Some Native Americans believe that white animals are spirits, sent down to Earth to guide us on our journey in this life. They become both touchstone and totem, providing us anchorage while we sort our way through all the challenges life throws our way. Their eyes gleam with a soft understanding of the universe, and the foibles and joys of life. They are from the Otherworld, and have journeyed many times before.
We’ve been fortunate to have two white dogs in our years together. Sasha was our first — a white German Shepard my mom rescued and convinced us to adopt right after we’d moved to our new house in the country. She gave us lessons in being hardheaded and tried to teach us patience. Sasha was fierce in battle, and gentle in offering love. She was both wise and wary. About a year after she joined our household, we got a call from the country vet located about a mile away from us. “We have another dog for you guys,” we were told. “And she’s white too!”
They were excited , but we certainly weren’t looking for another pet. We already had Sasha and two of the worst cats in the entire world, who we loved dearly. Nevertheless, we agreed to come take a look and loaded Sasha in the jeep and headed down the county road. After all, she needed to have her say about this possible new addition. They hit it off immediately, and before we knew it, Gypsy joined the household.
We named her Gypsy, because the vet warned us she had a tendency to roam. She frequented the sixteen thousand acre ranch behind us, and the winding country road leading into our subdivision. A fence was only a challenge, and one she enjoyed. Gypsy was a strange mix —German Shepard and Coyote. She was rangy and too thin, but beautiful, with soft, heavy fur. She’d obviously been mistreated somewhere along the way, and shied away when you reached down to pet her. Someone must have struck her across the face a time or two. She never really grew out of the habit, no matter what we did. She was a joy to watch. She loved to run, and hunt, and would literally pull birds out of the air. In her mind, her territory reached all the way up to the sky and they were trespassing. She made friends with the felines, shed long, silky fur around the yard and the house, and everyone settled in. Gypsy and Sasha learned about skunks, and to our dismay, so did we.
Several years later, Sasha died of old age. Gypsy went into deep depression and secluded herself under the bed to mourn her absent friend. We tried coaxing her out to no avail. Clayton cooked chicken and rice, and she ignored his offering. Once in a while, she’d drink, and then promptly retreat back to her den. Never prone to weight gain, she became alarmingly thin and we knew something had to be done. After some discussion, we decided to get another dog, hoping an addition to the pack might help turn things around. A week later, Gilbert and Sullivan, two eight week old Mini-Schnauzers took up residence.
There’s nothing as wonderful as puppies, and these two were no exception. They quickly discovered something was under the bed, and poked their noses beneath the dust ruffle to investigate. Gypsy was hooked, and made her way out to investigate. She was exceedingly careful of the little ones, and over the weeks, shepherded them around the yard, keeping watch. She steered them away from the pool, and kept watch on the sky. We lived in the country, and like us, she knew there were hawks and owls and crows and jays. She was the Queen of the Pack. One fine evening, when the pups were about twelve weeks old, she taught them to sing. We watched in amazement as those little fur balls listened for a moment, and then sat on their haunches, lifted their heads, and howled —joining her song.
The years passed. Everyone grew older. Life happened, with its ups and downs and shifts and changes. Gypsy remained a shy girl, although we learned her habits. She loved to be petted, and hated to be brushed. Her fur was like Teflon, shedding water and mud and grease, and in turn, shedding on navy pants, dark rugs and purple-gray couches. She didn’t care much for food, but loved treats and bones. She slyly stole pomegranates right off the bush, and consumed them with child-like enjoyment, delighting in the fact she’d outsmarted us while holding each one between her crossed paws and savoring each bit. She carried herself proudly with tail held high, and escaped the confines of the fenced yard now and again, often making her way down to visit the country vet who first found her. She’d laugh silently when we brought her home.
We moved to a new house in a new state, and she watched from the back seat as the road passed behind us, remembering each twist and turn the world presented, like we would. The first day here, she led her pack up to the upstairs balcony and then out onto the roof in pursuit of a squirrel. She found the perfect spot in the back yard to dig a wallow to escape the heat, and no matter how many times we filled up the hole, she dug it out again. We gave up, as she knew we would. The two cats were now ancient, and eventually passed on. Scamp went first —he was twenty-five. Then two years later, Loof followed at twenty–seven. Changes happened in our lives, but she was always there, greeting us as we came through the door and offering comfort when times were rough.
Another few years passed and Gypsy began to slow down. She slept a lot. Still, during the mornings and evening she was out and about, scouting the yard and keeping an eye on her territory. Always happy to see us or a visitor, she’d say her “hellos,” accept a fair number of compliments and strokes on her head, and then find a quiet place to nap and dream of birds, squirrels and walks.
Two weeks ago, I traveled on business. When I returned home, Clayton told me she hadn’t been acting normal. As I walked through the back door, I realized he was right. She lifted her head and looked at me, but didn’t get up. I knelt down beside her and scratched the special spot behind her ear, and then she put her head down and slept. The next morning, she was slower than usual, but made her rounds in the yard. She drank some, but ignored her food. I told myself it was all right. “She’s never been a big eater,” I rationalized, “and two days out of seven, she skips meals.” The day wore on, and we both kept an eye on her, not admitting the truth. Afternoon turned to evening, and soon it was twilight time. Clayton headed to rehearsal, and I started a late dinner. A friend was coming over, and I decided to keep things simple. Deep down inside, I knew. I did what research I could, trying to prepare myself.
I vacuumed up trails of white fur from the carpets, and got down the wineglasses. I greeted my friend at the door and poured us each a drink. Gypsy curled up on the rug in the den. An hour later, she stood —then fell. And so it started.
Seizures are common, I’d learned. The body begins to shut down, step by step. My friend stayed near as I held Gypsy close, whispering what comfort I could. I sent her other dad a text. Finally, she calmed, and then stood, a bit unsteady on her feet. Soon, she was back to normal, more alert and active than she’d been the last day. She went outside and made the rounds, and drank a little. Still, I knew.
CPK came home and we watched, trying to keep ourselves busy as we waited. About midnight, she had a second, short seizure. Then she paced, refusing to find a spot to rest. She wanted out, but couldn’t manage the stairs on the back porch. So, we carried Gypsy down. She slowly roamed the yard, visiting each of her usual places —saying goodbye. She stood by the gate, looking from the back yard to the front. She followed the fence line, looking for a way out, so she could run. We carefully herded her, just like she’d once herded two tiny, new pups. Finally, we carried her back up the stairs, inside.
Dying is a funny thing. I stood watch by my grandfather’s side as he started the process of leaving this world. Restlessness is the norm. The living almost always fight the process, if they’re able. Like my grandfather, Gypsy did not go easily.
We held her tight, assuring her we were with her every hard step of the way, and offering what comfort we could. I don’t know if she heard or understood, but I hope she did. Near the end, she sang one final time, with her two smaller pack mates raising their voices to join her in a last goodbye. We stroked her head and sides softly, crying together as her breathing became shallow. Finally, she found her final road to roam, and slipped away.
For almost twenty years, Gypsy was our spirit animal, sharing the steps of our journey. She saw each year pass, and marked the changes like we did. Twenty years is a long time, and I’ll always miss her. She was one of life’s temporary constants, and offered no judgement or criticism, just her love, as only the truest and best of friend do. There are still wisps of white fur here and there, even though I’ve vacuumed several times since the night she died. I suspect there will be for some time. I don’t really mind. In a way, they are last gifts.
At night when I close my eyes, I sometimes imagine I can see her, coat shining white like moonlight as she slips through long prairie grasses on her way to new adventures. She stops and turns, tongue hanging from the side of her mouth as she shares a canine grin full of secrets that aren’t mine to know, yet. Her bushy, plumed tail wags once in salute, and then she turns her head, and runs up the great hill ahead. Right before she vanishes, she stops and sings in the twilight. A lovely ghost, saying goodbye.