top of page
  • Gabrielle McGhee

For Crumb: My Soul Dog

Content warning: suicidal ideation and pet loss.

In 1995, I spent my entire 10th grade spring break sleeping in a tent in my yard. It wasn’t for fun – I was on puppy watch. Our recently adopted dog was pregnant, having gotten knocked up by some neighborhood dog before we could get an appointment for her spay. Sandy, who already had her name when she came to us, was a blond spaniel-type, medium-sized with frilly ears and a swishing tail. For the last couple of weeks leading up to spring break, I had watched her belly grow larger and larger. I read everything I could consume regarding pregnant dogs and the birthing process. I checked her teats daily to see if her milk had come in, because I read that would mean birthing was imminent, and when the milk finally came, I started confining her to a chain-link dog kennel on our carport as my father did not allow animals in the house. I filled an old wooden fruit crate with straw for her to use as her nesting box, and I pitched our family tent in the grass a few yards away. I slept in the tent every night with our other two dogs, thinking I would hear Sandy bark for me when the big moment arrived, and I could rush to her side.

The night that Sandy’s puppies were born, she didn’t bark for me, and she didn’t need my help. I awoke to the sound of tiny whimpers, not Sandy’s, but of her litter of puppies. The full moon was starting to wane, but the yard was still splashed in blue light as I unzipped the door of the tent, stepped out onto the dewy grass with flashlight in hand, and zipped the door back leaving my other dogs, Sparky and Garth, still inside. Barefoot as always, I ran across the grass to the darkened carport and clicked on the flashlight. I opened the chain-link gate and directed the light towards the fruit crate – there in the glow of the halogen beam was a tired Sandy, stretched out on her side while a squirming pile of puppies clamored for the best nursing position. I dropped to my knees beside them and leaned over the new members of my furry family.

I couldn’t believe I had missed the whole thing, but here they were, the puppies I had waited for. I counted six puppies in all – five were blond like Sandy, with one rust-colored misfit nestled among them. I crouched there in the chilly night air and watched the puppies crawl over one another as Sandy licked their faces and tummies. I wanted to hold them, smell them, and study them – count their toes and see how many boys vs girls there were. But Sandy was busy tending to them, and I knew I shouldn’t stress her. So, I just watched for a long while, and in time, when my eyelids grew heavy again, I left the new family in the fruit crate and shut the chain-link gate behind me. I padded back across the lawn to my tent, and climbed back inside with Sparky and Garth, their doggie odor on my sleeping bag a comfort as my head hit the pillow. I fell back asleep as the moon crossed the sky and dreamed of puppies until dawn.

Sandy was a good mom while the puppies’ eyes were still closed. She cleaned them and nursed them and didn’t mind me handling them. There were three girls and three boys, the perfect mix I thought. I loved watching them grow, and once they turned two-weeks-old, their previously sealed eyes were all opened within a few days. That was when Sandy began to grow tired of being caged with her brood, and when I would let her out to potty, she would often take off down the road or along the riverbank and be gone for hours. I didn’t mind her absence, and stepped in as a surrogate mom, holding the puppies and nuzzling them with my nose. Sandy’s daily departures also gave me time to throw out the old, soiled straw in the fruit crate and replace it with fresh hay. I was back in school now, and every day upon arriving home, I would quickly change out of my school uniform and into my yard clothes before bee-lining for the kennel to let Sandy out. The puppies were getting bigger with each passing day, and after they reached three weeks of age, they were no longer confined to the crate. I covered the entire floor of the kennel with straw so they could crawl around in comfort. Another week went by, and I started making them mush to eat by soaking dry puppy kibble in milk – they loved this and would gather around a communal bowl to lick it up until every last bit was gone.

When the puppies reached five weeks of age, I started taking them for “walk-abouts”, letting them follow me (which they were eager to do in Sandy’s absence) up our long lane to the mailbox and back to the house, where we would generally settle in a shady spot along the riverbank. I would watch them play for hours, just the seven of us, as Sandy and my other two dogs had grown tired of their puppy antics. That was one of the happiest times of my life, just me and the puppies in the shade of an oak tree enjoying the cooling river breeze. The pups were getting bigger, but they still stayed close to me, especially a sensitive little boy I named “Crumb”. Blond like his mother, but with white toes and a white spot on his chest and forehead, Crumb never let me out of his sight. While the other puppies were preoccupied playing with each other, Crumb stayed by my side. If he lost sight of me, I knew it by his desperate cries as he looked for me. Sandy may have never needed me, but Crumb did.

By the time summer rolled around, the puppies were old enough to go to new owners, and sure enough, began disappearing from our home. The first one to go was Madeline, the biggest and most robust of the puppies, somewhat of a bully, and the one with the palest blond coat. A car passing by our driveway one day stopped to see the puppy parade. The car window rolled down to reveal a frizzy-haired woman in sunglasses. At that time, the litter was seven weeks old, and when the woman asked if I was looking for homes for them, I told her I was, and that they would be ready to go in another week. She said she would be back in a week, and as she drove off, the puppies and I started our march back to the house. A week later, there she was again, the woman that had wanted a puppy, this time driving her car up to the house, and when I showed her the litter in their kennel, I was afraid which one she would pick. 

“They’re all so cute!” she exclaimed. I watched her study them carefully as she leaned over the top of the chain-link. “I think I want that one,” she said at last, pointing to Madeline who stood nearly a head taller than the rest.

Thank goodness she’s taking that bully away,” I thought.

“How much do you want for them?” the woman asked.

“$20 just to cover their shots and worming,” I replied. Indeed, we had already taken them for their first vet visit the day we had dropped Sandy off to be spayed.

“Great,” the woman said as she dug in her purse. She pulled out a folded $20 bill and handed it to me before I went into the kennel to retrieve Madeline. I handed her the robust squirming puppy over the side of the kennel. She grasped Madeline under her front legs and pulled her to her chest. “Thank you so much!” she said to me and turned to head back to her car. I stood in the middle of the pen as I watched the woman walk away, relieved that I still had five.

The next pup to go departed later that week. “Zero”, named after the ghost dog in the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, was a beautiful sleek-looking male whose once blond coat had matured into a reddish gold. He reminded me of an Irish Setter puppy, and I had hoped to keep him, but he had impressed the neighbor’s yard man with his good looks. And so, another puppy gone and another $20 in my pocket. This one stung a little…

I enjoyed the four remaining pups for another week before my oldest sister called on a Saturday morning and told me she and her boyfriend were coming to get a puppy. I did not think my sister was cut out to be a good owner for any of my precious pups, but what could I say as her teenaged kid sister? When she arrived that morning, I had already been fretting over which puppy she would choose, and in the end, she took two of my companions away – Fraggles and Cheetah. Cheetah, a reddish wavy-coated female, was prone to start fights with the other puppies, and I was glad to see her go. But Fraggles was a beautiful blond, block-headed male, and one of my favorites. I was sad to see him ride away. But I still had two – Crumb, the needy boy, and Maggie, the rust-colored girl and my mom’s favorite. The weeks turned into months, and it seemed things were settled. No one else had to leave…

Then one morning the phone rang, and my father answered. It was one of our neighbors complaining about the frequent barking coming from our yard, keeping him awake at night. “Well, what do you think I have dogs for?” I heard my father say into the phone. Indeed, in a rural community, you needed a good watch dog to keep an eye out, but we had more than our share. And so, with my mother out-of-town on business, and me just a kid with no say, my father loaded up Crumb and Maggie and hauled them off to the pound. I was devastated. True, Maggie was a barker, but Crumb had never done one bad thing in his whole life, and he needed me. It wasn’t right, and I rang my mother in Chicago to tell her of the horrible turn of events. Though angry with my father, she didn’t offer much help.

“I’m sorry,” she told me, “I’m in Chicago another week. I can’t come home to do anything about this.”

I didn’t speak much to my father over the next several days. I answered most of his questions with “yes” or “no” and spent most of my time outside with the remaining dogs or shut in my room. He tried to make peace with me, saying he had to do it to appease our neighbor, but I didn’t accept this excuse. The day my mother finally returned to town, I was in school. I had called her every day since Crumb was taken away, and when we last spoke, she said she would look for him at the pound as soon as she could.

Now back in those days, I did not have a cell phone, and neither did my mother. All day at school, I wondered if my mother would really go to the pound, and whether Crumb would still be there. I spent the day watching the clock on the classroom wall, and when the end of the day finally arrived, I headed to the paved pickup circle to await my mother. At last, her little Nissan pickup appeared. As she approached, I strained my eyes to see if Crumb was with her. I was running towards the truck, still unsure, when I saw him – he was in the truck bed peeking around the edge of the cab, and when he saw me, he started wagging his tail furiously and whining in his sing-songy voice. Beaming from ear-to-ear, I quickly hopped in the truck’s cab and turned to pet him through the sliding rear window, but he was already barreling in through the small opening. He flopped on his side across both our laps, writhing and squealing while I scratched his belly and behind his ears. I had my Crumb back!

As we rode home, my mother revealed that Crumb had already had his identification collar removed at the shelter and been placed on “death row”. Maggie had been nowhere in sight, so I could only hope that she had been adopted, being such a pretty girl and far more outgoing than Crumb. I could picture in my head, my poor sensitive Crumb cowering in the back of a kennel at the pound, refusing to approach the gate when any prospective adopter passed by. No, Crumb had been waiting for me

My mother had shown proof of Crumb’s rabies vaccination and paid $30 to get him back. My father was in the doghouse for a long while after that, but that was nothing new. Crumb and I went back to living our life together. I was in the 11th grade by then, and the first thing I did when I got home was change into my yard clothes and race down to the river’s edge with Crumb. Often, we jumped in the canoe and took off on an adventure, sometimes just me and Crumb, sometimes with another dog or cat along for the ride. But Crumb was always my #1 and I was his.Things were good for a long time.

A couple of years went by. I graduated high school and started working at a local veterinary clinic. Crumb, being the good boy that he was, went to work with me every day. On weekends, we went to the beach. When I had some time off, we went to Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, or to Ohio to visit my grandparents’ farm. Crumb and I were inseparable.

When I married my first husband, Crumb wore a black bowtie and posed with us for the photographer. I was convinced he was the most handsome dog to attend any wedding ever.

The years ticked by, and Crumb’s once-golden coat began to gray. His eyes grew hazy, and he didn’t have the stamina for adventure that he once had. Things changed for me as well. My marriage had become a rocky one, the usual result of getting married too young and choosing the wrong person to “hitch your wagon to”, as they say. We argued often, and I fell into a deep depression. I spent many evenings after work shut in our bedroom, avoiding my ex-husband, and instead pretending that it was just me and Crumb again. And for the most part, my ex-husband left me alone.

One day I was in bed, lying on my side under the covers, looking into Crumb’s eyes as he lay on his side facing me. I was extremely depressed and crying, wondering if I would ever feel better again, wondering what was the point of all of this. My eyes moved passed Crumb and I saw through my tears the black pistol resting on my ex-husband’s nightstand. Without hesitation, I leaned over Crumb, grasped the gun’s handle, and pulled it back under the covers with me. I took the safety off and pressed the barrel to my chest, the hard steel cold and unwavering. I laid my head back on my wet pillow and thought about what I wanted to do. That was when I heard the bedroom door open behind me.

“What the HELL is wrong with you?!” my then-husband demanded.

I did not answer him and did not turn around to show him my tear-soaked face. There was no explanation that would satisfy him anyway. I continued to look at Crumb, and he looked at me. Neither of us moved, and eventually, the door slammed closed. I still had the gun to my chest, my finger on the trigger. I blinked away a new deluge of tears and studied Crumb’s dark brown eyes, not yet blinded by the corneal dystrophy that would eventually rob him of his sight. What would happen if I ended this misery? Could my husband care for Crumb like I did? Would he send him back to my parents? Would he go live with my husband’s parents?

I couldn’t know what the future would look like for Crumb with me not in it, but I did start to picture what the next few minutes might look like, and one thought put a halt to my plan – Crumb was afraid of gunshots. Not just gunshots, but any loud and sudden noise. Firecrackers, a car backfiring, even the mechanical clicking and scrapes that occurred when my ex-husband was even cleaning a gun sent Crumb cowering and shivering into a corner. No, I couldn’t put Crumb through this. Still crying, I pulled the gun away from my chest and eventually placed it back on the nightstand.

Crumb convinced me with his calm and peaceful presence that this was not what I wanted to do. And life went on.

My marriage to my first husband didn’t last much longer, thankfully. There were other altercations, some bordering on the physical. A cereal bowl was thrown against a door, splattering milk across the living room. A Maglite thudded into the ground just inches behind me as I ran from him one day. The door to my pickup was nearly ripped off its hinges as I tried to leave the house. None of this was how I wanted to live, and when he refused a counselling opportunity, I gave up, and Crumb and I moved on.

The years after I left my first marriage were peaceful for Crumb and me, but age took its toll on my best friend. His corneal dystrophy eventually led to surgical removal of one of his eyes, and he later suffered a stroke, which caused him extreme dizziness and nausea for several days. That was the first sign of heart disease, but I didn’t know. He suffered a couple more strokes after that, but always recovered. His hearing went, and now blind and deaf, he was no longer terrified of thunderstorms, which was a blessing. But when someone began breaking in our house one morning before dawn, Crumb was oblivious to the shattering glass. I dragged him from my bedroom to the TV room, where I had a chair to wedge under the locked doorknob. We waited for the police as I listened to more of the sliding glass door breaking. I had been happy, with it being just the two of us, but now we were alone together, and it was terrifying.

Thankfully, the police arrived just as the intruder was gaining entry and chased him through the swamp behind our house with a police dog. Crumb and I stayed huddled alone in our house most of the time after that. Whenever I was home, we stayed locked in the TV room with the chair under the doorknob. When I had to take a shower, I took Crumb with me, as well as the chair to barricade the door.  We didn’t go for walks anymore because who knew what kind of person we might meet? But as time went on, my fear subsided. Things started to get back to normal. I even found a new partner, a soft-spoken graphic designer with a soft spot for animals, and a year after meeting, got married in a private ceremony at a friend’s house.

By this time, Crumb was too sick to participate. He had developed a horrendous cough, which I ignored. My best friend of 16 years was dying, and I was in denial. He barely ate. He grew thin. He coughed all night long. But despite being blind and deaf, he still knew where I was at all times. We were OK…

When Crumb stopped eating altogether, I knew it was over. I tried desperately to get him to eat. I offered him anything he wanted. One night I gave him Cheetos, which surprisingly, he ate with gusto. But less than five minutes later, as we were lying in bed together, there was orange vomit all over me and the bed sheets. That was it. We couldn’t go on like this…Crumb couldn’t go on like this.

The morning that the vet put Crumb to sleep was one of the worst days of my life. Worse than the day my grandpa died. Worse than the day I divorced my ex-husband. Even worse than the day we put my first dog, Sparky, down. But my new husband had lovingly made a simple casket for Crumb out of plywood, and as I sat in our garage looking at Crumb in the box, he looked peaceful, like he was only sleeping. I dreaded putting the lid on the homemade casket because that would mark the moment when I would never see him again.

For 16.5 years, Crumb had been my best friend in the world. He had kept me company on many a canoe ride. He had helped me corral my escaped bunnies whenever I forgot to latch the hutch door. He impressed everyone he met with his gentle demeanor and obedience. Crumb’s departure from my life left a huge hole that I would suffer with for months. In fact, it was eleven months before I brought myself to rescue a blond mixed-breed puppy from the same shelter that Crumb had nearly died in. The new puppy was fun, and well-behaved in the house, but he was no Crumb…

It was 2023, twelve years since my husband and I buried Crumb under the oak tree at my parents’ house, the same oak tree Crumb and I played under when he was just a puppy. I was still working as a veterinary technician, but the difficulty of the work coupled with unsupportive management had me feeling extremely burned out. The blond boy I had rescued after losing Crumb was still with me but showing signs of illness. After bloodwork, radiographs, and an ultrasound, I was told he might have cancer. My mental health had also taken a hit after losing three different rescued pets – two dogs and one cat – that ended up being hospice situations. I had given them all I could, but in the end it wasn’t enough.

I started to have those desperate feelings again. Life began to seem like a meaningless tragedy with no way out. I struggled to feel better. I tried drinking. I tried not drinking. I tried staying in bed all day. I tried nature walks. I tried vitamins. Nothing helped. I thought back to the last time I felt so hopeless, when I was trapped in a marriage to an unsupportive and sometimes violent partner. And I thought about how my job had become the unsupportive and violent marriage in my life.

I also thought about what kept me alive back then, and realized it was one thing, one small furry being that held my hand and kept me from drowning – Crumb. I needed to get my Crumb back…

I walked into the tattoo shop one day after work for my appointment with Ralph. Ralph had put a lot of ink on me over the last few years, including a portrait of my father just a few months after his passing. There was no better artist for the job. “Hey, good to see you again!” he said with a smile as he welcomed me in the front door. We had already emailed back and forth regarding Crumb’s portrait, and I brought two photos for reference, one color and one black-and-white. Ralph suggested we go with the black-and-white for the best result, and I agreed. In the color photo, Crumb was smiling, but that was not his usual demeanor. He had been a gentle and thoughtful-looking dog, and his face in the black-and-white photo portrayed that. It reminded me of how he looked that day in my old life when he had saved me from myself. I needed his help now the very same way I needed it back then.

I wanted Crumb’s portrait front and center to remind me every day to keep going.

Ralph placed the stencil on the inside of my right forearm, the same placement as my dad’s portrait on my left arm. As I lay there for the next couple of hours feeling the needle travel across my skin, I felt completely at peace. Ralph and I talked about Crumb and what he meant to me, and Ralph thanked me for trusting him to put this tattoo on my skin.

By the time the tattoo was finished and I got my first look, I was thrilled – Crumb was back with me, to be by my side forever.

My mental state improved from that point forward. I left my job as a vet tech and started freelance writing about pets and what they mean to us. I was able to spend more time with my animals at home, and finally felt at peace. And I would never have had the courage to change my life without Crumb’s influence so many years ago. His portrait on my arm, in my view at all times, has had a dramatic impact on my everyday wellbeing, and I am so thankful to my artist friend Ralph for giving me this gift. No matter what happens in my life moving forward, the needy boy I met in the middle the night will always be here telling me to go on.

40 views0 comments


bottom of page