October 20, 2011

Poncha Bear

*Disclaimer* This is a blog I had to write, but have wrestled with the finality that publishing seemed to bring. 16 weeks ago today I lost one of my best friends; I have struggled to finish this over that time, as a farewell to him. It is way too long to read, and is primarily intended to capture some of my memories of him sooner than later. It was just something I had to write.

4 and a 1/2 years ago Geoff and I were living in the beautiful mountains of Colorado in Poncha Springs. On Superbowl Sunday 2007, we went to Walmart to get some snacks for the football party, and left with chips, dip...dog food, collar, leash...and the best dog I could have ever dreamed of having.

A young girl was sitting in front of the store with a plastic tote full of black lab puppies; filthy, undernourished and not quite old enough to be weaned from their mom. We went back to the car to trying to make a rational decision about what to do, and finally decided to get a pup. We got back to the front of the store in time to chase down and stop the car that had just loaded them up. I grabbed the first pup I saw, handed him to Geoff, and looked back in the tote for another to compare him with. By the time I turned around with another, the scared, frantic puppy I had handed to Geoff had snuggled up under his chin and closed his eyes. He was home. Putting the other pup back, I gave her the requested $10, and the snugly pup came home with us.

Geoff called Ponch a "catholic" dog early in his training. Meaning no disrespect for the religion, the name implied the high level of guilt and repentance he displayed.  Poncha did NOT like being in trouble. Any strong word from us would instantly turn this fun loving, excitable puppy into a cowering, sorrowful, pitiful mess. We were usually greeted with a toy and excitement when we got home, but there were a few times when we came back and he had chewed on something. Those days he'd meet us at the door with his tail tucked, and head down. "What did you do, Poncha?" He would look at us with more sorrow in his eyes than I knew a dog could express, and lead us to whatever he had done. He would then get sent under the bed for time out, and once released, life was good again. This was particularly funny when he was on a medication of some kind. He was smart enough to hide the pill in his mouth, and not swallow it. We'd follow him for a good while, and not seeing him spit anything out, be content that it had gone down.  He would then go spit the pill out in a corner, promptly feel bad about it, come get us, and show us what he had done.  I couldn't even punish him for those - too funny!

At least 70% of the time he got in trouble in his life, he turned himself in. This became very handy once we got another dog, as she could care less about getting in trouble. If they got into something while we were gone, we'd ask who did it, if it was him, it was obvious, if he greeted us with a toy and didn't start sulking when we asked, he was free, and she was in trouble (usually a safe bet anyway).  He was such an observant dog that most of his trained commands were silent gestures - he in fact responded better to these commands than verbal. From "Go to your room" or "get under the bed" when he was in trouble, to sit, lay down, lay your head down, stay, bow, etc. he was very easy to communicate with.

My "superdog"
He loved being under the bed. It was his favorite place to be, when being in our laps, or touching us in some way was not an option. He quickly outgrew the traditional bed frame we had and would cry, sticking his head as far under as he could to try to sleep. And so, when we built a bed out of aspen logs while still in Colorado, we measured his height to make sure he would be able to comfortably sleep under the bed. He escaped there to avoid any unpleasant experience as well. He was hard to trick. I could walk into a room a hundred times and he'd follow, but almost always if I was going in there to get his medicine, or give him a bath, no matter how nonchalant I was, he would get suspicious and under the bed he would go! Geoff says my demeanor changed and that's how he could tell, but there were definitely times that neither of us had a clue how he knew we were getting pills out of the dog food bin, and not dinner, but he could always tell.

There were a few flaws to this dog I'll mention in short. First, I never liked his name. We named him Poncha after the town we lived in, which was an Indian name meaning "big belly" apparently. Well, he was sick when we got him so had a big belly, which worked. Still, I liked "Bear" better, but Geoff thought that was too overused. Of course it is! It's a great name! Compromise named him "Poncha Bear." I called him Bear, Geoff called him Ponch. But neither really fit this dog, and that has always bothered me. "My boy," or "My Bear," usually won out as names of choice.  Second, he was an anxious dog. Would worry anytime he was alone, to the point we were told to put him on sedatives, etc. which I did not want to do. This was solved in great measure by getting him a little brown lab pup when he was 1 1/2 years old. We named her "Reyah" (Ray-Uh) which means "friend" in Hebrew. He loved hanging out with her, and while we were both at work during the day after we moved to Texas, they could play together, and though he was still obviously thrilled when we got home, he was not nearly as unstable with her around.  Third, he was sick a lot. Being part Sharpei, he had constant ear infections, skin problems in his paws, and food allergies; visits to the vet were frequent, expensive, and overwhelmingly stressful for my poor boy.
Ponch loved the snow!

He was fiercly loyal, preferring our company to any other. We always referred to Reyah as "Poncha's dog," first because we only got her for him, and she followed him everywhere, without regard or concern for us. But Ponch always followed us everywhere. He didn't beg to be pet, or scratched very often, but always wanted to be touched. He was happiest when he could lay down by the couch leaning against our legs, or under the dining room table while we ate, or fall asleep on the bed with his head on our feet - but always he did his best to be in physical contact with us whenever possible.  Reyah on the other hand, will be near us only until we stop petting her, and then will find the most comfortable spot away from us!

Climbing Mt. Princeton!
Her independence compared to his dependence also entitled her to being called our "dog" while he was affectionately our "kid." Don't get me wrong, Reyah is an incredible dog (also very well spoiled as much as possible) but her priorities in life lie in playing fetch, being with Poncha, eating, sleeping...and then spending time with us, while his were exclusively us. He would not eat if we
were not home, while she had no problem finishing not only her food, but his as well. He enjoyed playing fetch the most when we were cheering him on; he never begged to play as she does, but seemed to enjoy it because he thought it's what we wanted him to do.  The only thing in life he may have enjoyed as much as being with us, was swimming.  He loved retrieving sticks or toys from the water, but didn't need us to throw anything at all to have a good time, he'd just go swim in circles for as long as we'd let him. From rivers in Colorado, to lakes and ponds in Texas, he was in his "heaven on earth" in the water.

He was a big dog, especially compared to Reyah who maxed out at a slightly overweight 60 lbs. He was taller than most labs, and a healthy, lean 90 lbs. He had a deep, terrifying bark and growl, with a razor back that would scare off the worst of predators. He had a sleek, jet black coat, a big strong shaped head...and a very powerful, expressive tail. If we wanted to make sure he was under the bed, we'd just say his name and "thump, thump, thump." In his sleep if we said his name, or reached to pet him, "thump, thump, thump." He could clear a coffee table in one swipe and knock down a toddler with half. When Geoff or I got home and greeted him, we learned to get out of the way of the tail, as it could genuinely bruise a leg when going full throttle excited - which didn't take much for him.

All the "kids" together!
I'm forgetting one of his good friends, other than Reyah. Before she came along we found a New Zealand white rabbit running down a busy street in Abilene shortly after moving there from Colorado. Geoff wanted to keep it, so "Doc" came home with us. He potty trained well and spends the heat of summer, and cold of winter inside when we are home. Doc loved Poncha. Though Reyah didn't like to snuggle with anyone, except Ponch on occasion, Ponch was always up for a snuggle. Doc would burrow under his arm while he slept and stayed there enjoying the weight of Poncha's arm on his back. More often he would come up to Ponch, asking for attention, and Ponch would utilize him as a pillow, of which I have many cute pictures. Reyah didn't like the rabbit trying to cuddle, and never understood why he didn't play very well. But Ponch took care of Doc, and kept the Reyah pup from him when she got too rough.

I never imagined a dog could become such an incredible friend as he was. When I couldn't sleep at night, I'd lay on the couch, and he would come in and curl up in the crook of my legs and with his head on my knee look into my eyes in the most comforting way. When I would talk out my problems to him, he would constantly maintain eye contact, as though genuinely listening.  When nothing else in the world could calm me down on a bad day, he could.  He would jump on the bed at night and snuggle exactly where I wanted him too, keeping my legs and feet warm.  I loved the way he always greeted us by going to get a toy first, not for us to play with him, but just to express his excitement and love. I loved going on walks, and runs, and hikes with him. I rarely used a leash with him as his priority was always to be as close to me as possible, so the leash was really unnecessary. If another dog, or human came along, he would walk a step ahead or behind keeping himself between me and the "stranger." A few times a dog would come flying toward us, I'd be afraid they would get into a fight and I'd stop walking. Ponch would take a wider stance, standing right next to me, and with the hair on his back standing up let out a warning growl/bark. No dog ever made it within 15 feet of us with him around before tucking tail and running back. Then we would be back on the road, not a care in the world, with him running right by my side, and we were both as happy as could be.

Snuggling w/ Reyah
He was completely spoiled and "over" loved in every way that I could manage. There are so many animals on earth that are not taken care of, either because we take away their habitats, or capture or breed them as pets only to neglect them.  I can't save and personally love every animal, but those that do fall in my care will be as well taken care of as possible. I have no regrets for loving Ponch as much as I did. I don't regret one treat he got, or one night he slept on the bed. We had one of our late night talks the night before he was killed. I couldn't sleep so we talked and snuggled in the living room. I asked him then, as I did often, "What would I do without you Bear?" He was 4 1/2 years old, and already growing a fair amount of white on his chin. I had seriously thought about dying it black because I couldn't stand the idea that he had almost reached half of his expected life time. How could 10 years be nearly enough with this dog?

I love all animals I come into contact with. I adore Reyah and she is a great dog - but she is still mostly just a dog to me. He was my best friend, my boy, and the one I had spent more time with in the last 4 1/2 years of my life than any other living thing. He knew when I was sad, he knew when I was happy - and he cared. I never took him for granted. He was the dog I had always wanted, and even when Geoff teased me saying, "I know, Ponch can do no wrong," I had to admit he was right. He couldn't with me, because he was so much more than I had ever dreamed a dog could be. Though I had longed for a dog like him, I didn't know it was possible.

What would I do without him? Geoff and I had moved several times, changed jobs, endured hard transitions, over and over again. He was my constant, good thing, even when everything else seemed to spin out of control. The one thing I didn't have to worry about, or have any questions about. I never had to wonder if he really loved me, if I was good enough, etc. Ponch didn't care if I didn't run a fast mile when we went running. He helped me learn to just have fun, because he did. He didn't worry about where we were going to live when it was time to move again, he just wanted to go with us.

This year has been tough for Geoff and I.  Over the summer we had felt attacked on every angle. This led to a few sleepless nights, when of course I was with Ponch, talking it out to him, and thanking him for being the one thing I didn't have any questions about. I felt God's love so purely through this dog. I could pray with him, learn to let myself be loved better through him, and ultimately, I could be still before God, with him. The night before he died we had one of these nights together. As I did most every night after one of our snuggle talks, I asked Ponch what I would do without him, and would he mind living forever? He let out an amuzingly big sigh, and looked at me with those big dark eyes, laying his head on my knee. I'll never forget that moment.

The next day was a busy one, running to all kinds of different things. I played fetch with the dogs that morning, and laughed when he barked at one of the ladies from church who came by the shop behind our house. I cleaned house, and told him to learn to stop shedding. I had a bridal shower to go to that night, and the husband of the hostess's house escaped to our house to hang out with Geoff. I said goodbye, and they got to work fixing a sprinkler, pulling the hose out from the backyard, and I headed to the shower. After getting home, I was exhausted. It was almost 10, I let the dogs out in the backyard to potty before bedtime and collapsed on the bed. 5-10 minutes later I opened the door, called for the dogs, and Reyah came running in. I thought that was unusual; she didn't tend to come so quickly when called as instant obedience has never been high on her priority list. Poncha didn't come, and usually came very fast, so I assumed he had stayed inside and was asleep under the bed. He didn't usually like to go out at night, because of the fear of not being allowed back in and having to sleep outside - a funny fear for a dog who spent very few nights outside!

Geoff had just gotten home with ice for his traditional evening smoothie. I heard him come in and as I was working up the energy to go make the smoothie, my phone rang, and my nightmares came true. "Hello, I'm in Early, and I'm so sorry but I've just hit and killed your dog." My mind raced, and my stomach dropped. Disoriented I said, "who is this?" I had just let the dogs in, I knew Reyah was inside, I could hear her greeting Geoff, and Ponch was asleep under the bed...wasn't he? "Who is this? Are you sure you're in Early?" Surely she was mistaken, but how did she get my phone number? Did Reyah run out the front door? Did another dog steal their collar? Logic clashed with disbelief. I couldn't hear much of what the lady on the phone was saying, I finally asked a coherent question, one vitally important to me. "What color is the dog?" Now, to be clear, I wanted her to say white with purple spots...anything but black or brown. But all I really wanted to avoid hearing was "black." It would have been very hard to lose Reyah, but I couldn't imagine losing him.  The woman's voice came though, "He's a black lab."

I'm still not too sure what happened next, I remember calling for Ponch, looking under the bed, apologizing to the woman who was talking, but I couldn't understand anything as my mind was racing too much. All I knew was that Ponch was not under the bed. I stumbled to the kitchen, gave the phone to Geoff saying "I think he's dead," and walked out the front door not knowing where to go, my only hope being to find a dog that was injured, but not, in fact, dead. The highway runs right by our house, a big fear of mine when we moved here, but we had no other options at the time.  Geoff had caught up by then and was getting directions, he turned left at the drive, and I walked in disbelief until I saw Poncha's shadowy form lying on the side of the road two blocks ahead. I sprinted to him, kicking off my sandals to run faster; a mistake as the bruises on my feet the next few days were constant reminders of that run; the pain inviting me to relive it over and over. He looked asleep, not mangled, but very, very, still. I started yelling in his ear that I loved him, hoping he could still hear me, Geoff had to go talk to the lady waiting by her car; I couldn't leave him.  He went to get the truck and my panic started to take over. I remember trying to find a pulse, and giving up on that to try to pick him up to make him walk again. The grace of God sent a woman from the RV park across the street over. She asked me if he was okay, and I said in my panic that I didn't know, that he couldn't be dead, that I needed him, and rambled about I don't know what. She was able to calm me down enough that I regained a measure of sanity. Helped me feel that his paws were cold, he wasn't breathing, that he was gone. I'm not sure what would have happened in my hysteria on the side of the highway if she had not shown up. Praise God for his presence in people.

Geoff arrived with the truck, adrenaline and shock had numbed me enough that I could function. We loaded him in the back of the truck, called some friends to tell them what had happened, and then decided where to bury him. Geoff grew up in Early and his parents had owned 70 acres of land behind their house.  A dear friend had bought that land, and still owned it; we called and they gave us permission to bury him there. It was where Geoff had played as a kid, he loved it out there.  Kale and Savanna, the youth ministers from church who we had called earlier, called back saying they were coming to help.  Usually private, and wanting to do things like this by myself, I was shocked when I found myself telling Geoff to ask them to come. Having others around, I had just learned, was good for keeping sanity.

Back at the house we let Reyah see Ponch, hoping she would understand, and loaded her up to take her with us.  Kale and Savanna followed us to the land. We found a spot under three oak trees, near a creek bed and buried him there. I took his favorite toys and left them with him. He looked like he was sleeping, curled up with his favorite toys. I clutched his collar that I had taken off. He loved his collar. It was a funny thing we used to show people. If we took it off, he would look after it anxiously, and sit perfectly still while we put it back on. It was like he treasured it as a sign of belonging to someone.

When we were ready to go we got into the truck, and of course the battery had died. So we hiked back out of the land to where we had left Kale and Savanna's car on the road, and they gave us a ride home. After they dropped us off, I asked Geoff if we could go get the truck. We left Reyah at the house, one of the first times she'd ever been alone in her life, and headed back out in the explorer to get the truck, and to be with Ponch just a little longer. We put a big limestone rock on the grave; Poncha had been with us when we went to get that rock for landscaping at the house just a few weeks before. My dad was at camp that week, only checking his phone occasionally. He got the message I had sent, and called as I was sitting on the rock by Poncha's grave. I told him what had happened and cried.

We found out more details the next day as we went to visit the lady who had hit him, to thank her for calling, and staying with him till we got there. She said the dogs were together, that Reyah had run over to Ponch and sniffed him right after he was hit, and then took off running for home, apparently getting home right as I called her to come inside. The gate had been left open after the guys worked on the sprinkler that night, so when I let them out to potty, they went on an adventure. This part is still a mystery, as they did not usually wander very far, and had NEVER wandered toward the highway, or as far as they did that night. It was especially strange for him to wander so far, especially at night.

What hurts the most is that I didn't even know he was gone. I always double checked that he was under the bed, and I didn't that night; it would have been too late at that point anyway. I still can't believe he's gone; I still don't know what I'll do without him.  Reyah is adjusting to being an "only dog." We had two church events out of town back to back so she had to stay with my parents. The distraction of being with grandma and grandpa during the transition was very good for her. She was mopey on and off for the first several weeks, so we worked to keep her busy, or tired. The only time in her life since we got her that she was not with Ponch was the day she was at the vet to get fixed. I couldn't even take him running without her because she'd throw a fit if she was left alone, to the point I was afraid she'd go through a window. She has done better in recent weeks, and I think she's going to be okay. It's going to be quite an adjustment for her, and for us.  We all miss you, Bear; thank you for being such a great dog.
Poncha Bear
December 2006 - June 30, 2011


Karen said...

Precious. I am weeping with you. Love, Aunt Karen

Geoff said...

Thank you for writing this Jamie. I love you. And I miss Ponch...

Randy Pittenger said...

May God provide peace and comfort. Thank you for sharing your story - it is a great tribute to a friend. Love you!

Amber Joy said...

I didn't expect this kind of reaction, but I am balling my eyes out! The kids are grasping for my attention and I couldn't quit reading. Thank you for the kind tribute to your baby. I'm so glad you have so many good memories to keep with you forever.

Jana Schofield said...

I'm so glad you shared about your Poncha Bear and captured so many of your memories with him. It's always hard to believe that your big, beautiful dog was ever so small. I have always been thankful that you had such a good friend and companion in him... love you sister!

Darlene said...

WOW, Jamie. I am so sorry, Jamie & Geoff.