Waiting for the next wake-up call

The Four-Paw Alarm Clock is blithely relentless. It does not matter if I have tossed and turned all night, or if I stayed up too late (and too liquid) because the Saints won the Super Bowl or the Red Sox won the World Series - or even if I got eight solid hours and am fully refreshed.

At 6 a.m., the Four-Paw Alarm Clock trots into the bedroom and, with his snout, gives me two nudges in the side. This is the signal that I am to roll over on my back, at which time he will jump on the bed, clamber on top of my chest so that we are nose to nose - and wriggle happily while I scratch him behind ears the size of sails on a pirate ship.

This is how we start each day - 365, 24/7 - and while, yes, it would be a blessing on occasion to sleep in, I can always nap later because waking up with Gumbo - the official name of the Four-Paw Alarm Clock - is a cherished ritual. It is a privilege each day, even if to do so is sometimes accompanied by yawns or aspirin.

Of course, there are many similar privileges and rituals involved in life with Gumbo - even though, to be honest, there's nothing particularly special or unique to his charms and habits and skills. He's a dog, after all, and his species is delightfully blessed with such capacities.

But most Dog Folks will recognize distinct derivations on honorable and innate traits like courage, loyalty, a boundless sense of fun, gallantry and, certainly, love that are respectively calibrated to each family situation. In that context, in our home, Gumbo displays an almost preternatural spirit and a sensitivity and empathy to the moods of both myself and my wife, Eileen, and as such we are an almost genetic unit unto ourselves.

Gumbo was named 10 years ago by my pal, the author Ace Atkins, who, with his wife Angela, often rescues and fosters dogs from high-kill shelters in Mississippi, then tries to match the hounds with the best possible families. Ace knew we had recently lost a beloved dog and would require a grieving process before seeking out a new pet, so he wasn't pushing us to adopt a dog at that point.

One day a few months later, though, while visiting a pound to hand out treats to the animals, Ace saw a white Catahoula Leopard Dog with an orange eye patch, a few distinct traces of beagle, and more black and orange speckles than astronomers could count. Ace was mesmerized by the intelligent, kindly look on the hound's face and thought, instantly, that this was a destined match.

We still weren't sure it was time but, the older we get, the more we buy into a simple, almost whimsical philosophy: Sometimes you can't take opportunities for granted.

In the words of one of my favorite songwriters, Steven Wilson: "She said luck is what you make it / Just reach out and take it / Now let's dance a while / She said nothing ever happens / If you don't make it happen / And if you can't laugh, then smile / 'Cause after a while / You realize time flies / And the best thing that you can do / Is take whatever comes to you / 'Cause time flies …"

Eileen and I decided to make our own luck. We reached out and took Gumbo - and, indeed, it was the best thing we could have done.

Sadly, you know what else is true about Wilson's song?

Time really does fly.

You see, I continue to refer to Gumbo in the present tense because, even though he passed away last Friday, we cannot bear to think of him as gone.

Grant us that simple delusion because, otherwise, as Eileen says, there are simply too many places in our house where he is not.

Otherwise, there is too much quiet.

Allow us, for a while, to listen for his gentle snores, or the sound of his ears flopping after he wakes from a nap and shakes it off, or the metal-drummer/double-time thwack of his tail against the dishwasher when he hears Eileen's car pull into the driveway and rushes to the back door to greet her.

Allow us the chance to strain to hear these sounds a few more days - even if we know better.

Otherwise, our ears - which do not flop and are decidedly not the size of sails on a pirate ship - are deafened by a poisonous silence. It's a suffocating sensation, probably best and most mournfully captured in the words of the gifted Wallace Stevens:

"For the listener, who listens in the snow/And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

Requiescat in pace, Gumbo. You remain our best dog in the world.


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