In Memory Of My Writing Associate: Nickel
On July 6th of this year I lost a dear friend who for over a decade had been constantly by my side as I pounded my keyboard in the isolation of my study. Writing is a lonely vocation, and just having another living creature by one’s side is a great comfort.
I’ve always loved dogs. The one thing my usually over-indulgent mother did not allow me was a puppy. But later my even more indulgent wife got me one the first year we were married. Our first born, our son, had Mingus, a Black Lab and German Shepard cross, as a companion in his childhood. Our second child, our daughter, had Marley, a Golden Lab and Golden Retriever mix, as a family member during most of her years at home.
Dogs have a cruelly short lifespan. After our offspring had left the nest and Marley had left this life, the house seemed very, very empty. It is true we had much more freedom to travel and do whatever we wanted without worry, but I still profoundly missed having a canine companion. When a friend mentioned some Lab puppies being sold by a local breeder, the die was cast.
I was going to name him Miles after another one of my jazz heroes, but when I brought him home and suggested that name, my wife choked. It seems she’d just learned some guy with the first name of Miles had recently published a biography about the same social reformer she was considering writing a book about. So, on a whim, I decided to name him Nickel.
My mother used to say of me: “You don’t have to give Ken a nickel to be good. He’s good for nothing.” She meant it jokingly, of course, and I somehow thought it an apt name for my new pup, because these days most dogs, like small children, are good for nothing really practical. In fact, however, my Nickel could have been good for a lot of things, for he had the intelligence and personality to be a perfect guide or assistance dog.
My wife went to a conference in Scotland shortly after I brought Nick home, and during that time she was away, Nick bonded with me so intensely that he treated my wife as an interloper when she returned. She didn’t have too much trouble putting him in his place, but he was, as my son would frequently remark, very much just my dog. Although he was affectionate toward everyone, he was by my side almost constantly, even following me into the bathroom when I went for my morning shower.
When I went up to work in my study, he’d come galumphing up the stairs after me, and curl up on the floor next to my desk chair—or sometimes in the dog bed I eventually installed in the room for his comfort.
He seemed to find contentment in just being there, and I found his uncritical and unobtrusive acceptance of my strange and solitary behaviour comforting. For a time I had these lines from Whitman posted on the wall above my desk. They seemed to capture the sense of peace Nick gave me—and one rarely found in human company.
“I think I could turn and live
with animals, they are so placid and self contained,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine
about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”