'Best hound dog in the whole wide world' RIP

Updated: 2011-12-02 09:52

By David Sharp (China Daily/Agencies)

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First there was Marley, the rambunctious Labrador retriever whose death brought readers to tears in John Grogan's Marley and Me. Now there's Sammy, a mixed-breed hound who's the subject of another tear-jerker, a children's book, Sammy in the Sky.

When her beloved hound dog died, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barbara Walsh watched her young daughters, Emma and Nora, tearfully struggle with their loss and with tough questions. Walsh quickly realized there was a story to be told, one that she hopes will help other families deal with the loss of a pet.

But it wasn't easy getting the book published, even after Walsh enlisted celebrated American artist Jamie Wyeth to fill the pages with illustrations in watercolor, acrylic and pencil.

Book agents and publishers were squeamish about the subject matter, yet Walsh and Wyeth didn't want to sugarcoat the pain and sorrow that unfolds in Sammy in the Sky.

"Agents didn't want to go near this book. They said, 'It's too sad, it's too real,'" Walsh recalls.

"That's my point. There's nothing else like this out there."

Sammy, a mixed-breed hound, became the family's first pet, purchased from a dog pound for $30 by Walsh's husband, Eric Conrad, while they were living in Florida. Sammy became a cherished family member, earning Conrad's oft-repeated moniker, "the best hound dog in the world".

The hound showed love and patience. He licked Emma's cheeks when Walsh and Conrad brought her home from the hospital. He slept next to her crib.

"She'd play doctor and wrap him in bandages and put bonnets on his head. He would just sit there. She used to sleep on him. He was her pillow," Walsh says.

The family, now living in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, discovered a lump on Sammy, and he was diagnosed with cancer at age 12. The girls were told to enjoy their time with him, because it was drawing short. On the night he died at home, Emma echoed her father's words: "You're the best hound dog in the whole wide world."

Emma was 5, and Nora was 3.

After the tears dried, Emma kept asking her parents why did Sammy have to leave, and where did his spirit go. She would run inside after school and holler out Sammy's name, forgetting the hound was gone. Nora sometimes got angry, shaking her fist at the sky and ordering Sammy to come back down to earth.

Walsh began taking notes of the heartbreaking emotions.

Wyeth says he liked Walsh's story because it was real. "It's not cute. It's not sweet. It'd kind of edgy," says Wyeth, whose works are on display at the National Gallery of Art, John F. Kennedy Library and the Museum of Modern Art.

Librarians and veterinarians have told Walsh the book fills a niche.

She hopes it helps parents, teachers and children talk about life and death, joy and grief - and helps families to find a way to celebrate a pet's life, like Walsh's family did.

Indeed, books that aim to help youngsters get through the loss of a pet are few and far between, says John C. New Jr, professor of public health and outreach in the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. There are similar books, but many are self-published, he says.

As for Walsh, her family has moved forward after Sammy's death six years ago.

The family has a new dog, a Tennessee coon hound named Jack.

"Now he's my best friend. He sits with me. He dances with me, and he runs with me. He doesn't talk back to me, and he knows when I'm crazy," she says.