I remember the day my parents informed me of my Mom’s diagnosis. Stage 4 Liver cancer. Chemotherapy to begin immediately. Although I was in school studying music at TCU, it was going to be my job to take over the corporate books for the family business. The house was to be cleaned top to bottom… The family dog, Sam, was taken to the vet. Truthfully, she was my Mom’s dog. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her to learn that the dog also was riddled with tumors. My Mother began her courageous battle with a loss. A loss of her best friend. A best friend suffering from the same terrible disease.
It was only a few days later that my buddy Craig suggested we go look for a new puppy. “No way”, I said. I was in school in Fort Worth. I had a part time job at a restaurant, a part time job at a bar, a part time job at a church. I had classes… And now the responsibility of the corporate books. There was just no way… But, I agreed to just “go look”, so we headed downtown to the Dallas SPCA. Before going in, I told Craig that no matter what, I was going to “look” at all the dogs. Even the old dogs in the back who no one wanted. Also, just to be clear, I wasn’t getting a dog. We walked in, and in the very first moment, I spotted a litter of little black puppies in a cage. The smallest one, obviously the runt, looked right at me. I reached in and scooped her up. It was truly love at first sight. True to my word; however, I put the puppy back and proceeded to look at all the dogs. I went in the back and spent some time with the older dogs. Frankly, it was sad. Many old dogs. Barking constantly. Showing signs of lifetimes of neglect. After ample time, I proceeded back to the front of the building. Ready to head home. When I turned the corner I noticed a man reach into a cage and pick up a little black ball of fur. The same ball of fur I had already fallen in love with. “NOOOOO!” I exclaimed. Without thought, I snatched her from his arms. “Sorry sir, this dog is already taken.” He was in no position to argue. He wasn’t getting my dog. Actually, I’m pretty certain he didn’t speak a word of English. I had purposefully forgotten my wallet in order to ensure that no four legged animals found there way into my truck for the ride home. To my chagrin, my friend had his check book with him.
When we got to my parents house, I came in through the back. I went in first as Craig and the puppy waited outside. I informed my parents that I had some news. I was prepared for that fatherly lecture…. “What were you thinking?”… “How are you going to care for a dog?”… I brought in the little mutt. I’ll never forget my Mom’s reaction. There was shear joy on her face. There was hope in her eyes. It was such a precious moment during such a painful time. It was in that moment that my life began with my Dog…
It didn’t take long to come up with a name for the puppy. Sure, we tried all the standards.. Brandy, Rover, I can’t remember. Once “Natty” was suggested, it was a done deal. All the folks at church, as well as my Mom, thought it was short for Natalie. I suppose I failed to mention that it was actually derived from the official beverage of the TCU Lacrosse team, Natural Light.
The first year of our life together was quite eventful. My crazy schedule required me to be in class in the mornings in Fort Worth, in Dallas during the afternoons, and in Grand Prairie a couple times a week. I was having to travel many many miles daily. Consequently, Natty went with me EVERYWHERE. When the weather was good, she would hang out in my truck patiently. When it was too hot or cold, I took her in with me. I’m grateful to the professors who turned their heads and permitted my puppy in the classrooms. There was a lady in many of my classes who was blind. She had a seeing eye dog. A big, yellow, awesome animal. I suspect that she helped my cause as I overheard her speaking to one of my teachers on my behalf. I remember one pleasant day, I left Natty in my truck while I went to a class. She didn’t mind. I think she liked hanging her head out the window, panting at people. I got in the truck and she had chewed up my brand new binoculars and eaten my newest composition. We were at the stoplight and my blind classmate crossed the street in front of us. She was guided by her brilliant, beautiful, faithful companion. “You see Natty” , I exclaimed, “That is a GOODDOG!” It was then that I decided that some professional training was necessary. We enrolled in a
program called “Good Dog”. “Good Dog” was a program which focussed on training the animal and the owner using positive re-enforcement. Their belief was that a dog doesn’t truly understand the meaning of the word “NO”. A dog, they contended, only understands actions, not the command of inaction. Furthermore, they taught that a dog responds to a higher pitched voice. So quickly I found myself parading in circles with my dog, making commands, sounding like a 7th grader. It should be noted that many of the dogs in the program were on their “third strike”. These dogs had bitten people and were at “Good Dog” as a last resort. It was these dogs which Natty felt inclined to befriend. They growled, barked, and even bit at her. She didn’t mind, but their owners did… I did… The instructor did. I remember as my frustration was growing, we were all parading around in circles working on “heal” and “finish heal”. All of the other dogs, including the grumpy dogs, marched around as if straight from Stepford. Not Natty. She wanted to sniff butts and go the opposite direction. I was getting frustrated. Then the instructor came and told me that I had a very intelligent dog and she would require more effort. The guy was flat out scolding me. I usually left “Good Dog”, for lack of a better expression, with “my tail between my legs”.
In those days, I was renting a tiny apartment south of Fort Worth. My neighbor was a lady and her young daughter. The lady had a speech impediment which made her almost impossible to understand. The daughter had to act as her translator. The little girl was quite mature for her age, because she had to be. The little girl fell in love with Natty immediately. She would knock on my door any time we were home. “Can Natty come out and play?”, she would always ask. They spent countless hours together. I really wish I knew where they were today. I’m certain that the little girl has grown into lovely young lady.
I also remember, perhaps within the first week of having Natty, I was walking with her near the stream behind my apartment. I didn’t have her on a leash. She was still a tiny, clumsy, pup who couldn’t get too far away. I was talking to another neighbor. An older man who religiously said to me, “That’s gonna be a fifty pound dog, John” in his southern voice. As we were talking, I noticed something large swoop in from above. Before I could even put it together, I found myself running toward Natty. A giant owl had put its sights on my dog. The creature actually managed to get one of its talons on my little pup. I was screaming and the owl broke away from its attack. Had it not happened, I wouldn’t believe it. This was one of several close calls we had together.
In another instance, Natty and I were driving down the rode. Sometimes she would sit on my lap and look out the window. I was in a residential neighborhood and driving slowly. As I took a turn, Natty saw something of interest. She jumped and I realized that my window was down too far. Somehow I managed to grab her by the neck… She was completely out of the truck, with just my left handed grip to pull her in. I hate to think what could have happened.
I remember the first time I had to bring Natty to Church with me. I was to be in Dallas after Sunday Service, so I had no choice. (Fort Worth was 30 miles in the other direction). When I arrived, some of the Elders gave me “the look”. I left her downstairs during the service as I conducted the choir and led the music for the service. I was also the Youth Director. I was excited because I’d worked up some guitar tunes for sing along, and had a Bible verse for us to talk about. Well, my younger girls would have no part of that. They met Natty, and the days youth activity had immediately morphed into “play with the dog”. The boys and I played sports while the girls played with Natty. The following week, the first question I got was from the girls. “Did you bring Natty?”. For a while there, our youth activities were all dog centered. It was a battle I couldn’t win. They loved Natty, and Natty loved them. I enjoy the fact that our youth attendance rose during those times. I cherish the memories of my time with The First Christian Church, Grand Prairie, TX. I’d like to believe that I helped improve the music at the church, and was able to counsel some young people during some difficult times. The reality, is that they helped me during some difficult times. They welcomed me, and the dog, as part of their
family. I’m forever grateful. Afternoons in Dallas were pretty busy. I’d pay the company bills, make deposits, and reconcile
the checkbook. Natty would just hang out with my Mom. They were almost always curled up together on the couch. I always tried to finish before 3pm. My Mom and I had developed quite the competitive spirit regarding a certain quiz show called Jeopardy. She had never watched it, so at first, her son dominated. Ultimately though, she proved to be a better player. I cherish those times. I think the dog was a loving distraction during a terribly difficult time. We were blessed with far more days together than any doctor had given. Me, my Mom, and that dog.
The days following Mom’s passing were lonely. More so, for my Dad. Natty began spending more and more nights at the house with him. After a year flew by in a blur, I headed to Las Vegas. Natty stayed in Dallas with my Dad. He used to call me and talk about how Natty would let him pet her during the lonely nights. I’m so glad that she was there during those days. Vegas was a roller coaster ride. The experience is worthy of a story of its own. I’ll probably never experience something like being “Santiago” the Italian/Norwegian Gondolier at The Venetian. I truly loved my job. Then I got the call. My brother, Matt, had suffered a terrible accident. I was on a plane that night. Suddenly, my tenure in Las Vegas was over.
I decided that given the circumstances, the best option for me was to live with my Dad for a while. Losing one’s mother and only brother in a two year span is beyond difficult. Losing a wife and a son… Unimaginable. Its hard to comment on that point in time. I’m ashamed to admit that my Dad was far more patient and understanding than I was. Most days were difficult for us both. Natty was there, however, everyday. Tail wagging, ready to give comfort. Again, she played an invaluable role. She helped the two of us, albeit briefly, concentrate on the idea that our immediate family was cut in half.
After some time, I moved in to a rental house with a buddy. I tried to get the mutt, but my Dad wasn’t willing to part with her. Even though she was my dog, she truly was doing more good with him. Not to mention, lying by the pool all day wasn’t so bad for her. I began to accept that maybe she wasn’t just my dog anymore.
Suddenly, life changed for the better. I met the love of my life, Karri. Even though I was still pretty jaded, she patiently accepted me with all my faults. We were soon married, and not too much later, blessed with a son. In a brief moment in history, I’d experienced my saddest and happiest days in my life. All the time, the black lab mutt Natty was there. After our son was born, I tried again to get the dog. Dad wasn’t budging. And I didn’t blame him. Fortunately, I saw Dad and the dog often.
Well, God’s grace was quite evident. But he wasn’t finished. My Dad re-connected with a lady friend from his earlier days. They were strictly “friends” in high school, but now were both widowers. I always say that a man is lucky to find true love in his life. It can only be by God’s will that he find it twice. They were married soon after. She is a gem of a human and an animal lover too. She brought two cats with her in the relationship. One of which she rescued and smuggled out of Russia. I think it became apparent quickly that the cats would never come out of hiding as long as Natty was around. I soon got a call…. “Son, I need you to take Natty while we have our floors re-finished.” She was to be back with me for the rest of her days.
Our son Matthew was about 1 at the time. I wasn’t sure how it would all play out. Dogs often change demeanor when a baby comes in to the picture. Sometimes dogs don’t like the tiny humans stealing all of the attention. Not the case with Natty. I don’t know how she could sense it, but she became the immediate loyal protector of her Pack-Leader’s son. She slept next to his crib. She let him poke her, pinch her, grab her tail, jump on her back as if she was a horse. I hate to admit it, but he hurt her several times. (Never serious). All without a growl or a bite.
As Matthew grew, Natty became less active. Her hearing started declining. She developed cataracts. She slept more and more. She seemed to make our family complete. I feel like I went from living a nightmare to the American Dream. Natty along for the ride.
A little more than a year ago we made the gutsy decision to move to Tennessee. Karri had to
come out a month early. Matthew, Natty and I arrived later. I’ll never forget that day we drove up here. Natty lying in the back on her pallet of blankets. Matthew next to her, singing songs. Between the two of them, we had to pull over a bunch. Looking back, it is a fond memory. Starting an adventure. On a quest to re-unite with my bride. My best little buddy and my loyal companion with me all the way.
We bought a house in the country in Tennessee. I know Natty enjoyed all the new smells. As she aged, her health declined rapidly. She couldn’t see much and didn’t hear well. Nonetheless, she was always ready to offer her selfless love. She would lay next to my son’s bed as he slept. As the days passed,I knew it was coming and I thought I was prepared. We took Natty in to the vet last week. She was unable to stand. She could not straighten her neck. Her eyes twitched constantly. Some type of Old Dog Syndrome they said. Unlikely to recover. Any attempt would have been purely selfish. She laid in my lap as the drugs began to take effect. I stroked her repeatedly. “You are a good dog”, I said over and over. I tried to fight the tears, but to know avail. As her eyes remained open, I felt the life leave her body. “Good bye, Natty”, I murmured,” Good Bye”.
Natty brought joy to many people. She offered hope to my Mom. She comforted my Dad. She was the surrogate family dog for my brother, my niece, and my nephew. She was loved by my neighbors. She was adored by my wife. She was my sons loyal protector and playmate. Natty was the first dog in my life that was all mine. I now realize that she wasn’t mine at all. She was ours.
I’ll never forget you Natty. — John Hannum