Practicing Well -- The gift of a Montana law dog: An obituary for a very good boy
By Meri Althauser
Though this is a story about a dog, I’ll need to begin with a brief confession. Maybe like some of you, I had reservations about becoming a lawyer. I wonder why I chose to be surrounded by so much fighting and sadness, even though I know that I care about and genuinely like the people I’m helping. I don’t identify as a fighter or zealot. Even when I try to define a lawyer as a problem solver, we come across those clients who just don’t want to solve problems but instead want to fight or to punish. There is a much lower percentage of “justice” than what I was promised. It’s a constant struggle to stay true to who I am while making strides to reach resolution, and I don’t always feel like I can do it. But, for my entire 13-year legal journey, I had a helper with all of this, with finding what it means to me to be a lawyer, and this is his story:
Having lived the whole first year of his life in the wild back woods of Ravalli County subsiding off grubs, trash, and the occasional kindness of strangers, Trapper (“Gary” as he was first-known) was surprised when we gave him a whole bowl of food, just for himself. He looked at us, looked at the food, and booped his nose on the edge of the bowl to spill kibble across the floor so he could at least forage for it. As he ate he watched his back, waiting to take a bite until it looked like we weren’t watching, giving us a look of victory that said, “these dummies are just leaving this here! I’m eating it RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM!” We chose him at the humane society when, as we walked down the aisle of barking dogs, Gary couldn’t be bothered to get up. He was sitting with his back to the chain-link kennel wall and instead of turning around and jumping up the fence like his brethren, he stayed with back to us and craned his head up, over and backwards to gaze at us upside down. He made the minimum effort necessary to see what the ruckus was about. “We’ll take him,” we said, and the rest was history.
For the next year of his life he learned to be a dog but believed he was human. When we crawled in bed and put our heads on the pillow, he did the same. When we went into a restaurant and pulled up a chair, he did the same (literally, Lima bar 2009, he thought there’d be fries.) When we gave him toys he would dawn a look of confusion and wander off.
He knew that when he was left at home he had clearly been left for dead. His only choice was to eat all the food in the pantry and litter the house with garbage. He dug a three-foot-deep trench under the fence to escape the backyard only to lie in the sun in the front yard. And his crowning achievement was to break through drywall, a window screen, and a locked window to break out of the attic and on to the roof. At this point I learned that the fire department only rescues pets from up high on TV. So, since he preferred being tied to a pole on the street to suffering through being home alone he spent many hours greeting friends at the brewery, restaurants downtown, and on the law school campus where his interminable sit-stay kept him happily napping and greeting for hours and he became a Missoula-famous dog fixture.
Trapper exceled at such games as “fairy princess dress-up,” and “you-throw-a-ball-then-you-go-get-it.” He destroyed no less than three and as many as nine couches, but he was right: they weren’t fluffy enough, and leather couches are dumb. He loved his little girls, friends, hiking, camping, Christmas, and sledding. He could take or leave cats. Probably leave.
Trapper did not know how to walk, instead his only mode of transportation was a bouncy trot, like a fancy horse. He achieved great feats of athletics and laziness simultaneously, in character with his unusual mix of Labrador and Shar-Pei. He ran and hiked endless miles with the boys and hit enough trails and peaks to write a dog’s guide to Montana. He was the best man at our wedding, standing proudly in the wedding party but taking several breaks to get pets and to walk to the lake shore for a drink. He fell asleep in the middle of the dance floor, needing to be dragged off by his feet to make room for the dancing. If he was too lazy to show his exuberance otherwise, he could defy the laws of biomechanics to wag the tip … just the very last inch but no more … of his fluffy tail.
He had a busier social calendar than anyone in the family. Our friends fought over who got to take him on hikes after work and even who got to take him camping on the weekends (his human family wasn’t even invited!) When he would be recognized on the street by total strangers it was evident he had made dog and people friends in epic proportions.
For nine years Trapper accompanied me to work nearly every minute of every day. He was a highly trained legal assistant. When he greeted every client at the office door I introduced him saying, “this is Trapper, my legal assistant. He does all my typing so we’re going to keep this simple.” That joke worked every time.
He snuggled people’s feet and whenever anyone got agitated he would magically appear with a heavy chin for their knee. His body was scaled, poked, smooshed, pulled, and smothered by numerous babies, puppies, and kittens, none of whom interrupted his #napgoals. He mastered a technique we called “speed-bumpin” which was to lie in the direct path of any passers-by, so that they would be forced to pet and snuggle him with minimal effort on his part.
In November at the age of 14 he suffered a ruptured spleen, and we received the news that his days were numbered with untreatable cancer. He had surgery and was getting stronger every day, getting back into hikes, walks, and socializing more than he did in his previous years and we were tricked into thinking he was defying the odds. But just as predicted, something went terribly wrong again in late January and our buddy couldn’t make it another day. We were thankful he had one last Christmas, a few last sled trips, many last hikes and playdates, and many, many last snuggles and treats.
After he passed and I returned to work, all by myself, I realized that he summoned optimism, kindness, and presence on a 0.2-hourly basis throughout my day. From time to time I reflexively reached to my feet to twirl his silky ear between my fingers with a “what next, bud?” “well… what do we do with THAT information!?”… “take a break?”… and most importantly… “yes we SHOULD go next door for snacks.” He pulled me out of my work-zone and back to the moment with snuggles, pets, and demands to go see friends in our building. He was a constant source of loving mindfulness, the magnitude of which I could only truly realize when there was no longer the weight of that thoughtful heavy head resting on my shoe. I can only wish that all of you have a person, reminder, companion, or enforcer of well-being in your lives like Trapper was in mine.
So, as I sat with my grief, dreading my days alone at my desk, all I could think of to do to get through the loss was to do this. To write about my very best buddy. To ease my suffering with words and to share his story with you from that first bowl of real food in a real home to the very last wag of the tip of his tail on the veterinarian’s floor.
And isn’t that what we all do? What the real, universal essence of what being a lawyer is all about?
Maybe sometimes we fight, or sometimes we problem-solve, but at the end of the day, we each do our best to ease suffering with words. To ease suffering by telling stories.
And what a hard-earned privilege that is.
Visit Meri’s blog at www.forwardlegal406.com for all of the photos to accompany this post.
Meri Althauser is an attorney of over 10 years practicing family law and mediation in Missoula. Her practice focuses on collaboration and solution-finding for her clients and their families. She also offers consulting services in workplace wellness, with a certification as a Workplace Wellness Specialist through the National Wellness Institute and as a Resilience and Thriving Facilitator through Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems.