

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

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