She made friends quickly, Mabel. A woman named Cheryl came to the front porch for the first time not long ago, and Mabel cocked her pretty head with that quizzical expression she did so well, kissed the visitor on the lips and the deal was sealed.
Mabel had a new friend.
She wasn’t the kind of dog who sat under your hand waiting to be petted. That would have lacked dignity. Let needy dogs do that.
But if she sensed you needed her – if you were depressed, or sick, or hurt, if you felt your last friend in the world had taken a Greyhound to China – Mabel was there, in your face, asking with her fathomless eyes what was wrong and how could she help. She slept in a warm and generous curl next to me every night last winter, the longest of my life.
Mabel’s week was typical until its end. We made a trip to Alabama, Mabel snoring when the car rolled, hopping out when it stopped, seducing strangers along the way. Mabel loved to ride, would perform a virtuoso pout when she’d sense my green carpetbag was going somewhere without her. She gladly adapted her long legs to the back seat of the small car I recently bought.
When we returned home to Mississippi, she made up for lost time by tracking a baby armadillo, trotting home proudly with the poor ugly trophy in her mouth. She had enough hound in her to follow a scent forever. And there was nothing prettier on this earth than seeing Mabel in a winter woods, her yellow perfection vivid against the bosky dark of Mississippi.
It was a week of habit. She ate. She slept. We walked across the hayfield to our friend Terry’s house. We moseyed to the end of the driveway, and Mabel fetched the newspaper with her usual flourish. She ran flat-out one afternoon following the call of the wild.
I thought she had hurt her leg. She had trouble walking and standing. Mabel had had lots of leg issues in her eight years. She even had fishing line that replaced a ligament in one back leg, a surgery that cost two months’ pay. But it made her good as new. Nothing slowed her for long.
I was wrong about the leg this time. I was wrong about a lot.
Mabel’s last ride was an emergency one to Mississippi State vet school, fueled by the hope we could get her there in time to mend a failing heart. I should have spared her that ride.
I sat in the back with Mabel while my friend Hines drove. Panic and confusion were in Mabel’s expressive eyes, which now asked for help. We were 10 miles from the college when she drew a last, long, tortured breath.
I’ve lost dogs before. I’ve lost friends. But I never lost a better dog or a better friend than Mabel. I once figured out in a late-night porch session that my yellow dog had a vocabulary of at least 200 words and phrases. She understood you; she answered with body language, and tail and paws.
But her chief way of communicating was with her eyes. They let you know things you needed to know. That she loved you. That she was loyal to you. That things would get better in the by and by.
If I had looked deeply enough into those eyes last week, I would have known sooner. I wouldn’t have needed to see her stumbling across the kitchen floor, or hear her panting, to know something significant was wrong. After eight years of Mabel’s taking care of me, I failed her.
Mabel is in the ground. And my life has a hole as wide as the Mississippi River and deep as this sad earth’s core.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson