Friday, June 8, 2012

Lassie, here girl: Transitions and life lessons

Lassie, here girl: Transitions and life lessons

By Clint J. Farr

For the Capital City Weekly

You can listen to my reading of this by clicking here.

Author's note: I meant to tell this story at the April 3 edition of Juneau's Mudrooms live storytelling event at Holy Trinity Church. What actually came stammering and stuttering out of my face was quite a bit different. Who was I kidding? I can barely remember my children's birthdays, much less three pages of text. Anyway, I encourage you to attend the May 9 edition of Mudrooms to hear more wonderful stories from Juneauites.

Our family has a new girl. She's sweet, she has big brown eyes, she can smile, she likes to nuzzle. She likes to lick my hand. She's a dog.

This is my family's most recent transition. Pet ownership. Well, dog ownership. No cats. I mean, I don't want to offend the cat people here but probably will. So why? Because the thing about a cat is ... they want to kill you. They lay there at head level, staring at you, tail hanging off the banister, staring at you, the tail slightly twitching, staring at you, staring at you, staring at you, like in their minds they sound like Clint Eastwood, "If only I were 30 pounds heavier, I'd take you."

I don't want that.

I don't want an animal that wants to eat me. An animal, that if I keeled over in the kitchen with a heart attack (as the men in my family are wont to do), would eat the soft parts off my face before my wife got home. No, it's true. I saw it on the internets. An old woman died and her cats ate off her lips, nose, and ears. No way! I don't want that. I want an animal that will stand sentinel next to my corpse and - at most - lick my face to make sure I'm not sleeping. An animal that will bark at passer-byes on the sidewalk, "What's that girl? Your owner died of a myocardial infarction? Call 911!" I don't want to be a lipless corpse; I don't want a closed casket; I want a dog.

And so, we got Sadie.

And it's cute. The dog and my girls. They curl up with each other during story time at night. Other than unleashing my youngest daughter's inner dictator - "Go. Sit. Stay. ... Go." - the girls are learning how to care for something, how not to treat her like a toy, how to empathize. Learning their actions will impact the happiness of another being. This dog. Kind of essential to growing up, I think; one of the main transitions.

See, I had a dog growing up. She was a collie, like in the old T.V. show "Lassie." "Lassie" was my favorite show of the day. And dad made the mistake of asking me, six at the time, to name the collie.

"Lassie," I shouted.

My brother, smart, sensible and uncommonly hip for 12, was like, "nooooooooo." And in hindsight, it's a little embarrassing. I mean, I think of myself as creative. I hate clich├ęs. I get mad at Sadie when she pees on a fire hydrant. Couldn't I have come up with something better than "Lassie" for a collie? (Even my wife, as I prepared this piece deadpanned, "you named your collie Lassie?")

Well, in many ways, "Lassie" lived up to her namesake. Not so impressive that when she'd bark people would paraphrase her, "What's that girl? Timmy fell into a well and broke his clavicle? Commence CPR." But close. She was loyal, and had an almost motherly demeanor. Once when very sick for a few weeks, she stood sentinel by my side. At least I remember it that way. I would reach out when awake and scratch her behind her ears, then fall asleep for another hour or so. She was so sweet; so soulful.

And she loved to slow dance. She was a big dog. When she stood up she could hook her paws up and over my shoulders. We would slow dance. Technically dad didn't allow Lassie to jump up on people. But it's the solemn duty of a child to spoil their dog and I liked to dance with Lassie. She was my buddy.

I came home one day near the end of my freshman year of high school. It was spring. The grass was green in Anchorage. I checked in on Lassie in the yard and saw a pitiable sight. She was circling, just slowly shuffling in a circle, and panting. I came down the porch stairs, sat on the lowest step, and called her over. She laid her head in my lap, and looked at me with her big brown eyes. This was a time before cell phones, and I'd be damned if I was going to leave her. I just sat there, sitting sentinel, petting my dog. Her gums were white like china. A lack of oxygen I suppose. Her breathing was labored and slow. She didn't snap or cry. Just kept her head in my lap, and I kept petting her - for an hour. Dad eventually came home, we loaded Lassie into the car and took her to the vet. She died that evening. A tumor collapsed her lung.

The vet said she died with a sigh, and now Lassie slow dances with the angels.

And in her end, my own transition to adulthood began.

There is coffee cup wisdom about dogs. The kind of "life lessons of a dog" you might get in an email from your grandmother. You know, forgive quickly, play hard, sleep harder, take naps and stretch before rising.

To me, every time you learn something new or experience a realization, you grow up a little. Growing up is basically a series of realizations. Those "life lessons of a dog" came in handy as I experienced the realizations that made me an adult. Consider the traumatic, reality shifting, realization of your father's mortality when you come upon him in the Providence cardiac unit drugged and tied to a pinging machine. The wisdom here would be to stay quiet and sit close by. Then there is the realization that the vulnerability inherent in completely trusting someone is no big deal if that trust is rooted in the love of a woman who is smarter, more capable and relatively better looking than you. I think here the wisdom would be "be loyal." And then there is my biggest realization - a revelation really - the boundless love for two daughters whose hugs are so strong you can't breathe. Here, I suppose, you would run, romp, and play daily.

Now, a father, I figure I can introduce my beautiful, smart, sassy - and crushingly strong - daughters to the love and devotion so specific to a dog. Hoping that, in their own difficult transitions to adulthood, when times are low and people are confusing, they can look back and remember Sadie's simple and noble love to perk them up. With hope, to be wise enough to live like a dog. Sure, it's coffee cup wisdom, but it is wisdom nevertheless.

Run, romp and play daily. Be loyal. And when a loved one feels bad, sit quietly close by.

Hey. Did you hear that? What's that girl? It's time to end my discourse on the topic of transitions. I've used up my allotted 420 seconds. So I have. Okay girl. Wait. How are you? Yes, I'm sure they're good at the waltz. I miss you too girl. I miss you Lassie.

Clint Farr is a Juneau resident. He likes to eat, loves his wife and adores his daughters (most of the time). Farr performed a rendition of this piece at Mudrooms, Juneau's live storytelling event, on April 3 at the Church of the Holy Trinity. Farr can be reached at

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