Little Ronald Reagan Rountree, beloved lab mix, died peacefully, Thursday, April 6, in the arms of his family. He was 9 years old and had bladder cancer.
Born on an undocumented November day in 2007 in Burlington, N.C., to indefinite parentage, he caught the eye of a young Republican college sophomore at Elon University and soon found himself the unofficial mascot of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. He learned his early manners there, things like eating from the counter and jumping on furniture.
When caring for him proved too arduous a task for his master, he presented the puppy to his mother on Mother’s Day, 2008.
Nicknamed Puppy, he would eventually become the best Mother’s Day present ever.
And we mean eventually.
He was at heart, a thief. Lacking the usual retrieving instinct, he preferred to steal balls and run with them, tearing their skins down to the plastic and chewing them up. He stole napkins from laps and Kleenex from pockets.
Though his new masters already had Socks, a collie/shepherd mix in the house, Puppy soon tried to take charge. He enjoyed trying to catch Socks’ plumed tail when she wagged it, and despite an ample supply of large rawhide bones at Puppy’s disposal, he cut his molars on the insoles of expensive shoes, plastic hairbrush handles and steel-enforced water hoses. (The water hose incident is part of family history, ending with a flooded crawlspace when Puppy stole the short end of the chewed hose away from the house while it was still attached to the spigot.)
He liked to eat, consuming entire plants in the backyard, and once, an entire Honeybaked hambone – big mistake – and ended up in the emergency room. And he devoured an entire lemon chess pie from the kitchen counter.
Reagan chewed the arms of new teak deck furniture, stole paint brushes, tools and work gloves from unassuming contractors and was adept at opening the back screen door with his paw and nose. To the fenced backyard, he was Houdini, escaping countless times to case the neighborhood for kitchen scraps.
As he grew, Reagan settled into a routine of morning walks with his girlfriend Sookie, sharing breakfast toast with his dad, playing with his friends at Doggie Day Care and sniffing the air from the open upstairs window. He loved the neighborhood dogs, each morning stopping to sniff and pee with Lucy and Rocky and Cosmo. And though he pretended not to like Stella and Jack – two full-bred yellow labs in the neighborhood – the family thinks his growling revealed an inferiority complex because of his uncertain heritage.
Reagan hated swimming, his fear triggered when he fell into Kerr Lake while enjoying a winter sail with his Dad. (The Skipper heard a ker-plunk as he sailed along and turned to see a small yellow head struggling to keep up with Fortune’s Fool. A quick reverse-engine maneuver allowed the rescue, which was in fact good “man overboard” training. His mother was thrilled not to have witnessed it.)
He was a dog of a thousand faces but knew nary a trick, though he would finally come running home from his escapes at the shout of “CHEESE!” Then he’d share his “Who me?” face, brown eyes looking up so earnestly at his family that they often gave him two pieces.
Give him a snowy day, and he’d race with abandon, sailing over snow-covered drifts, the dimples on his cheeks in full grin. At the beach in winter, he’d carve giant figure-eights in the sand, chasing the gulls into full flight.
In his final years, he became known as Buddy or Pop Pop and favored sleeping in the stillness under the bed, shrouded by the dust ruffle or at the front door, waiting for his Dad to come home. He loved his Saturday morning Hardee’s biscuit, sliced cherry tomatoes before supper, pistachio gelato and the crusts of Boondini’s sandwiches.
When the family knew he was dying, they made arrangements for a compassionate veterinarian to treat him at home. Readying herself, his mother stuffed her pockets with Kleenex and knelt beside him, though he nosed her pocket, stealing any chance to dry her tears. They read prayers for the dying from the “Book of Common Prayer,” which they have done for all their dogs. (Just three in 36 years.) And sent him on his way.
In that moment, the family took solace in knowing that as Socks pranced at Heaven’s Gate, she turned and found their boy there, grinning at the sight of her tail. Another certainty: His greatest theft was of the hearts of those who knew him. For them all, he was the happiest boy.
Susan Byrum Rountree published her first essay in this newspaper in 1994, and it was about another beloved dog. She hopes readers will forgive her for repeating the subject matter. She can be reached at email@example.com.