Carol A. Hand
In April, 2013, I wrote a story about an encounter that featured my beloved dog, Cookie. I ended with the question, “Who knows what next spring will bring?”
It was the end of the longest, snowiest winter I can remember during her life – it kept snowing until May. I suspected as I wrote the question that it would be Cookie’s last spring. I had seen her gradually age during our 11 years together. I have lost loved ones before, yet losing Cookie is somehow much more painful. I have lost a beloved friend and teacher. She taught me about becoming ever more loving, peaceful, and gentle. And on our final walk together, she showed me how to savor each moment of life, to stop frequently and take in the beauty that surrounds us with each new step.
I am so grateful for her friendship during those years of frequent moves to new places. I first met her in central Illinois in October of 2002. The year before, I had begun yet another new career. I was recruited by a university in central Illinois to serve as an assistant professor. I left my northern Wisconsin home on the Ojibwe reservation where my mother had been born, and although married at the time, headed off alone to meet this new challenge. After the lonely first year, I decided to see if I could adopt a dog from the humane shelter in town.
When I went to visit the shelter, I was asked what kind of dog I would like to adopt. I replied that I would like to adopt the dog that had been there the longest. It was Cookie, a name the shelter staff gave her. She had been living in the shelter for six months after she was rescued by someone who found her starving on the side of a prairie road in central Illinois. Shelter staff could only guess her age as 2 or older. Cookie was pacing in the 8 foot cage that had been her home for months, her thick hair was dull and thinning. She was thin and not particularly friendly, but that was fine with me because I was living by myself in a home next to a rather unsavory character.
Our first month was interesting. Despite what I was told at the shelter, Cookie had not been spayed. She had to be hand-fed for the first few weeks, but she loved to play with the squeaky soft toys I brought home with her. When I took her out on a leash, she would sometimes lurch. She was strong and had gained some weight. She could easily pull me over and drag me! I would often take her out on her leash when I was clearing sticks and debris that had blown down from the trees in my yard due to the ever-forceful prairie winds. When I picked up large sticks, Cookie would cower, as if she were afraid to be hit. I could only assume that she had been abused. Yet, she was not a cowardly dog. If we encountered large white men, she would suddenly place her front paws firmly on the ground, the hair on her back would raise up. She would look fiercely at them and bark a warning. If they reached toward her to pet her despite my warning not to touch her, she would wrap their wrists in her teeth. She never broke the skin, but people did learn not to invade her space or pose a risk to her new friend.
Given this response to male strangers, the first time she “smiled,” I was concerned. I had never seen a dog smile, a strange site with her bared teeth. But I learned that she liked to smile, especially when she had just done something clever or mischievous. Gradually, we bonded. I learned that she loved to ride in the car, so on my days off we explored the town and countryside. But then, it was time to move.
The university where I worked was a place of continuous political turmoil. Many of my newer colleagues were mistreated and forced out. It was not a particularly welcoming environment for Black or Muslim professors, and faculty were quite ignorant when it came to Native American history and cultures. So I accepted a position at another university in the Rocky Mountains in a state with a sizeable Native presence.
During the next winter, Cookie lived with my partner in northern Wisconsin. In the spring, she came to her new home on the high plateau surrounded by mountains on every side. She spent most of her days in her large fenced-in yard, barking at passing dogs and chasing squirrels that would hang on branches just above her head chattering away just out of reach. We continued our ritual of car rides on days when the weather was cool. Her fur became a lustrous soft, fluffy black coat that was protection in the winter but so uncomfortable in the summer heat. But at least it was the “dry” heat of a high desert.
Despite the summers, Cookie grew comfortable in her new home, although I did not. I discovered that a large Native presence did not mean that the university was willing to be inclusive. Like the border communities that surround reservations, the anti-Native prejudice was deeply ingrained throughout institutional practices. Native students in my department were less likely to be treated with kindness and respect, and were less likely to graduate. As the advocate for Native students and students who were different, I quickly became unpopular with white faculty in positions of power. So, it was time for me to move yet again. Cookie and I set off on a new adventure.
Our next move took us to the Great Lakes region. The neighborhood we moved to was, like our others, a mix of thoughtful neighbors and some who seemed to have personality disorders. On one of the first days I took Cookie out to walk in her new backyard, two large male dogs jumped her. I was there to chase them away, but their owner was unconcerned. He felt it was just fine for his dogs to roam anywhere they pleased, despite city leash laws. Two days later, thanks to a fence-company owner who had a soft spot for dogs like Cookie, she had a fenced-in back yard. When we first moved to her new home, she loved to run and play. After a few years, though, the fur on her lovely face began to have silver highlights and she became gradually more sedentary.
In part, she was affected by my partner’s illnesses and increasing frequent mood swings. For our final year in our home, it was just Cookie and me. I hired someone to take Cookie for walks on my long work days. This seemed to help her. Yet, by this point, I had decided that I really did not fit in university settings. Once again, I found myself serving as an advocate for students and colleagues who were being treated with cruelty by middle-class white heterosexual faculty.
We packed up and moved to the southwestern tip of Lake Superior. I hoped that it would be my last move, and perhaps it will be. But it was the last move for my beloved Cookie. Gradually, it became more difficult for her to jump onto her seat in the car. Her fur turned more silver. During the winter, the dry air from the furnace made it harder and harder for her to breathe. I would often awake at night to hear her struggling for breath. Instead of responding to her panic by quickly rushing her outside as I did in our last home, I learned to use my voice and calming presence to reassure her that it would pass and she would be fine. But ultimately, there was nothing I could do to stop the painful and debilitating arthritis that made it too difficult for her to walk. My tears were falling on her soft fur as I held her in my arms while she struggled for her last breaths.
I do not know what the spring will bring. But I do know Cookie will not be here to greet it with me although she will remain in my heart for all of the springs I have yet to experience.