Flo in her later years
I remember the first time I laid eyes on Flo. Looking back, it’s interesting, because she showed up in my life right before Christmas in 1986, a month before my husband Ken died. Of course, I had no idea he was going to die. Just as I had no idea at the time about the significance of a black dog appearing mysteriously in my life—about the Celtic mythology that the black dog was a messenger from the Underworld, and that she would portend death.
I was returning home from my midwifery office and was turning into my snowy driveway, when I saw at the entrance to my drive, a medium size black dog sitting tensely erect and looking at me intently.
I lowered the passenger side window and said, in jest, “Oh, hello, have you been waiting for me long?”
The black dog wagged her tail tentatively. As I drove down the driveway, I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw her begin to trot and follow me down the drive.
When I opened the front door, the black dog shot past me, and ran upstairs and hid under my bed. I put groceries away, and then I went upstairs and lay on the floor, talking to her gently as she cowered under my bed.
‘What’s your story, my friend? What’s your name? Do you have anyone who is missing you right now? It’s okay, you don’t need to be afraid.”
Her tail bumped a nervous rhythm but she wouldn’t come out. I gave her a couple of stale cookies that I found in the pantry.
When Ken came home, he went upstairs to try to get her to come out. She bared her fangs at him and growled ferociously. He called her a “cur”…among other things, mostly the “B” word. I lay down again and looked at her more closely. She was trembling beneath the undercarriage of the bed. She looked to be in fairly good health, although very skinny—her ribs desperately needed more flesh on them. But her eyes were clear and intelligent and—what? Something about her eyes riveted me.
I let her stay under the bed for the night, despite Ken’s protestations. After Ken left for the hospital in the morning, I managed to get her to come out. I gave her a bowl of water, opened the front door and sent her on her way. I have to admit, I didn’t really think too much about her after that.
A couple of days later, as I was driving to work, I saw the black dog in a neighboring field in the snow. I pulled over on the side of the road and watched her. It appeared that she was playing. She would cock her head sideways, looking intensely at the snow, then leap up in the air, slam her paws down, and bury her whole snout in the snow. When she surfaced, she had a mouse in her mouth that she swallowed in one gulp. Ah! I had seen coyotes do this—hearing their meals scurrying under the crust of the snow.
The black dog saw me watching her. She came over to my car and cocked one eyebrow. I got out like it was customary and opened the back door like a chauffeur, and she jumped in. What can I say? I certainly hadn’t planned on adopting a feral dog. But the black dog sat in the back seat of my car as though it was her throne, placidly looking out the window.
I convinced Ken that someone would certainly claim such an obviously intelligent dog, so he allowed her in the house while I contacted the police and the local pound. Nobody had reported a lost dog. The more I looked at her, the more I was convinced that she had been on the road for a long, long time. I didn’t tell Ken that. I put a “Found Dog” ad in the local papers. A young couple responded and said she matched the description of their lost dog. They came into the house eagerly, but the woman’s face crumpled when she saw the black dog was not theirs. She started sobbing as though her heart were breaking.
“I’m really very sorry that I got your hopes up,” I said to the couple. It was starting to dawn on me that I was about to have a new dog.
Ken was actually the one who named her. He was standing behind her and said loudly, “Who are you? Are you Muffy?”
“Are you Fifi?”
“Are you Flo?” With this the black dog whipped her head around and looked at Ken with clear recognition. Florence. Really? It seemed incongruous to name a semi-wild dog after the matriarch of the Brady Bunch—but Flo it was. It was the name she answered to for the rest of her life.
I brought Flo to my friend Jim Paine, the local veterinarian, to be checked out. Jim said he thought she was around five years old and seemed to be in good health, despite being on her own for who knows how long. He said she appeared to be a terrier, mixed with—what? Perhaps a coyote. A terrier-coyote hybrid. Jim also believed that Flo had been spayed previously, as she had no obvious signs of having had litters.
I let Flo come and go as she liked. I left the sliding glass door open just enough for her to squeeze through to the unheated, back sun porch, where I put a dog bed down for her. In the beginning, she would be gone for several days, so I didn’t know if she would be coming back or not. But then, there’d she be, waiting to come in and have some dry dog food and get warm in front of the woodstove. We both liked this arrangement.
It soon became clear to me what Flo was doing on these disappearances. One day as I walked out the back door, I found the carcass of a baby goat lying at my feet as a trophy present for me. Uh oh, I thought, some farmer is not going to be very happy with my black huntress.
Then Ken died. Out in our back woods, Ken put a 12-gauge shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toe. There is a strong possibility that Flo was with him when he died. Perhaps that was why she was terrified of guns. The day he died, my girlfriends all appeared as if by osmosis to be with me. I was so grief-stricken that I got intense tetany in my fingers from hyperventilating, so my sister had to wipe my nose as my hands clawed up like a chicken foot.
Late in the night, I woke to see a bunch of lumps on my bed in the moonlight. I sat up, disoriented, until I realized all the lumps were my girlfriends sleeping, or passed out, scattered in various positions all around me. I turned to my right, and there was Flo, with her snout on the bed, staring at me quietly with one eyebrow cocked up. She wasn’t wagging her tail at all and her eyes were full of concern.
I have to say, Ken’s death kicked the shit out of me. As time went by, I didn’t get “better”; I seemed to get worse. I knew I was dangling precariously close to insanity. I gave myself permission to be crazy for as long as it took to heal. It ended up that it took one full year of crazy to come out the other side. That was just the way it had to happen. I had to feel it all. I wasn’t going to drug away the pain.
I built a hut at the base of The Tree where Ken died. I bent heavy saplings in an arch to create a dome shape and lashed them together until the frame was pretty sturdy. I wove smaller saplings through the frame until it was strong enough to handle the elements. Then I covered this structure with blankets and then with waterproof tarps. I dug a fire pit in the center of the lodge and made a small smoke hole in the roof. I had a heavy Indian blanket covering for the door. The door itself faced east.
I spent as much time as possible in my lodge in the forest. In retrospect, I’m sure my family and friends did think this was insane, but they only conveyed to me their love and support. Flo was my constant companion. During this time she only left occasionally to hunt. Most of the time she was by my side. She was probably extremely worried about me too, but we had an amazing time out there. It was an intensely healing time full of sorrow and joy. It was magical.
Even in the dead of winter, we were all right. I had a great sleeping bag that was rated for 40 degrees below zero, and I had Flo, who would curl up next to me on the insulated mat to keep warm. So we were good. The only downside was that the smoke from the fire pit started to seriously hurt my eyes after a while. But by then it was warm weather again so we weren’t so dependent on fire for warmth. I began to get better.
On the one-year anniversary of Ken’s death, I decided I was going to go to a holy place to learn hands-on energy healing. I wanted to become a healer. The joke was on me, however, because as I began to heal myself, my rebellious nature began to re-emerge. I broke all their rules, and ultimately got kicked out of the ashram. But I came back home feeling whole and strong and back to my regular naughty self.
I had been gone a month. I walked to the backyard and saw Flo heading home across the back field with a large bird in her mouth. When she saw me she dropped the bird and let out a plaintive howl that made the hair stand up on my neck. I had never heard her howl before. She sounded just like a coyote. I laughed and said, “Well! I guess you really are a coy-dog after all!” She ran frenzied circles around me, yipping like a puppy, delirious in her joy at my return.
“Okay,” I said as I hugged her tightly. “I promise I will never leave you again.”
As Flo became more socialized, she hunted less and less. Except for the occasional frog or the time I found a bloody baby deer skull with tiny antlers, still covered in cartilage and fur, perched proudly in one of my planters—she embraced her domestic dog side. Except for one thing. She hated small yappy dogs. Probably the coy-dog instinct was too hard-wired genetically for her to be able to resist killing a small obnoxious creature. I think she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—distinguish a small domestic dog from a rodent or small game.
The first time it happened (at least while I was present), Flo and I were walking down a remote dirt road in central New Hampshire as an elderly couple walked toward us. They were walking a small, longhaired dog—probably a Pomeranian. When the dog saw Flo it started barking at her in a high-pitched, frantic yip. I felt Flo tense and then run at the dog in full kill mode. In a flash, before I could even react, Flo grabbed the dog and shook it like a rag doll, instantly snapping its neck.
The people were screaming, “Lady! Lady! Lady!” I was horrified. After many apologies and negotiating and groveling, that little episode cost me $1500.00. Not that this could ever replace a beloved pet, but this was the price for that breed.
Back in the car, I yelled at her, “Jesus Christ, Flo! What the hell am I going to do with you? You just can’t kill someone’s pet! You do that again and you’re going to be dog meat. I mean it!”
She looked at me serenely, deliberately obtuse. “What? What are you going on about? I thought that was a ground hog.”
More than once, I believe Flo saved my life. When I turned forty, a Mexican shaman woman named Quinn suggested I do a vision quest to celebrate this milestone birthday. She designed it for me. She said I was to do three days in the wilderness with water, but no food, and she allowed me to take a knife, matches for fire—and my dog. My dog? I said I thought it was pretty unusual for me to be able to take my dog along on a quest that was supposed to be solitary. She agreed that it was—but she said she had seen that my dog was also my spirit guardian and she needed to be there to protect me.
I spent three days deep in the solitary wilderness of coastal Downeast Maine, and it was miserable. At first it was foggy and misty and rainy, as only the Maine coast can be. Then it got humid and the mosquitoes came out in droves. I wondered wryly if the Native Americans of this area, the Penobscot (which means “first light”), had to contend with horrendous mosquitoes on their vision quests. I resorted to rolling “stogies” out of dry oak leaves filled with dry pine needles and “smoking” these cigars, blowing the smoke around my head to keep the mosquitoes away.
On the final night, the mosquitoes were so bad that I dug a body-sized hole in the forest floor with my knife and I buried myself in it. When I woke, it was pitch dark. A light rain had started, and it put out my fire. Then I heard a growl, a low threatening growl very close to my back. All of a sudden Flo attacked whatever it was, and there was a screaming fight between the two animals. They were ferociously locked in a battle to the death. For many minutes, I heard guttural snarls and jaws snapping and screaming and howling—and then nothing.
Then something started walking slowly toward me where I sat trembling in the dark.
Ho…ly…shit. I braced myself for the worst.
Then Flo rested her snout on my shoulder.
Flo and I had been together for eight years when I fell in love with Tom Lajoie. Tom was a registered Maine whitewater guide and extreme whitewater kayaker. Flo adored Tom, and she became a great river dog. The outdoor life suited us well. We did a lot of traveling in search of breathtaking rapids for Tom and his paddling friends to run.
One fall, Tom was taking a group of Boston secretaries rafting down the West Branch of the Penobscot River. He was certified to take them down the Exterminator Rapids and the Cribworks, a Class V rapid. It was early October, but there was a definite nip in the air, so I declined to go and instead decided to walk along a small portion of the Appalachian Trail to Nesowadnahunk Falls. Flo and I ambled along in what started out as a rather mild day, but as we walked the temperature seemed to plummet. A cold drizzly rain began to fall. I wasn’t really properly dressed for a freezing rain.
I was pretty chilled by the time I got to the falls. I sat down to eat my sandwich. I hadn’t seen Flo in a while. I took a bite of my sandwich and then Flo was at my side. She shook her neck and FWAMP! the side of my face was covered with orangey brown excrement. My head was dripping in runny human diarrhea. Flo’s whole side was covered in human shit where she had rolled in it on the side of the trail, thinking it a lovely perfume.
“Oh my god!” I was gagging. The only thing I could do was dive into the water to get the shit washed off me. I had to pull Flo in the water with me to wash the crap off her too. On the walk back to my car, I got way way too cold. I was drenched and dizzy and disoriented. I could just see the headlines:
“PERSONAL HYGIENE CHALLENGED MIDWIFE SUCCUMBS TO HYPOTHERMIA”
By the time I got to my car, my hands were so frozen that I almost couldn’t get the key in the lock. Once in my car, I turned the heat up full blast but I was still shivering uncontrollably and my teeth were chattering. All I could think about while driving back to the rafting company’s guide loft was taking a long, hot shower and putting on my warm, dry clothes. Half way back to the lodge, I heard Flo retching and heaving until she finally vomited partially digested human diarrhea—right into the open basket holding my clean clothes.
In the lodge’s shower facility, the showers were coin operated. I managed to get my quarters in the slot despite my shaking hands. Then I watched in dismay as only a couple of drops dripped out. The showers were on the fritz. At this point, the Boston secretaries returned from their rafting trip and their faces were all aglow with excitement.
They were giggling, “Oh my god! Don’t you think our guide was so CUTE!? What a gorgeous blonde, blue-eyed hunk!”
I stood there glowering at them. Okay, that did it. Be-atches! I stomped off to the bar for some liquid antifreeze—with smelly, disgusting poop in my hair.
It was when Tom and I and several of his paddling buddies were traveling out West in search of snow-pack-melt rapids that I realized my dog was getting older. Even by conservative guesstimates, Flo was probably somewhere around fifteen years old. The first time I was taken by surprise was when I found her shivering in the night air on a lovely, crisp Spring evening. All of a sudden, I realized that she wasn’t able to thermo-regulate very well any more.
I looked at my dog’s face closely and saw that, seemingly overnight, her muzzle had become all white. Her black and white coloring reminded me of a nun’s habit. Flo had also, as she aged, acquired a serene and saintly demeanor. I took to calling her “Sister Florence Agnes” because if ever there was a Catholic dog, she was it. Sister Flo fooled a lot of people with that saintly shtick.
On this trip, all the boaters and their dogs hiked several miles into the rugged, dry mountains of Kelly Forks, Idaho. But on the way back, Flo crapped out completely. She refused to move another inch. I was frantic, because it was still quite a way back to our campsite. Stalwart Tom just took it in stride; he acted as if it was no big deal, so as to not embarrass her. He picked Flo up and wrapped her around his neck like a big fur collar and kept walking back to camp. I have a great photo of Tom peeing off the side of the trail with a furry nun wrapped around his shoulders.
When we returned home to NH, Flo had her first seizure. It wasn’t so bad, I guess, as seizures go—but it was definitely scary. I brought her to DVM Jim, who did a complete physical, including X-rays.
As we looked at the X-rays, Jim said, “When did she get capped in the ass? See that peppery looking stuff? Her butt is full of buckshot.”
I immediately visualized the baby goat carcass, and I knew.
Jim put her on Prednisone. Tom and I adapted to living with a noble senior citizen. We thought she could depart us at any time—but Flo ended up living another astounding four years.
She was a huntress up to the very end. In her eighteenth year, I was walking with Sister Florence along our beach in Maine when we came upon a woman lounging in a beach chair reading a book. Too late, I saw the two little yappy dogs under her chair. Flo bolted toward her prey but she was no longer able to outrun me. I flew after her and tackled her just as she got to the chair. I crashed on top of her.
The woman looked from saintly dog to me. I was panting mightily as I crushed my ancient dog. She lowered her sunglasses and said in an acerbic voice, “Over-reacting, aren’t we?”
For one second, I seriously considered letting Flo loose. But the woman was just another sucker who got conned by Flo’s Catholic ruse. At least this time, Flo and I went home without having to shell out any more bribe money.
For several years at the end of her life, Flo went down our road to steal a Milkbone from her friend Bailey the Bassett hound. Every single day at the same time. It was about a half-mile trek and our road was fairly heavy with traffic. Flo always looked both ways when she crossed the road and stayed way over on the shoulder. People called her the “Commuter Dog.”
One day, as I was looking out the window, I saw Flo come tottering down the driveway with a stolen Milkbone in her mouth. Directly behind her was a police cruiser with its blue lights flashing. A police officer got out and walked to my door.
He said, “Is this your dog?”
I said, “Why, yes, she is. Is there a problem?”
He said, “Well, I saw her walking down the road and I realized she was, um, elderly. I thought she might need an assist. So I tried to get her to get into my cruiser…but she bit me!” He held out his hand and there was the tiniest nick.
I said sweetly, “I’m terribly sorry about that, but I’ve always taught her to never accept a ride from a stranger.”
I said, “Thank you, Officer, for the police escort. That was very thoughtful.”
At nineteen years of age, I knew the end was getting near. Tom and I had many discussions about the quality of her life and how to determine the end without making her suffer needlessly. In the end, I think I may have kept her here one day longer than I should have—but that one last day was a powerful one.
I was stopped in traffic at a red light and Flo was in her throne in the backseat. Her window was open. A car pulled up beside us slowly. In my rearview mirror, I saw Flo serenely appraise the people in the next car. Even though her eyes were cloudy, she nodded ever so slightly, like a Queen acknowledging her subjects. Then she turned her head regally to survey her kingdom.
By the time the car came abreast of mine, both the driver and the passenger’s faces were wet with tears. They smiled gratefully at the chance to have experienced Flo in her ancient, serene wisdom. It was a split second interaction but I knew, somehow, that it meant the end.
The next morning, as I helped Flo hobble out to pee—I noticed that her urine was filled with pus and blood. She became very anxious, and was agitated all morning.
She cocked her eyebrow up and squared me with her eyes, as if to say, “Really! Carol, you’ve got to do something. I am done!”
She was panting hoarsely. I realized she was in pain. I called Jim and told him that today was the day. He said he would be there in the evening as soon as his office hours were over.
All day, Flo was anxious and looked frightened. She knew. Finally, I started chanting to her. I sang repeatedly:
The river, she is flowing…
Flowing and growing.
The river, she is flowing…
Down to the sea.
Mother carry me…
Your dog I shall always be.
Mother carry me…
Down to the sea.
This seemed to soothe and comfort her tremendously. I must’ve sung it to her a hundred times. Oh, I loved this dog so much. My protector. My best friend. I so didn’t want to see her in pain like this. Please, Jim…hurry.
I said to her, “I know you think I’m a knucklehead and that you need to protect me. But I’ll be okay…honest. You can go now. You’ve done a terrific job. I will see you on the Otherside.”
My dear friend, Kudra, came to be with us that evening for the crossing over. We sat quietly talking and waiting, with Flo lying between us on the couch. Flo seemed more at ease then. Jim arrived and I told him that we were ready. Jim crouched down in front of us and shaved a small area on Flo’s leg. Then he injected his lethal potion. Tom, Kudra and I had our hands on Flo as we felt her breathing still. Her head was in my lap and she closed her eyes…and she was gone.
With tears streaming down our faces, we wrapped her in some rich brocade fabric I had and we made a beautiful shroud by wrapping brightly colored ribbons around and around her. I adorned her with some antique Celtic silver jewelry. Kudra lit a nine-day candle. Tom dug a grave next to Ken’s memorial bench. We placed Flo gently in the ground—her snout facing East. I sat by her grave for a long time.
Godspeed, my good friend. May your spirit fly with the Great Spirit.
That was a long time ago. I’ve had other dogs since. I used to dream about her all the time after she died. Now she appears in my dreams only rarely. But, always when I wake after a dream about Flo, I have tears of joy and my heart is full. I know she remembers me. My Spirit Dog. She is waiting for me. She is waiting on the Otherside.
~Carol Leonard, Bad Beaver Publishing, 2013