Chapter 4 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “The Road to Nowhere”

Mookie Dog knows he’s got it good up in the country. In his Labrador heart, though, I think he’d always rather be in Valley Stream. For one thing, he has deep and soulful connections with all three of his cats, and it’s difficult for all of them to be separated. But that’s a story for Chapter 5. I feel bad for him because his puppy brain struggles to make sense of things these days. You can explain the what, the where, the who and sort of the when to dogs, but they’ll never fully understand the why. We do too many things that just make no canine sense. 

For the first eight and a half years of Mookie’s life, we took one or two long trips in the car in July and/or August. He stayed at his friend Gina’s K9 Bed and Breakfast a mile away because he wasn’t supposed to be in the cabin, and I’d come by to take him out to play for the day, then bring him back, and then after a couple of days we’d take another long car ride and everything went back to normal. For the rest of the year, including all the cold months, we were in the home he first arrived in as a nine-week old puppy. So you can certainly imagine his confusion as he finds himself, at the equivalent of 63 years old, suddenly going on two and a half-hour car trips every couple of weeks. 

But if I told him right now that we were going for a ride in the car, he would immediately begin wagging and hopping up and down and panting, because it would mean that we would possibly be going somewhere where things smell differently and there might be water for swimming or at the very least people who rub his face and say hi. We’d get there, wherever there might be, have our fun, and as soon as that fun was over and he came back to wherever we started, he’d have a short nap, then return to staring at me and moping, like he’s doing right now. He’s a fun junkie, my dog is. 

And even though he willingly and joyfully gets in the car every time I suggest the idea, he plainly dislikes the sensation of the wheels moving under him. Though a purebred labby, he’s just not a head sticking out the window dog, which is something I’ve accepted about him. I don’t shoot ducks out of the sky and he loves me just the same. As any long car ride evolves, If he’s not lying down across the back seat in defensive sleep, he sits up and stairs down at the seat with an expression I can only describe as existential dread, and I say, “everything’s OK! Everything’s fine! Lie down, Puppy!” until he lies down again and tries to sleep. He especially dislikes exit ramps. They mess with his large center of gravity. 

But while long car drives are stressful, staying home while I disappear for a couple of days is far more so. There were a few trips when I needed the whole car for transporting stuff and I left him home, safely with the others in the pack who have access to the dog food, but still this was not acceptable. So when he sees the duffle bag and the cooler come out, he never lets me out of his sight. And the cycle continues. 

This place where we go these days, which I realize will never truly be home to him until his cats are there, only recently got comfy couches, a dog crate and a big comfy queen bed. For the first eight months, he had a dog bed on the floor and an air mattress that made him nervous. But while he enjoys these amenities we’ve provided, and he loves his big upstate backyard that smells like bunnies, he misses his neighborhood around Duffy’s Creek. He’s spent most of his life marking every tree and pole within two square miles of his house, and that’s not an accomplishment that’s easy to just walk away from.

In Valley Stream, we’ve gotten to the point where he takes me for walks, and ideally, to him, those walks are circular in nature, or at least Q-shaped. He has pre-determined routes where he has to check and respond to his pee-mail at specific poles and trees. My job is to follow along with plastic bags and keep him out of trouble.  

And while he certainly enjoys the variety of scents that one can encounter in and around Copake Falls, it’s taken him some adjustment to accept that the majority of our walks in the country are linear. We go somewhere and then we go back the way we came. It’s the Road to Nowhere. Picture a man and his dog on two ends of a taut leash, debating about which of two opposite directions is the way they have to go now. It looks as ridiculous as it seems. 

But he ultimately recognizes and accepts my position as the Alpha Dog. Actually, it’s bigger than that. He thinks I’m God. And of course, God doesn’t always give you what you want. Sometimes you can’t go lick the baby in the stroller and sometimes you can’t try to jump in the hammock that your favorite neighbor set up in his garage and that’s the way it is. God is all-knowing, and Mookie accepts this because he has faith. Every walk with God is essentially a good walk, circular or linear. Just like my own relationship to my own God, he’s a stubborn mule and his God loves him anyway. Besides, only a loving and benevolent God would know about a place like the Harlem Valley Rail Trial. 

My relationship with the Rail Trail predates my relationship with my dog, never mind my human child. It goes back to the year 2000, the first year that Trisha and I took a full week of vacation in Columbia County. It was three days of camping with the hippies on Long Hill at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale (what a scene, man) then four days in cabin GH1 at Taconic State Park. Back then, everything was new to us and everything was the greatest thing ever. (“Hey! The Methodist Church is having a chicken barbecue!” “There’s a school near here where kids learn about organic farming!” “Did you know Copake had a lake? It’s huge!” “Look at the price on this house! Two acres!”). And since (blessedly in retrospect) we didn’t have any magic rectangles with Internet connections while we were there, the first two days back home on Long Island would be filled with wasted hours looking up every single thing I’d come across in Columbia County the week before. (“Hey honey! Those cows we saw last week on North Mountain Road? Brown Swiss!”). 

I walked up to the Depot Deli the morning after we checked into cabin GH1, and there it was, something to do, forever: A paved path that hadn’t been there before with a sign explaining that I was entering the Harlem Valley Rail, which “derives its name from The New York and Harlem Railroad, chartered in 1831 and opened in lower Manhattan in 1832 with horse-drawn cars. In 1842, the line crossed the Harlem River, and in 1973 joined the New York Central Railroad, becoming known as the Harlem Division. By 1852, it extended north to the village of Chatham. In all, the line stretched 131 miles of track. What you see today while hiking and biking on this recreationway is a glimpse of Columbia and Dutchess Counties as thousands of paying customers saw the countryside until a little more than two decades ago, when passenger service was discontinued between Dover Plains and Chatham in 1972.”

Post-vacation research uncovered that this had all been developing under my radar for years. The first segment of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail opened in 1996, eventually connecting Wassaic, the last stop on Metro-North, and hence the southern end of the Rail Trail, to Amenia, which is a nice, little place. A connection from Amenia to Millerton, an equally nice, somewhat bigger little place than Armenia, came later, but I wasn’t hip to any of it at the time, as these were just the towns I passed through on the drive north and I wasn’t going to be in them again until my drive south. I also learned that there are a whole lot of people who have volunteered a whole lot of time and energy to building and maintaining this trail, and the guilt I feel at not being one of them is manifested annually to this day in the form of a charitable contribution to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association the week after Christmas.  

The Copake Falls to Valley View Road to Undermountain Road in Ancram section of the trail opened in 2000, just in time for me to stumble on to it that morning. The first thing I thought to myself as I began ambling along is I gotta bring my bike up here next year, though it was plain as the years passed and the Rail Trail Culture evolved that I’d be no match for serious fellows in black speedos and wicking shirts with bright yellow and orange patterns and calf muscles like beer kegs who’d often pass me by. No matter, I like my calf muscles as God made them, and for me the bike would be just a way to get to the places where the cool birds are. 

Birdwatching has always been one of my things, growing up on a creek and all. I had to know that those little ducks with the black and white heads who showed up in the winter were hooded mergansers, and not just  those little ducks with the black and white heads, and I had to know that they bred in wooded lakes, ponds in rivers in Canada and migrated to tidal creeks and estuaries all over the U.S., including mine. When I meet birds, I want to know their names and I want to know their stories.

That morning, I walked the first section of the trail, a little over a mile to Valley View Road and back again (while my fiancée, who was told only that I was walking to the Depot Deli for newspapers, waited back at the cabin, in days before I would’ve thought to take my cell phone just to walk to the Depot Deli). I walked over the bridge the spans the Bash Bish Brook, little knowing at the time that the swimming hole directly under that bridge would be my dog’s favorite spot someday, or that I’d be pushing a stroller across that bridge not four years later, or that I’d be following behind a red Radio Flyer tricycle on that bridge a couple of years after that, or that twenty years later I’d be riding across that bridge on one of the two bicycles that I bought on Craiglist from a guy who I’d exchange $350 with in the parking lot of the Pittsfield, Mass. Wal Mart so I wouldn’t have to keep lugging two bikes back and forth from Long Island, which I’m embarrassingly aware was a First World Problem. 

A little ways past the bridge, the west side of the trail opens up into a view of farmland sweeping up a gently rolling hill. Later, when I hit the trail at sunset, I found out why they had decided to put a bench there, as the sun sets directly behind that hill all summer. And I’ve got a thing for sunsets. On the east side is more farmland, but on a steeper climb, leading to the houses on the top of Valley View Road that are built into the side of Washburn Mountain, a point at which, if you can get a bike up the ridiculously steep hill that starts where the Rail Trail meets the road, whether by walking it up or with your overly-developed calf muscles, you can do a 30 mph coast about three quarters of a mile straight downhill and around a big turn right back to the Taconic State Park cabins. Just watch out you don’t get killed.  

In case you’re interested in trying the Valley View Downhill Challenge, this is where you’d disengage the brakes.

The morning I discovered the Rail Trail was a sweet, summer stunner and it was a Tuesday, so I pretty much had this whole thing to myself, and I knew Trisha wouldn’t be mad at me for wandering off once I told her what I’d found. While the spectacular views emerge in front of you, the trail is still lined with trees and bushes, and the birds were bursting at the seams. A line of thick brush along a farm or an open field or a meadow is what the good people at the Cornell Ornithological Society would tell you is “edge habitat.” 

I met some of my usual friends walking along the edge habitat that morning; cardinals, robins, sparrows, chickadees. My favorite bird, the grey catbird, was following me all down the trail, greeting me by name as he always does. “Johhhhnnnn!” I started to get the feeling that I’d be spending a lot of time here. 

At the point where the Rail Trail meets Valley View Road, the paved trail ends, and one has to follow a mostly uphill dirt road for about a half mile before reaching the next paved section that takes you south to Undermountain Road in Ancram. There are several properties along this dirt road. I may not have this story straight, but as I understand it, there’s a property owner who not only owns the road in front of his or her house but also the small meadow that looks out over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley (hence “Valley View”) on the other side of the road. Apparently, this property owner refused to allow the road to be paved. There are also benches set up to take in the Valley View, adorned with angry “POSTED!” signs on poles surrounding them in case you even thought about sitting on one of them. 

When the Harlem Valley Rail Trail is complete, it will run 46 miles from Wassaic to Chatham, and that half mile might be the only part that isn’t paved. The HVRTA has purchased 14 of the privately held miles from Copake Falls to Chatham, and NYS State Parks, who run the Rail Trail, are “in negotiation” for the other 22 miles. Knowing the way people are, they’re bound to run into a few more selfish types before they can connect the whole thing. Some of our neighbors on the bottom of North Mountain Road have the trail right in their backyards, and down in Millerton, there are houses you could jump into from it, and I don’t think anyone is being terrorized by gangs of thuggish nature enthusiasts. 

I can tell you two things: One, I have passed the property in question on Valley View Road probably fifty times over twenty years. It’s built into a hill and has lots of windows.   Every shade in every window has been pulled down every time I’ve gone past. Two, while riding past that in that meadow, I saw the biggest male deer I’ve ever met in person, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass that he was on private property. 

I didn’t continue on to the Undermountain Road section on my first visit to the trail that morning, again because I’d wondered off without telling Trisha, which I can attribute to less than a year of having to tell someone where I was going after going wherever I wanted whenever I felt like it for most of my adult life to that point. On the way back along the dirt road, in a heavily wooded area at the point where the rail trail to Downtown Copake Falls goes to the left and Valley View Road goes straight up in the air, I saw a wood thrush low in the bushes after following his call;  a deep, rich “bood-dood-a-weeeeee!” with bass in the “bood-dood” and treble in the “weeeeee!”. It’s a Morning in Copake Falls Sound, and like the nighttime sounds of bats chatting in the trees and coyotes howling at the full moon, I get homesick for it when I’m on Long Island. 

On the way back to Copake Falls, at the point where the sun goes down behind the hill, I saw a meadowlark singing his heart out from the top of an evergreen tree. I said screw the bike, I gotta come back here with a pair of binoculars. And Trisha.

I don’t know if it was that year, or two years later in ’02, when we walked the trail from Copake Falls to Undermountain Road to get in some intensive birding, early in the morning, heavily caffeinated and armed with binoculars and the Peterson Guide. I know it wasn’t ’01 because we were a little preoccupied with getting married that summer, and though we managed to squeeze in a couple of nights of camping out on the hill with the hippies at Falcon Ridge, we didn’t make it down to the park. We haven’t missed a year since then, and now we never miss a month, but I digress. 

The best birding turned out to be in a stretch with big trees adjacent to farmland most of the way, but with enough high trees along the trail itself for some kick-ass edge habitat. The catbird followed us along and called me by name. The wood thrush played their stereophonic flutes in the deep brush. All the cool songbirds were there: Little warblers and vireos that are only pass through Long Island in spring and fall all darting around here like they owned the place, swallows and flycatchers swooping over the fields while vultures and hawks hovered in circles above like guys cruising their hot rods around town. We found a whole family of cedar waxwings, Trisha’s favorite bird, with their new wave haircuts and their squeaky metallic “zeeet” call that sounds like feedback from tiny guitar amps. 

We took a lot of walks specifically to watch the birds back then. We followed people with very expensive spotting scopes around the pond at Jamaica Bay picking up pointers. I dragged the poor woman around the dunes on the West End of Jones Beach when she was six months pregnant, but we did see a saw-whet owl sleeping in a fir tree.  We spent my fortieth birthday circumnavigating Camusett Park and Target Rock Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Long Island. We saw lots and lots of birds that day, but the highlight was spotting a bluebird flying across a field. 

When I think back on that first walk to Undermountain Road with my gal, that will always be the day of the indigo bunting.

Indigo Buntings are bluer than bluebirds. They’re as blue as blue gets before it starts turning black. They’re the blue of the denim jacket you got for your 13th birthday. And they chirp a little song like an overly friendly storekeeper who’s had too much coffee. “Helloo! It’s a beautiful day! Nice to see you! Thanks for coming! Isn’t this great! Please! Look around!”. He sat on top of a bush in plain sight, no binoculars needed, and sang to us and showed off his magnificent blueness for as long as we wanted to look at him, and we looked at him for a long, long time. 

Indigo Bunting: Photo credit Wendy Paulson – Birds of Barrington.

Once we got into the baby business, we had to curtail the birding adventures a bit, but by that time we’d built a wildlife refuge on the creek in the backyard, and there were still lots of high trees around that have since been cut down, so we put out lots of seed and let the birds come to us. One snowy January night in the Early Aughts we had twenty-one cardinals visit the feeders at dusk, something that will never happen again, as their homes were all cut up with chain saws over the ensuing ten years. But up in Copake Falls, where time stands more still and the trees are still tall, there was no better place to push a stroller than up and down the Rail Trail. And when it was time for the guy in the stroller to start powering his own wheels, that was the place to do it. 

And since you can’t rightly stare at trees with binoculars at the same time you’re making sure your five-year old doesn’t ride his bike into a ditch, we started to really appreciate the stunning variety of wildflowers just as much as the birds on the trail. Summer is a hippie festival of color and fragrance up and down the trail, and you can eat the wild blackberries and raspberries you come across and I promise that you won’t get sick and die. 

My son loves the Rail Trail. It’s never not been part of his life. He went from three wheels to four wheels to two wheels in the blink of five summers. Then of course Dad had to teach him about the Valley View Road Downhill Challenge, just to scare the crap out of Mom. I loved sitting on our front porch at GH7 waiting for him to come whipping around that corner as he coasted in. We regularly biked the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road and back again route together as part of our week in the park. 

They’re there.

Speaking of Undermountain Road, it’s under mountains, the biggest ones in the part of the Taconic Range that overlooks the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. When you get to this section of the Rail Trail, you’re literally under Alander Mountain. The trailhead is just down the road. There’s another big boy called Brace Mountain that is easily accessed from Copake Falls. These mountains are not much taller than Baker Mountain in Saranac Lake, which I climbed twice in the last three years. When I was a whole lot younger, I climbed Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York State and a mile up in the air, at least five times. I have a brother who is four and a half years older than me who still climbs mountains whenever he gets the chance and is working on being an Adirondack 46’er. I’ve also got a pack of Marlboro 27’s on the patio table. 

My excuse for not climbing any Taconic Mountains to this point is that I didn’t have a day when I happened to be up that way and the weather conditions would make it worth the effort. Now that I’m a part-time resident, that excuse is trickling away. I know I could always ask one of the people I know in Copake Falls who are in their 80’s, and don’t have a pack of Marlboro 27’s on their patio table, to serve as a guide. They climb the local mountains all the time. There’s something in the water up there and I sure as hell hope it works for me. 

Less intimidating is the challenge of a bike ride from Copake Falls to Millerton on the Rail Trail, which should be possible by 2021, when the newest eight-mile section is completed. That would be 12 miles of mostly level or slightly downhill rolling, with a sandwich and a ride back from Trisha waiting at the Millerton parking lot. Hell, we could even make it to Wassaic, 22 miles away, as long as I get that sandwich and that ride. Dream big, that’s what I say. 

I could point out to anyone who might actually be using this document as a guide to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail that you could stop wasting your time with me right now and got to hvrt.org, but I could also tell you that the two and a half miles of trail south of Millerton to Coleman Station (I haven’t made it to Armenia or Wassaic) is just about the nicest walk or ride you’d ever want to take. Right after you pass through the pretty little town, and right before the trail opens up to some beautiful scenery, you go through a section that was originally created by blasting through solid rock, and the solid rock they didn’t blast remains on both sides of you, so it’s always about fifteen degrees cooler on this part of the trail than it is everywhere else, which was a blessing on the hot day that Jack and I finally got around to riding this trail last summer, which was the same day I inadvertently cooked a mouse in the oven, which is a story for Chapter 6. 

In 2010, ten years after the Copake Falls to Undermountain Road section opened up, the trail was extended north to Orphan Farm Road, which now borders the Shagbark Tree Farm. This is the stretch where you’ll find Mookie and I most often these days. It’s a nice mile and a half jaunt with what is probably the most spectacular scenery that the paying customers on Harlem Valley Line saw from the trains, although I can’t state that for a fact. There is also a small section across Route 22 from Black Grocery Road (the etymology of which I want nothing to do with) to the Herrington’s Hardware store parking lot in Hillsdale. Eventually, the plan is to build a pedestrian bridge over 22, connecting Orphan Farm Road to Black Grocery Road, thereby connecting everything from Wassaic to Hillsdale, which would give the trail 26.6 of its eventual 46.1 miles to Chatham. The motto of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association is “Chatham or Bust!”, and I take them at their word. 

The Orphan Farm Trail.

Meanwhile, the end of the Orphan Farm trail is where Mookie questions the need for walks to be linear rather than circular in Nature. His nose tells him that his second home in the country is right up there at the top of a very steep and narrow path that runs between the hill full of Happy Little Trees and a heavily wooded patch of the Rail Trail right-of-way leading into my neighbor’s backyards. This shortcut back to Trisha’s Mountain is easily accessible from the Orphan Farm parking lot. He’s sniffed it and seen and it for himself while sitting on his front porch up on the hill. As a matter of fact, we could make this a completely circular walk by traveling down North Mountain Road to the rail trail, then climbing back up this path right back to our mailbox. What he doesn’t know is that 1) It’s private property, which he wouldn’t care about anyway, and 2) Trisha has already seen a coyote and I’ve already seen a black bear emerge from that path in broad daylight, not at the same time of course (that’d probably be newsworthy, even in Columbia County), and if my stubborn dog thinks he can talk shit to animals that live in mountains like he does to dogs and cats and squirrels that live in Valley Stream he would be tragically mistaken. God watches after fools, little children and their dogs. 

And since Mookie can’t think figuratively, which is really one of the best things about him, I wouldn’t be able to explain to him that these one-way walks are sort of metaphoric. While I hope we’re walking together for a couple of more years, mortality will eventually come between us. He’s a 9-and-a-half-year-old dog and I’m a 57-and-a-half-year-old human doing his best to stay alive in the midst of a pandemic. The road we’re on is not a circle, and one of these days, we’ll have gone as far as we can go. 

But the good news is that neither one of us I really have anything left to prove to anybody. We’ve both been good boys, and now we’re just trying to live in the moment, both happy to be walking relatively pain-free. Our journey is our destination. We’re on the road to nowhere, but baby, it’s all right. Despite all of our shared internal conflict about leaving behind everything we’ve loved and marked back in Valley Stream, when we’re out on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, and the sun is shining and the birds are chirping and the breeze is blowing and the wildflowers are blooming, there’s just nowhere else we’d rather be. 

Copyright 2020 John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

Mookie Rescues A Kitten And Grandma Writes Her Own Final Script, Exits Stage Left: A Long-Winded Story

DSCN4732The last story I told my mother was about how Mookie the Dog rescued a kitten. It happened three years ago this week. Today, I’d like to tell it to you, just as she would’ve, with enough painfully intricate detail to make you want to run screaming.

Somewhere, probably within ten miles of here, this scrawny little black and white kitten has grown into a fat, healthy three-year old house cat, all because he had the good sense to follow a dog that should have been named Jesus. It’s a good little story, and you not only get to hear it, you get to know The Dude’s Grandma Duffy a little bit along the way. Anyone who ever met her would tell you it’s your lucky day.

If she had one glaring weakness, or one great strength, it would have to be the incredible twists, turns, detours, asides and complete non-sequiturs that my mom would take you on when she told a story. I never met anyone who didn’t like her, so I guess it was a strength. People enjoyed listening to her, she enjoyed listening to other people, and she remembered every single thing anyone ever told her. Therefore, if she were telling you a story about running into someone at a store, you would come away from the experience learning not only the person’s life story, but more than likely the history of the store as well, plus an overview of the inventory, some background on the owner and his employees, and the parking situation outside. But if you were, on any given weekday, trying to get work done, or take care of a child and his animals, make dinner and clean the house all at the same time, and the phone rang, and Mom had a story, and you didn’t want to be rude, because you were rude last time, you would be sucked down into the abyss, and the hands of the clock would start spinning around like they do in cartoons and old movies.

So we had our fights in her last couple of years before she died because it drove me crazy to get stuck on the phone when I had pressing matters to see to. I’m really not a phone guy in the best of circumstances. But the problem was that Mom had nothing to see to, nothing to do really except be in pain from Parkinson’s Disease. And though her body was shot, her mind remained sharp as a needle until her last days. She became a prisoner of a body that didn’t work anymore. Yet she had spent her whole life busy at something, and had always had an innate need to connect to other people, to be part of the action. She raged like hell against the dying of the light. Her mind was a housefly trying to get through a plate glass window.

In 2001, after 46 years in Valley Stream, she and my father moved from Duffy’s Creek to a “life care community” in Suffolk County, about 50 miles from here, and sold the house to us. If you go to live in a life care community, you start in a cottage, then you go to an assisted living facility, then you go to the skilled nursing floor, then you slide into the back of a Caddy. Mom went through the four steps of life care in the space of 11 years, the last three in two years. And through those years, most of our catching up was done over the phone. The problem was that a lot of the time I had nothing to share except the stress of the daily grind, which was not the slightest bit interesting to me, so I really didn’t want to be on the phone. More than once I was unnecessarily nasty about it. But she got even. She died.

Oh, and I should mention that no one was allowed to call HER between 7:00 and 7:30 weeknights because she’d be watching Jeopardy, which I got her hooked on. My entire goal in life some weekdays in the winter is to get to the point where I can sit down on the comfy couch and watch Jeopardy on the DVR. Some days that doesn’t happen until 9:30 or so. Mom never learned how to work a DVR. It wasn’t her style. But God forbid you went a week without calling, or not calling back in due time if you let the answering machine pick it up because you were tossing chicken cutlets. She’d attack with all the Irish Mother guilt in her arsenal.

So I made it a point to call her on Thursday August 16, 2012 and tell her what happened that day. I knew she would appreciate it, and I had time to talk, and to listen if necessary. It was a story about Mookie, and she loved Mookie. She would introduce him to people when he came out to see her at the life care community as “the youngest member of my family.” And Mookie fell in love with Grandma Duffy instantly because she was the first person to sneak him human food under the table, specifically McDonald’s french fries. Mookie loves everybody, but after those french fries he always had a special place in his heart, and under the table, for Grandma Duffy.

Mookie's first Meet and greet with Grandma and Grandpa Duffy in July of 2011
Mookie’s first Meet and Greet with Grandma and Grandpa Duffy in July of 2011

Mookie's last visit to Grandma and Grandpa, August 2012
Mookie’s last visit to Grandma and Grandpa, August 2012

On the morning of Thursday August 16th, 2012, Mookie and The Dude and I were walking on the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek. On our side, most of the backyards have a little buffer zone between the property line and the creek (we encroached on it and built a wetland garden). On the Left Bank, there’s a path that starts at a four-lane road and winds along the creek, with short streets dead-ending along it. It used to connect to a bridge that connected to another path that connects to Valley Stream South High School, which never did me any good. They took the bridge down about ten years ago because (they said) it was getting old and unsafe. The high school kids had trouble behaving themselves on the path leading to the bridge. Thirty years worth of Valley Stream kids had found fun and trouble hanging out by that bridge, I among them. Lots of people got real nostalgic when they took it down.

So there we were, down by where the bridge isn’t, and Mookie was sticking his nose under the gigantic holly bushes at the end of Elderberry Road. Under one of the bushes I heard a tiny little, “mew!” And my very first reaction was, “oh, crap.” This whole area is rife with stray cats (You can’t swing a cat without hitting one). My parents actually fed a small colony of them at one point, until it became a large colony. They kept one cat that moved out east with them and ended up living 15 years or so.

We have three cats.  They live inside. The last thing I needed was for The Dude to find a litter of kittens under a bush.

Mookie heard the “mew!. He knew exactly what he had found and was very excited about it, as you could imagine. But The Dude didn’t hear it at first. (Sometimes he’s in a different stratosphere, even when he’s five feet away). I gave Mookie a quick pull and a “leave it!” He looked at me and expressed his disappointment and reluctant acceptance, as only he can. We started walking onward where the path veers away from the Creek and goes behind some houses.

mother-298x225And the kitten came out of the bushes and started following Mookie along the path. I immediately thought of the “Are You My Mother?” story. The little bird is left alone in the nest and flies around asking people, and things, if they are his mother. That story had a happy ending. I wasn’t feeling too good about this one.

We turned around and walked back towards the kitten, who at that point turned chicken and ran back under the bushes. There were no other cats to be seen. Although I didn’t express my thought process to The Dude, if figured the kitten had been either separated from or abandoned by it’s mother, and he would probably just lay under that bush and starve and roast until he was food for whatever eats dead kittens around here. Unless we rescued him.

And we couldn’t rescue him. In theory, sure, but in reality, well, we have three cats. Sunny, the oldest, is a very mellow zen master. She’s even trained Mookie to stop chasing her and sit his fat behind down when she comes in the room. They keep each other company. Then there’s Allie. Allie is a sweet, fat little ball of fur who is scared of her own shadow, and only leaves the attic at night when Mookie is asleep on The Dude’s bed behind a closed door.

Gansta Cat.

And then there’s Lyle. Lyle is gangsta His back legs are too long, so he even walks gansta. Or really, more like a gunslinger that just got off his horse. He spends a lot of time catting around at night, until he gets bored and  harasses me out of a dead sleep to get up and feed him. He does this every single night. And once he wakes me up, usually by batting at my eyelids or dropping his ass directly on my face, I have to pee anyway, ’cause I’m a guy in his 50’s.  So I get up and I feed the cats. It’s gotten to the point where I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m on work nights, even though I don’t have to get up until 5, just so I know I can avoid being attacked and get back to sleep for a few hours. It’s a sad state of affairs, but Lyle decided from the beginning that I was his mother, and he’s very attached to me, although I regularly call him abusive names. Therefore, of course, Lyle is highly jealous of Mookie, who will follow me, follow me wherever I may go. Lyle will be happy to try and rip Mookie a new snout if he gets too close. And Mookie can’t understand how anyone could possibly not like him, ’cause everybody loves Mookie, so he keeps coming back for more abuse. Lyle and Mookie have a classic dysfunctional co-dependence.

Mookie can't understand while Lyle acts like such a jerk. And yes, I have repainted that radiator cover.
Mookie can’t understand while Lyle acts like such a jerk. And yes, I have repainted that radiator cover.

So right away I knew that I was not going to be able to adopt this kitten, because Lyle would more than likely kill him the first chance he got. He’s a stone-cold killa gansta gunslinger. Ask the mouse that got into the house once. Actually, you can’t. He’s dead. Lyle snuffed his ass.

But I called Trisha at work and asked her anyway. Honey, Mookie found a kitten and it followed us, can we keep him?

Now, mind you, Trisha will be the first to tell you that she had planned to become a crazy cat lady but married me instead, AND she had three cats when we met, whom I loved as my own for the rest of their seven years. So we’re talking about a woman who has a soft spot for cats. And this is what she said (verbatim) when I told her what we found and asked if she wanted a fourth cat: “NOOOOOOOO!!! ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! NO WAY!!!”

So I called my pals at Broadway Vet in Hewlett. I knew that they often had kittens for adoption sitting in a cage in the waiting room. And I knew that Dr. Glenda Wexler had a soft spot for Mookie, and wouldn’t want to disappoint him. They reluctantly agreed to take the kitten if I could catch him. No problem. I had a pet carrier, plenty of cat food and a dog named Jesus. The thought occurred to me, though, that the mother might come back for the kitten, and that I was sticking my nose into cat business that shouldn’t concern me. But I also knew that being a feral cat is nothing but a one-way ticket to Palookaville, so it was in the kitten’s best interest to leave the wilds of the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek behind.

We drove over with the cat carrier, the cat food and Jesus the Dog, who of course found the kitten right away. I had The Dude hold Mookie while I got the kitten to eat some cat food off a plate, then put the plate inside the crate. And just like that, the kitten was in the back seat of a minivan on the way to his new life in the Five Towns, no longer a feral animal. The entire process took about an hour. The kitten was adopted within a week. He has no doubt grown into a beautiful cat, and I wish we could’ve kept him. But I like Lyle well enough, even if he is an asshole.

The first person I wanted to tell my Dog Rescues Cat story to was my mother. I called her that night and we had a nice long chat, and she listened to every word of the story and asked the right follow-up questions and pressed for the right details. I knew that this would give her a story to tell my father, who takes lots of naps and doesn’t like staying on the phone very long. Then she could tell her neighbors, and the people who took care of her, and her dinner companions at the community center (which we called “The Big House”) where she and my father ate every night. Then she could tell the waitress and the busboy. It was a good story. A yellow lab rescues a kitten. You can’t beat that. I knew that she would see that it was conversational gold. And now it was hers.

Less than 24 hours later, on Friday August 17th, my sister called. Mom had been taken to the hospital. They had found her “non-responsive.” I immediately knew it was the beginning of the end from just those words. In 82 years, no one had ever described Joan Duffy as non-responsive.

And I had a decision to make. The next day, Saturday August 18th, was or annual one-day trip upstate for Copake Falls Day. What is Copake Falls Day? I’ll let Mookie explain in his words: “We go for a long ride in the car, we say hi to a lot of people, we go swimming, we walk around, we sit in the shade, then finally we walk up a hill where there’s music playing and people hand you big slabs of barbecued meat, which turns out to be what Mookies like best. Then you sleep in the car all the way home.” That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. We haven’t missed it since they started doing it seven years ago.

I knew Mom was going to die, but nobody had officially told me that yet. I figured the worst that could happen is she would slip away during the 16 hours we’d be unavailable, and if she did, I could rationalize to myself that because Mookie rescued a kitten, and we had a nice, long phone conversation about it, and there was nothing she loved more than a nice long phone conversation, not to mention Mookie, so I could always say that we went out on a high note. I just didn’t feel the need to rush to her bedside. I thought of Albert Camus’ character in “The Stranger”  – which of course Mom turned me on to – who is found to be a menace to society because he didn’t show emotion when his mother died.

But she wasn’t dead yet. And I have two older brothers and two older sisters. Mom would be covered for Saturday, and I’d be out there as soon as I could on Sunday.

So how did I know she was going to die? Well, In the true spirit of long-winded storytelling, it’s important to interject two details before we go on here. One is about her mother, my Grandma Scully. Julia Scully was a widow from 1958 until she died in 1989. She decided shortly before my grandfather died to drag him out of Astoria, Queens and follow my parents to the Creek in Valley Stream when the house next door to them was up for sale. William Scully died of complications from diabetes within a year and Julia Scully stayed next door and systematically drove my parents nuts for the better part of three decades. When the paramedics carried Grandma Scully out of her house in 1983 after suffering a stroke, she lingered in a nursing home for six years until she died at the age of 98. And my mother told me, and hundreds of other people more than likely, that Julia “thought she was going to write her own script. She thought she’d die in that house and never have to leave it.” And the point was, of course, that, as my English Teacher, Devout Catholic mother would say, quoting the gospel of Matthew, “we know not the day nor the hour.”

Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll - used without permission)
Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll – used without permission)

The other detail takes us to the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. And buckle yourself in, ’cause this a big detour. Mohonk is a stunningly beautiful place. It has no equal. It’s also stunningly expensive to stay there. But Mom didn’t care. She heard about it from a friend and decided in 1982 that she and my father would stay there to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Then in 1992, she dipped into the cash that Grandma Scully had piled in her house by collecting rent from the buildings she owned in Astoria (my father called it “The Scully Fortune”) to bring the entire family, fifteen of us at the time, up to stay for a weekend. Like a bunch of friggin’ Kennedys we were. A big Irish Catholic family all gathered up in suits and dresses for dinner, playing tennis and going to the spa or out on canoes on the lake during the day.  I got to see how really wealthy people relaxed and had fun on vacation. I have to say, they have it down. Mom obviously had the time of her life because we did it again ten years later for their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2002. There were 18 of us by that time. We had a wonderful time. I don’t want to know what it cost.

But that was Mom. She loved a good party, and she thought it was worth it. My father, bless his soul, was madly in love with her from the day she helped him out in 10th grade math class at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City. If she wanted it, he did what he could to make it happen. When they left the city to come to the suburbs, Mom said she wouldn’t buy a house unless she could see water from it. That’s why you’re reading duffyscreek.com. It was the best water they could afford at the time. Us too.

So when 2012 rolled around, and Mom was already separated by a floor in the skilled nursing building from Dad because he couldn’t take care of her anymore, and against the advice of just about everybody, she said fuck it, we’re all going back to Mohonk for a 60th Anniversary Reunion. Matching tee shirts and everything.  She tortured my brother who handles the finances and my sister who handles the health care for the better part of the year over making the arrangements. She was going to get back there if it killed her. My father’s opinion? Whatever your mother wants.

They were transported from Long Island to New Paltz in the back of an ambulette. They were accompanied by two home health care aids, who stayed with my parents the entire weekend. They were delightful women. Mom had a list of everything she wanted to do while she was up there from Friday night until Sunday afternoon, including having somebody push her around the grounds and going to the outdoor picnic on Sunday afternoon.

And it rained more that weekend that it rained all summer. It rained buckets, for hours at a time. And Mom was pissed, as only Mom could get pissed, until I told her to look around. We were on the porch of the Mountain House, with the rain dancing off the lake below and off the roof above us. And everybody was there, because it was raining, and there was nowhere else to go. At the 40th and 50th Anniversary Weekends, my brothers and sisters and their families went their own way during the day and met up at meals. Now we were all stuck together, just talking, enjoying each others’ company. But I told her, If the sun was shining you’d be sitting here by yourself. You paid for all these people. Now you get to see them. And more importantly, you get to talk to them. Enjoy it.

My parents' 60th Anniversary Dinner at The Mohonk Mountain House, July 19th, 2012
My parents’ 60th Anniversary Dinner at The Mohonk Mountain House, July 19th, 2012

She thanked me for changing her attitude. And though the pain she was in wouldn’t quit, and it was tough for her to keep up, she knew she had lived her dream. She had pulled it off. She got the band together to rock Mohonk Mountain House one last time.

Mookie and The Dude and I went out to see them about a week and a half before she died, a few days before I got to tell her the incredible saga of how her favorite dog rescued a kitten. We took her and my fahter outside to the patio of the nursing home – it drove her crazy that she couldn’t go outside any time she damn well pleased – and we sat and we talked.

And we did go to Copake Falls Day and did everything we always do and nobody died that day. The next day, Sunday August 19th, I brought my father to the hospital to see my mother. It was not the first time I had done that. The other times, she got a little better and they released her. This time, as my father sat with my mother, the doctor consulted me with the results of all the tests they had done. The short version was that she had pneumonia, and when combined with all the things that were already wrong with her, she would probably be gone within a week. And then I got to walk back into the hospital room where my mother slept and my father watched, and I, the forty-nine year old baby of the family, got tell him that the woman he had loved for nearly 70 years was dying.

I tried for a good five minutes. He wasn’t getting it. He didn’t want to get it. I went to get the doctor. He tried for another five minutes. Dad finally acknowledged what we were telling him. The doctor left the room and we sat in silence for as minute. He didn’t cry. I don’t think I cried. We’re not really criers. He just said something that will stay with me forever, something I say every time I try to acknowledge someone’s grief and express my sympathies. You know what my father said when he found out my mother was dying? He said: “No matter how much time you have, you always want a little more.”

Mom woke up long enough to talk to me a little bit. She was back to being responsive, at least for about ten minutes of every hour. I told her that I we had gone to Copake Falls Day the day before and she understood, and she was happy to hear it. She’d never been to Copake Falls, but she knew I loved it, so she loved it. After I gave them some time alone, I brought Dad back home. On the way out of the hospital, we stopped for a little snack and a coffee to go for the driver at the cafeteria. My dad wandered away for a minute and came back with the biggest black and white cookie I’ve ever seen in all my life. I thought that was a very intelligent response to situation. A yin-yang full of sugar. I drove home to tell Joanie Duffy’s youngest daughter-in-law and youngest grandson that they had to come back with me tomorrow and say goodbye.

We wanted to do something special, and since The Dude was seven years old and was really impressed with his own reading ability, we prepped him to read one of Mom’s favorite poems to her, W.B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Inisfree.” Once he started reading, she started reciting it from memory right along with him, right through to the end. It was an amazing thing to witness. Mom was an high school English teacher – “a goddamn good English teacher”- as she told me in confidence on her deathbed. She loved literature, but she also loved all kinds of music and all kinds of art, and she kept everything she had ever experienced in her head right until the last day. I could’ve played “Name That Tune” with her as she was dying of pneumonia and she would’ve batted 1.000.

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Trisha took The Dude for a little walk around the hospital so Mom and I could have some one on one time. That fifteen minutes or so was great theater. There were certain people in her inner circle that Mom would feel comfortable enough with that she would curse like a sailor when she got together with them. I was fortunate to be one of those people. We regularly laced our conversations with f-bombs and characterized people as assholes and pieces of shit, usually Republicans. So I should have been ready for her last little bit of passive-aggressive snarkiness, as it was one of the great gifts she passed on to her youngest boy.

I told her I was sorry. I was sorry for all the times I got annoyed at her, that I should have been more patient, no matter what I was up against. because the pain she had suffered in the last ten years of her life was a monster, all the more monstrous because her mind had stayed so sharp. I was especially sorry for not taking the time to call more often, or for chasing her off the phone. “Or lettin’ that goddamn answering machine pick up.” she added. Yeah, that too.

I told her I was sorry and I hoped she could forgive me. She looked straight at me through all the pain and the fog and hung the wiseass smirk that I learned so well from her. “Naaaaah,” she said, “Fuck you. I’m takin’ that one to my grave.”

I believe I replied with something along the lines of, “well played, old lady.” It didn’t matter. She had a heart as big as an Adirondack mountain, and she loved me with all of it, every day from May of 1963 on. We shared music and poetry and baseball and art and gardening and animals and food and all the things that make your life your life. She taught me what living is. But she also took no shit. She’d hit you with the verbal frying pan to the head with no mercy if you had it coming. And I had it coming.

Later, she told my sister, “I think this is really hard on John. He’s still my baby you know.” She knew.

By the time I got out on Wednesday, she wasn’t talking anymore. They had moved her from the hospital back to hospice care at the nursing home so my father could be with her. They talked Wednesday morning, somebody took Dad to lunch, and when they got back, she wasn’t talking anymore. and she died late Thursday night. I didn’t bring Mookie to see her before she died, because of all the people who would’ve said what the hell are you bringing a dog in here for, but I brought him to see Grandpa as we all gathered Friday morning to start the send off.

She had a great turnout for an 82-year-old woman who had moved 50 miles from her home. Well over a hundred people. One of her oldest friends, a nun, said to me, “we have a new saint.”

I can’t help it. She made me what I am. I smiled and chuckled and said, “well…I don’t know about that.” Not quite sure how the nun actually took that, but she smiled back.

It was tough on The Dude. I could see it in his eyes when he saw her at the wake. I lost my own Grandma Duffy – Molly Gerahty Duffy of County Longford, Ireland- in 1971, at the same age he was in 2012. They wouldn’t let me see her at the wake. I had to sit outside. But I snuck a look at her lying in the coffin, and the image stays with me to this day. We decided that there was no point to shielding The Dude from anything. And it was actually gratifying to see him show raw, unguarded, profound human emotion, and gratifying to know that he loved his Grandma Duffy deeply and would never forget her. She had worried that he would never get to know her. She worried about a lot of stuff that never happened. She passed that one on to me as well.

I sang and played one of her favorite songs at her funeral: “Morning Has Broken”. I also wanted to perform “Four Strong Winds”, which she loved: “‘Cause our good times are all gone / and I’m bound for movin’ on/ I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” (How many people do you know whose mothers asked them to mix them CD’s?). The nice people at the Catholic church would not accept “Four Strong Winds” at a funeral mass, but “Morning Has Broken” is on the acceptable list – “in the canon” as they put it to me. I thought it was kind of funny that it was written by a guy named Yusef Islam.

And when it was all over, when she was buried in the Scully Plot at St. John’s Cemetery, I was able to let my mind wander across the whole course of events of her final month, and back over her whole life. I don’t know where I was when a magical thought occurred to me. I was probably in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek that she loved so much. I thought about her incredibly stubborn insistence that she get to The Mohonk Mountain House that summer. I thought about how she rolled her eyes when she talked about how her own mother believed she could dictate the terms of her own death.

“But you did.” I said to her memory. “You went out like a rock star. You knew your body could never handle that trip, and you were in awful pain the whole time, but you did it anyway, ’cause nobody was going to tell you you couldn’t live while you were still alive. You wrote your own script.”

Well played, old lady.

My Mom in the backyard on Duffy's Creek in 1984. She's 54 in this picture, two years older than I am now. Much thanks to cousin Ann Marie Lenihan for digging this one up.
My Mom in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek in 1984. She’s 54 in this picture, two years older than I am now. Much thanks to cousin Ann Marie Lenihan for digging this one up.

Poor Guy

by John Duffy

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They don’t whine. They don’t bore you with the details of their assorted aches and pains. There’s no such thing as a hypochondriac dog. That’s why they’re called noble beasts. And why we’re not noble beasts. They don’t curse when they feel the pain. They don’t yell at the nearest person. The worst you’ll hear is a high-pitched “YOLP!!!”. Last November, when Mookie got attacked by a pit bull who chomped into his ear and wouldn’t let go, he made that sound over and over again until I punched the pit bull in the face, The owners who stood there doing nothing, were spared. Although The Dude, who witnessed the attack, gave them a nice earful as I tended to Mookie. And he kept Mookie’s bloody ear in a cold compress all the way to the vet’s office. I was proud of him. Still, I’m haunted to this day by the sound of Mookie screaming “YOLP!!!” until I got the dog off of him. Bleeding from his ear, probably scared and most certainly still in pain, he didn’t say a word from there on. And it was a forty-five minute drive to the vet’s office. Once the initial pain was over, he just looked at me – with those eyes- as if to say, “Why? Why is there evil?”

That particular incident happened at Stump Pond in Blydenburgh State Park, Smithtown, Long Island, where a lot of smart people bring their well-trained dogs, and as it turned out, two stupid people brought an untrained dog one time. Not knowing the stupid people had joined us that afternoon, I was lulled into a false sense of security and let Mookie go swimming without the 15-foot extended leash I usually use.  He went over to say hi to some people around a cove and their dog chomped into his ear. The whole experience was right awful, and it took Mookie a little while to trust dogs again. He still gets nervous when dogs sniff at his ear.  And of course, besides the trauma of seeing my friend in pain, it turned out to be a $400 mistake. I love my vet, but that was a lot of money. And of course I said I was going to get pet health insurance after that and never got around to that.

And that blatant act of procrastination may have cost me $325 last night, but I’m not sure if “hotspots” are covered. Your hotspots allow you to read this. Lucky you. A labrador retriever’s hotspots are misery. Dog hotspots are technically known as moist dermatitis, because they’re a skin infection that is made worse by moistness. Like if your dog jumps into his pool after a good long walk then takes a nap in the air conditioning. Hotspots are also called pyrotraumatic dermatitis because the dog makes them worse by scratching and licking at the wound. (I’m sure some of you have pyotraumatic troubles of your own. I know I do). Hotspots are common among dogs with thick undercoats during warm weather. As I understand it, from how the nice vet explained it to me last night, all the bacteria in the dog send messages to each other to let each other know the presence of a small wound, and suddenly there’s a bacteria flash mob. And it can happen in a matter of hours.

Mookie started with a little pimple on the side of his face on Friday afternoon. it might have been a bug bite or a cat scratch or a dog nip – I couldn’t quite tell. It looked like a pimple. Then it got bigger. Within a day, it was oozey and bloody and quite disgusting at that. Fortunately, dogs don’t spend a lot of time looking in mirrors, so he couldn’t see how horrible he looked, though I doubt that would make a difference to a noble beast. He didn’t scratch at it too much, but he kept looking at me sort of helplessly. He didn’t say “YOLP!!!” but he was trying to tell me how much it hurt. And I couldn’t tell him that I was staying in denial of another giant vet bill for as long as I could.

My denial lasted until we got back from visiting Grandma in Point Lookout on Sunday afternoon. The entire side of Mookie’s face was covered in matted blood and the oozey mass was huge and spreading. At that point, I had no idea it was a hotspot. I had heard of them when I was researching labradors, but he’d never had one before. So I had no idea what was going on with my silent, noble friend. All I knew is I didn’t want to see him suffer.

My own vet’s office was closed. Another vet across town, who friends of mine have raved about, is open 24 hours a day. I called them and explained why I wanted to bring Mookie in, and just tell me now what the emergency fee is. It’s $135. Trisha said, “It’s Mookie. Take a credit card.” I told them I’d be over in fifteen minutes.

Mookie didn’t seem like he was in too much pain once he had new sensory input. Lots of pee-mail messages outside the building. A cat in a cage in the waiting room. A receptionist that called him sweetie and came down to eye level. And a guy walking around the waiting room with tears in his eyes, who didn’t want to acknowledge either one of us. And I didn’t want to acknowledge that I will more than likely be that guy someday. I don’t know what was going on with the guy’s dog, but I knew we were in for a wait, and I accepted that.

They put us in a very small, very warm examination room about a half hour into the wait. An assistant came in and took Mookie’s vitals. While we waited another fifteen minutes, I started googling and read about all sorts of horrible growths and basal cell tumors and the like. I was starting to feel pushed off-course. Mookie was concerned about the noises of animals and people he couldn’t see. We both concentrated on breathing.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later we saw the vet, who kept me hanging for a good ten more minutes before announcing “moist dermatitis, also known as a hotspot.” So that’s what a hotspot looks like. Duly noted. My dog’s not going to have surgery or die today. All good. Now what do you do about it and how much?

The first thing they do is shave and clean the affected area, which is a very good thing. Payment for emergency professional diagnosis and wound treatment, plus a bottle of antibiotics. All to be expected. In my head I was at about $225. The vet took Mookie into a back room to shave and clean up his face. I started googling again while I waited.

You know what works for hotspots? Gold Bond Medicated Powder. And tea bags. You know what else works? A $52 dollar, two-ounce bottle of Nolvasan/HB101/DMSO, plus a $38 dollar, 60 milliliter bottle of Gentocin Topical Spray plus a $36 cone of shame. Total bill? $401 dollars.

Ok, for starters, he’s not really scratching at it so let’s skip the $36 cone. It’s just going to drive him nuts. Ok, Mr. Duffy, that’s your choice, but if he scratches at the wound and opens it it will take longer to heal. You think? Secondly, once I begin giving the dog antibiotics from the $95 bottle I just bought, we can’t I just treat him with tea bags and Gold Bond Medicated Powder? I’ve seen both remedies listed in five websites in the time I’ve been sitting here. Well, Mr. Duffy if you don’t want the medication we can make an adjustment there.

$75 of adjustments later ( I sucked it up and bought the Nolvasan) Visa was nice enough to lend me $325, at a billion percent interest compounded every second, and I settled the bill with the vet’s office. They were all thoroughly professional, nice people. And because of them I know a hotspot when I see one and hopefully I won’t see another one anytime soon.

We have a little joke around here: When Mookie is panting a hot day, or we’re leaving and we’re not taking him with us, or something’s happening and he doesn’t know what it is (which happens a lot), I’ll look at him, and say “poor guy!” And Trisha, imagining Mookie’s thoughts at that moment, will say, “Am I a poor guy? Why am I a poor guy? I don’t feel like a poor guy. Why do you keep saying that?”

He’s not a poor guy. He has a family that loves him and showers him with attention. He gets to go for long walks and rides in the car, and he gets big hugs and butt scratchies and belly rubs and treats and chewy bones and comfortable places to nap. And there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for him if he’s suffering, except get blatantly ripped off. Because he’s our noble beast.

I’m a poor guy.

Call That Dog Jesus: The Story of Mookie the Yellow Lab

DSCN4413This is the story of Mookie Dog. It’s a really good story about a really good dog, but it takes awhile for him to show up. To tell it right, I have to start the story five years ago at Taconic Valley Lawn and Garden Supply and True Value Hardware on Route 23 in Hillsdale, NY, a few miles up the road from our summer vacation cabin at Taconic State Park in the small, magical hamlet of Copake Falls, NY. Then I have to take a big detour to my childhood, with a stop in 1986 before coming all the way back to the last five years. I can only ask you to stick with it. If you like a good dog story, I believe I’ve got one you’ll enjoy today.

As for Taconic Valley Lawn Care and True Value Hardware, heretofore known simply as “the hardware store”, I always make it a point to visit while we’re staying at the cabin in Copake Falls. There’s always some excuse why I have to go walk around this great little hardware store once a year. This past year it was because the coffee maker at the cabin sucked and we forgot to bring the one from home, and I regarded that as affront to all that’s good. Without coffee, my life is just not sustainable, but I digress. This is about dogs. I’ll stay on topic.

The hardware store has a resident dog, an “Irish” Jack Russell Terrier named Darcy. There’s a reason I put “Irish” in quotes, which I’ll get to later. Darcy is a great little dog, and she had a face that reminded me of the only dog I’d owned to that point, Ace the beagle mix. Ace was the nicest thing my parents ever did for me, and they did thousands and thousands of nice things for me. I bugged them for years to get a dog. I really wanted a beagle, first because Snoopy was a beagle, second because every beagle I met made me want a beagle. One summer day in 1971, they went on a secret mission to Animal Haven in Queens Village and surprised their 8 year-old boy that afternoon with a year-old dog with big brown eyes and a happy smile. He was named Ace because it was nickname the older guys like my brother were calling each other and I thought it sounded cool. You think a lot of things when you’re eight.

Ace lived for fourteen years, until I was 22. In his younger years he caused a lot of trouble. He had accidents on the kitchen floor more times than I could count, and every time he did, my poor parents, cleaning up a big puddle of piss off their linoleum before dragging themselves out to work, screamed at him and screamed at me, because that’s all they could think to do. Ace stole food whenever he could, he ate the food Herman the cat left behind and got the last piece of everything I ate, and he got very, very fat. He bit a couple of kids in the neighborhood, but they had it coming. He liked my mother better than me because she was the main food and walk source, because I was an irresponsible little jerk, as all children are. But he was my dog. We played, we wrestled, we napped and we talked. For the first five years, we spent hours and hours and hours together, just hanging out. We both enjoyed watching game shows after school on cold winter days. And he was always happy to see me, even when I became a teenager and my attention turned to too many other things, none of them very good.

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When Ace was about seven or eight, he suffered a slipped disc in his neck and was in terrible pain, and he got my attention again. He couldn’t bend his neck at all and would yelp in pain just going down the front step for a walk. It was awful. I gave my parents all the money I had from various jobs and presents, about $300, when they suggested that they might have to put Ace down because an operation was prohibitively expensive. I wouldn’t hear it. He was my dog. He got better after the operation, but he got old fast after that. At the end, he was pretty much blind and deaf, and was losing control of his bladder. I wrote something nice about him right after he died that still exists written in a notebook somewhere. I’ll eventually dig that up and put on this blog someday, because I can.

Ace died in January of 1986. This is where the Mets come in, briefly. 1986 was the last time the Mets won the World Series. It was of course, the World Series when Mookie Wilson hit the ground ball up the first base line that went through Bill Buckner’s legs, one of the most famous moments in baseball history. Mookie was my favorite player on that team. As a matter of fact, I’ll submit that he was one of the coolest guys that ever played major league baseball. Having followed him from his rookie season, when the team was beyond bad, it was especially sweet that he was part of that ultimate Mets Magic Moment. It was also quite redemptive as he had also lost playing time to Lenny Dykstra that year, but I’m digressing again. The point is that I decided in October of 1986 that my next dog would be named Mookie, and told anybody who would listen. I had no idea that it would take 25 years before I finally got that dog. This is where Darcy at the hardware store in Hillsdale comes back to the story.

I was bonding with Darcy that particular July day in 2010 and so was our only-child son, The Dude, who was six years old. The fact that he was paying attention to this dog in a positive way was worthy of note to me, as he was well into the behaviors and thought-processes that got him labeled as high-functioning autistic, more than likely Asperger’s Syndrome even though it doesn’t exist anymore. We were dealing with daily meltdowns, at home and at school, and constantly correcting and explaining some really wacky behavior. Plus, his limited experience with dogs left him very wary of them. Dogs were just one more thing, of the many, many things, that The Dude couldn’t figure out how to integrate into his sensory-processing machine.

But I got to thinking: Maybe a dog was exactly what he needed. I asked the hardware store guy about Darcy’s breed. He said he was an Irish Jack Russell Terrier, which he said were smaller and calmer than regular Jack Russell Terriers. I took him at his word and started doing some Internet research when I got home. What I found out was that there was really no such thing as an Irish Jack Russell terrier, that it was actually a made up breed that people used to pass off little mutt dogs off as pure breeds. I wouldn’t tell that to the guy at the hardware store of course, and Darcy was still my prototype dog. Then my wife Trisha, God bless her, who had never had a dog, who was very unsure about getting a dog for The Dude, who knew that no matter what she said she would probably someday have a dog because apparently I told her on our second or third date that I was going to get another dog someday and name him Mookie, did what she does a lot. She said something that made a lot of sense and made me see things in a completely different way. This is what she said: “If you’re going to get a dog, get a real dog. Get a golden retriever or a lab. I don’t want a little yappy dog, and beagles howl.”

All right then. Back to the Internet. I started searching breeders. I decided Mookie would be a lab. Now there’s a contingent out there, and I very much support them, that would read this and wonder why I didn’t rescue a dog from a shelter, as there are so many that need rescuing. It’s a fair question, and here’s my answer: I had exactly one chance to get it right. With a kid as full of issues as The Dude was when he was six, and a former aspiring-crazy-cat-lady wife who believed she would merely tolerate a dog and not consider anything canine as a part of the family, I knew that it was a crapshoot to adopt a dog who I had not raised from a puppy, or a dog who had demons that were waiting to come out. No matter how well North Shore Animal League could match me with a dog, the control freak in me decided that I had to get a purebred Labrador Retriever, and I had to raise him from a puppy, and avoid the mistake my parents made, which was trusting a little kid, by nature irresponsible little jerks, to help take care of a dog. Mookie would be The Dude’s dog, but my responsibility.

I found a very nice breeder right in Copake who agreed to let us visit when we came back up that year in August. I told her point blank that I was not leaving with a puppy, that I only wanted our son to meet the dogs and that we’d be getting a puppy the next summer. She was totally cool with that, and I grew to find out that, in general, people that hang out with Labrador Retrievers are generally cool. So one morning we drove out to the breeder’s house on the country road that leads to Copake Lake, The Dude was already in a snit, though it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet, and he didn’t want to go meet the doggies. To make matters worse, when we pulled into the backyard, in our Ford Minivan That Broke Down A Lot, the first thing The Dude noticed was the Intex inflatable pool set up in the backyard. From the time he was an infant until he was 7 or 8, The Dude was petrified of all things inflatable, particularly balloons. You could not even say the words “inflate” or “deflate” in his presence without him scattering like a cat when the front door opens. So Daddy brings his six year-old boy to go meet the dogs and the puppies, and his six-year-old boy refuses to get out of the car. At this point the breeder lady was already at her back door coming out to greet us. I left the doors to the minivan open and walked up to her deck. Trisha stayed about halfway, or else as usual I was just walking faster.

The breeder lady had two big goofy labs with her at the back door, a yellow female and a black male, plus several barking dogs in a kennel alongside the house. She opened the door graciously so we could all come in and meet the dogs.

I need to point out the beautiful realization I had in the moment that followed. I had already read all about the amazing things that Labrador Retrievers do. People absolutely gushed about them. I’m one of those people now. I had immersed myself in the stories of how Labbies can bring all sorts of wonderful changes to the lives of autistic kids. I read about how they were noble, intelligent, empathetic dogs with the mystical, intrinsic power to completely transform people’s lives through their presence. One writer referred to them as “God’s most perfect creatures.” This is all true. But the most beautiful thing about Labrador Retrievers is that they can accomplish all of these things while being complete fucking goofballs at the same time.

The two big dogs saw the back door open. They looked out and saw a little boy in a van with the doors wide open. 180 pounds of black and yellow happy dog bolted past me in a blur, passed my shocked wife, ran like lightning off the deck, across the yard and right into the back seat of the van, where they proceeded to jump all over my son, lick his face up and down, then climb into the back of the van, where they waited for the ride that they assumed we were all going to take. The Dude did not know what to think, but he knew that he had to live in that moment, that being in a snit about an inflatable pool or God knows what doesn’t mean a damn thing to two big happy dogs who see a little boy in an open van. It was not all about him anymore. The dogs were drawing him out of his autism, whether he liked it or not. I knew at that moment that this getting a dog thing was a plan that would work. How well it would work, I had no idea yet.

The Dude finally came inside (as the big dogs had taken over the van) and we had a nice visit with the breeder and her husband and son. We held puppies and asked a lot of questions. My plan was to bring home a puppy the following July. (I have a job which affords me nine to ten weeks vacation every summer – I suppose it wouldn’t be difficult to guess what that is. Hint: Not a Ski-Lift Operator – so a puppy brought home in July would have intensive training for the first two months). The breeder highly recommended Glenerie Labradors of Saugerties, NY, just across the river from Copake. I had already seen their website. Their dogs are absolutely stunning. Big, gorgeous English Labs that looked like they should be floating in kayaks or exchanging Christmas Presents with well-groomed preppy people in LL Bean catalogues. Go look for yourself at www.glenerielabradors.com then come back and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.

Ah, you’re back. Where were we? I know: By November of that year, I had a contract with Ed and Cindy Noll of Glenerie Labradors for a Labrador puppy the following July. My first choice was a yellow lab, ‘cause they’re just so damn good-looking, and they have big, soft brown eyes like Ace the Beagle mix had (which very well may have been Labrador eyes). Plus we hoped for a male, since the dog would function as confidant to The Dude. On May 8, 2011, Glenerie Broadway Girl aka Roxy, a pretty-as-they-come black lab, had her first litter of puppies. The father was from a breeder called Brookberry Labradors in Northern New Jersey. His name was Perfect Impression aka Logan, a big yellow guy with a massive head and the expression of a crazy good old boy out on the town. One of those puppies, a yellow male, became Glenerie Gets By Buckner aka Mookie. The Noll’s, despite being true blue Yankee fans, were very good about that.

I only spoke to Ed Noll on the phone only once, but it was a memorable conversation. He told me about labs that had been bred as companions for war veterans suffering from PTSD. One dog in particular had figured out when his guy was about to have the recurring nightmare that he dreamed every night. The dog soon trained himself to wake the guy up every night before the nightmare started. Ed Noll did not realize that he was speaking to a man whose sleep had been interrupted every single night for the previous five years by a little boy flying down the stairs and jumping into bed between he and his wife. He may have known that the dog he was selling to that man would, within a year, learn to stay with that little boy all night, every night, either asleep next to him on the bed or laying by the door waiting quietly and patiently for the man to take him for downstairs for pee business and breakfast, while the boy slept on and learned to love his own room.

Ed Noll was also the first to pass on the credo that I now know many people besides myself live by, which is especially amusing to me, living on Long Island among thousands of little yappy terriers who all bark their heads off when they see Mookie coming: “Mr. Duffy,” he said to me, “if it ain’t at least 50 pounds, it ain’t a dog.”

Cindy Noll greeted me nine weeks later at their house in Saugerties. Ironically, she was giving me a dog named Mookie to take home and then heading down to the Bronx on a Metro North train to catch the Yankee game. The best piece of advice she gave me was this: “He’s a mound of clay. You can make him into whatever you want him to be.” This is something that you cannot say of human children.

My mound of clay and I spent a lot of time going over the basics in the Summer of 2011. And he learned them amazingly well. You hear about how smart these dogs are, but when you actually hang out with one day after day, it will blow your mind. My training approach was a little bit Cesar Milan, establishing that I was the boss through “exercise, deeescipline and affection”, a little bit Monks of The New Skete, making sure the dog knows he’s a dog and not your equal, and a lot of Pat Miller’s “Power of Positive Dog Training”, which suggest that there should always be something in it for the dog. I immersed myself in dog training books for a year and then just went with my instincts. I could’ve done better, but I could have also done a whole lot worse.

From the start, Mookie loved getting things right, and a “good boy” and a good rubby went as far as treats. Cindy told me, “he’s a cuddler.” and it became clear from the outset that Mookie would always tolerate and often enjoy being hugged, dogpiled, scratched and belly-rubbed by The Dude, as well as myself and the entire rest of the human race. From the beginning, he has been all about pleasing people and trying to do things the way we liked them done. He never chewed furniture, he has never taken food that wasn’t offered to him, he had maybe three accidents before he was perfectly housebroken and he has never showed one iota of aggression towards people besides a low growl when someone walked too slow past the front window or otherwise seems out of place.

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Within four weeks, he learned Sit, Stay, Wait, Lie Down, Come, Go Get It, Bring It, Drop It, Leave It, Shake Hands, High-Five, Look At Me, Give Me A Hug, Heel, Walk With Me, Cross, Back Up, Go Home and Go For A Ride In The Car.

He has two flaws, one that seems pretty hard-wired and the other that I have to admit I could have trained out of him but I thought it was just too much fun. I wanted to strike the balance between noble therapy dog and happy fucking goofball, and I think I did. He does know that “off” means to please cease jumping on a given person and trying to look deep into his or her eyes and lick his or her face, but I found some people (as I do) really enjoy that sort of thing (we call it “getting the Full Mookie”) so he’s still allowed to do it sometimes. And he chases our three cats (The Dude’s Therapy Cats – who’ll get their own blog posts in due time) around the house whenever he can, but they sort of goad him into it sometimes. Other than that, our mound of clay is just about the perfect dog. He has even charmed my mother-in-law, who is a wonderful woman but not easily charmed by dogs. When we stayed at her house for a week after Hurricane Sandy, Mookie was the perfect houseguest, though he was as confused as all hell by the whole thing. He knew his job was to be where we were and help keep our little family going, but while we displaced, he was going to sweet-face his way onto the couch.

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When Mookie was 12 weeks old, we brought him upstate for a day for our annual trip up to attend Copake Falls Day, when the whole little town comes out and throws itself a day-long party. St. John’s of The Wilderness Episcopal Church hosts a big old barbecue at the end of the day. We were a little nervous about bringing Mookie that first year, so we put him in an ex-pen away from the people and the food. One by one, every little kid at the barbecue walked over to the ex-pen and sat down where the cute little labrador puppy could look deep into their eyes. Then one by one the parents of those little kids, who weren’t coming when called because they were busy staring at the cute labrador puppy who was looking deeply into their eyes, brought plates of food over to their children, then came back  and sat down with their own plates of food and let the little labrador puppy look deep into their eyes, too. Trisha looked at the scene and said, “let the little children come to me.” And because we enjoy building on each other’s jokes, and we’re both pretty funny, I replied, “Call that dog Jesus.”

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Jesus aka Mookie has been with us for four years. The effect he has had on my son’s struggle to make peace with his head and with his world is immeasurable, as we don’t know what it would have been like without Mookie, but we can tell the difference he has made. It’s sort of like how I feel about the Obama Presidency. A lot of things were screwed up anyway, but I feel that they would have been a whole lot more screwed up without him. The Dude has still had lots of trouble in school, he’s still had lots of meltdowns, still gets lost in his own head, but he’s come miles and miles in his ability to interact naturally with the rest of the human race through having a dog ambassador.

Mookie has been my ambassador to the human race as well. The year before we brought him home I was researching dog parks and I came across a petition started by a young fellow named David Sabatino, who had started a group called Envision Valley Stream. I am by nature not a joiner, but I joined forces with David – who by nature joins everything – and along with a group of like-minded people we worked with the village government to create a community dog park in Valley Stream, and through the Valley Stream Dog Park, which opened in the spring of 2012, I met a whole lot of other people. The Dude enjoys hanging out with Mookie and the other dogs at the park, and he’s sort of developed a little Temple Grandin thing with dogs, cats and animals in general. Animals have brought out the empathy, kindness and humor inside him that people weren’t having much luck getting to. The whole experience of walking through this world with Mookie has made us both better people. And Trisha loves a dog now.

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As for Mookie, the dog park is as much the people park for him. He is on a insatiable quest to “say hi” to as many people as possible in the years that he has. The entire purpose of leaving the house for Mookie is to hunt for people to say hi to, and wag his tail and look deeply into their eyes when he finds one. Since we bring him everywhere we possibly can, I would stipulate that he has personally greeted close to two thousand people in four years. He’s aslo unbelievably photogenic and I put so many pictures of him on facebook that I eventually gave him his own page. You can see for yourself at https://www.facebook.com/mookiethedog.

Our dog Mookie has comforted people in the nursing home where my mother passed away and where my father still lives, and he has attracted huge crowds through playground fences. He makes roving packs of teenage boys walking from the high school up the street turn into six-year-olds. He once even found a stray kitten abandoned by his mother because the kitten came out of the bushes and started following him along the Duffy’s Creek Path. We brought the kitten to my vet, who got it adopted. I don’t know any other dogs who have rescued kittens, but if you have one like I do, you got something there.

This fall, I’m hoping to get him through his Canine Good Citizen test so we can eventually get Therapy Dog International status and bring him around to more people who need him as he gets older and slows down a bit. Right now, he sleeps upstairs in my eleven year-old son’s bed, making sure the demons stay at bay for another night. Tomorrow morning, he’ll sit next to me on the couch while I read the Sunday paper and I’ll give him scratchies and rubbies with my free hand. Then we’ll go for a good long walk around the neighborhood, and possibly knock one or two more people off the “say hi” list. I’ll watch as the person’s face lights up when his or her eyes meet Mookie’s. The person will say something like, “what a beautiful dog!” or “”he’s a real sweetheart.” And I’ll say what I’ve been saying for years now: “He loves you, too.”

Call that dog Jesus.

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