It was like he figured, aw, what the heck, let me do it one more time.
I was playing on the floor with my daughter, Allison, and over he came, a spirited little gait, and bouncing on the tips of his toenails. Gave me that little muted growl and pawed at me.
The front left foot, like always.
I saw the look in his eyes and recognized the stare. I knew the game. It was my turn to paw back at him. Throw a hand high the air, maybe lightly graze his head, then lean back.
And then it was on. A playful growl and quick, staccato steps dancing around the living room floor as if he were a boxer, countering my right hook with his left jab. On and on we would go like this, until both of us were panting.
It was a puppy’s game. But Mattingly was 10 years old, a couple of months removed from a serious spate of seizures, and testing a heart diagnosed weeks earlier as not having many beats left in it.
Still, the old beagle played, and played hard. Maybe he didn’t know he was throwing caution to the proverbial wind.
Or maybe he did.
Maybe he just wanted to feel young again. One more time.
When Matty was young, he did it all — and chewed it all. He could wiggle his way out of his collar on a walk, breaking himself free from the confines of his leash to answer only to his hound dog nose. He sure wasn’t going to respond to our pleas — at least not until we had a treat in our hands.
He could grab a dirty sock off the top of the laundry basket, and when he was still a puppy, dive under the couch with his prize. Or if he was tired, he could slip under there, unaware that mid-nap he’d roll over, revealing only his black nose, barely visible there under the fabric.
His most comfort, it seemed, came from contact, though. His first night with me, at 9 weeks old, he’d bay mournfully, a puppy surely uncertain of his new surroundings. He’d sleep for maybe an hour at a time, but only while lying flat on my chest.
Even as he grew, when he wanted to rest, he was a lap dog from his earliest age, whether it was with his full body alongside one of us, or by merely kicking out a hind leg to touch my wife’s leg. Or he would jump onto the couch and curl up, but only if he was given at least one full cushion.
Mattingly was 4 when Allison came along. The day we brought her home, we placed her on a mattress on the floor of the living room (um, there was a lot of family in town), and carefully brought Matty over to her, unsure of what he might think. He leaned in close to her face, sniffed her, then jumped back, then to the right, and then left, the playful snarl crescendoing into a perky bark. He took off as if to run, perhaps hoping the infant girl would chase after him. He would have to settle for sneaking a slurp of baby bath water when he caught one of us looking the other way.
The chases came about 14 months later, while the walks around the neighborhood took on a new meaning. If a person came up to get a peek at Allison in the stroller, he had to do it by first acknowledging Mattingly, who had moved between the stroller and the approaching figure. If another dog came near the toddler, Mattingly’s inner Doberman would come out. And even if he was a clear underdog, Matty was willing to fight to the death — or at least to give us time to get Allison out of what he perceived to be as danger.
Mattingly, like all dogs, slowed down as he got older. But he still buried his rawhide chewys in the back yard, waiting for the right rainy day to dig them back up. He would still somehow have the Lazy Susan cabinet open when we would return home from somewhere. And, every time we had been away from the house, he would always greet us by bringing something with him to the door, be it a slipper, a sock, or one of Allison’s My Little Ponies — each redeemable for a treat.
He loved to roll onto his back and have his belly rubbed, loved even more to sleep with his head — or entire body — on a pillow. He’d happily help wake Allison up before school — unless he wanted to stay in bed. He’d bark at the garbage truck religiously and paw at the top of the shell of the turtle that had found its way into the back yard. And when he panted, like he did when he was through playing with me in the living room that day a few weeks ago, he appeared to smile.
Whenever Matty was done with one of his playful spurts, he would come to me, or Allison, or my wife, his head bowed and his tail wagging. He’d sit in front of us, pawing again with his left foot, silently asking for us to rub his head. Of course we would oblige, and he’d turn, lie down, and sigh, the perfect picture of contentment.
We said goodbye to Mattingly this week, heartbroken, for sure, but thankful for the extra five months Dr. Diane Schaller and her excellent staff gave him — and us.
We’ve cried and laughed a lot this week, reminiscing about the time we returned home to see that Mattingly had knocked Allison’s Halloween candy from the counter and onto the floor, leaving nothing but confetti-sized scraps of colored wrappers strewn about. Or the time we came home from dinner and found Matty and my parents’ old dog sitting calmly on the couch, but with Christmas presents lying in various stages of openness on the floor under the tree. Or the time we tried leaving him outside while we went to a baseball game, only to come home and find the mesh screen ripped from the storm door and the bottom frame of the vinyl siding chewed up.
I guess Mattingly liked it best when we were home with him.
So did we.