Farewell to India: A Study of Character

india nose 1Two questions usually come up during presentations: Where do you get ideas? How do you create characters? For me, ideas come from daily experiences, sprinkled with a good helping of what if. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. My characters are usually vague reflections of acquaintances, friends, and relatives, although rarely based on a specific person, but rather a composite of three or four people. Some characters, however, aren’t based on people at all.

In 1997, we purchased an Australian shepherd named India who bonded with us quickly. To our then six-year-old daughter, she became a reliable, exuberant playmate and companion. To the adults, she became a helper, eager to accompany on any errand or perform whatever trick or task taught. To each of us, she provided comfort with unqualified affection. Although the breed had been developed strictly for herding, India found cats and kids unwilling participants, but she enjoyed the romping, scampering, and playing as fully and jubilantly as any child. When left behind, she’d lie with her head between her front paws, eyes on the door, waiting for our daughter to return and the fun to begin again.

We lived in the countryside at the time, where leash laws were considered an infringement upon an individual’s rights (go figure). The neighbor across the street owned a golden retriever with the IQ of a nail and fidelity of a politician. Time and again, the dog had tried to rush me from behind as I jogged on the street. But when faced, it always ran. One afternoon, I went into the front yard to hoe away some weeds near the street while India waited on the porch where she’d been instructed to “sit” and “stay.” The retriever was nowhere in sight, so I got to work. I was on my knees at the curb, back toward the street, pulling up a stubborn root when India bounded past me. I spun in time to see her intercept the retriever in mid-air as the retriever sprang for me. The retriever was easily twice her size, but India did not hesitate to protect me.

I shouted for her to heel, and she immediately responded, but the retriever, not having made eye contact with me and in the fever of battle, now lunged for her. I stepped between them, hoe drawn back to do whatever needed to protect India and me. The retriever set, snarling and drooling as it prepared to attack. The owner emerged from her house, screaming as she ran to the street where she grabbed for the dog, breaking its concentration on India and me only to have it snap at her. I jabbed the retriever’s shoulder with the hoe, forcing it to retreat into its yard. The owner and I then engaged in a rather intense discussion, resulting in the retriever’s confinement inside the fenced backyard following the incident. The retriever’s conniving cowardice has since surfaced in several characters in my stories, but, more important, India’s brave and selfless nature has served as the basis for some of my most honorable characters.

In recent years, age took its toll on India’s health. She developed cataracts, muscle spasms, and aching joints. A few months after she turned 16 last year, we found a marble-size knot over her left upper canine tooth that had already fused with the bone. Surgery would have required removal of a good portion of her snout and mouth with no cure or extension of life, while chemical treatment would have proved useless.

Over the next few months, her abilities declined rapidly. When she barked, it was usually only once, more of a grumble than protest. The stiffness in her joints intensified, and on some mornings she could barely move. She slept more and more. Even so, she always became excited and animated when one of us would arrive home. And she still experienced moments good enough to play with one of us, wrestle with the cats, or chase her ball until winded. By late November, however, the knot had tripled in size, and she’d begun to experience dementia, staring at her food as though she didn’t know what it was, walking in endless circles, stopping in the hallway to stare and sway as though she’d forgotten where she wanted to go. Then the vet discovered a large mass in her belly and suspected more in other organs.

Early on November 30, India stood at the window from where she had watched the neighborhood for years, then bowed her head briefly and turned away. She went to each of the two cats, gave them a nudge with her nose, then walked to each room in the house, finally to our sleeping daughter’s bedside. She slipped her head under our daughter’s hand for a pat on the head.

Two hours later, she died.

I buried India’s body in the backyard in a place she favored in the final months of her life, a place visible from where I’m now writing. I spend a good deal of time looking out at that small mound of dirt, especially when I’m developing story characters. I recall how she loped after her ball, tried to herd cats and kids, played tug-of-war with my daughter, protected us from any danger with no concern for herself, and so much more. She embodied the best qualities in fiction’s most endearing and admired characters. Devoted, forgiving, accepting without reservation, reliable, responsible, India exhibited as basic instinct the primary traits we cherish in human beings, the most honorable qualities most of us only wish we possessed.