While Bess had many qualities of a dog--including occasional bouts with fleas--loyalty, the hallmark of dogs, was never her strong suit. Perhaps it was because her master picked her up from the breeder when she was only five weeks old; he was later to discover from the literature on imprinting that dogs taken to live with people at such a tender age may consider themselves as people and not as dogs and often have personality quirks. Perhaps loyalty is for dogs that know they are dogs, not dogs that consider themselves as people.
At times Bess might even have seemed disloyal because her interest and charm always seemed directed to the newest person in the room rather than to the familiar ones; whether this was because they were more vulnerable to her pleadings (which they were) or because she was a canine version of a welcome wagon was never quite clear. When ordered out of the room to give "Bess's guests" some peace, she positioned herself to keep eye contact and sent continuous pleas to her recent benefactor of her need to be rescued.
While children called her the "Wonder Dog," adults petted her, often crooning, "Poor Bess," both guest and dog seeming to collude in an outrageous fantasy -- that she was really a princess transformed into a dog by an evil spell, imprisoned by a heartless master, and that she'd be restored to her rightful place only through a stranger's love.
Bess's loyalty went out instantly to whoever was the most likely person to have her fetch, or feed her, or pet her (in that order of importance to her, invariably)--a loyalty that lasted--until there was a better possibility from someone else.
Bess was a black, furry sponge for which too much fetching, feeding, or affection was never enough. Perhaps because of those three intense internal demons so preoccupying her every waking moment (or arousing her from sleep at the slightest hint that any of the three might be gratified), Bess was never a dog that sensed out a person's mood and reacted with empathy, as some dogs are said to do. Her own needs were too pressing.
And yet she had a special charm about her. If friends dropping by were distressed about something, they were often comforted and relieved to find that as bad as they felt, they still could give so much pleasure to something else that greatly appreciated it.
On occasions, when her master needed to meet with someone very upset for an extraordinary session at his office, Bess sometimes accompanied him; Bess always helped do some of the work. Few people could resist her soulful gaze, her obvious delight in loving and being loved; she drew that effortlessly out of people and she always gave full measure for what she got.
Bess's exuberance declined very gradually over her lifetime. Malignant tumors on her breasts appeared and were removed when she was seven; she recovered, slowing down just a bit, but remaining her inimitable self.
During her last year and a half, her eyesight grew clouded and her hearing declined.
In May of her last year, her breathing became more labored due to congestive heart failure. She had not long to live.
Digitalis, a variety of other medications, and a salt-free diet were used, hoping they'd give her more time--and more comfort through her remaining days. Her master recalled the experiences they had shared so much together: his analysis, friends, sailing, marriage and divorce, job changes and professional growth, and he mourned her decline and passing.
Her reaction to the digitalis was extreme; she became anorexic, refusing to eat, until finally a comfortable maintenance dose was found. Every bout of anorexia was accompanied by her total apathy of interests and taken as a sure sign of her imminent death, perhaps only hours away. Her disinterest in food seemed especially ominous since she had always been a persistent beggar of food, a garbage disposer, an omnivorous glutton; raw mushrooms was the only food she'd consistently declined.
Her array of medicines did buy some time. Her functions were rapidly declining but a bit unevenly; her very powerful forelegs supplemented her failing arthritic hind legs but suddenly, in her last week, they began giving way also. In that respect, Bess was like the buggy in the poem of the deacon's "Wonderful One Hoss Shay" since her medicines allowed most things to wear out at the same time.
At the last, she still showed an interest in food, pricking up her ears and putting into her eyes the most plaintive, pleading gaze when there was any possibility of a snack.
Her legs would not propel her steadily but still she'd race with eager interest and intense satisfaction, wobbly and with falls painful to watch but oblivious to her, for ten or fifteen feet to get her prized retrieving dummy--in ultra-slow motion.
I reflected on all she'd taught me and realized she was still doing it -- now teaching me to grieve and mourn for something so treasured, so valued but still lost. To wrestle with the inconsiderate physical reality of driving a spade into the cursed, hard, rocky ground and then, pausing to wipe tears, wrestle with the emotional reality of her loss. I realized then that, without my awareness, she'd long ago dissolved my wish for her to be a wonder dog and that for many years I'd known her as my far-from-perfect -- but far better than good-enough dog.
I suddenly saw clearly that, paradoxically, all along she had been my teacher and I had been her student. And stages of my life which Bess and I shared and that now seemed more really closed by her death -- had been closed all along, but new ones would open up, maybe at some time with some other dog, but never with another Bess. . . . She was the beginning and end of her own special era.
--Robert L. Procter
July 24, 1981
(c) 1981, 2001 All rights reserved
After reading many stories about Bess, I know how much you loved her and how her memory is still a big part of your life. I wish I could have met Bess in person. She sounds like a wonderful dog and companion. Please continue to cherish her memory and share her stories with us. And give Puff a big hug for me. :-)