by Rita Reese-Whiting
My husband Ethan and I lived with my mother when Charley came into our lives. My mother lives about a mile up a state highway from a small truck stop just outside Fayetteville, Ark. It is a small neighborhood of just one long street, and it is not uncommon for people to abandon pets there. Over the years there has been a parade of cats, kittens, and even purebred dogs dumped. But Charley was different.
In March and April of 2007 my mother was in Alabama, helping her older sister care for first her terminally ill son then her terminally ill brother-in-law. My husband and I had just gone back to school to pursue master’s degrees in teaching, so we stayed to take care of the property.
One morning in late March I got up to let our little dog out and stopped in my tracks when I opened the curtain on the sliding door. There was a dirty blond dog lying with its back up against the glass. Little Bear growled, and the form lifted its head, peered in, and then nonchalantly resumed its nap. It acted as if it belonged there. I dashed down the hall and woke my husband by blurting out, “There’s a dog on the deck!” He tossed on some clothes and went to see.
We stepped out and the dog got up, wagging its tail, very friendly and interactive. My husband examined the dog’s collar for tags, and then took a good look at it. He turned to me and said, “I think this is the dog that chased me on my bike when I was coming down 265 the other night.” Turning to the dog, he addressed him directly. “Are you Charley?” The dog wagged and wriggled. My husband remembered where the dog had chased him and hopped in the car to go tell the people their dog was at our house. While Ethan was gone, I held Charley with one of our extra leashes. He whined a little, and protested, turning odd, light hazel eyes up to me. He had stand-up triangle ears, and a half-inch triangle was missing from the right one.
While I held the dog and waited for Ethan to return, I noticed he was very thin, and had multiple huge ticks attached. When he stood up to fidget I saw he was not just thin, he was a skeleton, and being an animal lover, my heart went out to him. My husband returned shortly and took the dog back. But that is not the end of the story.
The next weekend we were mowing the yard and who should come trotting up, waving his curled tail but Charley. We stopped and petted him briefly, then tried to shoo him out of the way of the riding lawnmowers. He seemed reluctant to leave and perched on the deck until we were finished. When we went back inside, he disappeared back up the street in the direction of his house.
This pattern repeated itself for four weeks, and we fed him whenever he showed up and put out a bowl of water. One Saturday we made the decision if he showed up again, we would keep him. My husband had spoken to the people he thought owned him, and they said the dog had shown up in their backyard about two months before, and they just gave him a little food when they fed their dogs. They said he seemed to like to be around people because they said he always sought out people when they were gone. Their granddaughter said the stray reminded her of the main character from the movie “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and named him Charley. Saturday morning came, and right on cue, Charley wandered up. He was not expecting what followed. My mother was due back in town the next day, and we needed to ask her permission to keep the dog since it was her house. We did not want her to see the dirty, matted, tick-infested dog, so we gave him a bath. My husband held him out in the yard and I scrubbed … and scrubbed. Charley was a Husky-German shepherd mix, with the light golden blond of the shepherd and the pointed ears and curly tail and double coat of the husky. As I scrubbed him, my heart hurt. Huge handfuls of hair came out, and his teeth chattered from the cold hose water. Once he was clean we dried him and shut him in the garage until my mother could see him. She had always wanted a husky, and he was so gentle we thought it would be a good fit.
When she saw Charley, she thought he was pretty, and very large, which scared her. But she gave approval, contingent on a clean bill of health from the vet and on whether he could learn to get along with her cat, Tiger. Little Bear, who was about 8 at the time, tolerated him fine. She growled, a 15-pound little dog, and the 60-pound dog simply rolled over onto his back and presented her his belly. Tiger took a bit longer, but she, too, learned to live with him.
Life with Charley was not easy those first few months. He had essentially lived wild for at least two months, and possibly more. After treatment for worms and good regular meals he filled out and his coat turned into a luxuriously soft, dense sheepskin. He exhibited signs of having been abused, flinching away from a raised hand and cowering when voices were raised. Ethan took him for obedience training, and this helped greatly, giving Charley more confidence. It was about this time that I began having vision problems, which were attributed to a previous disorder. But they weren’t. They were the first symptoms of the blood clot that caused my blindness five months later.
We moved into our own place in September, right in the middle of my vision problems. My husband was gone all day, attempting to stay in school and complete his internship for the teaching program. The two dogs were comforting presences, always there when I cried. Little did I know that Charley was there for my husband to cry with when the demands of his wife going blind, my other medical issues, school, and internship, not to mention shouldering the entire household chores burden, became too much.
When I went for basic independent living skills training in Little Rock, Charley was there for my husband for almost 6 months. Little Bear was there as well, but it was Charley who became Ethan’s shadow, and Charley who gave him a reason to get outside. Charley started coming with Ethan to Little Rock to pick me up when I had to come home for blood tests. The four-hour drive went faster with Charley’s blond head doing a chin rest on Ethan’s shoulder while he was driving.
Between 2007 and 2010 I almost died three times from complications related to the initial blood clot and its treatment. Through it all, Charley was there, a patient, quiet, very unusual dog, comforting Ethan at night and keeping me company during the day. Charley grieved with us when we lost Little Bear at the ripe old age of 15. Shortly after her death Charley began shadowing me much like Little Bear had, and became more “mama’s dog” than he had been.
For 11 years, the dog we saved graced our lives with his strength, compassion, loyalty, and silliness. He gave Ethan the confidence to leave on overnight trips and me the confidence to stay home alone. We knew Charley would protect me. Answering the door with my hand on the collar of a big, blond wolf-like dog that just stared intimidated most people. He charmed everyone with his good looks and mellow temper, and regally accepted pets and fuss from pizza delivery drivers and package delivery people. All who met him commented on how handsome he was, and what a good dog we had. He even brought us half a squirrel a couple times, dropping it proudly at my feet as if to say, “Look, Mama, look what I brought you!”
When we took in and saved that tick-infested skeleton of a dog, we had no clue that he would in turn save us in the darkest time of our lives. Because we loved him so much, we had to make the difficult decision last August to let him go. After about 14 years on this earth, he got his angel wings and watches over us from above. Charley was truly a gift to us, and we will cherish his memories always.