Mary Lou and I moved to the Gila Valley (Arizona) in 2001 and soon purchased 120 acres on which to build the home of our dreams. It was 15 miles from there to the nearest paved road, and at 4,300 feet above sea level, had a view that ran about 80 miles from Fort Thomas to where U.S. Highway 191 heads up the Gila Mountains toward Morenci. And when White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico fired off a missile first thing in the morning, we could see it’s twisted contrail until mid morning and at a distance of what -- 35 miles? It was wonderful.
We began building in 2004 doing everything we could do ourselves and contracting out things like pouring the concrete slab and rolling in the roof. It took us about three years working this way, but every minute was memorable. And then Mary Lou moved us seamlessly from construction to renovation allowing our joys to last even longer.
Then about eight years ago, we noticed a new dog at a house near the intersection of the highway with the dirt road. Though still a pup, it was big. Being part Great Pyrenees (I always thought of them as St. Bernard’s on steroids) and part Australian Shepherd (very smart), Mary Lou and I were not surprised that it was very good at keeping strangers away from the home while its owner, PJ, was at work -- often for 10 hours a day or more.
Charlie was there to discourage anyone who might be interested in PJ’s place when he wasn’t around. And Charlie did a very good job of that. In fact, from the time he saw a car or truck coming down the dirt road, he’d race toward it, barking, and continue barking until satisfied he’d frightened the vehicle off, it drove away. You could see the satisfaction in Charlie’s demeanor as he almost pranced back to where he lay down to wait for the next vehicle to show up.
Now Mary Lou has never met a dog she didn’t like immediately, and so she suggested we stop by Charlie’s and visit with him whenever we drove by. And so we did. We always brought dog yummies with us, and it wasn’t long before Charlie thought of us less as intruders and more as visiting friends.
I’d have him jump off the ground to get the dog yummies out of my hand, or stick his snout through the fence to reach them on the other side. And sometimes we’d wrap our fingers around them so Charlie would have to push them aside on the way to the treat.
It was hard to know who enjoyed these visits more: Charlie or us.
Then a little over a year ago, and recognizing we’d soon be in need of increasingly frequent doctors’ visits, we sold our beloved home on the mountain and moved into town. Our dream house was the only thing we missed more than Charlie.
And our timing was pretty good; we moved just as our doctors’ visits became progressively more frequent. Our loss.
We also lost regular contact with Charlie, who we missed almost as much as our dream home on the mountain. And so Mary Lou suggested we drive the 10 miles or so from out new place to see him. Truth be told, we now do this as often as five times a week, picking up with Charlie pretty much where we left off when we moved into town.
And Charlie loved it.
But then recently, when we got to Charlie’s, he was often not in the front yard waiting for us; and when we called him, nothing happened. We wound up walking around to the back and when he saw us, he jumped up, puppy-like, and ran around to the front to get his dog yummies, make nice with us, and generally enjoy our time together.
Why didn’t Charlie come when we arrived and hollered for him? Had Charlie forgotten us? Was he losing interest in our shared time?
The answer came this past Saturday when we showed up while PJ was outside working on his trucks. I called “hello!” to him as Mary Lou looked around for our buddy. PJ walked over soon making the observation that Charlie was likely approaching the end of his life expectancy as evidenced by his loss of hearing.
Losing his hearing? Getting old? Maybe. So what to do if he’s not in the front yard? We walk outside the fence and around back where, when he sees us, he immediately runs around to the front so we can go through our mutually shared, mutually satisfying little set piece.
Charlie, Mary Lou, and I all enjoy our time together despite the things causing us to need to see doctors more often and his loss of hearing. And so all three of us must accommodate to changes to our physical selves which means, I guess, we’re all three getting older -- together.
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who winters in Pima, Ariz., and, with his wife, summers in Debs.