Tomorrow Michael Schreiner comes with his wife, Amy, and new baby, Henry, for an overnight on their way south to visit some family. Michael is the Campus Minister for University of Cincinnati students who attend Sts. Monica & George Newman Center Parish. I’ve known him since he first brought a group here in 2004. At the time, I still had my dog, Trapper, a liver and white English Springer Spaniel that would melt your heart. Michael and Trapper became fast friends, and they actually emailed back and forth a few times. When Trapper died in the winter of 2009, it didn’t take long for Michael to send me a gift of sympathy. The “garden stone” pictured above became the rock that topped off the cairn on Trapper’s grave.
After growing up with family dogs, I always wanted one of my very own and Trapper was my first. I remember packing up my cat, Mona, for our move from the apartment in Seattle to the Farm in West Virginia. I had to break the news to her that, someday, a dog would eventually come along and he or she would inevitably take more of my time. She begrudgingly accepted it as if she knew all along.
When my friend, Danny Navarre, heard about my move, he said I would need a dog if I was going to live up on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. He bred, raised and trained pure blooded, papered Springers to hunt, and he had two at home. Penny Lane was their beloved house dog and an excellent hunting companion. He would not give her up. But Penny had a 4 year old son that Danny had been trying to train for years. He told me, “Trapper’s gun shy and completely worthless, but he won’t let you out of his sight. I’ll give him to you for free.”
On a visit home to Toledo one weekend, I stopped by to see this worthless mutt. He was a total maniac and ran around the yard in huge circles until Danny threw a boat’s buoy into the river behind their house. Trapper ran full speed down the dock and leaped spread eagle into the air to splash like a canon ball in order to get that buoy. After climbing out and shaking off, he evaded every attempt Danny made at grabbing the buoy out of his mouth. “See?” he said, “Perfectly useless.” I said, “I’ll take him!”
The next day, I returned to Danny’s to pick up my new dog. The garage door was open and I could see Trapper and Penny Lane in the chain link run behind the house. As I waited for Danny to get off the phone, I unlatched the gate and stepped inside. Two sniffers were immediately on either side of me. When I squatted down to give a few strokes to both, Trapper climbed right in my lap and growled at his own mother. Danny was right. Trapper did not leave my side for the next 8 years.
I should have known from the start that, other than his addiction to me, Trapper was addicted to water. He loved to swim any chance he got, but he preferred to have company either sitting near shore or throwing him sticks so he could fetch them. As was his style, he never brought them back, so I would collect them on our walk to the pond and sit with a pile of them by my side. One after the other, he’d jump in, swim out, grab (up to 5 at a time) in his mouth and bring them back to the edge in order to break each one in half with a very proud SNAP! Then, he’d stand there poised, sopping wet, shaking with excitement, tail a blur, watching the water and waiting for the next one to be thrown.
When I first brought Trapper to the Farm, his favorite toy was a stuffed bear. He carried that thing around with him like a security blanket, even to the pond. He’d set the bear down on the water’s edge and jump in. But, if it started to roll, he would rush back, pick it up just before it fell off the bank, set it back on shore, press down on it firmly with his snout, and hop back in the water. However, one day, for no apparent reason, except perhaps he felt he was now a “big boy” and didn’t need no stinkin’ security bear, Trapper decided it was time for its demise. The beloved bear he had so tenderly cared for, surprisingly, got its head torn off in one quick, ferocious rip. Next, he tugged out all the stuffing, one mouthful at a time, tail wagging fanatically all the while, until Mr. Teddy was just a limp piece of faux fur. Without any remorse or grief over the violent death of his baby, it was time to go back to the pond.
Trapper would also wade knee-deep in the stream bed fishing for minnows to scoop up in his mouth. Salivating, he patrolled the outer edge of the pond to a grass-less trail looking for frogs to leap so he could catch them in mid-air. His hunting training came in handy as he never harmed a frog with his “soft mouth.” In fact, I once saw him wandering away from the water through tall reeds with the back legs of bull-frog dangling from his jowls. When I gave the command to drop it, he looked at me perplexed with those sad brown eyes, set it down gently, and cocked his head as he watched it hop away.
Once, when it was a slow day with no critters and I was all out of sticks to throw, Trapper stumbled upon something at the bottom of the pond. He fully submerged his head, blew bubbles, and came up with the small end of a huge branch in his mouth, a good 5 inches in diameter. He repeatedly pulled and tugged at that thing, struggling to get it out of the muck. I whooped and cheered him on until he had dragged the entire 6 feet out of the water and up onto the sand. While I gave him a standing ovation, he worked to break the thin end, then flopped down and started chewing the thick end with grunts of concentration. Once all the bark was satisfactorily removed, he got up quite pleased with himself and waited at the edge for more.
The older he got, the more obsessed he became. He would stay in the water so long, he would forget he had to go to the bathroom. When it was time to leave pond-side, he had to make the difficult choice between me and the water. When he finally made his decision, I was relieved, but would have to wait another 5 minutes for him to relieve a constant stream he’d been holding.
Even when it wasn’t time for our walk, Trapper would go out to the culvert by the road and stand by the edge barking and barking waiting for me to come out to join him. Several times, I would peek out the window to check on him and see the kids walking home from school, or my neighbors driving by. Time and again, I’d watch them stop, grab any size piece of dead wood they could find and throw it in for him. He was the talk of the holler, and they still reminisce with me about that ole boy today.
As Trapper began to slow down, I knew I would have to prepare myself. It soon became apparent he was having good days and bad. To make the best of the good ones for both of us, I made his bucket list to include:
- As many rides in the truck as possible so he could stick his head out the window and feel the wind flop his ears around and smell the world.
- A hike where we had never been, up to the rocks on the ridge at the peak of Fall colors.
- A trip to the lake at Spring Heights Education Center to canoe and fish for minnows.
- Any food he would eat (because his illness killed his appetite): browned meat, cooked chicken and eggs scrambled, poached, hard boiled or raw were his favorites.
- A walk to the pond every day for a swim.
Yes, every day. It’s true. He wanted to swim in the winter, too, but I had to put limits on him because… One early November day when the sun was warm and the air was cool, he was standing at the edge waiting patiently for the next stick. I got distracted because I thought I heard a woodpecker in the tree just beyond him. I looked but couldn’t see it, so I walked closer to peer up. Then, I realized the sound was coming from lower to the ground. Turns out, it was his teeth chattering! And that was the end of that.
It was hard for me not to give Trapper whatever he wanted. He never asked for much anyway. Instead, he gave himself to me every moment as completely as he did the day I took him home. He slept with me every night and sat under my desk at my feet every day. We walked through the woods together, and up and down the road in every season and in any weather. He saw me through happy and sad times with the homeless men on the Farm in Pence Springs. He welcomed my Great Dane, Prissy, into the house, and eventually stopped chasing Mona all together. Trapper even attended my wedding reception in the park and horrified my mother and a few guests when he shook off water from the small stream nearby. He taught a terrified 4 year old girl from the ghetto that dogs could be sweet and loved to be petted. He did the same for a college guy from the burbs. Trapper clung tight when the marriage went south, and was by my side on the couch when I realized I needed a divorce. He was with me when I had no money and lived in a leaky tin shack. He was there when I got the diagnosis of a brain tumor, but his presence made it okay, and it was. He nuzzled near when I woke up from nightmares or couldn’t sleep from cramps.
Trapper sat next to me while the vet put Prissy to sleep on my living room floor, and stood in the rain as I covered her grave. He welcomed Ugs as a scrawny stray and gracefully tolerated Maggie when she traipsed in with her quirks. Trapper put up with a mud hole instead of a pond when we lived on Lick Fork, and wallowed in it just like water. He moved with me 6 times until we settled here. He watched me fall in love and then he let me. When he knew I was safe, healthy, happy and home, he also knew it was time to go.
So, the autumn before Trapper died, we went to the pond every day the weather and warmth allowed us. There were no frogs left hopping and the minnows had disappeared. Leaves littered the ground and rested delicately on the still, dark surface of the water. Trapper would still go for sticks if I threw them, and swim circles with them in his mouth. But when it was too cold to go all the way in, he developed a new fetish. He would make his rounds along the banks as always, peering into the clear, undisturbed water. Eventually he’d walk in up to his chest and start pacing back and forth, back and forth. When he found his spot, he’d start clawing at the sand on the bottom. It would billow up and cloud the water, but once he finally had his prize between his paws, he would plunge his head beneath the surface blowing audible bubbles. Rocks. Rocks! ROCKS! Little rocks were fine, but the bigger the better. He’d clutch one with his gaping mouth and and bring it to shore in dribbling jaws looking for the perfect place to lay it down. Just as he would drop it, he’d shake his body mightily from back to head and back to tail, then begin his rounds again. Click Here to see Trapper Rock Diving.
Every few days, the banks were covered with them. Every shape and size rock you could imagine was scattered about. Before they killed what grass was left, I piled them up to show Bill when he got home. It pleased us both that Bill was impressed.
As Fall turned to winter, Trapper’s health went down hill. By Thanksgiving, we knew he could not be left alone. So, he made the trek with us to Toledo and spent the holiday on his own bed on my mother’s dining room floor. The family tradition is a movie after the meal, and when it was time to go, Mom took one look at me and volunteered to stay home with him. Hesitantly, I put on my coat. When I looked back, she was already on her knees stroking his head. “Go on. We’ll be fine,” she said.
The dreaded day came a week into a gray December and my truck refused to start. I sat at the foot of my driveway with Trapper curled in a blanket on my lap. As we waited for Bill to pick us up, I just held him and we listened to the silence. Nothing about the day went right and nothing was how I wanted it to be for Trapper. But he never judged life’s imperfections or mine. I buried him facing East beneath his cairn of rocks.
When little Henry comes tomorrow with his dad and mom, I’m going to take them over to the grave. He won’t know this story for a long time, if he ever does. But I hope Michael gets him a Trapper.