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There are few true dog lovers in my family. My Grandpa was one.

I hadn’t really known him while I was growing up in the States, but when I moved back to Taiwan for a few years and got a chance to see him more frequently, I was deeply impressed by his devotion to his tugou bitch named Ah Bai.

Grandpa and Ah Bai
Photo taken 8 February 2005

I don’t have a better picture of the two at the moment. But I remember exactly what preceded this shot. Grandpa had gotten revved up playing tug-of-war with that dirty old rag in his hands. He and Ah Bai were twirling around the room making ferocious noises at each other. She was an athletic, bouncy little dog, and I’d never seen my 70-year-old Grandpa so animated before. Then Ah Bai lunged and overshot her mark, catching Grandpa on the nose. The mood changed in a snap as he yelled and swatted reflexively at Ah Bai with the towel. All the aunties and cousins in the room began scolding Ah Bai as Grandpa eased himself onto the stool and massaged his face.

As it turned out, it was just a superficial scratch. Grandpa had forgiven her by the time I took the photo. But her posture captured here, as it did at the moment immediately following the incident, demonstrated just how sorry she was to have crossed the line and hurt Grandpa.

Ah Bai’s sensitivity and restraint became more evident when I witnessed her potential to really lash out violently, when she saw fit. Ah Bai was one fiercely devoted little bitch. The above picture was taken before we got Bowdu, when she could still stand to be in the same room as me. About eight months later, when Bowdu was also about that old, I brought him along to celebrate mid-Autumn Moon Festival with my family. Ah Bai did not appreciate the additional canine visitor at all. I am kin, so I must be tolerated, but HE was mincemeat, as far as she was concerned. She went after him so many times, clearly with intent to render him GONE, that Grandpa finally got out an old piece of rope and tied her up, while I kept Bowdu leashed at my side.

I could sense the reluctance in Grandpa’s movements. It was obvious that the rope was seldom used since it had taken him some time to locate it. But it was necessary to keep them physically separated, though the rope couldn’t stop her from staring daggers at Bowdu. She’d been mildly curious about my presence before, accepted because I was clearly part of the human pack — but from that day onward, my tenuous friendship with Ah Bai was effectively nullified.

Under normal circumstances, Ah Bai was queen of her territory. Grandpa didn’t believe in keeping dogs crated or chained up, and Ah Bai had a doggy door with constant access to the outdoors. The only “unnatural” restriction imposed on her mobility was that she had been spayed, with the deliberate intent to eliminate her desire to roam. With all this freedom, she never had the need or want to leave the home she loved. Even when Grandpa left the house and couldn’t take her on errands, she always knew to wait patiently and stand guard. And many a time, Grandpa would turn down evening family outings so he could stay home and just be with Ah Bai.

When the Doggy Daddy and I were preparing to leave Taiwan, my parents suggested that we give Bowdu to Grandpa instead of moving him overseas. I have no doubt of my Grandpa’s dog-rearing capabilities, but given what I saw, I’m sure that Bowdu would have been run off the property by Ah Bai the very first night, to live out a short and miserable life as yet another roaming village dog before succumbing to traffic or disease. Leaving Bowdu in Taiwan with Grandpa was out of the question. My parents resented our “extravagant” and “irresponsible” decision for a long time to come. Grandpa, however, seemed to prefer being a single-dog man.

I last returned to Taiwan to see my Grandpa two summers ago. As usual, he picked me up from the bus station on his motorbike, welcomed me with minimal to-do, and brought me back home. I immediately noticed when Ah Bai wasn’t there to greet us.

Apparently, she had contracted heartworm within the preceding year, and had died a wretched, unbefitting death.

My aunt told me that Grandpa cried and mourned over Ah Bai’s death in ways that he never did for Grandma, who had passed years ago after a long battle with cancer. It’s not fair and even a little cold to compare, I think, as Grandma’s prolonged struggle had allowed us a duration for psychological preparation. After her passing, Ah Bai came to occupy Grandpa’s heart so fully, why should her own have become infected and consumed from the inside out? It didn’t seem fair.

And it didn’t seem right that Grandpa should be alone in his old age, even if he was able to get by on his own, right up to the end.

Photo taken 13 June 2008

I asked Grandpa if he would consider adopting another dog (since I had just seen a litter of tugou puppies up the street). He shut me down pretty quickly on that score. “I don’t want another dog ever again. None will be as good as Ah Bai. She was the cutest, the most obedient. There won’t be another Ah Bai.”

Those were the most tender words I’d ever heard out of my typically laconic Grandpa. And so those are the words that stick as I try to recall his voice, his postures, his gestures and his life that I only got to know for such a short time.

Earlier this week, my grandfather in Taiwan had a stroke that put him in a coma. Yesterday morning, I was informed that he had passed away without ever regaining consciousness.

Have a smooth journey into the Beyond, Grandpa. May you, Grandma, and Ah Bai meet again.