For the Love of Moki
Life, Death, and Life with the Imperfectly Perfect Dog
By Pamela Shires Sneddon | December 14, 2016
As I emerged from a fitful sleep, I reached for the reassuring touch of Tom’s shoulder, then came fully awake. The other side of the bed was empty—as it had been for a few weeks now. Straining to make out the bedside clock’s glowing numbers in the darkness, I could feel the tears begin as reality hit home once more.
Then I heard a soft sound of breathing, steady and rhythmic and vibrating up through the mattress. I turned on the light, got up, knelt down, and there wedged tightly under the bed was Moki. Somehow the dog’s ridiculous position put my downward spiral on pause for a moment. As I crouched on the floor, I felt strangely comforted. In that moment the sight of Moki reassured me that in an indefinable way, the bond between Tom and me had not been broken by his death.
Because Moki—certainly an unexpected and imperfect element in my life—was there because of Tom.
My husband had been good at surprises. As the result of impulse decisions on his part, we’d traveled to Italy, Ireland, Iceland, and a few other countries that didn’t begin with the letter “I.” But the spur-of-the-moment call that neither of us knew would be one of his best didn’t start out so well.
For several months, Tom and I had been talking about getting another dog. We wanted a watch dog who was obedient, got along well with other dogs and kids, didn’t shed, didn’t chew or tear up things, and was affectionate. In other words, the perfect dog.
One evening Tom saw an Internet posting for a Siberian husky puppy. He bought the dog. Sight unseen.
Explaining his rashness to me, he said, “I had to decide fast because someone else wanted him!”
I had to admit, the puppy in the photo was adorable. But I also had read advice about getting a dog: “Take into account your lifestyle” (we were a retired couple who traveled a lot). “Don’t get puppies through the Internet.” “If you get a pedigreed dog, be sure to check out the father and mother.” “Visit the kennel first.” But when he told me the news, Tom looked so much like a small boy caught with a baseball bat and a broken window that I couldn’t even be angry.
So one December day, we drove three hours to pick up the puppy that Tom had already paid for. The neighborhood was sketchy. The owner was vague about the parents. The transaction took place at the front door of the house. We handed over a check, the owner handed over Moki, and that was it.
It was two weeks before our kids were to arrive for Christmas with their kids (including crawling infants). We now had an un-housebroken puppy that turned out to have four parasites, two of which were communicable to humans. In the midst of Christmas shopping, wrapping, and cooking, I was hopping over puppy barriers, spraying everything with Clorox water, and having carpets cleaned.
I soon learned that working sled dogs—like Siberian huskies—can run a hundred miles a day and convert oxygen to energy much more efficiently than humans. A twenty-minute walk every other day was more my speed. Tom preferred softball and golf as exercise.
In spite of “Perfect Puppy” classes and even a few meetings with a personal dog trainer, Moki remained fiercely independent. He was banned from two doggy day cares for being too rough. When we boarded him at a deluxe kennel, they told me maybe Moki would be better with “independent play.” I knew what that meant. And, okay, I know it’s not the dog’s fault, it’s the owners—we’d read the books. Tom even got one called Siberian Huskies for Dummies. Which basically described us.
We couldn’t let Moki in the house unsupervised—even supervised he had to walk around with a leash dragging behind him so we could catch him. He regarded the command “Moki, come!” as an invitation for a keep-away game. On walks, until we got the special collar, he pulled without ceasing. Away from his fenced area down below our house—one of many new expenses incurred on Moki’s behalf—we could never let him off leash.
We had wanted a watch dog. Moki watched but he didn’t bark, at least not at people. He didn’t bark at the pizza delivery guy or the UPS guy or even the mail carrier. Moki was always ready for a party though; in fact if he had been human, he would have been the stereotypical fraternity guy, wrapped in a toga with a Bud Light in his hand. In reality Moki’s idea of a party was to use his teeth to wrestle you for a squeeze toy. He loved children but saw them as fellow canines—which was not especially appreciated by the kids or their parents.
Unlike other dogs I had known, Moki did not look at me with trusting brown eyes, begging to be loved. Rather, his icy, blue-eyed stare seemed to say, “What can I get away with? Don’t even try to stop me!” He did not like to be petted, but condescended to have his head rubbed in the mornings for a few seconds. No one could touch his tail, that waving plume that was so attractive to toddlers. And he did shed—long black and white hairs most of the time and once a year enough white fluff to carpet a house.
Moki had his third birthday in October 2013. Four months later, Tom was diagnosed with melanoma. Tom was a take-charge kind of guy who made things happen. He was tough and strong and a fighter. So we were stunned at first, but optimistic. New treatments were showing promise. Tom’s oncologist got him into a clinical trial that had had good results. We went ahead with most of our plans—Tom kept playing softball and golf, we celebrated our forty-seventh wedding anniversary, made family reunions, saw a son graduate from college, welcomed a new baby. Tom and I took a trip to Hawaii that was wonderful from start to finish—God-sprinkled. But, in mid-September, shortly after we returned, we got the news that the drugs used in the clinical trial hadn’t worked for Tom. The cancer had spread. Within six weeks, he was gone.
I kept trying to describe what losing him was like—as if it would somehow soften the reality if I could put words around it. At first it seemed like I had been thrown out of a moving car on a road that wasn’t maintained: lost, alone in a dark place, hard to see any kind of way out, potholes, trees down, unsettling and frightening noises. Then it was more like treading water—over the Atlantic Trench. Maybe if I could keep going through the motions of everyday life, I wouldn’t sink into the blackness below.
I wasn’t angry at God—I was more bewildered, as if a loving parent had suddenly let go of my hand.
Those first weeks, my kids were in the house—and with nine kids and their families, the house was full. Tom’s service was a glorious affirmation of his faith and life. Friends brought food and hugs. Cards, flowers, and calls inundated us with expressions of love. It was almost like always—laughter amid tears, noise, shared memories. Except for the giant hole at the center.
And then they were all gone. That first night after they left, the house was still in a way it never had been before. The hole seemed to fill all space. Yes, you are really alone now, I said to myself, feeling that I was treading water again, but now I was in danger of sinking. And there seemed to be a shark circling below.
In a state of numbness, I went downstairs to put Moki in his crate on the back porch as Tom had always done. I hesitated—and then opened the door to the house instead. Moki gave me an appraising stare before bolting through the door. He skidded on the wood floor, leaving the area rugs in bunches, raced into the kitchen and, just as I arrived, panting, he grabbed a knife from the counter. Looking like some kind of four-legged pirate, the knife handle clenched in his teeth, he crouched, daring me to take it. I was able to get to the refrigerator and grab some cheese—a treat he couldn’t resist—before any blood was spilled. The minute Moki saw the cheese, he dropped the knife. Victory was mine. If only for a few minutes, that crushing numbness was on pause.
For the first time in his life, Moki did not sleep in his crate that night. Amazingly, he settled down right away on a pad near the bed. It was only later that he must have crawled under the bed, his old hiding place when he was a puppy. When I knelt down and saw him there, it brought tears. And then I whispered, “Thank you,” to Tom, or maybe to God—I seemed to get them mixed up in my thoughts, but figured God could sort it out.
The next night I got into bed, dreading the long hours ahead. I took out a crossword puzzle—the only thing that kept my grief brain from spinning in that hamster-on-a-wheel way. No sooner had I reached for a Kleenex and a pen, then boom! Sixty pounds of muscle and fur landed on the bed, sending book, Kleenex, glasses, and pen flying. A ball was pushed into my face. There was Moki, all but speaking the words aloud, “Hey, let’s go!”
“Oh, Moki, I don’t feel like it!”
Moki’s answer was to butt the ball toward me again. Sighing, I got out of bed and threw the ball down the hallway, over and over. I had to wrestle the ball away from him on every return. Finally we both tired (at least one of us did), and when I climbed back into bed a bit breathless, somehow the ocean wasn’t as dark and the shark had retreated.
For the past two years Moki has slept under the bed or sprawled on top of it. I can hear him breathing when I wake in the small hours—a good sound in the dark. In the daytime, he makes me get out in the world when I don’t feel like it, maybe not for a hundred mile run but at least for a one- or two-mile walk. When we’re at home, he often comes over for a hug or stays close, especially when I’m cooking (knives carefully stowed), and his antics—which still involve breakage and mayhem—still keep me from sinking.
Meanwhile, I hold onto words I have spoken to others in hard places: “This I know: God is good and he loves you.” I am not so much treading water as moving reluctantly toward a new shore. Although grief—what poet Stephen Vincent Benét called “the iron chain”—is a constant, I have much good that I take with me: family who encase me in love and care, friends who have been there to listen and pray, my faith community, memories I wouldn’t trade, knowledge that love endures.
In the midst of the swirling pull of loss, among the many unexpected ways God has reminded me that he has not let go of my hand, is Moki, the imperfectly perfect dog.