Toby is a sacred word in my family. The mere mention of Toby around me, my sister, my father, or my late mother means getting an hour’s worth of stories without prompt. Toby was more than just our dog. Toby was our security detail, our nanny, our unspecified family member, and a representation of all that was good in our family. To me, Toby was the innocence of my childhood – he arrived in the life of our family around the time of my first memories, and left just after my parents divorced, my father left, and what I knew as “family” started leaning towards the modernized “these relatives I live with” route.
When I was a wee lad — maybe 2-3 years old at best — my family and I lived in The Woodlands, Texas. While I’ve long thought my parents just called a town that was probably just “Woodland, TX” as “The Woodlands”, it turns out that’s the official name 1It’s also a hilarious coincidence that it was founded by a man whose last name was “Mitchell”; presumably because white people need to feel special when they’re in high-income neighborhoods. I have vague recollections of the house, but even today I would consider it a small mansion. It was two stories, had 5 bedrooms, and our living room at the time was large enough to encompass the entirety of every apartment I’ve ever lived in. In talks with my dad over the years, he envisioned that house as the pinnacle of achievement and what he’d always set out to achieve for our family.
While living in that house, one of our neighbors had this giant dog that, I’ve been told many times, they treated poorly. My mom would invite the dog over to our house to hang out during the day, and us little kids loved playing with him and riding him like a horse. As it turned out — and I don’t know how my parents sussed this out — the dog wasn’t treated so well by those neighbors. All I remember of the neighbors in question was they were an older couple, and the husband was always sat in a chair smoking cigars. I only remember seeing them once or twice, and my hazy memory is being there with either my mom or my dad just to grab the dog to come hang out at our house.
I wish I could tell you more details beyond this, but all I’ve ever gleamed from conversations with my parents over the years was that we were moving to Flagstaff, AZ and both my mom and my dad asked the neighbor couple if they’d be willing to part with the dog. What I know of my dad now leads me to believe he may have just shamed this couple who treated this dog poorly and they said “fine, take him”, but that’s 100% conjecture on my part. All I can remember is the day before we left for Flagstaff — I was at my mom’s friend’s place, playing tag with her son, when my mom said “c’mon! we’re leaving!” and I said “okay, I’ll see you later!” (because I didn’t understand how moving halfway across the country worked) and I got in the car and the neighbor’s dog was sitting between me and my sister. My sister said “is Toby coming with us?”, to which my mom turned around and said “yup! Toby’s gonna LOVE Flagstaff!” and the dog — Toby, if you haven’t guessed — put his paw on my mom’s shoulder and licked her face.
I remember very little of Flagstaff. We were only there for maybe two years. My most vivid memories are mostly of us playing around in the snow with Toby. We’d sled down a hill and he’d run alongside. My mom would later tell me of times he’d jump in front of the sled and stop us with his giant frame, anticipating us hitting a tree before my mom could run down the hill in time to stop us herself. Toby, as a Saint Bernard, lived for the snow, but St. Bernards are also trained for rescuing humans in snowy conditions — so it was in his blood to keep an eye on us and keep us warm. I only have two other memories of Flagstaff. One was the time we came back from sledding and my feet were freezing cold. My mom turned on the car and I was interpreting the icons on the A/C panel of the car and said “PUT IT ON HOT-FOOT! HOT FOOT!”. She was confused, but I pointed to the “Hot” icon and the “Foot” icon and said “HOT…. FOOT”. She reminded me of her amusement of “HOT FOOT” for years to come (which is why I remember it today). The other one was the day my sister went off to school for the first time. I sat at the living room window, watching her get on the bus and said “I wanna go to school!”, and my mom said “you will… soon enough. and then you won’t wanna go at all”. I remember telling her she was wrong, but… man, she’d never been more right.
We moved from Flagstaff to Phoenix and Toby had this enormous backyard all to himself. But, we didn’t confine him to the backyard. Most of the time, he lived inside with us. Basically, wherever us kids went, Toby wanted to go. He was a protector more than anything, and he kept a close watch on us at all times. If one of so much as whacked the other, Toby would run over and place himself between us, and wasn’t above tackling the one being picked on (usually me) to cover them from incoming attacks.
It will sound insane, and I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it and had it confirmed by all members of my family, but Toby even did rounds while we slept. At bedtime, he’d follow each of us into our respective bedrooms, pull our blanket over us, and then sit there for a few minutes to make sure we weren’t getting out of bed before walking out and checking on the other kid. All night long, every single night, he’d walk from my sister’s bedroom to mine and back again, making sure we were comfortably snug in our beds and weren’t in any danger. If he slept, it was in the mid-way point between our bedrooms, and only for short periods.
In the summer time, we used to play a fun game with him where we’d act like he was a scary dog while we ran around the pool and we’d jump in just before he reached us. He even played along by snatching his jaws in mid-air just after we jumped. Lest you think I’m saying he actually was trying to snatch at us — we tested him many times by stopping just before the jump and he’d stop mid-jog and just sit there. He was a giant dog, mind you, who could stand on his hind legs and lick my 6’5″ father on the face while putting his paws on my dad’s shoulder. He scared the shit out of our friends by sheer size, until we showed them how gentle and kind he was. He was so gentle that I can’t even picture him being menacing, even when he had to be. For instance, one day we got robbed while we were out and we returned home to find only our VCR stolen and burritos strung all over the place. Clearly, they were trying to lure Toby away, and it didn’t work. I still don’t think Toby could look scary, but apparently these burglars did because they didn’t even have time to disconnect the VCR they stole — they just pulled cords right out of the wall. I imagine if we’d have been home at the time, I’d have seen Toby take a motherfucker’s arm off.
We learned how abusive his previous owners were when my mom went to swat a fly near him, and as she raised the swatter he laid down and put both paws over his head and whimpered. She had to lie down next to him for awhile and pet him just to get him to take his paws off his head. We were then instructed to never use the fly swatter near Toby, because (and I quote) “this is his home, too, and no one should feel danger in their own home”.
When my dad moved out, Toby still diligently placed himself in the front doorway between 5 and 6pm every weekday for months afterwards. Whenever any of us talked to my dad over the phone, he’d ask us how Toby was doing. All we could ever do was gush about how he was still tucking us in, and then say “but he misses you!”. Whether Toby had any concept of “missing” someone is still beyond my ability to comprehend, but we were also missing my dad so it was more of an emotional trick than anything.
As huge dogs do, Toby wasn’t long for this world. We had a good 8 years or so with him, and he was already 3-4 when we got him. But, his bones got weak and his health was getting worse over time. My mom had to put him down while we were at school one day. When we got home, knowing he probably wouldn’t make it through the day, we all cried harder than we’d ever cried before. Many years later, when I was in high school, I was helping my mom clean out our garage. She, like me, kept boxes full of memories and keepsakes around for her whole life 2my sister has since inherited about 20 boxes full of just about everything my mom ever held onto, and every Christmas tries to get me to take some of ...continue. In one box was Toby’s old bowl, his chain, and his leash. When she pulled those out, she fell to her knees crying. It’d been at least 7 years since he’d passed, but she still wept thinking about him, and frankly I had a hard time not doing the same. To this day, my dad finds a way to bring up Toby in almost every conversation we have.
While my mom kept Saint Bernards as pets from the time I was 16 until a few months before her passing 3both of her Saint Bernards — even though one of them was the other one’s son — passed away within months of each other, and only a ...continue, she never found one quite as magical as Toby. Toby wasn’t just one of a kind, or just a family pet — Toby was as human as an animal can be, and only the 2nd most devastating family death I’ve ever experienced.
Here’s to you, Tobes.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↩||It’s also a hilarious coincidence that it was founded by a man whose last name was “Mitchell”|
|2.||↩||my sister has since inherited about 20 boxes full of just about everything my mom ever held onto, and every Christmas tries to get me to take some of it home with me|
|3.||↩||both of her Saint Bernards — even though one of them was the other one’s son — passed away within months of each other, and only a few months before she did|