On July 30, my family became a little smaller. Chuck Holmes was a true gentleman—always patient, there when you needed him, listening intently to every word you said, and asking only for a pat on the head or a rub on the ears in return. If you were feeling generous, he’d take a plate of cool grits and bacon drippings, too, but that was really the extent of his demands.
Chuck Holmes was my dog. Is my dog, and will always be my dog. Dog just doesn’t cut it! He was a companion. There’s an article in this month’s Garden and Gun—the "Good Dog” column, this time penned by Charlie Geer—where Mr. Geer, a dog person, introduces his future (and now) wife—not a dog person—to his family, and his family dog, Ludwig. By the end of the visit, she arrives at the understanding that Ludwig is no mere pet, but rather a companion—that relationship that’s marked by an understanding that transcends words and labels, where to simply be with each other is a reward in and of itself.
That was Chuck. There were few things better than sitting on the terrace on a Lowcountry summer night, listening to the frogs and cicadas, and patting Chuck on the noggin.
He wasn’t a flashy dog—quite the opposite. When he washed up at our house after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, he had the mange, heartworms, and a bum knee. “Run him off!” my mother said. “I’ve TRIED” my father replied. “He won’t budge.” Thousands of dollars of vet visits plus a new titanium knee later (“Most expensive mutt on the planet,” my dad grumbled), Chuck had become quite a respectable fella and an integral part of our family. When it came time to take the family trip to Maine, we were going to just sneak off while Chuck wasn’t looking (we had a dogsitter, we weren’t evil). But when it came time to load up, we took one look at that mangy mutt splashing around in the edge of the Waccamaw River, Mickey Mouse ears at full attention (something that always signaled his intense interest in something, be it bugs in the water or the prime rib on your plate), and we couldn’t do it. We had to bring him. So we dried him off and picked him up and put him in the back of my old Explorer, and off we drove. He got horribly car sick (our other Lab, Sugar, had no intention of letting this upstart anywhere near her primo spot in the front, near the air conditioning), but he never complained. He was just grateful to be a part of the family, along for the ride, even if it was bumpy.
And for Chuck, it really was all about his family. I was in boarding school when he took up with us; when we finally met at Christmas, he knew instantly that I was his. He trotted right up and politely asked for some attention—no getting-to-know-you first date awkwardness here—and repaid me with a lick. And while I was away more often than not, when I returned home, Chuck always met me at the door with a smile (he could smile, I promise) and the requisite lick, and he sat by my side and listened while the family caught up, smacking his lips and resting his chin on my hand.
Chuck wasn’t our only dog—the Holmes family is known for its menagerie. When Sugar died, we worried that Chuck would be lonely, so we found him a nice yellow Lab puppy to keep him company. Lucy thought Chuck was tops; the feeling was not mutual. But he tolerated her—and when she needed a lesson, he gently barked or curled a lip at her.
Toward the end of his life, we went for a walk around town. As we passed the local playground, Chuck went trotting towards a gaggle of children playing on the jungle gym. You see, not only was Chuck Mr. Manners, but he was also Mr. Congeniality. Every single one of those children loved on him, rubbed him, told him he was wonderful—and as we walked away, cries of “Bye, Chuck! We love you, Chuck!” (and at least one “you da man, Chuck!”) echoed behind us as Chuck, newly invigorated with adoration, trotted away at a much faster clip than normal. In fact, we had to hitch a ride home on a neighbor’s golf cart because Mr. Popularity outdid himself that afternoon.
I’ve crossed paths with a lot of black Labs this week, and each time, my heart catches in my chest, a quick crushing squeeze where I can’t breathe for a second. But then I remember that smile and those Mickey Mouse ears and I think of all the joy this kingly mutt brought to our family.
Everyone who loses a pet wants to write a deep “what I learned from my Dog” introspective; I’m no different, but I’ll keep it short. While some lessons I’ll have to take in spirit—“soak up as much sunshine as caninely/humanly possible” for example (I’m a bit more SPF challenged than Chuck was, after all)—there is one that deserves to be taken literally. Chuck taught us to love each other patiently, constantly, and intensely—and to never hesitate to speak up and bark when someone needs some tough love.
Thanks, Chuck. We love you, Chuck. You da man, Chuck!