All dogs are special. Especially to their owners.
But this is the story of an EXTRA special dog.
I met him when he was just a pup. There’s a picture from that day, of me hugging a 20 pound yellow lab (just like my older dog, Ike) as he blissfully points his nose at the ceiling, staring into space.
Mater belonged to my coworker and friend Cory and her husband Jack. He was special in another way- it wasn’t until all of his litter mates were gone that Cory and Jack realized Mater was blind. He followed his litter mates around initially, but even on his own, it was difficult to tell he couldn’t see. He had an unerring ability to get around, only rarely bumping into objects in his way.
Mater and I bonded immediately. He also bonded with Ike. When Cory would watch Ike for me, he was Mater’s best friend, whether he wanted to be or not. Ike loved to fetch, and Mater would run right behind him until Ike picked up the thrown stick. Mater would work his way up Ike’s side, then latch on to the other end of the stick and let Ike lead him around.
Mater loved spending time with Ike; Ike exhibited a grumpy patience with him, and being with them both filled me with a quiet happiness that’s difficult to explain to someone who’s never experienced it for themselves: the comfort of the fall, the quiet simplicity of the sun, the contentedness of furry warmth, and the omnipresence of being these creatures’ utmost importance.
Cory moved on to another job, and every time I’d see her, I’d always say, “Hi! Where’s Mater?” Frequently, he was waiting outside in the truck. It was always disappointing when he wasn’t.
While Mater loved everyone, not everyone understood his handicap, or how well he usually overcame it. Shortly after arriving at a Christmas party one year when he was still very young, I watched a group of children playing with Mater by calling his name from behind a desk across the room, and then laughing hysterically when he ran face-first into it trying to reach his playmates.
I decided playtime was over, and took Mater outside for a walk in the snow. And we walked, for the next two hours, while the house echoed in the distance with party goers.
I enjoyed myself far more with him than I would have if I’d stayed in the house.
Both Mater and Ike had their share of serious close calls – Ike nearly succumbing to pancreatitis; Mater being run over by a tractor. In his fearless nature, he didn’t know he ran in front of it until it was too late. Luckily, the ground and manure he was running over was soft enough that he sunk in under the weight of the tractor tires, barely leaving enough fur sticking out to show where he lay. Onlookers were sure he was dead, but astonishingly, he suffered only a broken leg.
After a few months in a cast, he was once again bounding around the farm with no cares for any danger.
Like any other lab, Mater loved to fetch. He’d listen to the ball or stick impacting the ground, and run for the sound, sniffing around until he found the toy, and then running back to where he’d started, helped along by the calling of his name.
I tried to make his play time a little easier. I bought a toy called a “Babble ball”, a ball with an electronic cartoon voice! Mater loved his new toy, homing in on it unerringly as it called out silly doggy words for him to follow. He nuzzle it with his snout while he rolled around on his back in his happiness.
Ike was already an old man by the time Mater came along, and a few years later Ike was just too tired to go on any longer.
Mater continued to greet me with his boundless joy, even though I visited him alone now. He had gained a few more animal friends to play with, a new litter to follow.
After Ike’s death, Cory finally cleared up a mystery that puzzled me from the day I met Mater. While Cory had a heart as big and warm as the sun, Jack had the gruffness and practicality of a long time rancher, and before Mater had come along, always stated that he’d never own a dog as a pet; that a farm dog had to earn its keep, and when the time came for the dog to be put down, he’d only do it himself if he had to.
So I’d never really understood why they took Mater home, although I certainly understood why they kept him.
As it turned out, they’d had a bit of a nefarious reason. They knew Ike wasn’t going to be around forever, and had planned on giving Mater to me after Ike was gone. Ike, however, lasted far longer than anyone expected, and by then, Jack had gotten far too used to sharing his four-wheeler rides and easy chair with Mater to ever give him up. It was just as well- Mater had a job to do, working the ranch, spreading his own brand of love and happiness to everyone and everything wherever he went.
The yellow lab with the biggest heart of gold. Cory referred to him as a four-legged saint. Blind, he still managed to see the best in everyone.
I visited Mater for one of the last times when Jack was recovering from open heart surgery. He told me before he went into the OR, he made sure everyone knew that if anything happened to him, Mater was to come to me.
Thankfully, that was never needed.
Soon after the visit, I moved far away. Mater still remained a bright point in my world; knowing he was out there and safe enabled me to feel that quiet happiness once more, even at a distance.
A few months ago, Cory wrote to me to let me know that Mater’s health suddenly started to decline, and they’d had to make the final trip to the vet. The vet initially thought Mater was suffering from fluid build up around his heart, but in the end confirmed what all of Mater’s friends already knew – his heart really was the biggest, over twice as big as it should have been.
I’ve never gotten another dog after Ike. Now, his erstwhile replacement is gone, too, leaving my world a bit darker.
But it’s still brighter than it would have been if Mater the blind dog had never come along.
Those two silly yellow labs are playing fetch with each other again, together always in my heart’s fondest memories.