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The Pecking Order

Miss Annie Daisy

Mason and I took Miss Annie Daisy canoeing on the Red River shortly after we moved to Robertson County, TN. Miss Annie, a six-pound Yorkshire terrier, was my first dog, my soulmate. I took Annie everywhere, and if that meant doing it illegally, then I broke the law. Over the years, I zippered Annie into my backpack and carried her into stores, restaurants, parties, office buildings, libraries, classrooms, movie theaters, and television studios without anyone even knowing. And she never made a peep because Miss Annie felt the same way about me as I did about her. As long as we were together, we were happy.

The Red River derives its name from the color, a reddish-brown mixture with mud as thick as clay. Our research said the slow-moving currents were perfect for a lazy day of floating. We packed sandwiches and a six-pack of beer in a cooler, stuffed towels, books, and clean clothes in a dry bag. We rented canoes from Red River Valley Canoe Rentals in Adams, Tennessee. They said the trip took four to five hours, loaded us in a bus painted like tie-dyed shirts, and dropped us off eight miles upstream. We’d land at the same place we parked.

The afternoon started exactly as planned. We occasionally paddled but mostly just drifted. We saw a herd of deer grazing in a pasture, snapping turtles sunbathing on half-sunken snags, a groundhog standing outside his cave. A red tail hawk swooped above the river’s surface, hunting for a rodent in the greenery lining each bank. We passed farms with cows drinking from the water’s edge, glided under a bridge with an arching trellis. Honeysuckle filled the air with its sweet fragrance.

Miss Annie curled up in a pile of towels I’d arranged on the dry bag. She occasionally stretched or licked my hand. She was perfectly content because Annie loved sunbathing, laid in the sun all year around. When it was too cold outside, she napped in squares of sunshine on the wood floor. But Annie wasn’t a swimmer. I introduced her to water when she was a puppy. We’d been hiking along the Potomac River in Virginia on an August afternoon. At some point, I flipped off my hiking boots and stood ankle-deep in the river. I held Annie where she could feel the water lapping against her undercarriage. She spent thirty seconds in the river before she lurched out. She despised water for the rest of her life.

A few times, I slid over the gunwale and floated for a few hundred yards, but I was the only one. Mason grew up up flipping burgers at the neighborhood pool, and chlorinated water was the extent of his experience. In time he got over his fears, eventually snorkeled off the coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico, but back then he wasn’t a confident swimmer. He always worried about what lurked underneath him.

Mason paddled from the stern. He worked outside and sported a farmer’s tan. His chest was pale while his arms were brown, lean, and muscled from running cable up and down a quarter-mile racetrack. His chest never tanned. It didn’t burn either, just stayed winter white. I liked that Mason worked outside, that he came home covered in dirt and sweat. I liked his callused hands and pale chest. Men who work at desks or wear suits never appeal to me.

We snacked on apples and nuts, had a beer, then two more. By the third hour, I could tell Mason had a buzz, but so did I. His hazel eyes, normally so clear, glowed red and glassy. The river forked around a small island. The water merged on the other side, then funneled through a narrow straightaway. The currents in the fork were calm, almost tranquil, but they drastically changed in the straightaway. We weren’t prepared for it. Sun and beer drunk, bordering on drowsy, we hit rough water.

Ripples were the only sign of the river’s strength, but I noticed them much, much too late. The water yanked the canoe and we capsized. The current’s force felt as powerful as an ocean’s riptide. The canoe’s bright red keel scooted past me, but it barely registered. I didn’t consider that we were losing our only mode of transportation. I wasn’t thinking about the clothes, books, cooler, beer cans, and sandwich bags lost somewhere at the bottom of the river. And I wasn’t thinking about Mason either. My only concern was Miss Annie. For a few frantic seconds, raw terror vibrated through every maternal particle in my body.

Mason emerged first, twenty feet downstream. Annie’s tiny head popped up in the opposite direction, right in the heart of the rough water. I can’t think of a better way to define the term split-second decision than that exact moment. I was faced with the choice of helping my husband or helping Annie. Sure, I thought about it, but in retrospect my reasoning was biased. In less than a second, I rationalized Mason was taller, had a chance of touching the river’s bottom. He wasn’t a strong swimmer, but he could swim. But, even if my logic could have more objective, I can’t deny that my gut reaction disregarded my husband for my dog. It was though I didn’t have a choice. I silently told Mason I loved him and turned towards Annie.

Miss Annie’s black eyes were wide with fear. She wildly kicked her little paws, but she didn’t have enough physical strength for fighting the currents. I positioned myself behind her and created a breakwater. Annie acted as though she’d been swimming her whole life in the calm water between my arms. Once she stood all four paws on dry land, I started searching for Mason. He reached us first. He came slogging through the foliage, barefoot but baseball cap still on his head.

The first thing he asked, “Is Annie all right?”

Annie stood by my feet shivering so hard she seemed as though she might crumble. With her hair soaking wet and hanging flat, she looked like an overgrown rat, but she never looked more beautiful to me. I didn’t know what to expect when I found my husband, maybe anger, at least annoyance, but Mason acted as though it never crossed his mind I’d do anything but help Annie first. The pecking order was always clear.

***

Recently, I was shopping for dog food. I passed several racks displaying collars, training leashes, vitamins for joints, brushes for long or short hair, shampoo for hot spots, and life jackets. I paused, backed up. The dog market has exploded over the past decade. Stores now sell items specifically for canines, such as life jackets, that weren’t popular or available when I first met Annie. The yellow, orange, and red vests ranged in size from extra-small to extra-large. The larger ones looked suspiciously like the human version. I picked up the tiniest one, examined the buckles, read the tag. A picture of a Yorkshire terrier was modeling it. Annie passed away four years ago, but I bought it anyway.

The Magic 8’s Magic

My girl(Adriana La Cerva)

When the Magic 8, eight homeless three-week-old puppies rescued from a Tennessee ghetto, came into my life, I had no idea that I would need them as much as they needed me. But a week after they arrived, my dog died, and in those days immediately following Miss Annie’s death, I felt like the entire universe was f-king with me. Like I did something to deserve such a harsh judgment. I stopped eating real food, instead living on honey cough drops and green tea, and slept approximately four hours a night. I looked and felt terrible.

At first, I swear I tried to ease my grief by observing the M8 in action, but frankly, they seemed more like a burden than anything else; all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed, surround myself with my remaining pack members, and watch The Sopranos.

My mind was in no place to write about the M8’s devious and silly antics, let alone care about them, but unbeknownst to me they had already started to knit their magical healing powers into my vulnerable heart.

With EIGHT four-week-old puppies crying, eating, peeing, chewing, running, and playing, I was forced to take an active role in life, whether I wanted to or not; like mopping when several wormy poop piles greeted me every morning, or sitting outside in the blaring southern sun, herding the M8 away from the road, or even just the act of bathing, feeding and medicating them kept me from crawling into my own “den” and obsessing about my best friend being dead.

After about two weeks of moving through the motions, feeling nothing but numbness, the M8’s magical healing powers began penetrating my haze, and I started to notice small things that didn’t exactly make me laugh, but they sure caused a smile.

How could I not smile when Junior, a six-pound beast, squatted over his food bowl, all four legs spread wide for optimum balance, protecting his grub from his seven siblings? Or when Jeannie bowled over poor Charmaine while she was taking a poop or when Gloria got into a determined tug-of-war with a spruce tree a million times her size?

As they grew bigger, as their energy increased, their magic grew exponentially until one afternoon their antics caused me to burst out in laughter. I hadn’t laughed for two weeks, and I forgot how good it felt.

It was a game of chase that did it. I had thrown a bunch of wilting sunflowers into the yard for compost earlier in the day, and Livia, the ferocious, intelligent one, had found one and dashed over the grass, around the magnolia tree, leading the scrambling pack with that sunflower – the stem twice as long as her body – gripped in her tiny maw.

A few times she flipped ass over teakettle, but she always hopped back up and bolted forward, flower in mouth, while her litter mates chased in mad pursuit, ears bouncing, tails wagging, wearing stubborn, excited expressions. Nothing about what they were doing was complicated. It was a game of chase with a sunflower, but that’s exactly what made it so special.

Later that night, after eating my first real meal in fourteen days, a pound of strawberries and a Swiss cheese and tomato sandwich on sourdough, I crawled into bed with Adriana, the beauty of the M8, who curled up like an elbow noodle in the crook of my neck, her stinky sweet puppy breath washing over my face, and the idea struck me that their magic was so powerful because it involved finding joy in the simplest, cheapest things that the world has to offer, like playing tag with a sunflower, tug-of-war with a spruce, tearing apart a magnolia leaf, chasing a frog, or leaping into a cardboard box.

The M8 were feverishly alive, and it was contagious.

Miss Annie Daisy: The Dog that Changed My Life

AnnieMiss Annie Daisy 1999 – 2014

On Monday, June 30th, exactly eleven days after we euthanized Joe Poop, Mason and I took our first and eldest dog, Miss Annie Daisy, a six-pound fifteen-year-old Yorkshire Terrier for an evening stroll, which she always set the pace for because her short legs had to prance ten times the speed of our slowest pace.

It was a hot southern mid-summer evening, muggy enough so that the insect’s chirping made the soupy air seem to pulse. Even in the stifling, overloud heat, Miss Annie walked the whole mile, prissy little behind bouncing back and forth. At fifteen- years- old, cataracts clouded her vision and she could barely hear, but her mobility had the spring of a much younger dog. I distinctly remember watching her, pink tongue hanging out, tall ears pointing like mountain peaks, thinking she had a few good years left. I was still working through Joe’s passing, and I liked the thought that I wouldn’t have to worry about Miss Annie’s death for a long, long time.

In all honesty, Miss Annie should never have been mine, and I should never have been Annie’s. She was a thousand dollar purebred Yorkshire Terrier that weighed six pounds (!!!) with an attitude that could rival any southern belle, while I’m a tomboy that loves dirt and lives like a minimalist.

But, through a very strange set of circumstances, she came into my life and for a whole year, it was just Miss Annie and me, making our way though this crazy world, trying to find a place where we belonged. Often, like the time Annie had stared down a horse for a drink of water, I wondered how such a gargantuan soul could live inside such a tiny body. But mostly, I just didn’t care because with Annie I discovered the power and rarity of unconditional devotion. Annie was the best friend I ever had or will have.

Although I could list a thousand reasons why Annie was special, the thing I loved the most was her ability to change people. Sometimes, it was as simple as coaxing a smile out of the grumpiest greenway vet or making a crying child giggle, but other times she actually altered people’s convictions.

For instance, around the awful 9-11-01, Mason and I were friends with several Muslim guys from Saudi Arabia and Syria attending Vanderbilt University. During that terrible period of societal turmoil, we became very close to one particular student named Yasir.

Yaz was in his mid-twenties and looked like an Arabian Santa Claus, jolly with an easy grin, sense of humor, and huge heart, but he had grown up believing that animals, particularly dogs, were dirty creatures that had no place in the home. When I first met him, he wouldn’t allow a single animal inside his apartment.

But after a few months of knowing Miss Annie, who unintentionally wooed him with her irrepressible charm, Yaz’s lifelong dislike of dogs completely changed, until he even allowed Miss Annie’s best friend, a giant slobbering boxer to sleep in his apartment. Annie had that kind of power, the kind that changed convictions. And she never had to speak a word to do it.

On that Monday, June 30th, shortly after we got home from our late summer stroll, I ran downstairs into our unfinished basement to switch loads of laundry. Since one of Annie’s favorite hobbies was curling up in warm laundry, she waited expectantly at the top of the steps, wearing her trademark smile, spinning with excitement. I put the basket on the kitchen table, grabbed a bath towel to wrap around her little body – only ten or so seconds passed – but when I turned around, towel in hand, my whole life changed.

I caught a glimpse of Annie tripping down the staircase, bouncing off the edge of the second highest step and falling eight feet onto the concrete basement floor. She never made a sound. Not one cry.

Mason said all he heard was my scream.

When I picked her tiny body off the cold concrete, her little heart raced through her ribcage and her neck hung limp. Mason and I held her for the few minutes she had left in this world. A bigger dog could have survived the fall, but Annie had no chance.

Miss Annie Daisy touched so many people’s lives that I owed her friends this post so much earlier. But, holy shit, writing this post is hard. I think I really believed if I didn’t tell anybody, then it wouldn’t be true. It’s taken me almost three weeks to admit her death to anyone but the people that are in my life daily. It’s like I needed to absorb it. And the grieving isn’t over yet. I can’t stop looking for her brown, brilliant eyes watching my every move or listening for her tiny paws pitter- pattering down the hardwood floors. A time or two I swear I’ve even caught a glimpse of her pointed ears poking out of her pink blanket.

The hardest part for me so far is figuring out who I am now that Miss Annie is dead. When you love something with so much of your heart, what do you fill that space with when they’re gone? I find some comfort in knowing she loved me as much as I adored her. That was the rare thing about our love, there was never any doubt between me and Miss Annie. She was number one on my list and I was number one on hers. No questions asked.

I should never have known Miss Annie, but I’m damn glad I did. Quite simply, Annie is the reason the Farnival exists. She changed me as completely as she changed everyone who had the honor to know her.