Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

An early Christmas schnoodle

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VANCOUVER -- In the household where these words were written, Christmas arrived early this year. To be precise, on May 17.

You may question whether the following qualifies as a Christmas story. I can only reply that, like the enduring masterpiece by Charles Dickens, it revolves around a tiny cripple who touches many hearts, a gift of priceless proportions.

On that day the phone rang (as it so often does). It was my Littlest, no longer so little, alas. She was calling from the West Vancouver veterinary clinic where she worked summers between grappling with science studies in Ontario.

To attempt to reproduce her words would be vain. We need audio.

The burden of what she said was: There's this poor little dog that the vet (she was filling in for the regular vet) brought in, and he's so cute, and he was hit by a car two years ago, and he lost part of his leg and had a dislocated hip, and she fixed him up and the owner wouldn't take him back, so she kept him with her other dogs, and she's tried to have him adopted but nobody will take him, so could we have him, please?

(As an aside: I was gratified that in these days when fathers are routinely cast as blithering idiots and pathetic fools, I was actually being consulted like a respected paterfamilias.)

I said ...

But before I could get a word out, my Biggest came on the line, and then my wife -- because, by one of life's flukes, the latter pair had dropped in to see where the Littlest worked, and, boy, do those details slow down this story?

When the three had finished their coaxing, wheedling, and sniffling, I stated cynically: "We already have a dog" (Booker, the most permanently hungry black Lab in captivity) "and a cat" (Max, a typical cat, cross and ungrateful). "On Sunday you, Biggest, will return to Victoria. On Monday morning you, Mom, will go back to work. And at summer's end you, Littlest, will hit the books again in Guelph, and who the hell d'you think will be left to look after this damaged dog?"

The answer was predictable. Thanks be to God, or to the roll of the cosmic dice or whatever, that answer was: Me. Undeserving me.

Though no dog could share himself around the family more than this little squirt.

The people who had turned down the dog -- the vet explained that when she offered him to a certain well-known animal agency, she was told nobody would adopt such a dog and they'd just put him down -- fortunately don't know what they missed.

He came into the house that day with his injured left front leg in the air, paw partly missing, a resulting bounce in his step like the old door-to-door salesman's, and liquid brown eyes for which the phrase "melts your heart" was cobbled and tried out in the minor leagues for its appearance here today.

Kaylan -- the name came along with the limp -- loves all laps. He cuddles against all thighs. He democratically leaps on all beds and swiftly falls asleep, often shifting in the night to another bed in order not to hurt anyone's feelings. In the dark I sometimes reach out and touch his small body, and for a moment am perfectly at peace.

And -- almost painful in its poignancy -- when a family member comes home, Kaylan does an ecstatic tight-circle, straight-up-and-down bounce, then rockets up the stairs and proudly returns to present the arrival with a "toy" -- one of the Littlest's stuffed dolls. One favourite teddy is three times as big as he is.

"He's a joy," said the Middlest, my son, who previously had the least interest in our dogs.

Booker accepted Kaylan with classic easy-going Lab tolerance. Max the Cat, not so much. The two seem mutually fascinated and repelled. The odd chase up the steps to Max's kingdom seems instigated by either or both.

Kaylan is a nature-lover, as long as it's squirrels. Motionless, usually barkless, he stares for hours at their (unwanted, but who can blame anything with a mouth and a hunger?) patronage of the bird feeders.

Early on -- matted hair, ears thick with fur uncut because of underlying skin infections -- he went to the canine beauty salon and came back another dog altogether.

His antecedents were a matter of speculation. Recently a schnauzer owner stated with an authoritative air: "He's a schnauzer, poodle cross. A schnoodle."

New to me. When my wife heard this, she went hysterical. A schnoodle! We have a schnoodle!

Hundreds of passersby have asked about his injury. He runs with the bad leg half-raised in an amiable wave to everyone approaching, meanwhile bouncing like the Energizer Bunny. He draws pity. I remark that he's happier than the sympathizers and I are. He has no existential dread. He has not read Sartre or Freud. He does not fear death.

But on our very first walk on West Vancouver's Ambleside Beach, something happened.

A young woman, a teenager or not much older, stopped with what became the customary pat, pity and questions. I replied with a summation of Kaylan's life, which sometimes includes the sick-making, third-hand story that he was hit when his original owner threw him out of his moving car in downtown Vancouver -- the vet had treated him and kept him for two years herself with a house full of other dogs.

"But you're fine now, aren't you, Kaylan?" I said, unoriginally, bending down to scratch him.

Only then did I see it. A flash of metal. The young woman had an artificial leg.

I straightened up, the inside of my face white, whatever colour on the outside.

"How did it happen?" The awkward, well-meant question seemed almost obscene.

The woman smiled. "The usual," she said. And no more.

I had not really looked at her until then. And then I saw one of the most transcendentally beautiful faces of my life, a face illuminated with such stunning grace that it did not seem to belong to this earth. Fanciful though it will seem, to this day I'm not sure that it did.

This is not much of a dog story. It is not much of a Christmas story. It is not much of a story. It is shapeless and has no real ending. I could not have made it up.

tlautens@telus.net

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2009 A15

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