I finally caught Hope on a day when the thermometer in the truck read 105. She was mangy, covered in ticks, scratched up and infected. She was too hot, tired and weak to struggle when I managed to corner her in a blackberry bramble. She just hung there in the thorns and wagged her tail.
I had watched her mom, a brown and white pit, earlier that spring, hungry and pregnant, foraging through trash. Later, I saw — and chased — Hope and her siblings along an empty stretch of Old Lake Road several times, trying to save them. Her brother was black, her sister a lighter brown. Hope was in the middle.
I have no idea if her mom-dog was thrown out or escaped; she was an average size pit, or would have been had she not been so starved. I did get close enough to see that she had worn a collar at some point. I once almost got a photo of the three puppies hanging on for dear life as the mom-dog shoved her head into a fast food bag.
Hope and her siblings were likely born under an abandoned house near where I finally caught her. They were born around May 2012. I am not sure how many times I saw them running desperately down the road, searching for food, when they were of an age they should have been gnawing toes or playing with a little kid. Instead they were unwanted, strays condemned to a short, unhappy life that would lead to an unhappy, frightening end somewhere in the scrub and thorns and ditches along a lonely country road.
One by one, the puppies and their mom disappeared, until Hope was the only one left. I would see her of a morning, sadly sniffing every bag she found, hoping for something to eat, running when a vehicle slowed down.
I finally managed to catch her one Saturday; the pavement was steaming, and I was soaked with sweat as soon as I bailed out of the truck, flashers blinking. She ran down the pavement at first, then crossed a dry ditch, only to get tangled in the blackberry thicket. Unlike most half-grown puppies in that situation, she didn’t growl or snap. Instead, she looked at me with great big golden eyes I would come to love so much, and wagged her tail.
I made a quick and unscheduled stop at a country store for a honeybun and a can of food, and slowly fed them to her in the back of the truck. She was confused, but slowly her tail began wagging faster and faster when she realized I wasn’t going to hurt her. She guzzled most of a bottle of water. It might have been the only time she ever drank water out of a bowl, for all I know.
I admit, I felt a black, seething anger toward the person who turned Hope’s mom-dog out. I have no idea if she was dumped because she was pregnant, or became pregnant after she became a stray. The dark side of me that God has forgiven many times wanted to subject that person to what these and all dogs go through beside a highway, the hunger and fear and pain and the worst of the elements. I’m not proud of the fact that I have wanted to do that every time I picked up an animal off the side of the road.
But even if I knew who these poor excuses for humans were, that ain’t how things are done. Instead of repaying pain with pain, we defeat it by making things better for the ones who are hurt.
Hope would stand on her hind legs and demand that someone dance with her, even if there was no music or no reason to dance. She wasn’t simply jumping up on her humans – she wanted to move.
That was what we did with Hope.
She had a bath as soon as I got home, and stayed on the couch beside Miss Rhonda for days afterward, unless we were both at work. Then she was in the bedroom with Cleopatra, the grandma dog who always nurtured our lost ones, puppies and half-grown strays that had been picked up beside the road as Cleo herself was.
She was always square, even moreso after she was fixed, but she was never a big dog. The vet later said it was possible Hope’s growth was badly stunted from malnutrition as a baby.
We called her the Ballerina Bulldog, because she danced. Hope would stand on her hind legs and demand that someone dance with her, even if there was no music or no reason to dance. She wasn’t simply jumping up on her humans – she wanted to move.
She danced, and she smiled. Dogs look silly when they smile, and when she was younger, Hope had the silliest smile, showing just a hint of white teeth, her nose and lips all wrinkled up and goofy, her tiny bat-shaped ears sticking up at different angles. I have no idea why some dogs do smile and others don’t — her daughter, Smidget, has the same smile, and also dances – but with Hope you could tell she was truly happy.
Hope loved sleeping in the sunshine, trotting busily back and forth around the yard, and chasing the occasional chicken (although she knew she wasn’t supposed to do so). She preferred sleeping on the back of the couch when everyone else jockeyed for a place on the seat. In winter, she would knot up a blanket in front of the heater, and would offer no argument when one or three or five cats climbed on top of her, as long as they were polite.
She hated the cold.
From the first night in our home, she slept with her nose in my armpit. At first it was because she knew I was a safe place, and I would protect her. Plus, the air conditioner blew directly onto the bed, and she had no fur. She was freezing cold. After a while, beside me just became her spot. She would wiggle her way under the covers until she was in position, then shove that cold wet nose into my armpit and begin snoring. She and Toni regularly had disputes over who would sleep closest to me (Toni, for the record, prefers a shoulder).
Until recently, Hope would happily snort and wallow and huff her way underneath the covers, turn in a circle, then peek from underneath to give me a grin that was often as not upside down, since she would roll onto her back expecting a belly rub at bedtime.
Except for those rarely times when she became a whirling mass of teeth and muscles, Hope was almost always a sweet, passive dog. She would bark at a stranger, but would also be the first to hesitantly make friends. She would jump flatfooted into a lap, and be asleep in five minutes, especially if there was a roaring campfire a few feet away.
She had a way of looking at me sideways, as if to make sure everything was okay. At first, I am confident it was because she was trying to be sure she was truly safe. Later, as she grew older, I think it was because she wanted to be sure I was all right.
Hope the Ballerina Bulldog crossed that long-storied bridge early Monday morning, after a brief illness. She had given all indications that she was rallying, and was going to be fine. At bedtime, Miss Rhonda picked her up and gently placed her at the foot of the bed. I found Hope in the morning, curled up in the laundry basket, one of her favorite warm places when she didn’t have the strength to stay on the bed.
I have said, probably too many times, that Heaven for me won’t be reached on a pathway of clouds leading through pearly gates in walls of jasper. It may not be biblical, but I don’t think it’s blasphemous to want to turn down a dirt lane toward a comfortable old house shaded by friendly tall trees in the middle of a field. Fat horses will race the old truck as it bumps up the drive, cats will look sleepily offended from a wide porch, and all the dogs you’ve loved will come running to greet you with howls and barks.
For me, I know one of those dogs will be standing on her hind legs, dancing and smiling in the sunshine, and she’ll never be cold again.