Grown from pure energy, clipped claws scraping on loose rocks, and damp nose searching for treats is Poppy: a compact and sleek black Labrador. Family dog and partner in outdoor exploration, the worst she could ever do is lick you, and she will if you let her. An easy please, she loves butt scratches and pets under her chin paired with immediate and constant snacks, fresh spring grass and long naps in the sun.
Poppy goes by many names in my household. Her nicknames range from Popsicle to Popcorn to Old Lady or just plain Dog. Not that she hears most any of them due to what my family calls her “selective hearing.” Her official name on the other hand, the only one we almost never use for her, is Poppy Seed. This title came about partially because she was small and black and a little bit of a rolly polly as a puppy. And partially it was chosen because, as three kids getting our first ever puppy, my brothers and I collectively turned to our favorite bedtime book series for inspiration. Almost every night, curled in the yellow comforter of my parent’s queen sized bed, we listened to my mom read stories about Poppy and Sam on Apple Tree Farm. Each book started exactly the same way…
“This is Mrs. Boot the farmer. She has two children called Poppy and Sam, and a dog called Rusty.”
I still hear it in my mom’s slow tone. Poppy’s character was clever and bossy, and her brother Sam was always getting into trouble. So there was no arguing when we decided that Poppy was a befitting title of our stubborn new ball of fluff.
In addition to her numerous names, Poppy is also many things. She is a dual vacuum cleaner and mop, licking the kitchen floors in an efficient grid pattern every night after a meal. She is super dog, at the ripe age of fourteen, and still going strong. I take her on walks and still get questions about how old my ‘puppy’ is as she excitedly sniffs anyone new and pushes her head against their thigh in hopes of getting a few pets in before I force her to move on. Poppy is the black void into which the most random substances have disappeared. Barbie legs, entire corncobs, toads, unopened packages of protein powder, rocks, tissues, rubber bands, a brand new bag of dog food (the full 30 pounds), and of course the infamous flaming cell phone have all gone down her hatch without a second thought. Often times they reappear after a few hours, the only existing proof we have that she has swallowed them whole in first place being that they come back up exactly the same. We say she has a radioactive stomach; she is like the sword of Gryffindor, only taking in what makes her stronger. After the first couple years of pointlessly expensive vet appointments, we stopped taking her when she swallowed things. She is invincible. Maybe the battery acid she consumed at age two made her undying. My family and I have this running joke that when the nuclear war finally hits and the world is destroyed, all that will be left are the cockroaches and Poppy. It’s not WALL-E, it’s POP-E, consuming all the garbage of the earth and spitting it back out in compact ‘nuggets.’ Too much info maybe. She even has what we refer to as a bionic tail. It literally never stops wagging. Up at my lake house in the Adirondack Mountains, she uses it like a rudder in the water, a little black steamboat chugging out to fetch the tennis ball. I’ll admit it kind of hurts if you accidentally get smacked with that thing.
Poppy is a lot of things, but there’s one thing she is not. Poppy is not my dog. No, I love her dearly, and I will take care of her forever, but she does not belong to me. I remember the day we went to get her. I was three, and my mom was absolutely pissed. The Make a Wish Foundation had just denied her request, not because they would not give her son a dog but because they refused to provide a fence in our yard to keep it from being hit by a car. She did the logical thing and drove her three-year-old daughter in a snowstorm to a kennel in New Hampshire, all the while ranting about how the foundation happily provided plane tickets and hotel reservations at Disney, but couldn’t be bothered to put in a damn fence. I was small then so my perceptions were warped, but we trekked across a field in what felt like feet of fresh snow. As unexpected guests, the woman we met had only one puppy available for us. She was the runt of the family; left behind by her already purchased brothers and sisters. She was a tiny ball of energy, and I remember chasing her in circles around the snow-covered roots of pine trees. No questions asked my mom bought her and that very day we drove a trembling, barfing puppy in a towel covered laundry basket to Ben’s kindergarten class.
He was so happy. He held her like he had never loved anything more in the world than this nervous black puff and he didn’t even know the word for love. Poppy is Ben’s dog, not mine. He shared his cherished fruit loops with her every day after school, laughing as he tipped the plastic cup to her level and she stuck her muzzle in to lap up a few sweet pieces of cereal. He giggled when she licked his toes. She wagged happily under his rough touch, and waited patiently by his side, as his steps grew increasingly faltered. Poppy always scooted out of the way without complaint when his wheelchair needed to be moved. I was a forgotten member of their powerful relationship, but that was somehow okay.
Poppy was and always will be Ben’s dog. For those of you who don’t know, my brother Ben was disabled. His syndrome took his ability to walk, to eat, to speak. Two Februaries ago, it took his life. I love Poppy with all my heart. She put up with my horse-crazed phase when I used to walk her around in the backyard pretending she was the pony I never had. We shared long adventures in the tiny huge world that was our personal across the street forest, first learning to trust each other in the simple release of the leash from her purple collar. I scratched her butt, and wrestled with her in the summer grass, rubbed soapsuds into her graying coat, and did all the things Ben could not. She is not mine, but perhaps that is why I love her so much.
I admit I fear the day she finally dies. No matter how many jokes I make about her being immortal, no matter how many times I lament that she should just keel over already. I fear the day she finally leaves me. I fear it because she is a dog I have grown up with for fourteen years, because I will miss our shared love of nature, her soft fur, her constantly wiggling back end, and even her characteristic stinky breath. And I fear her death because Poppy is the living, breathing memory of the things Ben lived for. His gentleness, his humor, his adoration of all things edible (and sometimes inedible too) Only Ben could make cross-species friendship so special without any words, without any of the cliché dog things that movies like Marley and Me express.
There was a day a few months ago that we thought it was close. We came home after a weekend away and found her unable to rise from her puffy brown bed in Ben’s old room. Even her tail was still. My dad carried her outside when she needed to pee. My mom pampered her with years worth of pats she had never deemed her worthy of before. The terror was all too real. At once memories of sitting in an empty grey-clouded wing of the Boston Children’s hospital came crawling like spiders back into my brain. A cart of snacks wheeled in by a silent nurse. Eating chips because I couldn’t think of what else to do. There was nothing I could do. The faces I knew but didn’t register that filed past into the adjacent room, into another world. A world in which a body that wasn’t, couldn’t be my brother’s, was filled with too much slowly chilling blood and too little air. I swerved in the spinny chair; I couldn’t breath. I paced the shiny tile floor. Waiting because we knew our family and friends would appreciate the chance to say goodbye. Poppy could not die, would not die, will never die.
As you can tell, she didn’t. Turns out the dog sitter had made her deceptively young bones sore from too much playing, because the next morning she was up and attem’ as soon as we said “breakfast.” My mom laughed sarcastically and grumbled “god damn dog using her old age to get attention.” We were all secretly relieved. Poppy’s impending demise may be the happening-truth, but Poppy herself is immortal; she and Ben are truths that cannot die.
Almost two years later, Vacuum Dog stops wanting to eat. Rudder Tail stops constantly wagging and instead gives only the occasional tired back and forth. Stinky Breath stops licking my fingers or the knees of my jeans with her fish scented tongue. Super Dog stops walking through the forest or even down the three porch stairs. The nicknames pare down until we’re back to calling her just Poppy in soft sad tones, always accompanied by a thumb rubbed gently over her still silky ears. We take her to her favorite place in the world, a few days at the lake house for a last swan song, and I carry her back and forth from our dock to lay in the sun. Then at noon on Thursday we take our Old Lady, our little Seed, Ben’s Dog down the mountain road and say goodbye.