The third adult in our family of five kids and two parents was our German shepherd, Rain. I was a newborn when my father brought him home as a puppy tucked in his work coat pocket.
Mother named him Rain for Mt. Rainier, which was visible from the hill above our house in Washington. In the beginning, Rain and I were roommates in my baby crib. He could escape through the bars to visit with the rest of the family at will, whereas I often found myself locked up in my jail waiting for a lovely pair of hands to pick me up and kiss me. I received more face washings and kisses from Rain throughout my baby years than from anyone else. Early on I learned to detect German shepherd breath, from kitty breath, from human family breath.
When Rain and I were two the family traveled across the Pacific Ocean to relocate in Guam. Somewhere in those first two years of our lives together, Rain began to outdistance me physically and developmentally. He was no longer my harmless, slightly awkward playmate. He developed bad breath and a huge set of teeth, his body didn’t smell so sweet anymore, and he became as rough on me as my three older brothers. He’d push me out of the way, blocking my access to Mom. He wasn’t as happy sharing his food with me. He became obsessed with his genitals, similar to my brothers.
By the time Rain and I were three, he had learned to be our lifeguard in the ocean. He became quite upset when his family swam in the water and absolutely frantic when one of us dove under the waves. He’d jump in the water, swim out to the farthest child, and encourage his family member to grab his tail. He’d turn and haul the drowning kid back to shore, only to return once more to the waves to rescue the next child.
As adult number three of the family, next in command under Mom and Dad, he was quite protective and took his duties seriously. On special occasions he was told to stay home and guard the house, which he did unhappily but with much diligence. We came home from an outing one day to find a policeman on the roof of his squad car surrounded by an ever moving barking four legged sentry. Much to the chagrin of the cop, my father laughed. Rain glanced over at us so proudly and barked even more ferociously.
When Rain and I were five, we traveled back to the states, staying for a few months with my grandmother and grandfather in the hills of Oakland. Living in civilization definitely hampered Rain’s style. He perceived that the older kids could take care of themselves, so I became his one and only charge. He was a more protective guardian than a duenna could be. I wasn’t allowed in the street alone, nor could I play outside in the front yard unattended. My baths were constantly eye-balled by an ever vigilant pair of eyes for possible tidal waves or sharks. He didn’t join the rest of the family for late evening activities until I was safely nosed into bed.
That same year we moved across the United States to Greenwich, Connecticut, and lived in an old hunting lodge adjacent to a swampy forest. All of Rain’s charges were attending school, and he solemnly walked each one to the appropriate orange school bus each morning. Rain would return to Mom and take a long nap in the sun. Later he’d check in with her, giving her a long look making sure there were no imminent emergencies, then he’d head out to the forest to investigate the secret caches of his fecund smelling domain. He returned in the early afternoon to meet each school bus, carefully smelling his charges, and gave each one of us a reassuring nudge in greeting.
When Rain and I became six, the family moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan onto a 200 acre grape farm alongside the New York Railroad line. He had a lot of territory to protect. He learned about staying clear of the horses’ hooves, side stepping the tractor disk blades, and guarding us in a swimming pool. It was exhilarating and exhausting work for him, but all family members had to pull their weight, especially the four-legged third in command adult. Rain was not allowed to escort us the one mile to the bus stop and back each day. Instead he sent us off each morning where the gravel driveway met the paved road, and met us each afternoon. It wasn’t considered civilized for Rain to travel with us into town on Sundays, but he didn’t seem to mind. Church was never his thing anyway. We’d pile into the car and he’d give us a look as if to say, “Yeah, you go on. If I see a cop I’ll tree him, but I’m sure all will be okay. Go on now.”
Over the next two years I still couldn’t outrun Rain, but he did slow down a bit. He didn’t play with me as much and I kind of missed his bad breath. Sometimes he half-heartedly chased a few mice in the barn or gave the cats a meaningful look as if to say, “If I wanted you, you’d be mine.” He stayed closer to the house and spent more time with Mom. He did still have a fine set of teeth and flashed them when the occasional stranger showed up. If my father reprimanded him for growling, Rain emitted a huge sigh and returned to napping in the sun.
One cool autumn day when Rain I were both eight and the grass was turning stubby and yellow, I saw my older siblings whispering to Mom. She nodded and said, “I’ll tell her.” Slowly she approached me, leaned down and told me that Rain had died.
I ran outside looking for him, and found him lying by the side of the house stretched out in the sun. He did not look up or acknowledge my approach with his usual groan.
“Rain?” I asked, afraid, hesitant, but as always I reached out to stroke his coarse hair. I could see that my playmate and protector was not there anymore. Rain’s body was never that still and never so cold.
He was the first dead person I had ever touched.