We drove in silence, well out into the farm country of the Snake River Plain. It was Memorial Day, and we were supposed to be heading to a family cemetery to meet Toni’s parents at the gravesite of her younger brother, now gone some 30 years.
But plans change. We’d gone from remembering one long-ago tragedy, to being in the grips of a new one. My old girl, Phoebe, a wire-hair mix of suspicious origin, snuggled into her dog bed at the foot of the dining room table that morning and never got up. So, instead of driving to the cemetery to mourn Toni’s long, lost brother, we sobbed as we meandered through the fresh, green fields of an Idaho spring to a pet crematorium. Phoebe lay lifeless in the back of the car, wrapped up in her favorite blanket. We didn’t talk through the tears.
I’ve lost dogs before. All of us who take on the responsibilities of having a dog understand that, one day, we’ll have to say goodbye. All we can do, really, is ensure that these animals that often become family have a life worth living and protect our hearts when that short life expires. And it’s a really short life.
Phoebe was a babysitting project at first. A young couple who lived in a cramped apartment in Rigby, Idaho, adopted her. Trouble was, they hadn’t bothered with a pet deposit, and they didn’t know the rules — Phoebe was going to be a pretty big dog, albeit long and lean. She was too big for an apartment.
So the couple brought Phoebe, then just an overactive puppy, over to our house. After resisting for an hour or so, I agreed that we would take her for a few months while the couple paid out their apartment lease and bought a house. But I knew it would be a permanent thing — the husband was struggling through his classes at BYU-Idaho, and the wife worked as an office clerk at her father’s real estate firm. Buying a home likely wasn’t in the cards.
Phoebe was full of energy and, as well-meaning as the young couple had been when they adopted her, she had no training. None. Like … she walked into our living room with muddy feet and peed on the white carpet. Then she jumped on the new couch. My kids were thrilled.
But, I’ll be honest. I didn’t like her. We already had a dog — a really good dog. Hannah was a black lab-springer spaniel mix with a nose for grouse. She loved to walk trout streams with me, and she was a carp-fishing savant. She didn’t jump on the furniture. And she peed outside.
Phoebe had the horribly annoying habit of jumping up on people and putting her nose on theirs, and not subtly. I’ve taken left hooks with less zest. Once, she nailed my then 8-year-old son so hard that he hit the floor, dazed. Try as I might, I couldn’t break her of this horrible habit, and I finally resorted to calling a dog trainer. She came over one afternoon, and, of course, the first thing Phoebe did was jump up and bloody the trainer’s nose.
“Damn, dog!” she said, holding her nostrils closed to prevent blood from going everywhere. We loaded up her nostrils with tissue paper and went outside. This time, when Phoebe tried to jump up on her, the trainer stuck her knee out and caught the dog in the chest. Phoebe whimpered as the air left her lungs, and that was that. She never jumped up on anyone again.
She got the peeing under control in short order — and we eventually ripped out the white carpet and exposed some pretty classy hard-wood floors. Win-win.
But it took time for me and Phoebe to really bond. As I said, I didn’t like her much. I didn’t like the puppy enthusiasm. I didn’t like that she constantly got up on the furniture (or that my wife and my kids didn’t do much to discourage it). I was kind of alone on an island — they thought Phoebe was the cat’s meow, and I thought Phoebe was kind of an asshole.
But the Fates, they work mysteriously. As it turned out, Phoebe wasn’t so much dumped on us by a couple of naive newlyweds. I came to understand that Phoebe was delivered to me. When it was all said and done, she was bestowed upon me by some higher power who knew that, in the years to come, I’d need her. In the difficult times that followed our rocky beginning, if I didn’t have Phoebe, I might not have made it.
First, there was the divorce and all the drama surrounding it. It’s never pretty, not even in the most amicable of situations. But with endings come beginnings. And the dog I never wanted became the dog I honestly couldn’t live without. She was my constant. She saw it all. I’m sure, in her world, the changes in scenery were confusing. The changes in the people around her were heartbreaking. But I was her constant, too.
Second, in time, she became the best damned fishing dog I’ve ever had. She’d walk a trout stream with me with the appropriate amount of enthusiasm and restraint. If she started to wander a bit ahead, a quick snap of the fingers would bring her back. She never knew a leash — she didn’t need one. She was intuitive, which I guess came from studying how we did things on the water, over and over again. Hundreds of times. Thousands of fish.
And she loved it. She lived for it.
By the time the pandemic hit and we’d all been cooped up for far too long, Phoebe was a solid 11-year-old mutt. We spent much of that summer camped on the Caribou National Forest, as far away from other people as we could get, yet within dependable cell coverage so we could work and still be productive.
It was maybe the best summer ever. And by then, Phoebe and I had a dependable third fishing and camping buddy. Toni had come into our lives and she began what turned out to be rapid repatriation of my old fishing dog. In Toni, old Phoebe found someone who’d help her up on the couch and someone who’d sneak her some treats from the dinner plate and someone who would never turn down the chance to run fingers through that wiry coat. She loved Toni, and, at the end, it might be fair to say that Phoebe was Toni’s dog.
But she was still a fishing dog, and if I snapped my fingers and walked up from the basement carrying a fishing pack or a fly rod case, she’d be at the front door sporting an ear-to-ear grin and that helicopter blade of a tail would be hitting the wall so hard, I was sure it would bust through the drywall. She knew we were going fishing, and she wasn’t going to miss it.
Then, near the end of that pandemic summer, she and I ventured north to the St. Joe River in the Idaho Panhandle. It was a trip I’d wanted to take for years, and the pandemic oddly supplied the perfect opportunity. I had more vacation time than I knew what to do with, and the remote work situation, thanks to the outbreak, had everyone a little off kilter. It was a good time to get away and reset.
I hitched up my little camper and, together, we drove north. We overnighted in Missoula and by 10 a.m. the next morning, we’d topped the Rockies near St. Regis, Mont., and had dropped into the upper stretch of the St. Joe. Over the next week, we hiked miles of the river and caught our fair share of native west slope cutthroats and bull trout. Each night, we ate something delicious grilled over an open flame and slept with the windows open to let the chill in. It was a magical week. It was me and my dog doing what we both loved best in the world.
And then, reluctantly, after a week of long days spent hiking and exploring and fishing in some of the most beautiful country in the state, we pointed the truck south and, in the span of about eight hours, we arrived home.
When we got home and I shut off the engine and opened the driver’s side door to begin the unpacking process, old Phoebe just looked at me from the passenger seat, a sad little droop on her face.
“You OK, Poop?” I asked. It was an inglorious nickname for such a regal beast, but it stuck years earlier and she didn’t seem to mind. Her tail lifted off the seat and she tried to stand, but just couldn’t do it. The look on her face was one of sadness and regret. It was a deeply apologetic expression. She knew, then, I think, that this was probably it … that we had come home from our last fishing trip together.
I walked around the truck and opened the door. I reached in and lifted 70 pounds of wire-haired mutt out of the truck and slowly lowered her to the ground. She stood on shaky legs, looked up at me, again with that “I’m sorry” expression, and slowly started to limp toward the front door, where Toni waited.
In one week, Phoebe had gotten old.
Two days earlier, she walked ahead of me on a hiking trail that meandered above the deep bends and the emerald-green pools of the river, stopping and waiting for me to catch up, only to take off again. She took in all the smells of the woods and chased squirrels up trees at every chance. She pranced and hopped as I deliberately marched up the trail.
And she did that for days. There was no quit. There was no sign that her miles were running low. She just glided along the trail stopping only to wait for me. And when we got back near the truck at the end of each day spent fishing, she’d run ahead again. By the time I arrived at the truck, she was waiting, and had been for a few minutes.
Truth is, she was always ready for what came next. Over the years, we’d hiked many a trout stream and wandered many a trail with no idea what we’d see at the end of the day. And she never balked. Not once.
But that last trip to the St. Joe, that was it for my old fishing dog. It was the beginning of her retirement. In the span of a week, she went from taking the steps two at time to laboring her way upstairs to her dog bed. And walks down the stairs were just painful to watch. It got so bad that, about a year after that trip to the Panhandle, I began to wonder if it wasn’t time, if she wasn’t in too much constant pain to make that life she loved worth living.
But Toni … no, Toni wouldn’t hear of it. She still helped the old girl up on the couch to watch TV with us at night, and she’d walk behind her up the stairs, just in case she stumbled. And Phoebe got more table scraps and kept grinning at us whenever she could.
But I knew time was short, and my heart was breaking. And then, not even two years after she suddenly transformed from that eager, happy-go-lucky fishing dog into a full-on senior citizen, she walked down the stairs, ate her breakfast and then collapsed into her dog bed.
I’ve known heartbreak. I’ve lost dear relatives. A few years back, I lost my little brother to ALS. But this one… this was hurt. Losing this one, the constant in my life who helped me every bit as much as I helped her, still simmers in my soul. I still imagine her at the foot of the bed. Or by my side on the trout stream. Or sitting in the passenger seat, her nose out the window searching for smells.
I still miss old Phoebe. And, yes, it’s true that, when the end came, the hurt for Toni was every bit as deep as mine. She’d been the patient one, the loving one. If Phoebe wasn’t Toni’s dog, Toni was very likely Phoebe’s person. And I was OK with that. Toni has that ability to deliver comfort, to deliver hope. And my old girl was the beneficiary.
But from now until the day I collapse into my very own dog bed and never arise, I’ll know this. No matter what, Phoebe was my fishing dog.
She was the best damned fishing dog ever.