The Story of Charley and Aubrey
A wonderful short story
It was a stormy night that summer of 2009 when we first came upon Charley. Rain was pounding the ground like elephant’s feet as my seventeen-year-old grandson, JR, and I exited my car. JR (that’s what we called him) was taking tai-kwan-do after high school, and he had entered the competition among several teams. This day’s event was happening in the church auditorium.
I had my umbrella up as we raced through the rain and up the church steps, with thunder roaring and lightning flashing all around us. I left JR to fight his battles and began to return to my car when I heard my grandson call after me, “Granddad, come and check out this dog!”
I turned around, and JR pointed to the corner of the top step at the entrance. I saw a furry bundle curled up and shivering. We bent down to get a closer look. No collar or ID encircled his neck. The animal was skin and bones, a puppy, perhaps a few months old, with a white wet and muddied coat. I lifted him up. He made no sound, just trembled and gazed up at me with his big round eyes. A dozen ticks fell away. He kept staring at me with a very sad and scared expression, the tail curved under hind legs. What could I do? Here was a puppy in distress. On church steps. Where we worshipped Christ. And frightening displays of thunder and lightning at hand. If I departed without the puppy, likely one of those thunderbolts would strike me down.
I said goodbye to JR and took the puppy with me back to the Subaru station wagon, holding him at arm’s length so as to avoid all those ticks and fleas dancing around and falling off. I placed him in the trunk of the automobile. Upon arriving home, I left the dog in my car and called the animal hospital. I wasn’t sure Charley would survive much longer. He was in terrible shape, his respirations were shallow, and the puppy weighed more in those ticks and fleas than in his skin and bones. There were, without exaggeration, over a hundred ticks on the floor of the trunk by the time we pulled up in front of our house. Within the hour we drove to the nearby clinic, where the veterinarian treated Charley with anti-tick-and-flea medicine. The vet advised feeding him with their Science Diet, and I purchased several cans.
I brought Charley home and called my wife, Linda, who was out of town, asking if we could keep Charley (we already had two dogs). She hesitated—for a long while—and then gave her consent. How did he come to be named “Charley?” It just came to me as I was driving home that day. And everyone agreed it seemed to fit.
As the weeks progressed, Charley lost the insects clinging to him, gained weight, and became more alert. His brothers, Woody and Winnie, accepted him as one of their own. However, it was apparent that Charley was deformed, with poorly functioning hind legs. He was paraparetic, nearly paraplegic. He could not control his bladder and bowel functions. He had little sensation below chest level. He could walk with a spastic hind leg gait, bouncing his back legs from side to side as he showed off his comical locomotion. Weeks later he would “dash” about after his brothers, not realizing he was defective. Well, perhaps he really wasn’t. He did have difficulty walking on smooth surfaces, like our kitchen floor. To get about there, he learned to travel backwards—he would push with his front legs and then turn around when he arrived at his objective.
Linda thought Charley was a Maltese. I wondered if he were a Lhasa Apso. He had fine, soft, non-shedding hair. It was white with a faint strip of peach color down his back, ears, and face as the photos below show. As you can see from the photo, there was a kyphosis of the thoracic spine and an unnatural posture of his thin tail.
Charley loved to go to the dog park and wander about, even though he was smaller than all the other dogs. They would come and sniff Charley and then trot away. Charley seemed to trust all the dogs—as he did us—and hobbled around the park making friends with both dogs and humans. The children wanted to pet him, but we said, “Touch only his head and neck. If you stroke his back, he will go into spasms.” Charley loved to go on neighborhood walks with his brothers and us. They would be leashed, dashing around to sniff fire hydrants, telephone poles, and bushes. After a few blocks Charley would weaken, and I would have to carry him in my arms until we returned home.
He was unable to control his bladder and would wet his fur, often urinating followed by, in a reflex it seemed, sitting or lying in the wetness. Thus we washed him frequently in our kitchen sink. Linda loved to bathe him, and Charley was fond of the warm soapy water. Often his legs would suddenly extend in spasms, and on rare occasion he would poop in the water. But mostly he would lie on his side and enjoy the attention. We cut his hair short so his getting wet with urine would not be so difficult to clean. In the house he lay on thick pads bought from Pet Smart. These would often get damp, but he rarely wet the rug or floor. Frequently he barked when he had to pee, but usually he did not have any sensation of urinating due to his spinal impairment.
We never discovered the cause of the thoracic spinal cord damage. It could have been a congenital deformity, a spinal tumor, an auto injury, or man-made infliction by a cruel, previous owner. We will never know.
Charley loved to ride in my Subaru, especially in the trunk of the station-wagon. I suppose he preferred the trunk because that was the site of his initial resting place after rescue from the drenched church steps. He always followed me around—with his eyes or with his spastic locomotion. But he did not like me to hold him for very long, whereas he had no issue with Linda embracing him for a while. I suspect his previous owner was a man who had not treated Charley very well, so he has mixed feelings about me.
Twice a day we fed him his special Science Diet, which he loved. He would not eat the biscuits the other dogs ate. Charley refused water, but seemed to get sufficient moisture in his food. Any attempt at swallowing water caused the liquid to go up into the back of his nose. At night he slept in a large cage with the cloth and paper training pads under him to collect any leaking urine. He slept well in his little house. Charley’s bark was a very high-pitched, short yap. I don’t think he could take a deep breath and bark forcefully due to his weak chest muscles. His ears were more sensitive than those of the other dogs, for he would be the first to bark when someone came into our yard.
A year later we noticed Charley was not walking as well as he had. But there were no other changes we noticed. Linda continued to give him his baths. Charley had complete confidence that she would hold his weakened neck to prevent his face from going under water. Linda would carefully swath Charley with the warm dry towel, mentioning his weight felt like a newborn baby in her arms. Linda would coo and talk to Charley, and he would reward her with his beautiful confident gaze. She fell in love, as we all did, with Charley’s big black eyes staring straight at us. Linda confided, “Charley is the baby you and I never had together.” And this from the woman who at first was hesitant to take in another pet. Now we both feel Charley is one of the family, and, indeed, one of the best things that ever happened to us.
A fun time with Charley and his brothers and our grandchildren was going out in our Larson ski boat on Greer’s Ferry Lake north of Little Rock. In the middle of the lake we all went swimming, including the dogs. Charley would have his life jacket on and, just like his brothers, be tossed overboard, then swim about with one of us next to him. We would soap him up, wash him off, and then bring him back on board. The roar of the craft bouncing over the waves did not frighten Charley, for he had such faith in us, it seemed. Below is a photo of Linda and two grandsons giving Charley a bath behind our boat in the middle of Greer’s Ferry Lake.
Then things started to change.
Charley hesitated to come when we called. Soon he did not approach us when we announced, “Charley, time to go for a ride,” the phrase usually causing him to dash over (a relative term for him) and be lifted into the car. He was just not his usually spritely self.
Last month Charley ate less because he had difficulty swallowing. His hind legs ceased functioning and the forelegs became weak. A week later he was quadriplegic. Still he wanted to be a part of the family. He barked when he needed turning over or when his stomach growled. But when we fed him, he took only one or two bites, then twisted his head and neck as if swallowing took too much effort. At the suggestion of the vet, we changed his diet to baby food, which he ate with gusto. He regained some weight. A week later he refused all food. We could feel less meat on his ribs. Urination was a real problem. We bought some “belly bands” to hold a Maxi-pad against his pelvis. This worked wonderfully in keeping him dry.
Charley now was frightened of being alone. He would bark when put in his cage to sleep, so I put him on my bedspread and over a training pad and towel. He then slept quietly when he was close to me. If he barked, I would turn him over, and he went back to sleep. He had no feeling or motion below his neck. The degenerative injury to his thoracic spine ascended as autolysis of the central cord continued, rising up into his cervical spine and gradually into his brainstem. Breathing was shallow once more. Yet he gazed at us with those big eyes. Through all this his tail continued to wag briskly, which was a wonderment to me.
One day we had a difficult discussion about having to “put Charley down.” It was not fair for him to suffer further as the damage continued. There were many tears, including my own. One of the family members present was our eight-year-old granddaughter, Aubrey. She loved Charley as much as we all did. Aubrey wondered aloud, “Why are you all so sad? Charley is going to be resurrected.” We all stared at Aubrey, a beautiful and intelligent child with a firm belief in God. “It’s time to put Charley to sleep,” she said. Little Joe, Aubrey’s cousin of the same age, agreed with her.
The next day in December of 2011 Charley, Linda, Aubrey, Joe, and I went back to the animal hospital. Tears rolled down Linda’s and my cheeks. But Aubrey was happy that Charley was going to be resurrected. She did not understand why we were so sad. Aubrey reassured us that soon he would be in a new body and he would be running and playing with all the other pets that have gone before him. Yet for me, it just seemed that life without Charley at my side would be quite miserable, but that is just my selfish side speaking, I suppose.
We all stood around and said our good-byes. Then the veterinarian shaved Charley’s leg, inserted a needle into Charley’s vein, and injected the euthanasia medicine. Charley went peacefully off to his final sleep.
It was two days before Christmas when we buried Charley in a grave under a rose bush in our back yard, near where he is standing in the second photograph above. The sun was shining. Each of us, including three grandchildren, said a prayer. And Aubrey declared with a smile, “Now Charley is resurrected.”
Here Aubrey, at seven years, is wise beyond her years—and fearless due to her belief in God’s protection. Below she is suited up before her breathtaking aerial event last summer at the Royal Gorge. (See the video: we give special thanks to two wonderful adults who happened to be nearby, took Aubrey with them over the Arkansas River in Colorado. One can hear Aubrey shout, “Freedom,” after she gets over the screaming–from excitement, not fear.)
Christmas Eve, the day I wrote this short story, we attended service at a nearby church. At the end, with the singing of “Silent Night” and the lighting of our candles, we kept two candles. Upon returning home Linda and I re-lit the candles by Charley’s gravesite and gave our thanks to God for the brief time we had with him. And my thanks to Aubrey for showing me a greater strength than I had.
Ten months later. We have half dozen rose bushes around the house. It is November 26, 2012. All the bushes are dormant except one: Charley’s rosebush—
(View another page in this website to see a thesaurus of 2,060 synonyms for “said,” “thought,” and “walked” in the author’s Mini-Thesaurus for psychological novels. Synonyms for these verbs were used extensively in the psychological novel, The Neurosurgeon.)
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