I wish I could write something different. I would love to write the fairy tale, where everything is wonderful and nothing is wrong and it all worked out in the end. But I can’t. Mattie passed away very early Tuesday morning, June 29th at about 5:30 a.m. She died quietly in her sleep at Dr. Bob Schactner’s house lying next to his bed. Bob’s team was fabulous both for Mattie and for me. They were patient with my insecurity, my questions, my postulations and my hope. Because they were hoping right along with me that Mattie would make it.
Mattie wasn’t a particularly special dog. She wasn’t overly intelligent or clever. She had terrible conformation; she walked like John Wayne, snorted in her sleep, snored and while she hated going out because of the walk to the grass, she ran like the wind back home. It was her stocky box-like build that inspired me to have her now-classic “Mohawk Mattie” cut. I thought it would be slimming.
Well, she ran like a bow-legged John Wayne, but she did run. Mattie sort of ambled from side to side and although she did her business efficiently enough, she liked to stop and see what was up on the “Daily News Sniff Express” that was found delivered daily on all of the tree trunks, light poles and fence posts.
Mattie was a quiet dog from the moment I scooped her up in the parking lot and carefully carried her into my home. She seemed aloof at first, as though she didn’t care about me or what would happen next. I believed as a result of her previous life, she didn’t care anymore. And as for what I had done for her so far, forget about her being grateful. That wasn’t happening.
What I now realize is that she had no reason to care about me or where she was. I believe she had been neglected and subsequently dumped. How could she reasonably expect me to treat her any differently? So she waited and watched. She observed what was being put in her bowl and while she didn’t comment, she didn’t complain either. I wasn’t hurting her, all of her hideous mats that filled a gallon zip-loc had been cut off and she had a warm soft bed, treats and attention.
On the contrary, she seemed to relish the high quality diet I was giving her, demolishing her bowl of food. One day, she saw me coming to her as I walked in the door and I saw a slight tail wag. She didn’t look away. Progress!
Being the good rescue-type person I attempt to be, I had every intention in the world of placing Mattie, as I had already placed about a dozen birds and a dog a neighbor had found in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma. I got those pets relatively squared away and found homes for them. I just learned today that an older Cockatiel I had placed for Phoenix Landing had finally passed away from cancer over six years after she found her new home.
My friend Lynn who lives over two hours away from the airport was flying a series of short trips called turnarounds and she didn’t want to make the drive everyday, so she stayed with me while she worked the trips. I thought she would be a great person for Mattie. Lynn had kids, a yard, a pool. What could be better for little Mattie? Free choice peeing and a selection of beds to sleep on.
Lynn adored Mattie and said she’d think about it. While I waited for Lynn to decide, something happened: Mattie began following me around the house. Ever so subtly, Mattie would notice I had left the bedroom and would follow me to the living room. If I was on the porch,she would wake up from her nap and come out and lie down. As I said, she never said much, but every time I looked up, there she’d be.
Lynn called about two weeks later.
“So how’s it going with Mattie?”
“I can’t believe it. She’s following me around!”
“Of course I am. She hasn’t given me so much as a ‘by your leave.'”
“Patricia, you can’t see her when you’re not looking. When you get up to go to the other room, her head comes up and she stares until you come back. When she hears your footsteps, she puts her head down. Patricia, she adores you. And that’s why I can’t take her.”
And so Mattie stayed, eventually finding comfort in sleeping beside me on my bed, napping on her pillow near the couch and walking up and down the length of me from my knees to my chest just when the sun was coming up so that I’d put her down on on her sheepskin next to my bed.
When I got the column at BIRD TALK, I knew I had to write her in. She was a natural as the perpetual victim character of the Greys in the column as she often was in real life. Yet in both the column and real life, her grace and dignity always carried her through with Parker and Pepper. Over the almost five years I had her, she went from completely ignoring me to greeting me at the door and poking my foot with her paw for a scratch. Mattie would follow me into the bathroom and of course, the kitchen to stare me down for a treat. She also got neighbors and visitors trained to give her a treat as they came in the door. I think she simply considered it her “entrance fee.”
There were so many moments with Mattie that were wonderful, just as it is with every dog we love. She became special not just to me, but to my friends and even the readers of my column. To this day, people tell me that the Memo, Pooping on the Dog, was their very favorite.
Losing Mattie has been raw and incredibly, physically painful. My eyes hurt, my chest is tight and my throat feels like it’s full of broken glass. Ever the writer, I have closely observed it, amazed at how much my body is reacting physically to the mental stress of the loss of her. I realize logically that this will pass. Like a flu bug, or a sprained ankle, it will get better. The physical symptoms will subside, as will the severe pain of my loss. Hopefully, it will reduce to a dull roar because it is totally exhausting me right now.
I am no different than any other Human who loses an animal family member that they dearly loved. And as I said, Mattie wasn’t particularly unique, or special. She wasn’t a hero like Rin Tin Tin or smart like Alex the Grey. She was simply Mattie. But she was very good at being who she was. In fact, she excelled at it.
I would wonder occasionally what she must have been like as a puppy. And I would ask her, “What was your other life like? And what was your name?”
She never answered me of course. And even if she could talk, I doubt she would have told me. You see, I think Mattie was stronger than me. She probably knew I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Realizing this has made me feel infinitely better about her exit from this existence. She must have had enormous strength to have carried me through this trial in the classy way she did. I guess we kind of carried each other.
Perhaps the lesson learned here was not realizing how deeply I really loved her. It was learning that my dog was not only stronger than me, in the big scheme of things, she was far wiser. She took me on slow at the beginning, never trying to rush my emotions when she first arrived. She let me adjust. And then when she thought I was ready, she came to me slowly, easily and quietly, just as you are supposed to do with a rescue unsure of their surroundings. Mattie gave me a while to settle in. And when she thought I was secure, she began to reinforce what she wanted.
In the end, I realize that Mattie changed me. With Mattie, I became kinder, softer, less expectant and my patience grew. I even became less tough on myself. I became a better person.
And for that, I’ll always be grateful to her.