Keeper 1996,

No name could be more appropriate than the one given to this beautiful Alaskan Malamute. She was brought into this family as the keeper of my three grandsons, however before she was old enough to understand her role in life, she became my keeper . . . my dog and my protector. Only as she grew older would she tolerate anyone getting close to me. The first few years anyone approaching within ten yards was a threat. Maybe it was just that she wanted my attention and never learned what sharing meant, but it came to mean total dedication to me.

Keeper had a way of knowing what I was thinking and how, and more importantly when, to communicate. Often on our walks I would mentally determine our route and invariably she would simply lead the way. Occasionally she was adamant about making a decision, usually involved in choosing the shortest route to the beach, in which case she simply sat down and refused to budge. I confessed that it was only fair that on occasion she made the choice. If I was working in the yard or in the garage, or for that matter at my computer, which she could see from her spot in the driveway, she would be content to just observe. but the minute I stopped to ponder or rest, her bark told me: “If you aren’t doing something, you might as well come over and pay attention to me.” Turning off the lights or radio absolutely meant it was her turn. Just a few days before she died she seemed unusually upset about something. My attempts to quiet her with a whistle or even visits didn’t seem to help. It finally dawned on me that my truck was parked in the driveway and she could not see me at my desk. All was well when I put the truck in the garage.

Keeper was my alarm clock. I could count on her howl at the first break of dawn, then again thirty minutes later when she knew my coffee was ready and then a toned down version when we howled together! If it came at other times during the night, it always meant she needed something, perhaps I had forgotten to give her water, or some critter was outside or inside the garage or she just knew that I was awake and I might as well come out and rub her ears. If it came during the day, it was a lonesome response to a siren, the only sound that came close to her call from the wild. That always made me sad.

Keeper loved my truck and intuitively knew when she was going to be invited to go with me. She would sit majestically in the passenger seat, until I left her to run an errand and she would quickly move to the drivers seat and then move back to her spot the minute she saw me. She fully understood, and accepted, her position in the family. She had a way of gently touching my arm with her paw, clearly a request to rub her ears. She knew I couldn’t resist that massive head, that beautiful face. I spent a lot of time driving with one hand with the other buried in that soft fur.

It happened so fast. She was only sick for a day and the next morning could barely stand. I became worried that I was not going to able to lift my hundred pound “puppy” into my truck. Her last gesture of love was to make that painful leap and flop down on the seat. The trip to the vet was sad for both of us. She never raised her head from my lap. That night she died alone at the kennel, before the procedure necessary to remove the bowel obstruction could be attempted.

I remembered when I took another family pet to the clinic. Willy needed to be put down and the vet asked if I wanted to hold her when it happened. I did. I wish I had had the same opportunity with Keeper.

Keeper and I seemed to grow old together. I suppose I should have known six years ago when she came into my life that I was already old . . . too old and too set in a life style that required significant periods of separation, to be starting a new life with a huge friend. From a puppy that could easily make three or four trips up and down the dunes always followed by a graceful ten foot leap at the bottom; to a mature adult who made a wild circle in my presence and a knee deep dash into the water, just because she knew it impressed me . . we were both showing our age. I pretty much gave up jogging, for which she seemed thankful, and we settled into a twice daily walk on the beach that gave us both tremendous satisfaction. She never did understand a sunset, and wisely turned her back to the sun and laid her head on my lap. She would have much rather been chasing seagulls.

Each fall I anguished over the best arrangement for winter care while I enjoyed the Texas sunshine. Deb and her family were always willing to have her, but her family was becoming more active. They added a beautiful Golden Retriever to their animal family and it became evident that Keeper would become harder to fit in. Each year when I discussed alternatives with Deb, she simply said that I would know when it was time to consider finding a new home for her and she would spare me the pain of doing it. After our month absence this fall I became convinced that this should be the year.

Our early harsh winter walks occasionally became tests of endurance and survival . . but we both returned invigorated and eager for the next. Winter was her thing. She was never more spectacular than stalking a mouse buried deep in a snow drift and lunging for the kill, emerging with her snowy nose but no mouse and demanding my recognition. I think it was just a show for my benefit.

Gradually I started to lean toward one more year, one more spring and summer to enjoy my “puppy.” As we approached Christmas and then our departure for Texas, I knew a decision needed to be made. Last Saturday I started writing an e-mail to Deb outlining some new ideas I had for easing Keeper back into their family. Dylan had expressed interest that maybe Keeper could become his dog . . . or at least we could share her. One more year to see if it could be worked out seemed to be the answer.

And then she found a tennis ball in our basement. Not a new toy but this time she attacked it with new vengeance. After taking her to the clinic, I found that only half of the ball remained.

So Keeper died . . . sparing me the pain of leaving her once again. For me it was a vivid reminder of unconditional love so often best exhibited by a dog for its master. The kind of love demonstrated by Jesus, whose birth I celebrate in just a few days