I was on my way home from an assignment in Chapel Hill, driving the cold and drizzly back roads of Pittsboro, when I first saw him. In the middle of the road stood a shivering, staggering and confused dog.
Traffic paused on the two-lane highway as another motorist and I got out of our vehicles and tried to get the dog out of the road. We both bent down, hands stretched before us and called to him.
He staggered toward me and placed his wet chin in my hands. I felt chosen.
I carried him back to my car and placed him on the seat wrapped tightly in a blanket. A state trooper who had noticed the traffic commotion stopped to ask if everything was alright. Before I’d gotten back into my car, he nodded his head and said, “Thanks for what you’re doing.”
Knowing my husband would likely be mad – we already have three rescue dogs at home – I called my mother. She wasn’t surprised I picked the dog up – she would have done the same thing.
I ran through my quick plan with her. I’d stop at a gas station to give him food and water. Next I would take him to a vet, where we’d get him fixed up. She would scour Craigslist and other websites for anyone who might be missing the dog. He would stay with me. Maybe until someone claimed him. Or maybe for the rest of his life.
The Animal Hospital of Carrboro welcomed him in and got right to work. He was hypothermic. He had pneumonia. He was underweight. He was blind. He could have a laundry list of other ailments, but for now the pneumonia was the focus.
The veterinarian was hopeful but realistic. Without saying the words, she presented the reality that if he didn’t improve soon he’d need to be put down. For now she said, ‘make him feel at home.’
The veterinarian was hopeful but realistic. Without saying the words, she presented the reality that if he didn’t improve soon he’d need to be put down. For now, she said, “make him feel at home.” He received some fluids, and we went on our way.
He rode in the front passenger seat and slept while I listened to NPR. He mustered the small amount of energy he had to readjust himself and lay his head closer to me on the center console. I decided I would call him Shepherd.
My own dogs are always quick to know when I’ve cheated on them and petted another dog. But Shepherd lifted himself and wagged his tail at them.
At home, I gave Shepherd a warm bath and pulled the thorns from his fur while shampooing him. He loved the warm water and didn’t mind the blow dryer. I placed him in a dog bed, covered with layers of blankets. I gave him water through a turkey baster and presented him with different types of wet dog food. He fell asleep in the bed, getting up only once to stagger toward the other dogs, tail wagging.
I woke up twice in the middle of the night to put him in the bathroom with the hot shower running to create steam to ease his labored breathing.
I snuggled him the next morning and headed into work. The vet called to check on him, and I happily reported that he’d had some water and seemed to be improving. I came home at lunch to give him chicken broth through a turkey baster. I held him in my lap and cozied the blanket around him. I pressed my head to his, then placed him back in the dog bed and went into the kitchen.
A few minutes passed, and I went to check on him. Shepherd was still. For a brief moment, I thought his breathing had improved. It had stopped.
Shepherd’s time in the Knight family was short, but I hope it was everything he could have hoped for. I hope the 24 hours of love I gave him made up for the hardships of the unknown place he came from. Was he loved before me? I don’t know. I guess I’ll never know.
What was it about Shepherd that made me so sad for something I barely knew? It was his ability to trust the very human species that might have wronged him to begin with. It was his tender heart that longed to be close to companions. It was his fierce and fast love.
Farewell Shepherd, see you on the other side.