Spencer_Flowers

2001 – 2013

Spencer, our darling West Highland Terrier, came into this world on September 21, 2001, and left it peacefully on July 31, 2013, five days after being diagnosed with advanced osteosarcoma, the same affliction that claimed the life of our dear mini Australian Shepherd, Flyer, on January 29, 2013.  That we lost them a mere six months apart and to a virulent form of bone cancer uncommonly seen in small dogs is something our aching hearts can scarcely comprehend.  For almost 12 years, “our boys,” as we called them from the moment they joined our family, were the center of our lives.  In truth, we were completely besotted with them.  As family and friends know all too well, we steered every conversation to where we could seamlessly (or so we thought) slip in a little something about the boys’ latest exploits.  And we were absolutely shameless about it.

It should come, then, as no surprise to learn that our over-the-moon affection for our boys spilled over into our professional lives as well.  Every semester we invited the students in our classes to our home, ostensibly because UGA encouraged faculty to do so, but mainly because it provided the perfect opportunity for them to meet the boys…..whom they already “knew.”  After all, pictures of our boys graced every wall and surface in our university offices, and regularly found their way into PowerPoint slides for classroom lectures and conference presentations.  Below is a slide that Tom created several years ago for a class I was teaching on human behavior theory.  I haven’t a clue as to how I linked it to the topic for discussion on that particular day.  I only know that we had just gotten back from spending a glorious autumn weekend during UGA’s Fall Break romping with the boys at the beach, their favorite away-from-home destination.  Of course my students would want to know about it.  As I said, we were shameless.

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To understand how two fairly rational people could fall so deliriously in love with their canine companions one has only to ponder the effect on the human heart of experiencing what amounted to a two-dog, ticker-tape parade every time we walked into the house.  Amidst the jubilation, Tom and I would often exclaim as we returned their affection, “What in the world did we ever do to deserve the two of you?”  And I swear, Spencer’s flag-pole-erect tail and Flyer’s nub-of-a behind would wave and twitch in even more frenzied delight.  Such was the reception we received day in and day out for almost 12 years.  You know, I almost feel a little sorry for the new pope, Pope Francis.  He only thought he was warmly embraced on his recent trip to Brazil.

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Whereas Flyer was our sensitive one, ever watchful and anxious about keeping our little “pack” together, as herding dogs are wont to do, Spencer was our family’s social chairman—the canine equivalent of Bobby “Mr. Don’t Worry, Be Happy” McFerrin.  Whether maneuvering his muscular frame into impossibly tiny spaces, merrily chasing butterflies on a warm sunny day, pouncing on insects deeply burrowed into the ground (completely absorbed in this tireless quest), or attentively watching television, Spencer extracted maximum pleasure out of every waking moment, cocking his head from side to side in the winsome way that Westies do as he ceaselessly entertained all who observed his antics.  Perhaps one of our friends, herself entranced by Spencer’s fascination with the seemingly infinite sources of wonder to be found in the backyard, compliments of Mother Nature, said it best: “Now, that is the very definition of joy.”  Yes, an abundance of joie de vie was the defining characteristic of Spencer’s nature.  Destiny, it seemed, preordained it so.  What better explanation for the most salient personality trait of the 12-week-old pup who joined our family on New Year’s Eve, the most festive day of the year, the pup whose official name was Clayridge “High Time” Spencer?

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Spencer embodied so many endearing traits of the Scottish-born West Highland Terrier.  He was extraordinarily handsome (ever notice how often Westies are the “spokesdog” in product advertisements?), and he possessed a consistently sweet temperament, never uttering as much as a whimper or snarl of displeasure, not even when poked and prodded on occasion by his vet.  Spencer brimmed with self-confidence as well, as one would expect as a member of the breed reputed to have the highest self-esteem in the canine kingdom.  But what we loved most about him was his insatiable curiosity about the world and everything in it.  Spencer would have found watching paint dry captivating.

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Spencer also had his idiosyncrasies—unique Spencer-isms I suppose you could call them—all of which only served to embellish his charms.  For example, he would:

  • “Rest his teeth” on the arms of his most favorite people (you know if you made the cut);
  • Good-naturedly endure Flyer’s incessant attempts to herd him;
  • Lounge contentedly on piles of clothes waiting to be laundered, like an addict in a narcotics-induced haze;
  • Staunchly resist being picked up (though he relished the role of lapdog, unlike most Westies);
  • Sit every morning with Tom in an oversized, overstuffed, black leather recliner—one even the least aesthetically-inclined person would call a monstrosity—but which we proclaimed “Perfect!” because it could hold the four of us.
  • Emit a bark so loud and shrill it almost shattered eardrums, or so we were told, though to us it made for being the perfect watchdog (“Great!  Spencer will scare would-be burglars!”);
  • Unhesitatingly choose time with me over the siren call of backyard delights.

Spencer_Beach_2010

“Man’s best friend” and “dogs love unconditionally,” commonly heard phrases, speak to the special bond between humans and their canine companions.  Though pithily phrased for needlepoint cushions, they mask the core truth that resides deep in the heart of every person who has known the transformational power of a dog’s love: Dogs are our best friends even when our own fidelity falls short; they love us unconditionally despite the fact that we don’t reciprocate their devotion more times than we care to admit—too exhausted for a short walk, too preoccupied for even a quick cuddle.  Yet somehow, amazingly (miraculously!), our canine companions love us nonetheless, happily accepting behavior that no other being, except perhaps a parent, would willingly endure.  I suspect the words “May I be the person that my dog thinks I am”—words familiar to many, words whispered in prayer by hearts humbled by such unfathomable love—flowed effortlessly from the pen of a person who understood that dogs are indeed the closest manifestation of the Divine on this earth.

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These days it’s very quiet in the Reeves’ household.  Though we always knew in our heads the day would come when we would have to tell our boys goodbye, somehow our hearts never got the memo.  Perhaps our grief feels so great because we know, as have all who have known a dog’s love, that we’ve lost not a pet but a constant companion whose presence made our lives immeasurably richer.  We know what science has only in recent years begun to fully understand: That we are kinder, happier, and healthier people—physically, emotionally, and socially—for sharing life with our beloved animal companions.  We offer a prayer of thanks for the darling little Westie who, in the words of Scottish poet Robert Burns, found “tender refuge in our hungry hearts.”  Rest in peace, Baby Boy.

– Trisha Reeves

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