Chester, aka Black Dog

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

        – Sound of Silence
          Simon & Garfunkel

The silence around here is the hardest thing. Morning noon and night for the past eight years he was with us. Then poof, he’s gone. We lie and say we’ll never put ourselves through this again, though of course we will, because we have in the past. We’re predictable that way. We don’t want to learn to live without the companionship of a dog, especially one as sweet as Chester, who maybe more than any of our other pups pegged the sweetness meter.

October 2015. One trip to the shelter in Palmer, AK is all it took. He was a year old then, surrendered to the shelter by his prior companions who left a note with the reasons why, “Chester is overly rambunctious with small children and he charges guests at the front door.” Oh my! 😮 OK, so we don’t have children, and so far as charging the front door goes, well, caveat house guests I guess!
HW & I performed a few basic temperament tests in the off leash area outside the shelter, agreed he was a fine beast, completed the adoption paperwork and in that moment he became a member of the Nibbe tribe. He seemed grateful to be leaving the shelter and headed home with us to Anchorage. We learned a few months later when we had cause to have Chester X-rayed that he’d been shot! A small BB-sized object was evident on the image. The vet told us it’s not uncommon to have pieces of buckshot, or whatever the hell it was, meander around inside an animal its entire life. Most of the time, she said, it’s not a cause for concern.

It became a badge of honor for Chester. Often times he’d try to extract sympathy from our friends, “Did you know I’ve been shot?!” Structurally, he was a long dog, a hybrid mix of Labrador, Husky and, our vet suspected, maybe a little Basset Hound too, given his front feet, especially the right one, turned outward. He had a gorgeous coat and a lot of it. I used to joke while clutching a handful of fur at his nape that you could fit two dogs inside here! I feel horrible now that I ever called him “mutant,” which I did. Not once in eight years did we give him a bath, his coat performed that well. He didn’t stink. Which never ceased to amaze me. HW recalls one time when he got a coat “blowout” the groomer gave him a bath, but that was it. The adoption clause specified a certain amount of time to return an animal to avoid buyer’s remorse. His first night with us I was in the kitchen to fetch something, and when I returned to the living room I saw him up on the couch with HW, his head resting comfortably on her lap. As if he knew he was in a probationary period, he looked at me with those plaintive eyes, “Am I a keeper?”

From that point on he was family. Hardly a day passed in the ensuing eight years without either myself or HW, usually both of us, getting outside for a long walk or hike with Chester. In all the ways a good dog can enrich our lives, getting us out of the house and moving has to be at the top of the list. He wasn’t a particularly high energy dog, though like all our dogs he was always eager to go, no matter where it was. In the low mountains around Anchorage he could soar up and down mountainsides chasing ground squirrels with the best of ’em. Which is another thing that amazed me about him. He didn’t have the body form or the apparent strength and agility well suited for high-performance running up and down big hills. But I guess Chester didn’t get the memo

For the next five years while we still had our beach cottage in Seward, he traveled to and from there with us every time. I mean my recall isn’t perfect, but I can’t think of a reason we would have ever traveled there without him. If for some reason he wasn’t fit to go, then we wouldn’t either. We go as a family or not at all. Even when we snow-birded in Sedona a few years ago, he came with us, including 3200 miles of driving to and from. A better canine traveler I’ve never before experienced. At the hotels where we stayed along the way, HW & I would get settled, then clean up to go out for a bite to eat, and ‘ol Chester, having been well fed and taken out for his postprandial pee & pooh – always his contentment came first – would hop up on the bed, settle in with a deep sigh, and patiently await our return. Copy/paste the next day. Never a complaint or an embarrassing episode with that one. He was just the perfect companion in every way.

Months turned into years. The fur around his nose and chin began to gray slowly. Our boy had become a man. He’d throw us into a panic now and then when he’d run off into the woods, too far to be seen or heard (we were always sure to fasten a bell to his collar). Our strategy for finding him was to have HW go one way and I another, using our phones like walkies-talkies we’d communicate sightings or evidence of where he’d been. Eventually, he’d give up on whatever had given him chase, and not uncommonly reappear somewhere very distant from our search area. Other times he’d pop out right behind us. He could make us feel foolish that way. Another time, while out on a beach walk in Seward, he darted away suddenly into a small RV park, found a Minnie Winnie with its door open and ran inside. As I sprinted after him I shouted apologies to a couple I spied at a nearby picnic table, who I feared might be the (unamused) owners. As I closed in on Winnie I saw Chester shoot out of it with a half-eaten bag of family-sized Lays over his head. How he avoided a face-plant descending the steps at that speed with those mutant feet of his, I will never know. Turns out the couple I spotted were the owners of the RV. Out of breath I skid to a stop next to them, beseeching their forgiveness with every excuse and apology I could muster. But instead of anger the wife was buckled over, laughing her ass off. Chester, still blinded because his head was stuck in the bag, was stumbling about like a little drunk. Two shakes of his head and the bag sails away, potato chips scatter everywhere. I had to admit it was funny. I felt permission to laugh a little myself. Meanwhile, Chester is frantic, trying to get as much booty into his mouth as he can because he knows I’m coming for him.

Life with dogs is precious. As I write we’re hunkered down. There’s an atmospheric river overhead. Layers of thick gray clouds make the shortened days feel shorter still. It all feels punitive to me in a way. Similar to how I felt a year ago in Anchorage during the Snowpocalypse of ’22, when Chester suffered a spinal injury in the deep snow. In my mind’s eye I can still see that helpless look on his face. I wanted to scream. HW & I feared he would not recover. It was really bad, he couldn’t walk on his own. Fuck it all. Then, slowly, he could again. The steroids reduced the inflammation in his spine. The neurotransmitters were flowing again. He could feel his feet, move them on his own. Slowly, the winter days grew longer. It seemed magical to me. Months later we sold the homestead and moved away. Created a new one here. Chester was stable, with limited mobility, yes, but his spirit was undiminished. And if not for his continued presence and the restoration of us qua family, this would not have felt like a home, not really. Doting on him this past year, caring for him, exploring with him, our company’s enjoyment of him, just the simple joy of his presence day to day cannot be overstated. And neither can the sudden and devastating absence. The magic had expired. Almost to a year his injury reactivated. Steroids proved useless this time. Our anguish over the final act of caring is unspeakable. Our only consolation: Chester 1, Pain 0.

The hole in our hearts and home feels like an emotional dungeon.

We miss you, our dear friend. You shall not be forgotten 🙏🏼