It was February when Brindle was diagnosed with kidney disease and given about six months to live.
After that I made sure to take the time to say an affectionate goodnight every evening. I had never really taken her for granted only because she wouldn’t allow it — still I was lucky to have that time to savor every walk and hike and new Brindle-friend along the way. At the time I was living in Carbondale, CO, and Brindle was 13.
A few months later she must have got into something tasty on a long spring hike to Hardscrabble Lake near Snowmass, because she got sick and the vet found she’d eaten sticks that perforated her intestines. I could only think maybe she got into a carcass emerging from the snowpack; Brindle always had free reign on the remote trails.
Her kidneys still tested OK, so we went ahead with surgery to remove the sticks and repair the damage. Afterward the vet told me they revived Brindle after she stopped breathing and her heart failed – he said it was the first time he’d seen a dog return from death in 18 years. It was terrifying to think about and I’m not sure why he told me but I was proud of Brindle, and not surprised.
Perhaps the thing about any dog that pulls at your heart is they just keep trying. They keep wanting to do the things they’ve always done, the things that please you and make them happy too. At the Animal Hospital Brindle wandered the hallways with me dodging carts and equipment, holding her IV bag in the air.
She was wobbling a bit but still moving pretty well and she said hello to everyone in the place, charming a whole new set of friends who were instantly devoted to her complete recovery. She walked over to a black lab with a damaged paw to pay a visit and licked his paw. She was a sweetheart but four days passed and she couldn’t keep anything down.
There comes a time when a dog keeps trying but just can’t do the basic things anymore. When I noticed that Brindle wasn’t cleaning herself and was having real trouble walking to her water bowl, I brought her home on a Sunday and we spent the day together.
I held her in my arms and told her all the things that I remembered about her, how she was my little ice-breaker everywhere I went but also enjoyed running away now and again and having adventures, starting at the tender age of three months when she was returned to me by the local police.
I remembered how she calmed down that very angry man who came into my office just by wagging her tail and staring up at him. How she ran in and out of the surf on Nauset Beach or dropped a ball down the stairs just to chase after it.
I made that low purring noise in my throat as her head rested against my chest. She wagged her tail a little but her eyes told me she was tired and didn’t know why this was happening. Later she tried to walk to her bowl but collapsed sideways on the floor. I took her in my arms and the look that I saw on her face was enough.
At 6:15 pm, we went to the vets in Carbondale, and Brindle went to sleep. I couldn’t watch the needle go in but I kept holding her and managed not to cry until I got out the front door. The young vet came after me.
“Are you alright?”
Suddenly I was showing her pictures of Brindle I had in the Jeep, noting where each one was taken. She admired the pictures and said Brindle was a beautiful dog. I was driving home when my favorite Louis Armstrong song came to mind: “When you’re smilin’ (the whole world smiles with you).”
That was Brindle’s motto.
Spreading the ashes
The ashes were in a little white box in my backpack and I was headed out on a bright Saturday morning to Lake Ridge Lakes, about 15 miles west of Carbondale, the last eight on a winding dirt road down the Thompson Creek drainage. I had recently learned that “rainbow bridge”was the term for pet heaven when a friend took out an ad in the local paper remembering Brindle.
It had been almost two weeks since the vet put her to sleep and the ashes had just arrived; I decided to bring them to Lake Ridge Lakes because we’d walked that trail more than any other, it was only about a mile long but remote enough that people rarely used it.
The trail crossed Thompson Creek and wound up through a mature aspen forest to a series of three little ponds. It was quiet and beautiful up there and we’d circled those little ponds with their diving ducks many times.
As I hiked up the trail images of Brindle came to mind, she was running up ahead in that funny bouncing way, disappearing around a corner for a few minutes and appearing again, looking back to see where I was with her ears perked up. Then bounding ahead again.
As I approached the lakes Brindle would never be in sight, having already topped the little ridge and waded into the water. She’d usually be swimming around when I came over the rise, her wagging tail smacking the water on either side.
This time I stared at the still water and thoughts came to mind of Brindle being with the many friends she’d made in her life, maybe apologizing to the little birds and moles she used to kill when she was young. They would forgive her of course, that’s just the way things happen.
Then Brindle was talking about me to all her friends, saying I was a good man and kind, and we’d been a lot of great places together. She was telling them to look out for me too, and they were nodding their heads, OK, we will. I started to cry.
I’d been circulating a eulogy of Brindle to relatives and friends as a way to keep her spirit alive and help her on her way, but it never occurred to me that she would be doing the same thing.
I sat on a smooth boulder at the edge of the lake and drank some water. At first I thought I should throw the ashes out all at once into the pond but instead I left the white box in my backpack and we sat for a while. I was softly talking to Brindle like I used to and suggested we take one last walk around the ponds.
The summer before was a bad drought year and the ponds had shrunk to about half their normal size. But it had been a good winter for snow and there was plenty of spring rain, so the marshes were bright green again. As I came over the hill to the last little pond there was a family of brindle-brown ducks, mama and four little ones cruising across the center.
I came around to the shore behind the last pond and looked back. There was a cloud in the sky with two bright spots for eyes and a darker section just below that looked like a nose. Maybe Brindle was in the cloud, maybe she wasn’t. It didn’t matter one way or the other because that cloud made me smile. It was then a thought came to mind that felt like Brindle talking, ‘Look! There are so many beautiful things in this world to play with!’
I stared upwards as the little bright spots disappeared and the cloud slowly changed shape. I thought of Brindle telling all her friends about me and to look out for me and that meant it was safe to just go out and play.
I came around the other side of the three ponds as raindrops started to fall here and there, making tiny ripples over the pond. I stood on an old log at the shoreline and threw Brindle’s ashes out of the little white box in one quick motion.
The ashes made a long straight trail of white in the water, bright against the green underwater plants. As the cloudy ashes dissolved in the water, they spread out with the slow current.
After standing on the log and watching her ashes settle into the pond, I told all the little plants and flies and ducks to care of Brindle and that she would take care of them too, and that I would be back to visit. Finally I stepped off the log, put the empty white box in the backpack and headed back down the trail. Almost immediately I felt Brindle bound along past me down the trail, running up ahead. After crying every day since she died, now I just laughed.
(Ben H. Gagnon is an award-winning journalist and author of Church of Birds: An Eco-History of Myth and Religion, coming March 2023 from John Hunt Publishing, now available for pre-order. More information can be found at this website, which links to a YouTube video.)