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If you've ever loved a dog... - Editor

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by John F.D. Taff

The first time I saw him he was all motion and energy, pushing over his littermates, straining to get to me, to be taken with me.

To be with me…

Here…

The last time I saw him he lay motionless, a pool of dark water in the middle of the country road that runs in front of my house.

Only it wasn’t the last time…not really.

I’d gone in for a second, just a second, to pee while I let him out to do the same.  I was late getting home from work, and I knew he’d be anxious to get outside.  It was dark, no moon, and he was a small, black pug.  But I wasn’t worried, never gave it a thought.  The road, a narrow, gravel thing, heavily cratered and barely graded, was little used.  I live on, if you’ll excuse me, a dead end.  The few people who actually use it are those few who actually live on it, and there aren’t many of us.  Traffic wasn’t a concern.

I remember zipping up, my mind wandering over that day at work, what to fix for dinner, what was on TV that night.  Nothing more.  He’d come in, I’d cook something from my bachelor repertoire, share it with him, and we’d curl up on the couch together, pretend to watch a program or two before hitting the sack.

Not that night…

…not ever again.

I left the bathroom, walked through the house to the back door.  The night was cool, and I could hear the river, a dark ribbon twisting through the greater darkness, gurgle just beyond the trees and down the bank at the rear of the property, its waters faintly limned by distant houselights.

Standing there on the little deck leading to the back door, I whistled for him, whistled the short, two-note trill I always gave when it was time for him to come in.  Sometimes he’d respond; often he’d ignore it the first half-dozen times until he was ready to come on his own.

Unconcerned, I whistled again…and again…and again.  Then, in mounting annoyance (Generally I was annoyed with him about something.  He was that kind of dog.), I called his name, then called it again, louder, sharper.

“Hector!  Here!  Here!”

Then the whistle.

But there was no response.

No pounding of his pads on the driveway, no jingle of the dog tag on his collar.

And my attention, scattered across annoyance and dinner and television, suddenly focused, sharp enough to cut.

I felt something in my gut uncoil, like a length of cold rope.

My mouth went dry, even as something in my brain told me not to make too much of it; he was just sniffing around the neighbor’s house or nibbling a treat disgorged from the septic tank or following the scent of a passing possum or any of a thousand things that could have drawn his attention away.

But I grabbed the flashlight and flew out the back door, down the driveway.

Deep into spring, and the trees still wore something between buds and leaves.  Otherwise, their naked limbs raked the sky.  Clouds mounted in the distance, roiled darkly, ready to spill over the hills on the horizon and into the little river valley where we lived.

It would rain tonight, heavy and hard.

At the end of the driveway, I stopped, took a breath, and raked the cornfield across the road with my meager light.  Blunted furrows piled up like waves on a black sea were all that greeted me.

Turning left, I walked onto the gravel road, the beam of light illuminating my way.

That’s when I saw it.

Just a pool of water.

Dark water….

Sighing audibly, I continued toward it, sweeping the flashlight before me, certain that what I saw was a puddle left from the recent rain.

Then, the glint of an eye…

I felt a rush of emotion push out from the center of me as I saw that it wasn’t water…it was him.

Hector!

As pugs go, he was taller than most, with long, muscular limbs and a lithe, almost athletic build that, perhaps one day, would fill out and give him the usual pug look of an ottoman with feet.  But now he was only a little more than a year old…just a pup…just a pup…and his spare legs and lean body gave him the look of a gangly teenager…which I suppose, in a way, he was.  Dog years and all…

I bent to him, put my shaking hand onto his chest.

Solid, warm…still.

His legs appeared whole, unbroken.  They were arranged in a kind of repose, as if he had simply lain down in the road to take a nap.

“Hector…baby…no…come here…back to daddy…come on good boy, come on...here…here!”

His eyes were open, unblinking.  They stared at me, sad and pitiful, asking me to pick him up, to hold him.

I touched his muzzle.  A trickle of blood came from his nose, oozed from the ear nearest the ground.

A car, I guessed…

Not knowing what else to do, I gathered him in my arms, lifted him from the road, as his eyes had asked.  I had lifted him in my arms dozens, hundreds of times, and he’d been all flailing paws, squirming muscle.  Now, though, he was a rag doll, limp and heavy, and it was then I knew, knew it in my practical brain if not my protesting heart.

He was gone…dead.

I lurched across the front yard, the flashlight still clamped in the hand that cradled his neck, throwing a beam that swept back and forth, up and down crazily over the front of the house, as if still searching for him.

My legs gave way at the back door, and I slumped onto the steps.  I cradled him in my arms, kissed his cooling black head, his muzzle, pressed the smell of him into me as if trying to capture it.  I whispered my love for him, my anguish into his soft ears.  I wanted him to hear the sound of my heart breaking, to know that he was loved enough to break it.

How long I held him like that I don’t recall, but the cold stickiness of his blood soaking my shirt brought me back.  Moving him, my tight embrace of his broken body had made the bleeding worse, and I wore it on my shirt, my pants, dribbled onto my shoes and socks like an accusation.

Hours later, after he’d been buried by my friend Chris, whom I called that night, I looked at myself in the mirror, saw his dark, dried blood across my cheek, my neck, on my hands and arms.

I looked at myself in the mirror for a long while, knowing I should take a shower before trying to go to bed, as Chris suggested before he left; after he’d buried my dog, my friend, my companion.  But I didn’t want to wash the last of him down my shower drain…didn’t want to lose the little part of him I had left, when the rest of him was already cold, already underground, already being rained on.

In the end, I took the shower, but threw the bloodied clothing into my hamper…and haven’t removed it since.

When sleep finally did come that night, it came late and more from emotional exhaustion than physical.  I listened to the rain pound the roof and worried about him getting wet.

And though I missed his back pressed against mine as it usually was when we slept, I kept his collar wound through my fingers through the night.

I didn’t sleep much at all, maybe just a little as dawn crept closer to the horizon.  But when I did, the only solace I received were images of his sweet face, but not calm and peaceful as he’d been when I’d held him.  No, now his face was distorted, his muzzle drawn back in a rictus from his teeth.  His eyes were wide and fixed, grey and cataractous.

And the blood…it had been only a thin trickle.  But now, in my dreams, it gushed from his nostrils, his ears, wept from his wide, accusing eyes.

I awoke shaking, nauseous, and rose to sit vacantly in front of the television, watching images of other people’s woes, other people’s losses.

#

“Go ahead and take the day off,” my boss told me the next morning.  I was sensitive, still am, to that tone in people’s voices…you know the “It’s only a dog” tone that some people give you when you show the slightest inclination to grieve the loss of a pet.

I’d gotten Hector when he was eight weeks, and had raised him since then.  It was him and me against the world.  I knew it and I think he did, too.  No one was going to tell me that he was just a dog.

Another friend I spoke with that morning mentioned that tone, those people.  He told me to take their names down and pass them to him; he’d personally kick their asses for me.

But it wasn’t there.  My boss knew how much Hector’s death was tearing at me.  A single day off was the least he could do.

I spent the rest of the morning in bed, lying in sheets that smelled of him, bore his dark hairs.  I cried some, more than I ever thought I could; more than I ever thought I should.

I hadn’t really slept the night before, so I tried to pull the covers over my head, tried to find some piece of sleep that wouldn’t confront me with his battered, bloodied body.

And succeeded.

#

The next time I saw him, was the first time he tried to kill me…

When I awoke, it was strangely dark, and I shuffled to the kitchen for a glass of water.

I glanced at the microwave clock.  7:43 p.m.

I’d slept all day, but felt no better for it.

He wasn’t there at my feet, watching me, his eyes darting unsubtly from me to the pantry where I kept his treats.  I looked at the space on the floor where he should have been and sighed.

Taking a glass down from the cabinet, I bent to the sink, turned on the water and ran it for a second, waited for it to get cold.

I absently looked out the window as I filled the glass.

Dropped the glass just as absently into the sink…

There, across the river, a blotch on the far bank, etched in dark relief against the bruised, twilight sky…

The glass shattered, but I was already out the back door, not breathing.

I scrambled to a stop where the backyard sloped down to the river, glared into the setting sun.

It simply could not be.

He was there, just across the winding river, no more than 30 feet away on the edge of the opposite bank. I could just make him out, like a dark ghost backlit against the sun.  He seemed to be sitting, directly facing me, unmoving.

I stumbled down the bank, clawing at the raw, wet earth, barely able to see through the twilight and my tears.  Coming to myself as the cold river water spilled into my shoes, soaked my socks.

I couldn’t see his eyes, but I felt their pressure on me.

Come!

Here…

I took another step into the river, my shoes squelching in the mud, the water coming up to my shins.

No!  Of course it wasn’t him.

He was dead…buried not more than a few yards away.  I could turn to my right and see the disturbed clods of earth that lay atop his body…had I wanted to…

But I couldn’t cross the river, I knew that.  It was deep with spring runoff, choked with tree branches and detritus of all kinds.  Its current exerted a powerful pull on my legs even where I stood, less than a foot into its body.

If I tried to cross, I might make it…but it’d be more likely that I’d be swept downriver or drown in the attempt.

I stood there, both the water and Hector urging me, tugging at me to come deeper.  To break their hypnotic effect, I scrubbed my eyes angrily with the heel of one hand, and phosphenes swam in the air before me, sparkling and nauseous.

But when I opened them again, the shape was still there…except that it had moved slightly…ever so slightly…just a tilt of its head…and my heart expanded until I felt it press against my ribcage, as if it might burst through.

That tilt…that comical, “What?” turn of the head dogs do when they hear an odd tone or when they’re not quite sure what you’ve said.

That tilt…I’d seen it from Hector many, many times…

My heart crowded my chest, stopped moving.

I closed my eyes slowly, opened them even more slowly…

He had turned, was moving away into the brush on the opposite side of the river, until he faded into the scrubby darkness and was gone.

I let my breath go in a strangled gasp that was as much a sob as anything.

Turning to the house, I pulled myself from the reeking river mud and climbed the slippery bank, ready to seek the comfort of my bed.

But I walked instead to where he was buried.

Looking down, I saw the grave, the slightly raised mound of dirt.

It was still there, unchanged from the previous night.

He was still there, unchanged, too.

The tears fell, and I went inside.

#

Days of searching the internet, trying to assuage the grief I felt.  Days at work spent in a blur, pretending to get things done, but secretly Googling “pet grief” and “dogs hit by car” and other combinations of words that, no matter their arrangement, couldn’t penetrate the density of my emotions; couldn’t seem to shed light on what had happened.  Couldn’t offer a response to the triteness of “Why him?”

When people came into my office, I clicked away from any one of a dozen Rainbow Bridge web sites, as guilty as if I were cruising porn.  Most of the sites were maudlin, saccharine places where people who I might previously have categorized as half-crazed to begin with revealed just how far over the edge the death of their ferret or their cat or their dog had pushed them.

Nevertheless, I posted to each one, tearing up about Hector’s death each time I laid the words down.

And I realized that I was one of them now…had been one of them all along.

We all wanted the same things, this group I found myself suddenly part of.

We wanted the pet we’d loved to be remembered, not just by ourselves, but by others.

And we wanted to do something, some small thing to honor that love, in the chance…no, the hope, however slim, that pet would know, know in a way that perhaps we’d been unable to communicate to it in life, that it was loved.

#

I saw him again a few days later, as I was driving home from work.

I’d turned onto the road that leads to my house after a long day at work spent trying to catch up from everything I’d been avoiding since his death.  It had been a busy, harrowing day, the more so as I realized just how much had slipped past me that week.

The radio was on, an afternoon drive show, and the weather was forecast to be sunny and cool tomorrow.  I was not paying attention; having driven this length of road so many times I didn’t think it necessary.

The day was bright and cool, as the radio had just promised tomorrow would be, and something caught my eye keeping pace with the car on the passenger side…

I stomped the break, swerved left, and the blur shot out in front of the car, still on the right margin of the road, paused.

A squirrel, I thought at first, or maybe a groundhog or someone’s cat.

I realized how wrong I was just as I cursed myself for not paying attention, for almost running down an animal just as that unknown driver had run down Hector in front of my house…

The dark shape stopped in a pool of shadow cast by the trees on the side of the road.  It was small, a bit larger than a cat, and it stood motionless, facing away from me, down the road ahead.

Then it turned its head, looked at me without turning its body.

Hector!

My breathing caught.  I reflexively mashed the accelerator pedal.  The car jolted forward, scattering gravel behind.

As it did, I saw him…God, it was him!...tilt his head at me and pull his loose lips into a doggy smile.  Then, he turned his head and dashed forward.

Come here!

Breathing hard now, I inched the car closer, watched as he fell back beside the passenger side front tire.  I could see him sprinting along the side of the road, through splashes of sun that lit his black fur in vivid blue patches, then into shadow where he seemed to loose substance.

I lifted myself out of me seat, craned my neck to see him.

Lord, lord…it was him…there was just no doubt now…

And as I thought that, he turned his head toward me, still running full tilt, and I saw his eyes for the first time. They weren’t sad or empty as I’d seen them last, but bright and eager and full of life as they’d been when he was…

He flashed me that puppy smile again and…and winked, slinging his head sharply to the right, motioning me to follow.

Here!

Then, just as sharply, he veered into the underbrush off the side of the road, disappeared.

“Hecky-Heck!” Without thinking, I pulled the steering wheel to the right.

Before I knew what I had done, the front of the car struck a small tree and the front wheels dipped into a drainage culvert.

Luckily, the tree was small, the culvert shallow and I wasn’t going that fast.

I jounced forward, hit the steering wheel with my chest as the car slumped to a stop.

I sat there for a long while, listening to the idling engine, the chirping of birds and droning of insects, waiting for the full import of what I’d seen, what I’d done to sink in.

If I’d have been going any faster, I’d be…

I let out a long, slow breath.

After a few seconds, feeling like a fool, I backed the car out of the ditch and away from the tree, got out to check for damage—a dented front fender and a smashed headlight on the passenger side.

And I knew how lucky I was.  I could have flipped the car or hit a larger, less yielding tree.

I could have killed myself trying to get to him.

I thought, for a moment, maybe…maybe that’s what he…

#

“Do dogs go to heaven?”

“They do in cartoons,” Chris replied, covering a small plate in ketchup at the local sports bar we usually had lunch.

The look on my face gave him pause.

“Hector?”

I nodded.

“Well,” he said, smashing a red-dripping French fry into his mouth.  “I guess I never really thought of it.  I mean, if dogs go to heaven, then what about squirrels?  Moles?  Flies?”

I waited, silently chewing my hamburger and giving him time.

“So, you think they all…you know…go to heaven?”

Swallowing a gulp of ice tea, I nodded.

“Why not?  Why doesn’t everything that’s born, that dies, all go to the same place?”

Flies? Are you shitting me?” he asked, his face scrunching up as if this conversation had taken a turn from sort of uncomfortable to plainly crazy.

“Well, I mean, sure. We’re all born into the same place.  Why wouldn’t we all die into the same place wherever…whatever…that is?”  I wiped my mouth with the napkin, settled it back into my lap. “I need to know…to believe…that Hector is there.  That he’s somewhere safe, loved.”

“Heaven?” he asked again. “For a dog?”

“Heaven.  Nirvana.  Valhalla.  The afterlife…whatever.  I need to know he’s OK.”

“Why is that so important?”

I waited a minute, pretended to watch the weather report on one of the big-screen TVs.

“Because I keep seeing him.  And I think he wants me to follow him…to come to him wherever he is.”

Chris closed his mouth, swirled his tongue around to dislodge something behind his tight lips, played for time.  He looked at me hard, though.

“Look, man.  Everyone’s gotta have their own thing, believe what they want.  If you believe he’s there, that’s great.  If you believe you’re seeing his…ghost or whatever, great.  Who cares what I think or what anyone else thinks? If it makes you feel better, that’s great.  Just…just don’t do anything stupid.”

“Stupid?”

“You know…like to be with him,” he said, forcing a fry between teeth that were nearly clenched.  “Like that movie says.”

“That movie?”

“Heaven can wait, man.  Heaven can wait.”

I took another bite of my hamburger, mainly just to have something to do with my mouth than make more crazy words.  I felt embarrassed, exposed for having told him that I was seeing…what?...the ghost of my dead dog?

That he was trying to get me to come with him?

…to…where?

Things don’t work that way, though,

Do they?

#

One week later I saw him again, and it almost killed me.

I sat outside on my deck with a beer, waiting for the time…that damned time a week ago…

The beer I lifted at intervals had gone flat, but the twilight was an explosion of colors, reds and purples and oranges.  It was as if the sun, rather than falling beneath the horizon, had simply exploded, spraying the evening sky with its arterial blood.

But it wasn’t what I watched.

I kept my eyes on the small, bare patch of the road where he’d been hit, where the car had struck his small body, run it down.  Where he lay, hopefully not for long, in whatever pain or panic God allows a dog to feel in its final moments

Did he wonder what had happened?

Did he wonder where I was, why I wasn’t there to take the pain away, to hold him?

To protect him from it having ever happened?

Only a week…only a week, and everything had changed, so suddenly, without warning.

I watched that spot, so bare now, so unadorned, so unremarkable for a place that had turned my life upside down.

What I watched for, I don’t know.

…yes…yes, I did.

And there he was.

I didn’t need to look at my watch.  I knew the time, knew it as if it were the time of my own birth.

More clearly than the two times before, he stood outlined against the stark emptiness of the farmer’s field on the other side of the road.  I could make him out plainly, even though the light was fading and his coat was black.

I could see his sparkling eyes, the ripple of the wan light on his coat; his short, double-curled tail wagging, eager.

Standing, I went to the deck rail, put my hands on it, gripped it tightly to ensure that I was awake, that this wasn’t a dream or a weird fugue state.  As if to offer proof, a splinter slipped into the mound of flesh where my thumb met my palm, and I knew I was awake.

Then, he moved, and my heart leapt inside me.

It was a playful, puppyish move.  He pounced, lowering the front half of his body to the ground, but keeping his head, his eyes fixed on me.  Then, he jerked his head, wriggled his rump.

I knew what those moves meant, what they said.

Come to me!

Come here!

Here!

I backed away from the railing, my brain telling me that it wasn’t real, that he wasn’t there.

But, I mean, really, who ever listens to their stupid, heartless brain?

I stumbled down the steps and across the front lawn.

I was still a dozen or so yards from him, when he turned, dashed into the field about 100 feet, then turned back toward me, lowered his head to the ground again and shook his rump.

Here!

I didn’t see the headlights of the truck that bore down on me from the left. All I saw was his small, dark body, so clear in the field, urging me on.

There was a blare of a horn, the skittering of gravel, the whine of brakes.

The car actually struck me, no more than a nudge really, but it brought me around.  I turned, as if not really knowing where I was, how I got there, and touched the hood of the truck.  It was smooth and warm, and I could feel the engine beneath the metal, like a beating heart.

“Mister, you on something?”

I came around the driver side of the truck, looking back at the field.

Hector was gone.

Distressed, I scanned the field, but couldn’t find him.

Of course…of course…because he…

Then, anger.

“You need to watch where you’re going,” the older driver snapped at me.

Me? I need to watch where I’m going?” I spat.  “Screw you.  You need to slow down and watch where you’re going.  I was just walking across the road, and you nearly ran me down.”

The man, who was probably more scared than I was, scowled.  “Mister, you walked right in front of me.  You telling me you didn’t see my lights coming down the road?.”

I turned fully to the guy now, anger hot and gelid all at once inside me.

“You’re probably the asshole who ran my dog down last week,” I snapped.  “Why don’t you slow the fuck down before you kill someone else?”

Instead of making the guy even madder—and perhaps getting him to leave the truck and join in a little dust-up between the two of us—his face fell, as if I’d accused him of something truly horrible, worse than nearly running me down.

Kill your dog? What a thing to say.  Buddy, I didn’t kill your dog.  Just watch where you’re going, that’s all.”

Insulted, he rolled his window up, effectively ending the conversation.  Slowly pulling away, he gave me one stark look in his side mirror.  I saw him shaking his head as he dwindled into the distance.

Then, all the adrenaline hit, and I tried to sit there on the side of the road facing the field, but I more fell than sat.  I could feel the gravel beneath me, the beer swirling in my blood.  My heart began to race and cold sweat leapt from my pores.  I swallowed and swallowed but my mouth was dry.

He’d been here…I knew it…I saw him so clearly, so distinctly.  He wasn’t a dark shape as he’d been at first or a blur as he raced the car a few days earlier.

He’d been here and he wanted…

…what did he want?

Here!

Come here!

I’d tried…but it had almost…

Cold swept over me, chilling my sweat-covered body so abruptly that I shivered violently.

That’s exactly what he wanted.

#

It was daylight when I saw him again, downtown.

It had only been a few days since I’d seen him in the barren field, since he’d urged me to follow him, to come to him.

Here!

And I had spent those two days, in their entirety, thinking about seeing him.  But I still didn’t know what the meaning of it all was.

What I was supposed to take away from seeing him.

That I was crazy, struck mad from grief?

That I was hallucinating?

That I needed to see him so badly that I was imagining him?

Or was I really seeing him?

I couldn’t think.  Deprived of sleep, haunted by wakefulness, crushed under the burden of this grief, this guilt, I couldn’t hold two thoughts together for more than a few seconds.

Withdrawing into myself, I remained silent at work, holed up at home, didn’t go out, didn’t have anyone over.  Spoke to no one by phone or e-mail.

At work one day, I had to go into the city for a meeting.  I had volunteered for it, eager to leave the office and my colleagues, their faces heavy with pity or contempt at what I was going through—still going through.

Eager to talk to someone about something other than myself, other than my dead dog, other than my inability to close the incredible loss that had opened inside me.

So, I went downtown, drove my car into the heart of the unaware, uncaring city and found a parking lot.  I left my car there, descended the grotty stairwell, with its odors of gasoline and urine, down to the street level, where I lost myself in a sea of humanity, became just a mote within it, drifting like a water molecule in a great ocean of water, unknown, unknowing, unremarkable.  No one knew me or cared; no one knew what I felt or cared.

Lost, I paused at an intersection, waited for the streetlight to change.

And I saw him again.

The sign said “Don’t Walk” in bright orange, and I stopped at the front of the crowd of people poised behind me.  The traffic sped through the intersection, and I stared dumbly ahead, waiting for the light to change, for the orange letters to become white and say, simply, “Walk.”

Across the street, at the other corner, a similar group of people hovered on their curb, waiting for their light to flash.

I glanced down at the distant curb and saw him.

Hector stood there at their feet, his entire body wagging at the sight of me.  I saw his dark brown eyes, the wrinkle of his nose, the poise of his ears.

He looked right at me and barked his silly, low, breathy “I’m-a-much-bigger-dog” bark.

I broke the mesmeric stare of his eyes and looked around.  No one seemed to notice him, a black pug alone on the city streets.  No one held him.  No leash seemed connected to his…

He was close enough for me to see that there was no collar around his neck.

He barked at me again, and I knew it was him, knew it in my secret, wounded heart.

Here!

I stepped forward, one foot actually lifted and set itself onto the pavement.

Another bark, and I saw him, finally, prancing on the far corner, weaving in and out of the legs that surrounded him, his gleeful little barks rising above the sound of traffic.

Two things happened simultaneously.

A city bus passed me on the street, so close that I could actually feel the heat of its metal skin press through my suit.

A hand grabbed my shoulder, clamped down hard, and yanked me back onto the sidewalk before my other foot had the chance to lift itself.

The light hadn’t changed, and the traffic still hurtled by.  The bus passed before me, and I inhaled its hot diesel breath as it went by.

Before I turned to see who had grabbed me, I looked across the street, through the traffic, and I saw him still there.  But he wasn’t excited any more, wasn’t barking at me.

He spared one disappointed look back at me before turning and padding his way into the forest of legs and feet…disappearing.

“Whoa, buddy,” said a large young man dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, his hand still pressing down on my shoulder as if I might dart back out into the street. “Wherever it is you’re so hot to get to, you might want to wait.”

Thanking him, I crossed the street when the light finally did change, under the man’s careful watch, spent a few minutes looking down a block or two before giving up.

I missed the meeting.

Of course he wasn’t there…

#

The last time I saw Hector he crossed the field alone…

I sat on the deck again that night, as I did most nights in the weeks that followed his death.  Nursing a beer or three, staring off into the distance, to the grey, lifeless spot where his lifeless body had lain or into the still barren corn field.  Always to see him, just to see him…

And as the sun slid down the arch of the sky, I did see him, standing there across the road, on the very margins of the field.  His eyes caught mine, and he playfully lowered his front half, darted his head back and forth.  I heard his funny bark carry across the suddenly still air, and my heart ached with what I had to do, with what I couldn’t do.

Draining the beer, I walked across the yard to the road.  I saw him so clearly, perhaps the clearest I’d seen him since he’d died.  His eyes sparkled and his dark coat caught the fiery colors of the sun settling over the field.

I came to the edge of the road, stopped at my side.

He cocked his head at me, barked again.

And I noticed, with mounting rue, that his bark still sounded distant, even though I stood no more than six feet from him now.

But I knew why…

I knelt there, at my side of the road, and looked at him for a second, sketched his face into the depths of my brain.

I did not move near him.

I did not cross the road.

I thought about what that guy told me after he’d yanked me out of the way of a speeding bus.

Wherever it is you’re so hot to get to, you might want to wait.

“I can’t,” I finally said to him.  “I love you, but I just can’t.”

He cocked his head back and forth at me, at my words, but his eyes lowered, turned away.

“It’s not my time yet, Hector.  I know you want me to come…I know you want me there.  And I want to be there.  Just…not yet.”

My legs ached to move, to go to him.  My arms yearned to reach out and touch him, to hold him.

But I couldn’t.  I know what he wanted.  I know he wanted me to cross the road, the river, to come to him…to be there…now.

Come here…

Here!

Maybe he didn’t truly know what that meant for me, but I knew…and I wasn’t ready.

“Maybe…just maybe…you could come to me…come here.”  I patted the gravel in front of me with my palms.  “Here…here, Hector.  Come to daddy, good boy.”

He didn’t tilt his head or move in any way, and that answered my question.

He couldn’t come to me…come here anymore.

I lowered my head, and let the tears fall.

When I looked up again, he was right in front of me, inches from my face.  I saw every whisker in his muzzle, the gleam of his eye, each hair in his coat.

Surprised, I didn’t react.

But he stretched his neck, brought his face to mine, and licked my cheek.

I closed my eyes, feeling my heart break all over again.

I could smell his clean dog smell, his breath, feel his saliva on my cheek.

When I finally thought to bring my arms up, to hug him to me, he was gone.  I opened my eyes, and he was back on his side of the road, watching me.

My arms still hung in the air between us, urging him to come back, to be held.

Come here, boy.  Once last time…

But I knew he wouldn’t…knew he couldn’t.

Instead, his lips drew back in a smile, baring black gums and white puppy teeth.

And then he was off, dashing away into the field without a look back, fading into the night like the ghost he was.

#

It’s been more than a year since I saw him last…

Yes, I miss him…but things have gotten…better, I guess.

I know he’s gone on without me, gone ahead, gone away…

I’m not ready to go to him yet.  He knows that now, but he’ll wait for me there.

Of that I’m sure.  I don’t have faith left in many things, perhaps nothing.

But that…I have faith in that.

And maybe…just maybe, that’s enough

I know he’ll be there when it’s my time to cross, whenever that is.

And I know that he’ll be there if I ever change my mind, if I ever do decide that I’ve had enough.

He’ll be there whenever I come, waiting for me in the cornfield across the road or down by the river on the far bank; waiting for me to come to him, to join him.

I’ll hold him then, take his kisses and return my own, stroke his dark coat and tell him that I love him.   We’ll run there, play fetch, stretch out on the soft, cool grass and sleep, his back pressed to mine.

And his here and my there will, finally, again, both be hereright here.

It doesn’t take his place; it doesn’t help the loss…nothing can or will.

But it is a balm…

Sometimes at night, when the air is cool and the wind is soft, and I watch that patch of road where he once lay as dark and quiet as a pool of water, it is a balm…

------------
Dedicated to Hector Taff
Nov. 2007 to April 2009
He was—and is—a good boy.

©2009

 

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