The puppy with big paws, a hearty smile and Humphrey Bogart eyebrows lay resting in the street outside a drugstore with its half-drunk owner. No doubt it was those, his Bogart eyebrows, that got him noticed by one Dick Lovell, Hollywood casting agent. Dick chided the man with the the puppy at his side.
"What are you doing with that dog anyway -- you should let me buy it off you."
"Fifty dollars," replied the man. Seemed like a pretty round number.
Dick thought about it. But really not all that much.
"I'll give you five."
And somehow that was it. A deal was struck. The puppy was now cast as Dick's newest discovery.
For as long as I knew Dick, he had always had a dog. And to the last one, each and every single one of these animals was somehow named Ginger. As it turned out, however, this particular puppy was actually a 'he'. Apparently it didn't matter. They all get the same name. No exceptions. And definitely true this time around.
This was 1999 and Dick lived in Whitley Heights, an obscure section of Hollywood where the early stars roosted during the emerging Golden Age of motion pictures. From W.C. Fields, Valentino and Jean Harlow to Barbara La Marr, Judy Garland and Marie Dressler, the hill definitely had its bloodlines. And to Dick, this was just the sort of world he loved to live in. Echoes of silver screen greats at every turn. Each home with its story. So when he cast this next puppy in a line of so many Gingers, this beloved 'Ginger' answered the call. And the first thing he wanted to do was show the pup off.
"Terrific eyes. And it's good he's going to be a small dog," Dick declared.
Seeing the enormous size of his paws, I didn't know how to break it to him. Better to face the facts.
"But Dick, look at the size of his paws!"
Dick noticed they were a bit oversized for his body.
"Hmmmm? Well, that's okay. We'll work with it."
From then on, Dick and Ginger were inseparable. At home and even off the hill, it was usually a two-for-all. And living up to his big puppy paws, the rest of him grew in big to match. Big... and lively. His strength regularly took Dick off his feet while walking him around the neighborhood.
"I'm fine. I'm fine," Dick said lying on the ground at the end of a taut, outstretched leash and panting dog. "Just give me a minute to get up."
But walks were only the half of it. Taking Ginger for rides in his new Toyota RAV4 was one of the best-est things they did together. Dick would revel in the fact that Ginger loved to have him park at the Hollywood Bowl lot at night and together, in the darkness, they would watch for coyotes. Of course, every time he saw one emerge from the trees, Ginger would go wild. Barking and frenzied, he'd be everywhere in the car at once. Flurries of dog hair would cloud the interior while nose marks and tongue swipes covered the inside glass of the car. Up close, the windows almost appeared to be adorned with fantastical finger paint art. (Amazing what a wet nose can do.)
These late night coyote sessions took a toll on that little RAV4's interior. The sweat. The hair. The doggy smell. The 'essence' of it all. The odor could overwhelm you if you weren't prepared for it. In fact, it was once said by one of Dick's neighbors that if you got within 5 feet of his car, the olfactory overload would make you break out in hives. It was at least that bad, really.
Dick and Ginger's mutual affection was firmly grounded on an adversarial foundation. "Dammit Ginger, do you hear me?!!" This often-repeated shout would invariably elicit a defiant "woof" back. In their relationship, each and every challenge from one was met with an equal and opposite retort right back. Ginger could give as good as he got. He even managed to goad a neighbor's Great Dane twice his size into chasing him across the Hollywood Bowl picnic tables. But Ginger was the love of Dick's life and he treated the dog with the greatest of reverence. From food, toys to treats, Ginger was always brought the best. And when it concerned food, he was only brought scraps and sordid samples from the best restaurants Dick would frequent. When Dick ate out, so too did Ginger. And Ginger would eat everything. It didn't matter if it was just a plain old tomato or even a bland leaf of lettuce. Ginger never turned his nose up at food. Never.
But Ginger did have his limits on some things. Dick had a second house in Palm Springs where he would disappear to on weekends for a change of scenery. A place to get away. Anyone who knows Palm Springs knows the heat there can be downright abysmal. Well, Ginger, and Dick's cat, 'Tiger', quickly figured this out too. So on days when Dick was loading up his RAV4 for a drive to Palm Springs, the menagerie would immediately disappear. Literally hiding away. Hoping that this time, if only he couldn't find them, that they wouldn't find themselves in the intense heat of the desert, instead of the cooling breezes of Hollywood. Dick would eventually hunt them down and get them in the car, but even so, most of their time was spent under his Palm Springs house trying to stay cool. Dick cited this as one of the reasons he eventually stopped going there and sold off his home. "I was out-voted, 2 to 1."
In time, as Ginger and Dick's bond grew, the house slowly converted itself into a mutual den for both to enjoy. Several chairs in the living room were covered with white sheets. "Those are Ginger's chairs". In truth however, all of the furniture was Ginger's. Having a few chairs with sheets just gave the impression, although false, that Dick was in control of the rebellious pooch. Ginger must have known he was a star in Dick's eyes, and took full advantage.
Of course there are always moments of drama in any relationship. There were times, especially later on as he grew more tired and worn, that Dick would end up throwing a newspaper or shoe against the wall near Ginger in a frustrated attempt to settle him down -- and the dog would immediately dash out of the room.
And it worked. Well, mostly.
Dick turned to me after a particular out-of-control Ginger moment, and I watched as Ginger rushed out of his office at the sound of a flying newspaper hitting the wall.
"Now watch this… a completely different dog is now going to come back in the room."
And he was right. After a moment, Ginger's head poked around the corner, peering sheepishly in, and he returned anew, channeling some non-existent 'now perfectly behaved' dog. His better twin. It was a strange, loving bond they had between them. An odd couple of buddies… arguing and smiling at the same time.
Just How It Was
Dick had slowly begun to show his age through the winter as preparations for a Halloween wine table seemed strained and more difficult than usual. I learned later that his health had been failing, but he had not shared that fact with anyone on the hill. In Spring of that next year, Dick had a stroke. Concerned after not hearing from him for a bit , a neighbor and I found him emerging from the passenger side of his RAV4, his speech slurred and eyes panicked.
"Dick, are you okay?!!" He couldn't speak. Not clearly. Another neighbor, who was behind the wheel, said that Dick insisted he drive him down to the Bowl parking lot because he wanted to show him precisely where Ginger liked to watch coyotes. He had to make sure someone knew. Even in his state, Dick had to be sure. For Ginger's sake.
Dick passed away within the week. Ginger and his sibling cat, Tiger, were left alone. Fortunately, Tiger found a home just up the hill from Dick with happy hearted neighbors who were just near enough to Dick's home to keep things familiar. Ginger on the other hand was finding it difficult to be placed.
"He's part Pit..." That was all anyone needed to hear. Of course it didn't help that he had also eaten the seat belts in Dick's car.
At Dick's memorial on St. Patrick's Day, a large picture of Dick was underscored with a smaller picture of Ginger. "If anyone could consider taking on Ginger -- please let us know. Please." No one answered the call and it was looking like Ginger might end up in a shelter. As close family members prepared to fly back home that night, they said that Ginger would have to be left alone in the house and checked on by neighbors until they could figure out where to send him.
Alone in that house. The thought of it was too much.
"I'll take him." I succumbed.
So that was the night I got Dick's dog. No plan. Nothing but some leftover food and his leash. Ginger was excited. He seemed to know this was the way it was going to be. And so it was.
Under New Management
In the course of wrapping up details of his estate, Dick's green RAV4 sat idle in his driveway. It was in terrible shape, with only half of its remaining seat belts left uneaten. It also possessed a certain smell that no one could quite put their finger on. Those interested in buying it would merely have to open the door and get a whiff of that smell. 'Uh, no thanks.' Despite repeated cleanings, it lingered. And so did the car. As it turns out my car had just died so I needed one, and Ginger could use something familiar, so I bought it. After throwing in another thousand or so to make it drivable again, we were back in business.
In the process of repairing the seat-release button, which Ginger had also taken the liberty of eating, I uncovered the problem of the lingering stench. Squarely defined in a two-inch thick flat panel underneath each seat was a solidly packed pad of Ginger fur that had managed to escape the vacuum over the years. To envision, just imagine the contents of the worlds biggest lint trap after 300 consecutive dryer loads. Each of the huge pads of solid Ginger fur came out in one piece, like oversized slices of poundcake.
Now, with this unnecessary evil exorcised from the vehicle, and a little more cleaning, we ushered in a new and improved Ginger mobile.
Same Leash. New Lease on Life
I officialized Ginger's entry into the home with only one small dilema. Everyone who heard the name Ginger assumed it was a girl. (stereotypes!) But I had no intention of renaming him due to the confusion it would cause. So I considered taking a sly twist and calling him 'Deringer' -- because it sounded almost identical and was definitely a bit more butch. But in finding his old leash, Dick had already provided an easier solution. On his original I.D. tag were two words: "Ginger-Boy". Perfect. But I only used it when someone who didn't know him asked his name. After all, all of Dick's dogs were named Ginger. This would be no exception.
Although I considered driving Ginger down to the Bowl as Dick had previously, it turned out he was actually quite happy, in fact I'd say thrilled, to instead make long walks through the neighborhood. Especially late at night when we would sometimes see coyotes wandering about. In fact, this was a real win/win for Ginger. He put up with having no backyard to hang out in, but as a result, was walked two or three times a day through the whole neighborhood where he had ample opportunity to do his business and greet others at will. Best of all, no more seat belts were to be casualties in the process.
Ginger now enjoyed his days as a new star on a different block of Whitley Heights. He loved to meet cats (only a few of which were happy to meet him back). Folks who inquired were told 'His name is Ginger-Boy -- Dick Lovell's dog". After all, everyone knew Dick, and I was only minding the reins. Ginger was his discovery. His star. Ginger would still enjoy his walks down to the Bowl parking lot, an occasional drive to Burbank or to the pet store for treats, and all was well. In fact, despite not having a yard, Ginger learned that home life could be very good indeed. Full bed privileges. Full furniture access. And nightly excursions around the hill.
And if there still happened to be the occasional acting up, I found that merely channeling Dick's voice and letting fly with "Dammit Ginger, do you hear me?!" would be just enough to bring him back in line. Magic words, they be. He was definitely Dick's dog.
A Watch Dog
Ginger would always manage to find a place to rest within view of whatever I was working on around the house. Drawing projects, doing stuff on the computer, working in the garage. Whatever. He was fine, as long as he could watch. I always thought of him as my supervisor. Just keeping track of my hours. And as for his health? Ginger was indestructible. Never an ache, pain or complaint. Ginger even played nursemaid to my mom going through chemotherapy while at the house, and he was as gentle and caring as one could hope. Many years went by, and things were good.
One night, while taking one of our nightly strolls, Ginger suddenly twisted his head rightward, and pulled his neck back erratically. It startled me. He began to stumble and lose footing on his front legs. I didn't know what was happening but managed to get us back home and carried him inside. I slipped him an aspirin and kept him quiet. His face looked distorted and absent. But slowly, within an hour or so, he returned to some normalcy and by the next day, he was back to himself. I surmised it was a small stroke. As a result, I would add an occasional baby aspirin chip to his food. We never looked back.
But alas, that scary moment was a sign of age coming up on him, and in time, he slowly started to become a lot less energetic and attentive to walks. Ear infections came frequently. There were days of not being able to jump on the couch. Time was taking its toll. His carefree puppy days were no more, but we persevered. The couch was still his. He knew that. The bed too. So when jumping up became an issue, I built a ten foot ramp covered by carpet to lead him up to bed. And removing the top cushions on the sofa meant he could once again claim it outright. But things were getting on and so were his issues.
Anyone who lives on a hillside knows that stairs are a major part of most houses. Mine is no different. And it only took one instance of seeing Ginger attempt to climb upstairs, only to slide back halfway down, to make it official… 'no more stairs for you'. I'd carry him up or down instead. As for walks around the hill, once I got him up to the street, he would be good… but even that, slowly, started to become too much for him to handle.
"First floor please."
It finally became necessary to keep Ginger on the lower floor of the house. So we made the best of it. The downstairs was now his domain. Anywhere he wanted. His age meant he really couldn't handle regular long walks, and having no backyard, I set aside a bathroom with newspapers as his personal 'grounds'. Ginger was cool with it.
Slowly, I started to see little balance issues and other changes that gave me pause. His rear legs were increasingly unstable. His hearing was going. He would only respond to claps, or shouted phrases. All things considered, however, he looked great and all was well. Visits to doggy day care occasionally offered him variety and allowed me to escape endless daily care rituals. Two weeks of pre-bagged food along with a 'Ginger-only' label made sure that it was he who was getting his favorite food. All was well.
Before long, other things became more noticeable. His legs would tend to slide out from under him while eating at his food dish, or he would try to turn around too sharply and end up sitting in his water dish. He looked more embarrassed than hurt, but I bracketed his dishes to the wall and narrowed the hallway so he could navigate around and find an easy place to lean without falling. Unfortunately the bed was now off limits, but a well-padded mattress nearby was begrudgingly accepted. All was still well.
(Ginger in his downstairs play tent - one of six he went through)
Clouds in the Skies
As time proceeded, Ginger's eyes started to cloud, his hearing diminished even more and his meanderings around the house became a little more random. On occasion I would find him staring in the corner of the room. His dementia began to settle in. Familiar gazes were slowly replaced by "do I know you?" Sheepish reactions greeted once-familiar friends. He became startled by simple touches. Additionally, any movement towards his face was met with a snarling growl. He never bit. He never lunged. But I learned to only pet him from the side or when he was drowsy. Darkened spaces now made him uncomfortable, so I installed 24 hour lighting on the lower floor so he would never be in the dark or afraid. All was basically well.
As things slowly progressed, the thought of how much time Ginger had came up more often. I would ask myself -- should I keep getting the 50 pound bag of his food? Would I need it? Is it better to get smaller bags… just in case? But heart trumps head every time, and I always decided to go large. And sure enough, the 50 pound bags would continue to empty. Over and over again. In fact, I began measuring time in the passing of large bags of dog food. Every one I lugged home, felt like the push of a two-month snooze bar on Ginger's time clock.
As Ginger's dementia progressed, he slowly started to show signs that were a lot more unsettling -- especially for a dog who ate everything. He would head to his dog dish and place his nose right on his dogfood and just sit there -- as if he didn't know what to do next. A minute or two would pass. No eating. Almost as if he was trying to feed himself by sheer concentration. To counteract that I began feeding him by hand, one scoop at a time, like when he was younger. This helped, but even then there were times that confusion would win out. And water was no different. He loved his water. Always a loud lapper -- but I began to notice that the water dish was not going down as quickly. He was still lapping, but the water was not getting beyond his playful tongue. Hand-feeding him with water-filled drinking straws overcame that hurdle, but it was becoming clear that this was unsustainable. Ginger's confusion and constant wandering gave the sense that he, too, was becoming ever more frustrated. It became clearer to me, that all was not well.
The weekend started as any other, and aside from the normal activities, Ginger was his usual self. But just after eating, he began to choke a bit, and the food he had been trying to eat was not going down. Holding him upright to try and let gravity help his food down did nothing. In a few minutes, a large coughing fit sent his meal spraying over the desk, and it was suddenly obvious that things had reached a tipping point.
That night, I lifted Ginger up into my bed to sleep. I covered him with the feather comforter. He disappeared underneath it and the next day woke up warm, refreshed and appearing somewhat back to normal. A few measured hand-feedings got him back in the swing, but I really feared what I had read about dementia -- how the body eventually forgets how to swallow altogether. I feel I had been given a brief glimpse of what might happen, and the thought of it happening again was devasting.
A quick return to Dick's story
Back at his memorial service, a few friends of Dick's gathered to discuss who might take Ginger now that he had passed away. One close friend of Dick's, Fran Bascom, a fellow casting agent known for 'Designing Women' and 'Days of our Lives', among others, suddenly looked concerned and turned to the others.
"Oh My God!"
"What is it Fran? What's wrong?!"
Fran looked serious.
"Has anyone told Ginger yet?!"
A comedian friend of Dick's was startled by the question, but responded, humorously...
"Uh, I think he figured it out…"
Another neighbor calmed Fran's worries "…actually I sat him down and told him. Ginger knows Dick is gone."
So it was now, that it was my turn to have a talk with Ginger. Only this time it was about him.
"Ginger, I don't think we can keep this up indefinitely. I think it might be time."
Hearing the words come out of my mouth was heartbreaking, but then again, I wasn't saying anything that I hadn't been already going over and over in my head. Hearing it spoken just made it real. Ginger was not going to be getting better. He was 16 and his health was quickly spiraling downward.
As I continued to talk aloud with Ginger, facing some possibilities, his face started to take on a relaxed, almost melancholy look. It was startling. In fact, by the end of my discussion, Ginger appeared to be almost smiling. So much so that I had to take his picture to see if I was imagining it.
He looked so soulful and happy. Even dimples appeared at the edges of his mouth -- something I had never seen on him before in my life. I was looking for an answer. Some kind of sign. And Ginger gave me what I needed. All those years of telling everyone '...this is Dick's dog' had now somehow changed, and at that moment, it was no longer true. Ginger was no longer Dick's dog. He was mine. The responsibility was mine. It was heartbreaking. This would be my decision. No one else's.
So I arranged to have help driving early in the morning to take Ginger to the vet. I tried to sleep but couldn't. I stayed up brushing Ginger, getting together blankets. Loading the car. All while he slept. Finally I drifted off but was woken up by Ginger wandering around. I got up to check on him and noticed flashing red and blue lights outside my bedroom window. Peering out, I could see a Highway Patrol car parked diagonally on the highway, pointing its headlights directly up towards the house. I tried to see if something was happening in the road, but saw nothing. Just the cruiser, lights flashing, and all the cars stopped behind it.
It was just then that the cruiser slowly turned and proceeded down the freeway, and behind it followed the slow procession of dozens upon dozens of vehicles. Pairs upon pairs of white headlights moving by in succession. I took notice, as it appeared as if a symbolic farewell parade was passing by. I wasn't hunting for any signs, but in this case I felt something. This strange procession brought a feeling of ease and comfort, and I stood there until all of the cars had finally passed. Ginger was drifting slowly back to sleep on his couch. I tucked him in. Time for bed.
I woke again at 7:30 a.m. The phone rang as our ride was almost here. I found Ginger already wide awake, having already done his business. I tried hand-feeding him a bit of his breakfast. No dice. I sensed an eagerness in him to get going. I patted him and got ready myself. I needed to drive my car from around the block to load up Ginger and the rest of his things. While driving back up the hillside, a black crow flew out in front of the car, traveling just ahead of me along the way to the summit. Once at the top, the crow flew off to the left. I broke right. Somehow my mind drifted to the final scenes in Zorba the Greek, and to the significance of when the crow comes.
I hoisted Ginger up the stairs and gently placed him in the back of the RAV4 on the improvised bed. He relaxed on the mound of pillows and sunk in slowly for the ride northward.
Before entering the Vet's office, I wanted to make sure everything was all set. No complications or uncomfortable moments. No waiting on a cold, hard floor. I went in. The vet's assistant said we are all ready for you. I lifted Ginger out of the RAV4 one last time and we funneled into the back exam room. I lay him down on the table. He sighed and looked very much at ease. The vet asked if we were ready and I said yes.
"This first shot is valium."
'Is that for me?' I joked.
He laughed, but then stopped himself. "I'm sorry for laughing." I felt bad that he needed to say that.
"That's OK, we'll split it instead," I replied. He smiled.
The injection went in slowly. Ginger opened his mouth and let go with the most relaxed rolling yawn I could have possibly imagined -- complete with full tongue curl and satisfying smack of his lips. The sedative was taking effect.
He lay his head down and drifted into a deep sleep within seconds. The doctor gave him time to fall asleep and then administered the final shot -- a final release from his long, slow goodbye.
In a moment, he was gone. The doctor left me alone with him. "Take as long as you need." The sounds of the vet's office faded away. It was just me and him. Only, really, he was not there any longer. A few minutes went by as I tried to let the reality sink in.
It was just then, a rush of wind suddenly pushed open the back door of the exam room and a cool breeze blew over us -- the curtains spraying wildy. At that exact moment, the vet's phone intercom sounded what could only be described as something you'd hear coming from a slot machine when someone hits the bonus round.
"Barreeep ca-chingggg... bip, bip, bip..."
Somehow, I smiled. I'm not one to look for signs, but when yet another one comes…
Staring down at Ginger, I now saw my dog instead of Dick's dog. And my dog was gone. But I found I wasn't sad. Instead, I was filled with a deep sense of calm. A feeling of ease and complete and restful peace. No more confusion. No more struggle. Just a high flying sense of departure, onward to the next big thing. He had made the perfect ease into the third and final act.
And now it was time to turn the theater lights off.
Ginger had 16 years. It was a damn good run.