It sat piled on top of some boxes in the garage: a tangle of metal, rubber, screws and cloth strap. If I was not already familiar with its purpose I might question what it was – Vader’s wheel chair. He used it for the last five months of his 14-year-pug life, to help him move as first his back legs and then his front failed him, at that point making the chair a pointless relic. His name, VADER, was still taped to one of the metal arms of the chair. Looking at it touched me, much as it did the first time I saw it. I’m not sure why exactly. From the beginning it just meant something that it was his: not a random piece of metal, but a chair with a function and identity. It belonged to my Little Man.
Each dog I believe is special in its own way; each has a unique relationship to its owner. Vader, as I said, was my “Little Man.” Single, he was the steadfast male in my life. Although only a minute 20 pounds, he was my guardian. A friendly gentleman of a dog, who could turn fierce if he thought a person might hurt me or my Mom or someone he loved.
We had to place a “Beware of Dog” sign on the fence in the backyard to prevent passersby from putting their fingers in and receiving a nip. Many people giggled and snickered at the sign, but one, a neighborhood plumber who ventured inside the house without warning soon learned to take it seriously when Vader stood between him and my mother, taking a bite out of his ankle. Fortunately, the man forgave him, acknowledging that it was his fault for coming in unannounced. I found something comforting and reassuring in Vader’s maleness. No, he was not a Doberman or Rottie, a German shepherd or even a lumbering Lab, but he was male and to me this gave him a certain strength and authority, a dignity and confidence that were different from my females. He walked beside me in an unique way.
Until he could no longer walk; then he rolled. My mother and I traveled to Sherburne Falls, Mass to have him fitted for the cart at Eddie’s Wheels. At first he stood frozen, confused by the strange contraption strapped to him. It took more than coaxing to get him to move and even then he rolled backward at first. Although an athlete as a youth, Vader spent most of his advanced middle to old age curled up in the kitchen or out on the porch step, so he needed real motivation to want to move. Food and a lot of perseverance on my Mom’s part did the trick. She worked diligently with him everyday. Lifting his cobby, black body into the chair and bending down in front of him, luring him along the “yellow brick road” of bathmats she had placed from the kitchen to the living room to provide him traction. I am surprised she is not permanently hunched from her efforts, but it did the trick. While I was off writing and working, she and Vader practiced until he was rolling along from room to room. Mom loved her Little Man as much as I did.
Our trip to Sherburne Falls to get the chair turned into an adventure for us. We had planned to make it a girl’s outing. My mother had never been to the nearby Yankee Candle, so I found a neighboring hotel to spend the night with the goal of visiting the candle store the next day. First, however, we tried a restaurant for dinner that I had visited before and loved, only to find that their menu and their prices had changed. It was now so expensive that we had to feign an emergency phone call and leave. We headed back to the hotel and rented a movie, finally calling it a night, or so we thought, around 11:00 p.m. No such luck! No sooner had we turned out the lights then we heard loud voices and scampering sounds. Alfie, my other pug who had come along for the ride, started whining, then crying so loudly that I was afraid we would be kicked out. We tried everything – putting her up on the bed, letting her out of the crate, putting her in a crate with Vader, but as the voices outside continued, so did the crying. After several hours of trying to sleep, I finally suggested to my mom that we make the two-and-a-half hour trip back to Vermont. “If we are going to leave we better leave now or I’ll be too tired to drive,” I said.
We began getting our stuff together and making the trek to the car. No sooner had we gotten out the door than we saw two cops combing the halls. They couldn’t have called the cops on us? I thought, but they just nodded as we passed by. I loaded Vader, Alfie, their crates and his new wheelchair into the car along with our suitcases and as we rounded the corner of the building to check out, we saw a number of police cars. Mom went in to return the key and learned that a group of college kids had gotten out of hand were roaming the halls making all the noise. It seemed Alfie was only trying to protect us.
We still laugh when we think about the night. We returned home blurry eyed at 4:00 a.m., having stopped at McDonald’s only to find their milkshake machine to be out of order – it had been my one oasis in the dark, lonely desert of that night. I coveted that milkshake only to be let down. But in many ways, this strange journey was like childbirth, a labor of love, resulting in newfound freedom for Vader. The piece of masking tape still stuck to the chair was testament to all of this – our journey and adventure with Vader, our labor to keep him alive and comfortable for as long as possible. It marked his existence more strongly than any gravestone ever could. It testified that he was loved.
And, so I took the chair inside, wiping the remaining mud from the wheels and carefully removing the tape, which I took upstairs and placed upon the wooden box bearing his ashes. The chair was going to a new home. After months of me trying to convince my friend Jane to try it on her own disabled dog, Shim, she had finally listened. Strangely, however, I found it difficult to relinquish the metal heap. It clung to my heart in a way that was quite unexpected.
I have a friend who says nostalgia can be a trap, but I think when it comes to dogs it is there with us from the very beginning. They come into our lives with a certainty that they will be gone before we are; this carries with it bittersweet emotions that linger like the faint scent of decaying roses in the back of our hearts and minds. We know from the beginning that the end is coming and it always comes too soon. And, while I made peace with Vader’s death, I struggled to find solace with the removal of his name from that cart. It was a different kind of ending and I wondered if my friend Jane would appreciate what that cart meant. I feared she would just see an unusual device, something to try and discard if it didn’t work. She wouldn’t see my Little Man’s toddling steps, my mother’s hunched back, all the hotdogs, hard work, and trail of bathmats that chair represented. She couldn’t know that the piece of tape I had removed was actually a piece of my heart.
Or so I thought until she called me the other night breathless and gleeful, erupting in childlike giggles as she exclaimed how Shim was rolling from living room to kitchen, taking to the chair even more quickly than Vader. She wrote me today saying, “You wouldn't believe how FAST Shimmie gets going in Vader's chair. (Forgive when someday I refer to it as Shim's. That is bound to happen).
And, she’s right, it is. So I wrote her back just now with this blessing, “I'm so happy Jane! And no worries. It's Shimmie's now.”
Life just keeps rolling on.