Yesterday, nine months after we said goodbye to our springer spaniel Rudy, we lost another beloved friend and family member. Our beautiful Roxy, yet another stray I added to the family’s menagerie, fought valiantly through surgery to treat her recently-diagnosed pheochromocytoma, a malignant tumor of the adrenal gland, but ultimately succumbed to kidney failure. The tail that wagged incessantly for twelve years simply couldn’t wag anymore — so we said goodbye to Rox yesterday morning, a gorgeous morning that she would’ve loved to have enjoyed from the front porch, at 8:27am.
Her story — at least the chapters that involve us — began on an equally gorgeous day in Philadelphia in 2003:
It was a cerulean and balmy March Saturday — the first foreshadowing of summer, the kind of day that draws everybody out of doors. At the time, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and I lived in an apartment in Center City, just north of Reading Terminal Market. I enjoyed the day with my then-boyfriend in Fairmount Park, then trekked back home in the mid-afternoon. About a block from my apartment building, we saw a shadow of movement on the far side of a dumpster. I swung wide, expecting to see a rat, but instead saw, from the corner of my eye, a much larger and more radiantly colored creature. There she was: a beautiful copper-colored, white-bibbed puppy tethered to the dumpster with a purple leash. We approached, and she cowered.
Aside from the horse stables across the street, there were no places of business along this stretch of North 13th Street. We inquired with the stable staff and other folks lolling about, but no one could claim her or account for her provenance. We then noticed that she had been sitting atop a lumpy white shopping bag, inside of which we found a ZipLoc bag full of kibble, another full of treats, and an extra leash. It then became apparent that I had found a dog in search of a home, and that this was her start-up kit.
For the next two days we set out food and water and lay on the floor near (but not too near) her, speaking to her in reassuring and encouraging tones, while she hid behind the bookshelves. By Sunday night, she allowed me to hold her, and I decided to call her Roxy. On Monday I took her to the vet on Spring Garden Street for a check-up and vaccinations, and I learned that she was likely a pitbull/boxer mix, probably eight to ten weeks old. We agreed that her imagined birthday would be January 1, 2003. It struck me that, now that a file labeled with both her name and my name was filed away in a veterinarian’s office, attesting to my responsibility for her care, she had officially become my dog.
I had grown up with dogs — mostly border collies — but this was the first dog for which I would assume primary care. Or so I thought: it turned out that scores of people and other animals — including another stray, my cat Pippilotti, who appeared a month after Roxy — helped to care for her and make her life the gloriously tail-wag-worthy celebration it was. This was also the first pitbull, a breed so often maligned and feared, that I would welcome into my home and introduce to my friends and family. I was so intrigued and humbled by the opportunity to allow this sweet and funny creature to decimate those unwarranted stereotypes — both for myself and for anyone else who fell prey to her charms.
I had been awarded a grant to travel the country in the summer of 2003, to do field research for my first book. I hated missing out on Roxy’s expanding repertoire of tricks and quirks, the emergence of her gregarious personality, and my integration into the weird world of urban-pet-owner socialization — but the then-boyfriend cared for her and loved her in my absence, and for that I am eternally grateful. I eventually moved to an apartment on-campus at Penn, where I served as a faculty fellow for the 2003-2004 academic year. We had a large fenced-in playground behind our building, but because there were no children in the vicinity who needed to use the swings and slides and sandbox with any regularity, the grounds belonged, for the most part, to Roxy and our only other canine neighbor, a joyous, drooling mastiff puppy. Roxy particularly enjoyed rolling her balls into the sandbox, then fervently and gleefully digging them out, stomping and furrowing her brow, and stirring up wild sandstorms in the process.
Alas, the relationship with the boyfriend didn’t last — but Roxy and I persevered. Others fell in love with her, too. Resident assistants (thanks especially to you, Endel, wherever you are!), students, and security guards volunteered to take her for walks or dog-sit during my occasional weekend trips back to New York. When I went away for longer periods — to conferences, for instance — my parents gladly drove two hours to meet me in Harrisburg — the half-way point between Philly and Central PA — to pick up Roxy and Pippi and take them back home for a stay in the country with the two canine cousins.
We seemed to have a stormy spring on the east coast that year, because I recall that the sidewalks of Penn’s campus were frequently strewn with downed leaves and branches. Roxy became particularly well known around campus for her post-storm acrobatics. Sticks were too easy; our girl wanted to play with limbs. She ambitiously sought out massive eight- or ten-foot tree branches, which she’d balance between her powerful jaws and proudly display for all to see, as she trotted, head held high, down the sidewalk.
I later moved back to New York, which, sadly, my two girls hated. We missed our convenient outdoor space and our green campus, and regular visits to the park during off-leash hours simply weren’t sufficient. Rox and Pippi had become fast friends, and Rox was obviously depressed. Pip’s playful torments didn’t work their normal magic; Roxy barely responded. So, when we went home for Thanksgiving, and we witnessed a rapid and dramatic improvement in Roxy’s temperament, we decided that she and Pip needed to stay in the country, where she had lots of wide open spaces and Pip had a big house to roam, and both had a family that loved them as much as I did.
The house built by my woodworker father, with all of its hardwood surfaces, proved a bit of a hazard. Roxy’s vigorous tail-wagging — it was more than a tail-wag, actually; her whole body got in on the action — resulted in lots of whacks against right-angled joints and un-upholstered table and chair legs. As her body oscillated to express her intense excitement about everything(!!!!), all those tail-against-wood impacts ultimately produced gangrene in the tip of her tail, necessitating its partial amputation. Ah, the liabilities of uncontrollable happiness.
Despite her obvious self-satisfaction in the branch-balancing business, Roxy initially sucked at catch. Try as she might, she missed even the softest, easiest lobs by at least four feet. Yet she couldn’t have found a better coach: Dugan, our border collie, is a world-class catcher and soccer player (now emeritus). After a couple summers of practice, Roxy developed into quite an athlete — fast and agile and tenacious. Sometimes her skill inspired feats of bravado — and sometimes those feats tried our patience. Roxy had an uncanny knack for knowing precisely what terrain you’d traverse with your next pass on the lawnmower, and she’d strategically position her frisbee directly in your path. You had no choice but to stop or divert the machine, pick up the frisbee, and give it a good toss before continuing on your way. This cunning strategy worked for her — she got what she wanted — so it was repeated ad infinitum until the entire lawn was shorn.
I lost my patience only once. On one sweltering August afternoon of yard maintenance, after three dozen frisbee tosses, I had had enough of these stop-and-go mower detours. So I, being a horrible person, ran over the frisbee with the mower, chopping it into a dozen ragged pieces. Roxy stared at the carnage with her signature furrowed brow, looked up at me, as if to say, “It disappeared!”, then she stepped aside — seemingly in defeat. I was racked with guilt for that entire loop of the lawn, but as I re-approached the scene of the crime, I saw my girl standing in wait. She deposited a sad, mangled two-inch-square piece of purple plastic — all that remained of her toy (rest assured: there were plenty more intact frisbees inside) — in my path, then inched slyly backward, assuming her standard preparatory posture. She would not be deterred. Fun would be had.
Her favorite treasures, though, were shoes. To chew and nibble on and shake and protect (playfully) from ever-present threats of theft (who knew there was such a demand?); to sleep beside and carry around, like a security blanket. Everyone’s old sneakers went into Roxy’s stockpile, which she then deployed strategically in and around the house. There were shoes in the bedroom and living room and under the kitchen table, in the front yard and backyard, and especially in her favorite spot on the lawn, just outside my dad’s workshop. She had a shoe ready for all settings and all occasions. Nearly all pictures of our girl involve a shoe (and now that she’s gone, those maimed objects, some of which we simply can’t bear to remove from their stations about the lawn, are worth their weight in gold for us).
Those shoes provided much pleasure and humor and a much-needed sense of accomplishment when severe arthritis ultimately limited Roxy’s ability to run. When Rox was a little over a year old, I noticed that she frequently held up her front-right leg and occasionally hopped along on three legs. Vets determined that a bone deformation was causing her severe joint pain — so my Christmas gift from the whole family that year was arthroscopic surgery for Rox. It solved her problem for several years, but we knew she’d suffer from arthritis in later life. Over the last few years, that arthritis has spread throughout her back hips, transforming her once-long, powerful strides into ginger steps. Thanks in part to effective pain management, those tentative steps were still, invariably, accompanied by a vigorously wagging tail and an unfailingly pleasant disposition. Footwear was part of the remedy: a gently tossed, and easily caught, shoe — or a shoe that’s pretend-stolen, which she then has to steal back — was a great source of satisfaction.
Roxy embodied cheer. I recognize the supposed naïveté of assuming that animals possess “human” emotions — but, dammit, I’m going to make such assumptions: I do believe that animals feel and express emotions, and that they’re capable of feeling and expressing love. Roxy was an exceptionally loving and convivial and social dog. She craved touch: when she sat or slept beside our other dogs, she almost always wanted some part of her body touching theirs. When she sat beside us on the couch or floor or grass, the same was true — and if you temporarily removed your hand from her back, or paused in your pats, she’d look up at you, pleadingly, as if to say: “Let’s keep going!” When she sat at your feet, she typically sat on your feet. Again, she wanted — needed — to know that others were there.
And she let others know that she was there, ready with affection. Anyone’s tears brought her running and compelled her to lick your hand or face. Roxy was a lightning-fast face-licker; one second, she could be sitting calmly beside you as you read, the next second, you’ve got a tongue on your cheek. When my niece and nephew came into the world, Roxy frequently bathed them in kisses — and I honestly believe that sloppy welcome (and the ensuing years of companionship and lessons about care and responsibility) helped make them into the compassionate kids they are today.
Roxy loved us. I know she did. She relished her life. She cherished both touching and being touched by the people and other animals in her life. And we cherished — and will always cherish — her. She was a tremendous gift to us, a model for how to love and appreciate the many blessings of life: shoes, frisbees, peanut butter, potato chips, kisses, sunny days, green grass, children. I will desperately miss having the privilege of touching my girl’s beautiful face, with her vibrant, dark-rimmed eyes (our relatively make-up-less family joked that Rox always wore eye liner); floppy, expressive ears; and thoughtfully wrinkled forehead. I am certain that’s she’s left this world, and gone on to a better one, knowing that she has touched us profoundly and will continue to enrich our lives — not least for having simply given us the privilege of caring for her. I hope that we, in return, have given her every opportunity to live the best possible life she could’ve lived, too. I know we have — my wonderful Mom and Dad, in particular. Roxy’s vets have been tremendous, too.
I thank the stars that I walked past that dumpster — and that baby-Roxy’s quivering shadow led us to twelve years of joyously wagging tails. That tail, if you’ll pardon the saccharine simile, is like those beating butterfly wings that supposedly change the course of history. One little dumpster-dog’s life has made an indelible mark on the world — my world, my family’s world, and my family’s friends’ worlds, at least.
And just as I said to Rudy upon his passing nine months ago (and to Opie and Dexter before him): Goodbye, little buddy. Thank you for all the love and joy and gentleness you brought into our lives. We’ll miss you terribly, and we’ll love you forever.