Head of School’s Notebook: Chester

December 5, 2022

Chester was a birthday present.  We picked him up on a cold December day in Belgrade, Montana in 2013, 8 weeks old, round and cuddly, with the soft coat and brown eyes so typical of yellow labs.  We spent much of the holiday break that year sleeping on various couches and chairs with Chester by our side or in our laps or on our chest.  He seemed content in such moments.  So were we.

Ginger named him.  Chester was her dog.  The name came from a Disney movie called The Kid.  The youngster in the film dreams of growing up and having a dog named Chester, “The greatest dog in the world.”  And so he was.

Chester earned a host of other nicknames along the way from various members of the family.  “The Chest” was a popular one.  Carson called him “Cheese.”  Occasionally we called him “Chest Rockwell” after a character in the film Boogie Nights.  All terms of endearment.

As Chester grew up he developed a particular fascination for butterflies.  He would chase them – or their shadows on the grass – at every opportunity.  Lizards, too, peaked his interest.  Though not a particularly aggressive dog in any context, Chester was hard on the Mesa House blue belly population.  He wasn’t especially fast or quick, but he still managed to catch his fair share of the little reptiles.  Once he did, though, he wasn’t sure what to do with them.  He didn’t eat them, which is sort of surprising because he pretty much ate everything else.  Instead he just left the carcasses around for us to find, which was thoughtful.

Skunks, too, brought out the worst in Chester.  I remember asking a vet once about dogs and skunks, about whether they were inclined to avoid them after being sprayed the first time.  He replied rather laconically, “Well, it can go one of two ways.  Sometimes it’s just as you suggest.  But in a few cases, the dogs get so darn mad at being sprayed that they go after every skunk they can find.  Those dogs get sprayed a lot more.”  No shit.  That was Chester.

On one occasion Chester decided to dispatch a skunk around 4 am, just as I was leading him to the truck so we could begin our 1300 mile road trip to Montana.  That was the smelliest ride – despite copious efforts to shampoo the stink out of Chester – that any of us have ever experienced.  Most folks gave all of us a wide berth at truck stops and rest areas along the way.  Chester, though, was unfazed.  He got the skunk.  It didn’t seem to matter to Chester that the skunk also got him.

But Chester’s greatest love – aside from people and a good meal – was swimming.  He missed no opportunity to jump in the pool, and once he was in we could not get him out.  Lap after lap he would swim, often changing up his stroke or splashing just for the sheer enjoyment of it.  His tail in those marathon swims never stopped wagging.  He even invented his own stroke where he would turn a little bit on his side so that he could look at you with both eyes as he paddled gracefully past.  We called it the sidestroke.

When we took Chester to the beach, he would swim along as we walked.  Seals would occasionally check Chester out from nearby wondering if he was one of them.  Chester was always eager to see them too, reflecting a kinship of sorts among those who are sustained by water.

As he entered “middle age” Chester’s rituals became all the more endearing.  He never left Ginger’s side, save when he went to bed at night.  And then the first thing he would do when he got into the house in the morning was check her side of the bed to see if Ginger was there.  That’s where he spent every evening, too, when Ginger settled in.  Since Chester arrived in our lives, Ginger had referred to him as “my new boyfriend.”  And so when she tucked in for the night, so did he right beside her until it was time for him to head to his own bed.

We didn’t know he was sick.  Chester showed no signs of distress until the very end.  The vet said the tumors grew in the last 4 weeks, two of them to the size of grapefruits.  In the ultimate indignity, one of those tumors blocked his urethra, robbing Chester and us of any more time at all.

So we gave him the peaceful end he deserved, though it tore us apart to do so.  Ginger says it’s the bargain we make when we bring these remarkable creatures into our lives.  For all that joy and companionship and love, we must endure the heartbreak of goodbye.  She is right, of course.  If only that made it easier.

And so we are left with memories and past moments, which is still something.  Among all of them, the most poignant to me is not the shenanigans or misadventures or early morning shampoos.  It’s far more simple: Chester walking alertly at Ginger’s side, looking up at intervals at his favorite person in the world, tail held high, brown eyes gleaming, ready to follow wherever she might lead.

What a blessing he was.