In 2008, Butch and I traveled to Bakersfield for the wedding of Butch’s nephew. While there, we went to his sister’s ranch for a gathering. The caretaker of the ranch trained border collies to herd cattle. Trained cattle dogs were apparently expensive and in high demand. He ran a few head of cattle there for training purposes. We noticed that several family members had border collies and were curious about the training process. His sister took us to the caretaker’s home, where the dogs were kenneled. The caretaker explained that dogs need to have a certain temperament to be appropriate for herding cattle. In order for small dogs to intimidate the cattle into doing what they were supposed to do, the dogs had to be bold and confident. To demonstrate this trait, he lifted one young dog up by the scruff of its neck, held it close to his face, and mildly growled at it while giving it a playful shake. He plopped it back down and waited to see how the dog would react. This particular dog turned back to him, tail wagging, jumped up his legs, and barked as if to say, “Again, dad. Again!” He noted that this puppy would be a great cattle dog. The next puppy did just the opposite. As soon as he let go of her, she ran away to find a hiding place. He told us that on these rare occasions, a dog was too timid to herd cattle, so they would be put down. Butch could not bear the idea that she was going to be put down simply because she was too nice. He had been thinking about getting a second dog so it seemed inevitable that she come live with us. His nephew pointed out that this was precisely why each of them had border collies of their own.
Soon, we were driving away from the ranch with our new puppy. She was clearly not happy about leaving her buddies. Riding in the car for the first time had her quaking in the back seat. Before the end of the driveway, Butch decided I should drive and he would hold his new pal in his lap. Within a mile of the ranch, she deposited her last meal all over Butch. Fortunately, we began this trip with me picking him up at work after an overnight run so he had his suitcase and rain gear in the back of the car. While I jumped out gagging from the smell, he cleaned the car as best he could with handy wipes and bottled water. He changed out of the smelly clothes (thank goodness we were out in the country), and put on the rain gear. He covered his lap with a towel to capture future deposits. Every few miles, she would soak him again. He simply shook out the towel, washed off the rain suit, and climbed back in. I remained in charge of jumping out gagging from the disgusting smell. Eventually, with an empty stomach and worn out from the ordeal, she slept in his lap for most of the trip home. She threw up in the car on every trip, farther than a few miles, forever.
They were bonded for life. She followed him everywhere, slept at the foot of our bed, and protected him from marauding cats, and house guests. After he died, she was never the same. She lay by the front door, waiting and waiting for his return. She tried to go home with any man who came to the house, including repairmen and visiting relatives. When my brother and his family came for visits, she switched her allegiance to him. She followed him around, slept in the guest room with him, and would happily have gone home with him if invited. Despite all my efforts, she basically ignored me. I tried everything I knew and everything anyone suggested but she remained in deep grief for the loss of her buddy and was never her happy self again.
As it turned out, she was a skilled herding dog, but only with small targets. When my young niece and nephew first came for a visit and went into the back yard to play, Ollie dutifully herded them back onto the safety of the back porch and insisted that they remain there. It took awhile to convince her that small children were not her responsibility and restore their freedom to run wildly through the yard without being herded. She seemed to learn what it meant when we said, “No running in the house, Nicholas.” In time, whenever he ran in the house, she quickly herded him to a stop.
I suggested naming her Olivia. Butch assured me that was not a proper dog name. So we compromised. I called her Olivia, while everyone else called her Ollie. Our oldest granddaughter, while learning to talk, called her Ollie god, then Ollie gog, and finally made it to Ollie Dog. She officially became Ollie Dog, which stuck permanently.
As is true for all border collies, she was very smart. She and Butch played soccer every day. She could watch the ball, and you, and know precisely where you were heading. It was hard to get past her. When no one was playing with her, she would weave in and out of the low hanging branches of our redwood trees as if they were opponents. Butch began kicking the ball for her. She would grab it before it left the end of his foot. So he threw the ball high in the air away from himself. She caught it in the air every time, using one front leg to stabilize it and roll it to the ground so she could dribble or carry it back and drop it on the ground at his feet. She would throw the ball up in the air for herself when Butch tired of the game and signaled, “No more.” After he died, I did my best to spend some time each day throwing the ball for her because it was such good exercise and it felt like keeping one piece of Butch intact. Our toddling granddaughter would even pick up the ball to play the game. Ollie would madly circle her, waiting for the throw. Even though the ball only went three feet, Ollie dutifully scooped it up and dropped it back at her feet for another throw. This resulted in happy giggles. When Ollie tired of the game with any of us, she would simply carry the ball to the far end of the yard and lay down with it instead of bring it back. She threw the ball to herself, even after his death, until the end.
Recently, I discovered a fast growing tumor on her belly. X-rays revealed that it was cancerous and that her heart was enlarged. A friend and her daughter made plans to meet me at the SPCA to help say goodbye. I arranged to drive directly from there to visit my brother and his family in Reno. Another friend came for a visit a few days later to be sure I was OK. I hadn’t expected to be very upset about losing a dog that has completely ignored me for almost six years. What was devastating, however, was losing this last living connection to Butch. It felt as if another large hole was opening up in my world and nothing would ever be able to fill it. Yet I felt wimpy and pathetic receiving these gestures of love and solidarity.
I gave myself a week to say goodbye and get my 6 year-old granddaughter ready. She was first worried about me being alone. After I assured her I have lots of people with me, she grew excited about Ollie going to heaven to be with Pa (Butch) to play soccer again. Then she got even more excited when she decided we could make him a girly card and use Ollie to deliver it to him. We figured out we could pin the card to Ollie's coat (since she doesn't have hands). Schuyler then requested that we make cookies for Pa, since he never got to taste her cookies before, and put them in the coat while we were at it. And at the last moment she added an orange balloon to help Ollie Dog remember us. In doing all of this, the sadness was lifted. Rather than losing Ollie Dog, we were sending her to be with him. Her loneliness and grief were over, along with her suffering. While making the card and the cookies together (with a friend and her daughter), Butch became more alive for both of us for a brief moment in time. Despite being completely imaginary, it felt like a chance to offer one last goodbye, one sweet loving gesture, to send to him via his precious dog, in the hopes that he would actually received our love in some way.
Becoming us without them means navigating these sudden invitations back into the pain and grief, no matter how long it has been since we lost them. With time and practice, we will grow more skilled at turning even a bushel basket of lemons into sweet, cool, and refreshing lemonade. And if we are really lucky, we will be joined in that process by sweet angels who remind us that we are not alone, and that people who love us well, are glad to be with us in the pain and in the joy.