Takaani regarded me with piercing brown eyes. “Oh,” I said. My mouth dropped open. The Alaskan malamute competed in size with my petite sister-in-law, Jan, also at my front door along with my brother Dan. The black markings around Takaani’s face, lush fur, and tall stature commanded my attention. I invited the trio inside, even though I couldn’t imagine everyone in my small living room. My husband and son—and Christmas tree—were already in there.
Dan gave the command, “Come.” He removed the leash and we sat in the living room where the massive dog obeyed his master’s command to lie down. He stretched and his full-length would have taken up most of my sofa had he been on it. Soon, Takaani, which means wolf in Eskimo, was restless and stood by me and waited for me to pet him. He leaned into my body. I felt his strength. He didn’t bark, whine, or roughhouse. By the time my husband, son, and I had stroked his coarse fur, fed him treats, and talked to him, the six of us had become a pack.
Dan explained the importance of packs. I learned from him how much dogs crave family and like having a leader. Jan had trained Takaani so that she could hold a dog treat in her fingers and extend it to him, but he couldn’t take it until she said, “OK.” This sometimes meant 30 seconds of waiting.
Takaani loved to play with his brown stuffed monkey in my brother’s large home in the Hayward Hills. The strong-jawed dog never tore his toys, and they were as clean as he was. No dog odor in this house. We played fetch in Dan’s family room, unless the malamute decided we couldn’t have it. His powerful paws prevented the game.
Visits at my brother’s home and ours always ended with hugs. As I embraced my brother, Takaani squeezed between us. “Group hug,” my brother said. And then, of course, it was the pack of six hugging, laughing, and talking. This dog had wormed his way into our hearts.
Dan was diagnosed with cancer, stage four, a few years after he and Jan brought Takaani into their lives. During the after effects of chemo, Takaani comforted my brother by lying beside the bed (he wasn’t allowed on furniture), or on the floor snuggled against my brother. Dan often spoke of the soothing effect his beloved dog had on him.
Several months before my brother died, my sister-in-law learned she had breast cancer. I stayed with them for three weeks after Jan came home from the hospital. She needed help due to the mastectomy and reconstruction surgery done the same day. Dan didn’t have the strength to care for her all the time. By then, I realized he would probably lose his three-year battle with cancer. He was quite thin and wore a bag that contained fluid which drained from around his liver. He could no longer lie on the floor with Takaani. But the dog sidled up to my brother’s chair and lay at his feet. Often, Takaani stretched his neck to lay his head on Dan’s footstool. He understood his master was ill.
During the time I was with them, our small pack of four became close. Takaani obeyed me if Dan and Jan were still in bed. He let me feed him breakfast and dinner. I often said, “Eat your breakfast.” If he didn’t, his food went into the refrigerator and he had to wait until evening.Meals became a special time for him and me. But I knew I performed my brother’s job. He valued those mornings with his dog, cup of coffee in hand, waiting for Takaani to eat. I realized then that Dan was quite ill. Jan healed well and the time came for me to go home. I yearned to stay. The pack would change again.
My brother called one day and asked if I’d drive him and Jan to Stanford. She had a checkup and he was to meet with his oncologist for a report. I accompanied them into the office of Dan’s doctor. The news was bad. My brother said, “I guess our backs are against the wall.” The doctor offered a trial drug. Dan decided the odds of surviving the drug were against him. He turned down treatment. I took them home where they could talk and cry. My cheeks glistened with tears as I drove home 25 miles away.
Three months later, the pack of six gathered for the last time. Jan, Takaani, my husband, son, and I gathered around my brother’s bed. He said, “Tell me what you’re thankful for in your life.” Takaani was the closest to the bed and we all talked, cried, and prayed. Takaani howled when we left the room. It was the first time he had ever done this and he was 8 years old. His grief had begun.
After his master’s death, Takaani craved companionship. Anyone, human or animal, caught his attention. Jan took him to Oregon with her to visit her brother. They were no sooner out of the truck and this massive dog ran to the adjacent field where horses grazed. He jumped the fence and moved around them. The startled animals tried to get away. I laughed when I heard the story. Takaani had learned to play again.
Several years have passed and Jan and Takaani have moved to Oregon. I miss playing with him and his monkey. I miss his gentleness. I miss the pack of six.
Neva J. Hodges’ poetry and short stories have been published in various publications, and she working on a novel. A Rio Vista resident, she is a member of the California Writers Club, Tri Valley Branch. You can follow her on her blog at NevaJHodges.com.
Main article photo by: Courtesy Neva J. Hodges