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Talking With an Angel

Angel couldn’t do any tricks. She knew the basics: She was housebroken; she’d come when we called her; sometimes she would sit if she was being offered a treat. That’s about it.

Oh, there was one other thing:

Angel could talk.

In 1999, when No. 1 Son was 4, we decided it was time for him to raise his own dog. After interviewing a number of available candidates at the Humane Society, we rounded a corner and came face-to-face with an incandescent white monster. “Chewbacca: 1 Year Old,” said the placard on her cage.

Chewbacca most closely resembled an albino German Shepherd but was much larger, weighing in at a good hundred pounds. Our vet thought maybe she was a Shepherd/Russian Wolfhound mix, but we never knew for sure.

She sat on her haunches, one ear cocked straight up and the other flopped forward endearingly, and regarded us calmly, head tilted. No. 1 Son was instantly entranced. “I wanna take her!” he said. “Can I pet her?”

“I’m sorry,” the volunteer escorting us said, “but only adults can go in the cage.”

“Don’t worry,” I told No. 1 Son. “I’ll check her out.”

I entered the cage and squatted down in front of Chewbacca. Holding my hand out cautiously, I started to introduce myself with nonsense doggy talk: “Well, look at you. You’re a sweetheart! Who’s a good girl? Are you a good girl?”

Instead, I found myself saying, “Hey, Chewie. Think you might want to come hang at my house?”

Chewbacca sniffed my hand, then licked it with the faraway, appraising look of a wine taster.

“Hmm,” she mused. “Might be doable.” She glanced at my wife and No. 1 Son. “They part of the deal?”

“Yep.”

She licked my hand again. “You know,” she said, “I’m not usually this impulsive, but you got a deal, Mister.”

In the van on the way home, Chewbacca sat eagerly next to No. 1 Son, looking at the traffic streaming by.

“What are we going to call you?” I said to Chewbacca. “I don’t think Chewbacca is really your name, do you?”

“You got that right,” she muttered.

“Snowbear!” my wife suggested. “How about Snowbear?”

“Hey, let’s call her Queen Frostine, like in Candyland,” I said.

I glanced back. Chewbacca was whispering in No. 1 Son’s ear; he frowned and whispered back. She shook her head and whispered in his ear again, he nodded.

“Angel,” No. 1 Son said.

“What?”

“Her name is Angel,” he repeated firmly.

I glanced back at Chewbacca — I mean, Angel. She looked smug.

She never admitted it to me, but I’m convinced Angel wanted to grow up to be a Budweiser Clydesdale. Even given her size, her strength was almost unbelievable. You didn’t take Angel for a walk, she took you for a pull.

No. 1 Son’s favorite game with Angel for several years was to pick up a toy, then grab her collar. Angel would immediately spring to her feet and shout, “Pull!” No. 1 Son would throw the toy across the yard and Angel would pursue it, hoicking No. 1 Son violently off the ground and towing him along effortlessly like banner behind an airplane.

Angel’s ability to talk never seemed unusual to us: We thought No. 1 Son was going to raise Angel, but she didn’t get that memo and decided she would raise him, so I suppose it made sense to communicate on a higher level. Most people couldn’t hear her talk, but among Angel’s family and closest friends there was never any nonsense doggy babbling: We communicated like peers.

Like many kids, No. 1 Son was a little bit fearful of being alone in his room at night. Angel quickly assumed ownership of that issue. At bedtime we would often be lounging in the living room while Angel snoozed in the corner.

“Angel!” my wife or I would say.

Angel would crank open an eye. “Bedtime?”

“Yep.”

“Okay.” She would stretch, trot upstairs with No. 1 Son and climb into bed with him, keeping watch and returning to her living room nap only when he was asleep.

Occasionally her floppy ear would flick upright while we watched TV. “No. 1 Son’s awake,” she’d say, trotting back upstairs. Twenty minutes later or so she’d be back. “He’s asleep again,” she’d say. “Is Letterman on yet?”

In 2002, my wife, No. 1 Son and I took a trip to China, returning two weeks later with The Chowder: Our 7-month-old adopted daughter.

I went in the house first and asked Angel to go out back for a little while. “We have a surprise for you,” I said.

“Oh, c’mon! You guys were gone forever! I hardly remember what you smell like!” she complained.

We brought The Chowder in, ignoring the occasional yell from Angel out back: “Hey! What are you guys doing? Hey! I smell something funny! Hey!”

After everyone was settled I let Angel back in. She charged across the kitchen and skidded to a halt at the living room door.

“Okay, I’m surprised,” she whispered to my wife out of the corner of her mouth. She sat down at stared at The Chowder.

The Chowder, who had never seen a dog before, stared back up at the white, panting monster towering over her, its gleaming teeth framing a pink, lolling tongue and its intense black eyes fixed on her.

After about 10 seconds of unbearable tension, I decided if The Chowder didn’t start screaming soon, I would.

Then Angel did the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen:

“All right, then,” she said firmly, and crouched down, putting her head on the floor. She stretched out and crept slowly across the floor toward The Chowder, stopping when her nose was almost touching The Chowder’s foot.

“Now listen,” Angel said gently, looking up at The Chowder. “I can’t take care of you if you’re afraid of me. That’s no basis for a good relationship. So here’s the deal: I’ll lay right here and hold still until you aren’t scared anymore, okay? Go ahead — pull my ears, poke my eyes. I won’t hurt you. You’ll see!”

The Chowder tentatively reached forward, grabbed Angel’s floppy ear and came away with a double handful of fur. Angel smiled and closed her eyes. “See?” she said. “Nothing to be afraid of.”

The Chowder stared at the fur wafting away from her chubby fingers, then squealed with delight and dove face-first into Angel’s ruff.

As the years passed, Angel was promoted from Chief Executive Dog to Chairdog and finally to Dog Emeritus as other cats and dogs came and went. She’d chuckle tolerantly at their exuberance and arrogance, but made sure they knew the score, especially when it came to The Chowder and No. 1 Son.

An avid movie fan, Angel would do her best R. Lee Ermey imitation with the new recruits, then transition to a fatherly Gregory Peck (as Atticus Finch) as she imparted her wisdom to them. Occasionally they’d get too big for their britches and we’d get to see a home re-enactment of the Velociraptors trying to take on the T. Rex in Jurassic Park. “AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!” she’d roar as she hurled her opponents around like rag dolls.

But Angel never appointed a protegé until last year, when Bosco, a miniature Black Schnauzer, joined the family. Bosco massed about 20 pounds to Angel’s 100, but he had the rare combination of guts, intelligence and willingness to learn she was looking for. She tolerated far more guff from Bosco than anyone else, although she so radically outsized Bosco she would often sleep through his most ferocious attacks, snoring away as he chewed her ears and pounced on her.

But most of all she spent every waking moment teaching him everything she knew: “No, no, no, NO! The food stays here in the bowl! Now look — don’t bother them when they’re at the table. See, you just sit here in the corner and look hopeful. Someone’s at the door — Bosco, that’s your cue! Get over there and bark! Hustle!”

Bosco, although he didn’t share Angel’s gift of speech, was an apt pupil and learned very quickly. R. Lee Ermey retired and was replaced by kindly old Master Po, who gently but firmly led her young, impetuous Grasshopper down the path of enlightenment.

Several weeks ago, we noticed Angel wasn’t eating much and was losing weight. She’d always been lean and muscular, but we could suddenly see her ribs and hips. Our vet noted a fever and prescribed antibiotics and an appetite stimulant. We bought premium canned food for her and she started eating again, but after a few more weeks we realized she not only wasn’t putting any weight back on, she was still losing it. Bosco somehow understood the time to attack Angel was past and instead cuddled her protectively every spare moment.

In another week or so, Angel’s weight had dropped alarmingly; she looked gaunt and bony, but still as gentle and bright-eyed as ever.

“Bosco’s got this,” she’d say apologetically as Bosco would leap over her to bark at the door. “I’m just kind of tired — gimme a minute.”

In her last week with us, Angel began to have difficulty walking. We fed her her premium canned food with a fork as she lay on the living room carpet, gently thumping her tail. “I know I’m breaking the rules,” she said to me sheepishly one afternoon. “Sorry to be a hassle.”

“Now don’t you worry about that,” I said. “You’ve got a little pampering coming.”

“Thanks,” she said, finishing the last bite. “I’m not worried.”

“Good,” I said.

“As soon as you have a minute,” she continued, “I know you’re going to fix everything. No rush — soon as you have a minute.”

I didn’t reply. She looked at me steadily, confidently, for a moment before sighing contentedly and taking a nap.

The morning of August 9, Angel couldn’t get up. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I’ll feel better after a nap. Don’t worry about me.”

She slept in the living room all day, occasionally waking up to check in with Bosco, who by now had fully assumed the role of Chairdog pro tem.

Around 9 p.m. she woke up, looked at me and said, “Hey, I don’t want to be a pest, but I’m ready for you to fix everything. Whenever you have a minute. I just can’t get much done like this, you know?”

My wife and I sat down with her. “Angel,” I said, “I wish I could make everything okay. I really do. But I can’t. I’m sorry, hon, but I can’t.”

She looked surprised. “Really?”

“Really. I would if I could; you know that.”

Angel looked at my wife. “Is he messing with me?” Her eyes shining, my wife gently shook her head.

Angel thought a moment, then sighed and smiled. “Okay. Um, can you do me a favor?” She looked embarrassed. “I really need to go outside. I wasn’t going to say anything, but….”

“Sweetheart, don’t be embarrassed!” my wife said. We helped Angel to her feet and half-carried her to the back door, across the patio and onto the grass, where she did her business, then collapsed.

“Whew!” Angel panted. “Thanks!”

I got a beach towel and my wife and I gently cradled Angel in it, lifting her so she could pretend to walk back inside. I was surprised — Angel looked like a bag of bones, but she still weighed a ton.

About 11 p.m., we settled back down in the living room with Angel — my wife, No. 1 Son, The Chowder, Bosco and I — covered her with a blanket, and told her it was our turn to put her to bed for once. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” she said skeptically. We were sure. She’d earned it.

Angel panted heavily, closing her eyes but refusing to lay her head down. “Wait — I’m not sleepy yet,” she kept saying. Occasionally she’d open her eyes and look at one of us in surprise. “Oh, you’re still here?” she said.

“You bet. We’re right here with you,” my wife said. She’d brought blankets and a pillow down and was lying next to Angel, ready to spend the night.

Angel closed her eyes and her head sank slowly, then suddenly jerked upright again. “I’m okay!” she protested. “I’m not sleepy yet!”

Somehow we all realized simultaneously what she needed. And so, for the very first and last time in her life, we engaged in some nonsense doggy talk with Angel: We told her she was a good girl. A very, very good girl.

She looked around at us. “Really?” she wheezed.

“Really really,” my wife said. “You did a good job raising our boy. Didn’t she?” She looked at No. 1 Son.

“Yes,” he whispered. “You did.” He gently stroked her floppy ear.

The Chowder looked anxiously at her brother. “Bubby, we’re gonna see Angel in heaven, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “She’ll be waiting for us.” Reassured, she buried her face in Angel’s ruff for the last time. “G’bye, Angel,” she said.

Angel looked at me.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s okay for you to go.”

She looked at Bosco, who had been lying by her side for hours. Bosco winked.

“Okay,” Angel said. “Okay. I’m just gonna take a little nap, then.” She finally relaxed, lay on her side, and closed her eyes.

Angel stopped breathing just after midnight.

We’d made arrangements to take her to the vet for cremation, so I decided to wrap her in her favorite blanket and put her in the back of our Jeep until morning.

I braced myself and lifted the still, silent bundle. It was light as a feather.

When we came back inside, Bosco was in the kitchen sitting on his haunches, his head tilted alertly at us.

“Okay, guys,” he said. “I got this now.”

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