Lead On, MacDuff

By staff February 1, 2004

Just before my father Dik Browne's death in 1989, his little Scottish terrier puppy, MacDuff, came to live with my wife Carroll and me at our home on Siesta Key. MacDuff was a tiny thing, jet black with a large, blocky head that seemed too big for his body. When he would curl up in a ball and go to sleep, he looked just like a round loaf of pumpernickel. He was a sweet dog from the start, playful but not aggressive, very tolerant of cats and newcomers. He never bit anyone. Not even a tourist.

After my father passed away, I was shattered and numb. MacDuff seemed to understood how I felt. We were both orphans now. I'd be sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to will myself into a new day. Suddenly a little stranger would ruin my pain. A small, black tangle of wiry hair had snuggled in next to me. With his impossibly long nose, he'd flip my limp hand up onto his back so that I was petting him before I realized it. Dogs know. They know when they are needed. They know how to fly under our radar. How to get in close. How to love, unconditionally.

I loved to hold MacDuff in my arms and sing to him. At first he'd just whimper, looking at my eyes intensely. Then he'd start to vocalize, trying to sing along. Then he'd throw his massive head back in a full howl! AROOOOOOO! I'd burst into laughter and hug him tight. What a talented boy. He never knew the words, but he could fake it better than any one.

We bonded quickly. I would look into his glistening, deep eyes amid the rakish tangle of rough black fur, those kind eyes, set about with that frantic storm, the eyes of a poet set into the wild head of a woodland beast; and it made me wonder how far back you'd have to go in MacDuff's lineage to find a tough little farm dog nestled by the foot of a farmer on a Scottish moor.

"My heart's in the highlands,

my heart is not here; my heart's in the highlands,

a-hunting the deer."

-Robert Burns

One day our daughter Ashley brought a cat back from Scotland. The cat was named Brambley, and she was a round, mostly gray-and-white- striped, happy little creature. She would purr loudly, with a motor scooter buzz, and would "meow" with a slight Scottish accent.

Brambley and MacDuff, cat and dog, fell in love, against all odds. They would lie together on Duff's huge floor pillow and groom each other. They'd sit side by side on the couch together and watch the news. They'd drink water out of the same bowl. They would sleep like two spoons, with Brambley hugging MacDuff all night long. It was an unusual love affair but it worked.

MacDuff decided early on that the terra-cotta-colored leather recliner in our living room was his. He'd try to get up onto it, but Scotties have little, short legs and he was just a wee bit too small. Still, he would not be dissuaded. He'd stand up leaning his forepaws against the chair and would grab the corner of the quilt from the seat of the chair. He'd drag the quilt onto the floor, make a heap out of it, then stand on the heap and with the precious couple of inches that gave him, he'd rock back and forth and launch himself up onto the chair. Once up, he'd position himself with one arm resting on the armrest and lean back, sitting more like a person than a dog, and survey his domain. From the lofty heights of the chair he could keep an eye on the fish leaping in Lake Nancy. He could watch the cats come and go on their march to and from the cat tree. He had a clear line of sight into part of the kitchen, and he could see me, working at my desk. Not bad!

MacDuff, tail wagging, with his tangled, wiry black coat and pink tongue, was a perfect graphic image; and it wasn't long before he was turning up in all my sketchbooks. Inevitably, he appeared in cartoons I did for Playboy and the New Yorker. Finally I started to put together a new comic strip with a character based on MacDuff at the center. The strip started out being called MacDuff, but because of a possible copyright conflict-there was a successful children's book series already out there called McDuff-I changed the name of the main character from MacDuff to Duncan. Carroll wisely renamed the strip Raising Duncan to illustrate the relationship between the two human characters and Duncan, because the couple thought of him as their child. These humans (alternate universe versions of Carroll and myself) are a 40-something married couple, very much in love, a bit overweight, he a romance novelist named Big Daddy and she a mystery author named Adelle. The couple lives on Siesta Key in Sarasota, Fla., with their dog Duncan and their cat Brambley.

It was easy to write gags based on MacDuff. He was warm and funny and full of pathos. And he was such a little imp! One night while Carroll and I were out, MacDuff somehow managed to get himself up onto our coffee table (probably in search on a doughnut). And then he couldn't get back down. When we came in and turned on the light, there he stood, on the table, trembling and hanging his head. He wasn't sure just what it was he had done, but he suspected he was in trouble.

My inspiration was never far away. When I woke up in the morning, the entire cast of Raising Duncan was in the bed with me: Carroll, MacDuff and Brambley. When I wrote and drew my strips, MacDuff slept with his head on my foot. When I was walking MacDuff, we made quite the Mutt and Jeff team-he the Mutt at 25 pounds and me, teetering at 275. He went everywhere with me. He was my best friend, my Boswell, my confidant, my bodyguard. Well, ankle guard, anyway...

MacDuff got his 15 minutes of fame when Animal Planet came to visit us to tape a segment for their Breed All About It TV show. MacDuff was really "on" that day, showing off all his tricks, leaping onto the recliners, running after lizards, cuddling with Brambley. We even took MacDuff and the camera crew down to the Citrus cafe at Little Five Points. Sally Dunbar, my assistant, was the official Scottie wrangler that day, as I was extra nervous about having Duff away from his home environment. It was a great day and I treasure that we have a wonderful video of him as a result.

After Breed All About it: Scottish Terriers aired, MacDuff became well known to members of the Scottie Lovers on-line news group; and one Christmas he received more Christmas cards than we did!

In the spring of 2000 a magazine photographer came to take photos for an article about the new comic strip, and about a half hour into the session he dashed out to his car to get a different lens. He left the front door ajar, and MacDuff, the Houdini of Siesta Key, escaped.

When I discovered he was gone, I wasted no time on pleasantries. I yelled at the photographer, "The session is over-let yourself out!" and bolted from the house. I ran around the neighborhood for hours, calling "MacDuff! MacDuff!!"

I was terrified. There were two busy intersections just seconds away, and so many side streets that finding him would be next to impossible. I ran towards Higel Avenue, up Beach Road, then Mangrove Point, Midnight Pass, then back to Ralph Street, then over by the church, then back, panting, near tears, exhausted and defeated, towards home. My mind raced... I'll call the Humane Society-no, first, Animal Control-I can make flyers up, go door to door- but all the time I was wondering if it was already too late. Had his tiny little legs already carried him to disaster? I rounded the last corner for home, and when I was almost at my front door I saw him, across the street on the far side of the Out-Of-Door academy's playing field. He had made it as far as the giant, gnarled roots of the massive banyan tree, and had curled up and fallen asleep in its mothering shade. When I lifted him up against my shoulder to carry him home, he sighed and barely stirred.

That night when we put him up on the bed he quickly climbed to the highest accessible point he could find: atop my stomach. Of course, then Brambley had to follow him up there; and soon the two of them were fast asleep. My stomach became a popular night spot for these two. I don't know why MacDuff loved to take the high ground, but he did. Maybe he was expecting trouble. Maybe he thought there were wolves around and he could protect me this way. Maybe he was General Patton in a former life. Or maybe it was love.

Our nightly walks took us up Reid Street and back, avoiding the busier Higel. We would go just as far as we could and then look at each other and vote on turning back. Usually on the way home MacDuff would tucker out and I would pick him up in my arms and carry him. Seeing me return, carrying the sleeping dog with the leash hanging out of my pocket, Carroll said, "I think you're missing the point of these walks." But I wasn't. It was quality time with my boy.

Carroll was visiting relatives in California when I discovered MacDuff was sick. I was sitting on the bed, combing his hair, when I felt a hard little lump near his hip I'd never noticed before. The next day at Beneva Animal Hospital it seemed larger. The days that followed blur together now. I remember seeing our two wonderful veterinarians a lot-Dr. Whitlock and Dr. Paxon, who were so supportive and so great... then biopsies and X-rays, yielding bad news upon bad news, weighing options, taking measures, fighting the good fight. And I remember the day I had to consider amputation to try to save his life, how I started weeping on the way home, and how MacDuff climbed into my lap to comfort me. I couldn't drive any further like this, weeping.

I pulled off into a parking lot and just cried and cried and held him in my arms. And then I realized I was upsetting him and I forced myself to calm down. I wiped my eyes and saw where I was. I had pulled off Midnight Pass into the empty parking lot of St. Michael's Church. I was parked right at the foot of the statue of Jesus, and his pale marble foot reminded me of my father's pale foot as he lay in his bed at Memorial Hospital, the moonlight on his feet as he lay there in the wee hours all those years ago. And now here I was, losing my new best friend. I said a prayer.

It turned out we didn't have to amputate. But that was only because the tumor had spread too far, too fast for that to help. So Carroll and I, with the help of Drs. Whitlock and Paxon, nursed MacDuff along for a month, carefully monitoring his quality of life and having weekly "reality checks," heart-to-heart assessments of how he was and where we were in the process. And then the day arrived, that day when it was clear that little MacDuff had had enough.

Carroll and I took him down to Beneva Animal Hospital. The doctors both joined us and we all said our quiet goodbyes. There were a lot of tears. Then I held him as I had held him a thousand times before. Carroll stood behind me and held his little paws and looked into his eyes. As we whispered softly to him, the doctor gently gave him the shot. He heaved one big sigh and rested his head on my shoulder and went to sleep forever. My little one.

They say that good little dogs cross over to heaven on a rainbow bridge. Often they go there ahead of us, to make sure the way is clear and safe and free of dangerous strangers and ornery varmints. After 14 years, my boy MacDuff crossed that bridge. It was January of 2003, a little more than one year ago.

Shortly after MacDuff's passing, I took Jack Dowd's sculpture class. It was very therapeutic for me. Just as working on my father's comic strip helped me cope with my father's death years before, making a sculpture of MacDuff helped me deal with Duff's passing. Preparing for the sculpture, I made pages of drawings on graph paper using photographs as my source material. I kept MacDuff's favorite collar on the sculpting table both as a reference and as a sort of touchstone to evoke a sense of him. I knew from the start that I would be very concerned with his eyes, getting them right. But I challenged myself to get details like the back of the head, the tail, the eyebrows, right as well. The process forced me to actively look at MacDuff, to really delve into his features. It awakened my long latent passion for sculpture and reminded me that one of the great secrets of creation is the part the creator keeps.

When you create, you are actually looking for something. With art you find it a little at a time. You gather it up. Little truths. You get this part right, the ear, the neck, but then the position looks correct again. The subject eludes you. You pursue it. You advance, it retreats. Finally you have something before you, a shape in clay that evokes a memory or a sense. You hope you have honored that memory. You want others to see the love you have felt, the love you didn't know you had to share. You step back from the statue and you wash the clay off your hands. It's so thick that you have to wash again and again. Finally the clay is gone. But something stays with you. Something will always be with you.

For years, he was my shadow. Now a bronze statue of him guards the door, waiting with solemn vigilance for pool boys, leaf blowers and the UPS man. His collar rests on my desk, a lock of his hair by my bedside. Photos of him are everywhere. His legend continues in Raising Duncan and in stories spun over dinner with friends. But where is the real MacDuff? A soul so fine cannot be dimmed by vain death. MacDuff is with me. He always will be at my side.

Chris and Carroll Browne are writing a Raising Duncan book and continue to be involved with the Sarasota Comedy Festival. Raising Duncan appears in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

You can see more photos of the real MacDuff at:

and see the sculpture as a work in progress at:

and the finished bronze sculpture at:

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