While working in my community garden plot at the Bluff Farm (Vermont Land Trust) in Newport, Vermont, I glanced over at Reuben. He was lying peacefully, stretched out across the laps of two counselors with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corp. They were stroking him gently and several of the young Corp members looked on. I saw a few hands reach out to Reuben, caressing his soft fur and floppy ears.
Reuben looked inquisitively around, enjoying the attention. I heard words softly spoken, words I couldn’t hear, but I speculate they were discussing Reuben’s imminent death the next day. I had told them earlier that Reuben’s body was riddled with cancer. This was his last day on Earth and he would be euthanized tomorrow. I wondered what they were saying ? Perhaps they were sharing their own grief over losing a pet or pondering the bigger questions of life: Why is there suffering? Is there heaven? Do pets go to heaven? How does it feel to loose someone you love?
Reuben accompanied me every day when I went to work in my garden plot, pulling weeds, turning over the soil, planting seeds and watering tender new vegetable plants. He wanted to join me in the garden, dig a nest and lay in the soft, warm soil, which was comforting to his aching body. I didn’t think this would be appreciated by the other gardeners, So Reuben was told to stay outside the fence. However, he always found a comfortable, shady spot in the tall grass, under an ancient maple tree. He was content to lay there, enjoying a soft breeze that occasionally wafted across the fields. He would frequently raise his head, put his nose in the air to smell a flower blooming, or manure being spread across the hay fields.
After watching Reuben and his new friends lounge in the shade, I returned to my garden work, allowing Reuben to rest comfortably. Gardening can be a meditative experience and while working the soil I thought about Reuben and his gentle spirit, always bringing out the best in people and, in this case, members of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corp. So often young adults are cast off – stigmatized as self-centered, lazy trouble makers, glued to their cell phones and lacking ambition. I believe just the opposite and Reuben reinforced my belief. I saw caring young people, concerned with the impending death of a dying animal. Reuben always had the innate spirit of breaking down walls of preconceived ideas and prejudices. Walls that separate us from each other.
So many times on our hikes together Reuben would gallop up to greet people, no matter their disposition or mood. Reuben would wag his tail, give them a barking hello and rub his body against their legs. The walls between hiker and dog would disappear and the questions would flow: Can I pet your dog? What’s his name? How old is he? Where are you going on the trail? How much further to the parking lot? Out of those questions a conversation would develop about hiking with pets, trail conditions, backpacking and a sundry of common interests. Reuben would sit, his head cocked, listening to the babble, probably wondering why he wasn’t included in the conversation. He was, after all, the trail greeter. (Some people referred to him as the Walmart Dog, as in the Walmart Greeter). After a fashion Reuben would dig himself a soft bed in the woods and wait for the banter to end.
After a while we would start trekking again, with Reuben bounding down the trail ahead of me, hoping to greet more hikers and make new friends. He especially liked to accost young hikers, as they made a fuss over him and he gloated with pride from the attention he was getting.
So often when we hike or take a stroll on the street we pass by others, not making eye contact, saying hello or even acknowledging each other. We just simply mind our own business and continue on our way.
Rueben, however, wasn't aware of this social distancing behavior. He never passed up an opportunity to welcome a passerby. He had a way with people in breaking down the social barriers that tend to separate us from one another. He would sometimes bark a friendly greeting, or simply look them in the eye with his friendly smile as if to say, do you want to be friends? Just as on the trail, Reuben would bring out a string of inquisitive words from his new friends and this would bring about an extended conversation. The walls that separate us would disappear – our political views, race, social class, economic standing, looks, or age. This is especially true today with our country so terribly divided, separating even family and close friends. Reuben could break down walls like no politician, community organizer or social worker could do. With his gentle nature, handsome look, and inviting personality he could bring people together who were struck by his loving personality.
Just as with the youth of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corp who circled around Reuben on his last day, he brought out the best in people and helped connect people in a common bond of friendship. In return Reuben got to be stroked, spoken to, hugged and loved. Reuben even got invited into a neighbor’s house for a treat or to lounge on their porch.
Now, on his final day in the company of young people, Reuben was in his glory, finding attention from a group of strangers, being caressed and loved. He was again revealing the gentleness in others with their soft words of sadness, a pat on the head, and a gentle stroke along his cancer-laden body. What better way to spend your last day on Earth. This day was like many other days in his 14 years of life, bringing out the best in others, and connecting people to a common concern, that is sometimes hard to find in our self- absorbed world. This is Reuben’s legacy that he left for all who knew him.
Before he moved to northern Vermont, Gordon DuBois was a longtime Outdoors columnist for the Daily Sun and Reuben was a constant presence in his columns. Gordon can be reached at email@example.com