We brought him home to live with us on a flawless late-summer afternoon in 2000 when the goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace were in the fields and the leaves of the old-growth elm and maple trees bordering the rural highway north from the city were a rushing torrent of green through the open windows of the car.
We’d named him Harper three weeks earlier, on the day we first drove from Toronto to the country hamlet of Dunchurch, Ontario, and Corhampton Kennels, where he’d been born. All his life we would be asked if he’d been named after Harper Lee, the author of To Kill A Mockingbird. He wasn’t. His name had simply suggested itself that day. It had arrived fully-formed when we first held him, when he first chose us, staring solemnly into our faces with the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen on any creature: gentle, intelligent eyes, irises the colour of warm, sweet coffee.
Harper’s mother, a black Labrador bitch named Clover, had the haggard look of a Dust Bowl sharecropper matriarch in a Margaret Bourke-White photograph from the 1930s. She’d given birth to a healthy, athletic, octet of perennially ravenous puppies ten weeks earlier, and she was utterly exhausted.
That first afternoon, after playing, his swarm of brothers and sisters had all fallen asleep on the kitchen floor where we sat, cross-legged, “meeting the puppies.” Harper, however, remained in my lap.
“I think you’re going to take my favourite golden boy,” said June Onda, the kennel’s proprietress. She smiled approvingly as Harper explored my neck with his tiny pink tongue and vampire puppy teeth. She’s bred Labradors all her life and she loved her dogs. They were her passion. Furthermore, she was deeply committed to their welfare after they left her care. She disliked what she called “yuppies,” didn’t trust them “with their sports cars and their designer jeans.” Her dogs weren’t anyone’s fashion accessories.
Brian and I, however, in our rumpled summer khaki and faded chambray, now covered in dog hair, had clearly passed muster.
“Come back in three weeks,” she said “He…Harper…will be ready to go home with you then, after he’s had all his shots, and a few more weeks with his mother.”
On the day Brian and I came to take him home, he managed one last greedy swipe at his mother’s raw, distended teat before I scooped him up. Clover’s relief at her offspring’s removal couldn’t have been more obvious. She was snoring in her basket before I left the farmhouse kitchen with him in my arms. Harper curled against my chest and immediately fell asleep, grunting softly. His round belly rose and fell in a slumbering baby’s rhythm.
As I carried him to the car, cradling him gently so not to wake him, I leaned in and pressed my nose against the soft gold of his fur, inhaling deeply his sweet puppy-fat scent. Closing my eyes, I promised him silently: I will always protect you and keep you from harm and pain, whatever the cost. You’ll never be alone, and I will love you forever.
In the weeks immediately following his arrival at our house, I established myself outside on the front porch and worked on the book I was writing on a lap desk. It was a temperate summer. Harper slept beside me in a playpen loaned to us by an open-minded neighbour.
Another neighbour, one we didn’t know well, saw me sitting on the porch with the playpen and waved. When I waved back, she walked up to the porch and smiled conspiratorially.
She crooned, “New addition to the family?”
“Yes. A baby. Would you like to see?”
“Oh, goody!” she said. “Oh, goody! What’s his name?”
“His name is Harper.”
When I pulled back the blanket to reveal a snoring ten-week old yellow Labrador nestled in the folds of the soft blanket lining the playpen, the woman looked at me as though I’d slapped her.
“That’s a dog!” she hissed. “You put a dog in a baby’s playpen!”
“Of course it’s a dog,” I said amiably. “He’s a baby dog. What did you think was in the playpen? And where would you put a baby dog on a day as beautiful as this one?”
“That’s just weird. That’s just plain weird!” She turned away and hurried down walk. Under her breath I heard her mutter something like some people are so weird.
I sighed, seeing where she was coming from in a way. I wanted to call after her, to assure her that I wasn’t that weird, though she wasn’t the first person to offer that assessment, and God knows she wouldn’t be the last. But she’d already vanished around the corner and she gave us a wide berth forever afterwards. I suspect this suited her at least as well as it suited us.
After fifteen years of living in other towns and other neighborhoods we’d returned to Cabbagetown, the leafy nineteenth-century enclave of stately red brick Victorians and vast green parks not far from downtown Toronto. This was where we’d started our lives together a decade and a half before. It felt like home, wherever else we lived, or travelled.
When we’d lived in Cabbagetown in the 1980s, we had a red American golden retriever named Valentine. An English golden retriever named Ben soon joined him once when we moved to the country. Both dogs passed away after we’d moved back to the city years before, in another house in another neighborhood.
We purchased a restored 1872 farmhouse of clapboard and red brick, a house with a wide porch on the front and a sheltered patio garden in the back. We’d filled the dim, tall rooms with old things—family pieces, old photographs, paintings, inherited books—as well as newer treasures, the accumulation of our lives and travels together. We covered the polished oak floors with worn Shiraz carpets, faded with age. It was a comfortable house, permanent and solid, resolutely unpretentious in its shabby gentility. It was missing one thing, a dog.
Having been without a dog for some years, we realized that since we were back “home” in Cabbagetown, we were ready to bring a puppy into our lives, but after losing Valentine and Ben, I didn’t think I could bear to own another golden retriever.
That first spring back in Cabbagetown, I’d met a young man in the park who owned a lovely, generous-tempered black Labrador. We struck up an acquaintanceship that turned into a friendship. He told us about June Onda and Corhampton. In short order, that led to the trip to Dunchurch, and Harper’s adoption of us as his “forever family.”
Notwithstanding the woman’s assessment of my weirdness, that day on the porch, everyone else welcomed Harper into their lives as though he were royalty.
And indeed he was, of a kind.
Everyone has dogs in Cabbagetown, and in a dog neighbourhood, among dog people—a “caninocracy,” if you will— a new puppy is a prince or princess merely by virtue of joining the neighborhood pack. Puppies are fêted and fussed over the way new babies are in more philoprogenitive neighborhoods full of less-interesting people.
On his first night, he slept in a crate next to the bed. He whimpered once that night. When I spoke to him, whispered his name and told us we were there, he stopped whining and fell asleep. I greeted him shortly after dawn that first morning by murmuring “Good morning, Harper.” That phrase, with the emphasis on morning, sent him into such paroxysms of full-body delight that I used it every morning thereafter, and sometimes even at other times in the day when I needed the joy fix that he provided with his response to those words.
Harper was a vocal puppy, adept at letting us know his needs, whether those needs were “food,” “out,” “play,” or “cuddle.” He liked what he liked, and when he disliked something, he didn’t hesitate to inform us.
He didn’t care for horror movies, for instance—a potential hitch, since I was, at that time, a stringer for a New York-based international horror film magazine. I watched Halloween in bed with him that first October. The screams coming from the television set made him draw close to me until he realized that they couldn’t hurt him and weren’t real. After that, he dozed through them like a highbrow film critic forced to watch schlock.
That first autumn at the family place up by the lake owned by the parents of my godchildren, he raised holy hell when the motorboat carried Brian away in a great mechanical roaring of boat propellers and churning water.
In retaliation, Harper tried to drink the entire lake, and was inconsolable until the boat brought Brian back, safe and sound. After we’d taken him out in the boat, and showed him the world as seen from the water, boating at the cottage became his favourite thing to do, next to fetching sticks and swimming back with them.
I tried to swim with him, but he refused to believing I wasn’t drowning, that I didn’t need saving. Harper’s attempts to “save” me from drowning left me scratched and bloody—so bloody, in fact, that from that point forward, I only swam when he was inside the cottage.
We learned the hard way that both electric shavers and early-model cell phones were the perfect thickness and hardness to help him cope with teething. The day he brought us a butcher knife from the counter, carried lightly in his soft mouth, tail wagging like he’d done something marvelous, we simultaneously learned the extent of his dexterity and reach, and lost five years of our own growth
Within a year, Harper was the fastest dog in the park. There was no ball, however supersonic in flight, which he couldn’t retrieve. He played well with other dogs—he loved being part of a pack of roughhousing post-puppies, but he was never aggressive or hostile.
He loved riding in cars. We learned this the hard way too, when a telephone installer knocked on our door and told us there was a yellow Labrador sitting in the passenger seat of his truck. The dog had simply jumped up into the cab through the open driver’s side door, scooted over to the passenger side, and installed himself there.
The dog was apparently waiting to go for a ride, the technician explained. Was he ours? And if so, would we mind getting him out of the truck? The repairman had other calls to make. We coaxed Harper out of the truck and spent the rest of the day trying to ascertain when, and how, he’d gotten out of the house—we never did find out.
Harper and I settled into a classic routine over the next five years—dogs thrive on routine, and so do writers.
Each day began with him waking us up, never the other way around. The better he got at it, the groggier were my “Good morning, Harpers.” After breakfast (his, not mine) I took him out for a short morning walk, whatever the weather.
I work at home, so he was my constant companion as I wrote my magazine articles and books. My desk faces east, a modern one, designed a bit like a drafting table. Placed next to it at a forty-five degree angle, in front of a window facing the street, is a smaller Victorian writing desk with two lines of drawers. The space in between the drawers made a perfect “cave” for Harper. As I worked, he dozed under the adjacent desk until it was time to do something else.
Each evening after dinner, Harper and I took a long, slow walk. At the end of the street there is a park. Down the hill from the park is a vast field. In spring and summer, people play baseball and Ultimate Frisbee. The park is off-leash, and in a very Canadian sense we’ve all found a way to get along, for the most part, dogs and jocks alike.
At the end of the field is another hill, leading to a bridge over the Don River, and a flight of metal stairs leading to a path that wends along the river, literally for miles.
The Don is one of two rivers bounding the original settled area of Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario, the other being the Humber, to the west. My father and grandfather swam here in the early 20th century, something inconceivable to my generation, who has only ever known it in its current, less-pristine incarnation. Still, the river and the ravines bordering it, support vast ecosystem and fauna—mice, fox, ducks, pheasant, even deer. Among other things, it’s a heaven of scent for game dogs.
Those nightly walks usually involved Harper’s nose to the ground, taking the measure of every trace of life that had walked, or flown there.
After a day of writing and the business it entails, I was able to release my mind from its constraints during those walks along the river in Harper’s company.
He loved the change of seasons, favoring spring, when the thaw released a universe of scents, as well as vast puddles. We nicknamed any large puddle “Lake Harper, and his habit of laying down in the middle of them—the deeper and muddier the better—“Harperflopping.”
We went up north to the lake twice a year to spend time with my godchildren and their parents—once in the summer, usually Labor Day, and once in the fall, usually for Canadian Thanksgiving, which corresponds to Columbus Day in the United States.
At Christmas, Brian and I went to Palm Springs to spend the holiday with friends and family. We found a generous and loving young man named Vania whom we paid to move into the house for the Christmas week we were away. Harper fell in love with Vania, a mutual love affair in their case, which relieved us of the perpetual anxiety of dog-owners who travel. Harper was always happy to see us when we returned, but he was always euphoric when we opened the door and “Uncle Vania” was waiting on the porch.
As he grew, Harper’s scent changed from the powdery, fluffy “puppy” smell, to a warmer, richer “dog” scent. Occasionally he smelled like fresh-baked bread, or the woods in autumn. When he was wet, he simply smelled of summer. The scent clung to everything—my clothes, the furniture, the house. It was his signature. Kissing his head and breathing in that scent was the last thing I did every night and the first thing I did every morning.
|Harper and the author's godchildren, Kate and Michael|
In 2005, we welcomed a second Lab into our lives.
Simba—who came already named—was a year and a half old black Labrador who had been rejected from the guide dogs for the blind program because he euphemistically “had too much personality.” We liked the sound of that very much in our house of iconoclasts, human and otherwise. We were not offered the details, but we joked about Simba being a sort of Labrador Holden Caulfield.
A friend of Brian’s had fostered Simba as a puppy prior to his entering training as a guide dog. The friend had brought him to Brian’s office for frequent visits in the afternoon. Brian would come home in the evening with tales of Simba, the visiting Labrador, and while I occasionally thought I detected a certain longing in his voice, he was quite adamant about not wanting a second dog.
I concurred—Harper was the sole canine occupant of my heart, and I had no particular desire to see that relationship diluted.
When Simba went away to guide dog training, the office visits the stories stopped.
Then, abruptly, Simba was again living with Brian’s friend. The blind woman to whom he’d been assigned had sent him back. He’d been kicked out of the program.
As a longstanding canine foster parent for the organization, Brian’ friend had been granted the right of first refusal, as the right of be consulted on his placement if he elected not to take him. As she had no room or another dog in her home, she was trying to find a home for Simba. She thought we’d be perfect for him, and vice-versa.
From the first, Simba proved to be unique, unlike any dog I’ve known before or since. For instance, he was supremely verbal. What we first took to be growling on his part proved to be a complex system of verbalizing unlike any I had ever seen. He “spoke” in an entire range—softly to start with, then more and more loudly until he had the listener’s complete attention.
In addition, he possessed a stunning anticipatory emotional intelligence. He’d received the superb training befitting a dog destined to be the eyes and ears of a disabled person, so there was no question of having to teach him the basic commands. He knew them all, and more. He fetched the mail without asking, carrying it to us in his soft mouth whether we asked him to or not. Unlike Harper, who had left a veritable graveyard of cell phones and shoes in his wake, Simba literally had no bad habits. He was perfectly trained, but there was nothing “precious” or robotic about him. Indeed, he had a lumbering, bear-like quality that was made for hugging and floor-play, coupled with a stunning dexterity and grace of movement, especially when he ran. He was wonderfully responsive to physical affection, leaning into whoever was stroking him, often laying his head on the person’s knee as if to say, Yes, please. More.
Try as we might, however, we couldn’t seem to entice him to lick. We concluded that licking was infra dig for guide dogs, and had been trained out of him. We thought that was a bit sad, and wondered again why he such a wonderful dog had been kicked out of the program, what might have happened to precipitate that.
One night when Simba had been with us for about a week, Brian and I had an argument and we raised our voices to each other. I must have been making some histrionic point or other, because I abruptly threw my arms in the air in a sweeping motion.
The effect on Simba was immediate and devastating—he drew his body inward as though he’d been threatened with a blow. Terrified, he retreated beneath the grand piano in the living room with his tail between his legs, trembling. It took half an hour to lure him out from under the piano. Cheese, dog cookies, a ball—all failed as bait.
What did the trick, finally, was a litany of softly murmured endearments and entreaties communicating love, security, and safety. When Simba was finally convinced that no one had tried to hit him, or was going to, he crept out from under the piano and lay submissively at our feet. Again, where another dog might have naturally licked my hand, Simba averted his head as though it might be another trick to get him to misbehave, a trick with consequences that he evidently dreaded.
We never raised our voices in anger around Simba again. It simply hurt and frightened him too much to see the people he loved in any sort of pain.
Harper accepted Simba’s presence with very Labrador-like equanimity, making room for Simba in “his” house, ceding him a spot on the stairs. In turn, Simba, the new alpha dog returned the favor. They coexisted like two great nations sharing the same border.
Again, they were very different dogs, with very different needs.
Harper’s place in the home had never been questioned. He was utterly secure in it, and with us. He’d never known another home, or other people. Simba on the other hand, had spent his young life in pre-training foster care, then in training at the institute, then in placement with at least one disabled individual, at which point he was expelled from the program, then sent back to his “foster mother,” then us.
While he had been trained to be sensitive and to obey, earning his core-level trust through our constancy was a more deliberate task, and it took some effort.
As he grew in that trust, coming to confidence that he’d found a permanent home with people who loved him, he verbalized less and less. At first I missed the little growls and groans and squeals, but what replaced them was a kind of openness and a loving roguishness that utterly transformed him. Even though we still couldn’t get him to lick our hands or our faces, he was more spontaneously, physically affectionate. He’d lie on the bed when I watched television, or sit close by when I was on the sofa, reading.
On walks, he never pulled on his leash, but walked close to my legs—not out of fear, but to protect. At home, though Harper still occupied the spot under the second desk while I worked, but Simba lay nearby, close enough to keep an eye on me.
His protectiveness became legendary. So stentorian was his barking when someone was at the door that we learned to simply wait. If, after Simba let loose his volley of barks, the doorbell rang twice, it was probably a friend who knew us, and knew Simba. If, on the other hand, instead of the second ring of the doorbell, we heard a short scream and the sound of feet pounding across our porch and down the steps to the sidewalk, it was probably a missionary, or a politician, or a beauty goods peddler—in which case, good riddance.
At one point, we received an official visit from a representative of the post office who explained that Simba’s barking was terrifying the seasonal delivery workers. Would we mind terribly putting a mailbox on the side of the house? No one at Canada Post wanted to push the mail through the slot in the door because of the werewolf on the other side.
My godchildren, Kate and Michael, had grown up with Harper in their lives, and they welcomed Simba into their midst when we were up north at the lake. The screamed with delight when Simba barreled into the lake, splashed around, then ran out of the water to roll frantically in the sand before dashing back in the water again.
I have a photograph my collection of my goddaughter Kate gently tugging at Simba’s ear while he sat there, clearly aware of her fragility and delicateness, which awakened in him a responsive gentleness. I could almost pity anyone who had tried to harm either Kate or her brother Michael while Simba was in the vicinity.
The one essential quality of life with dogs is dailyness. The days, weeks, months, and years run together like watercolors, building in depth of tint until entire years have passed. Unless it’s marked by some event—a move, a divorce, a death in the family—there is a thickening, a slowing of time itself until, one day, you wake up and realize ten years or more have passed. Your dog looks the same to you—you may even look the same to you—but your dog is a decade older and so are you.
One night in the winter of 2010, walking down by the river at home in the middle of a heavy, soft snowfall, Simba and I came across a majestic young white-tailed buck with a glorious wreath of new antlers. The buck had simply stepped our from behind the curtain of trees and falling snow like an apparition from mythology. It stood there, thirty yards in front of us, tasting the breeze. If the buck was aware of the man and the dogs thirty yards away, it gave no sign
Simba, on leash, stood stock-still on the path. My first thought was that he was going to lunge at the buck, dragging me along the snowy path with him till he reached the place where the deer was. I reached down to steady him, but there was no tension in Simba’s body. He was as riveted as I was by the sight of the deer—one force of nature respectfully taking the measure of another in a moment that seemed almost holy. Then, in another instant the buck vanished, leaving nothing but a cloud of snow and the sound of breaking branches in its wake, as evidence that it had ever been there.
All of this had happened in a matter of seconds.
I turned around to see where Harper was. I was relieved to see him about fifteen yards behind us. As usual on these winter walks, his nose was buried in a snow bank, scenting God only knew what, oblivious to everything around him except the glorious smells and the stories they told. I called his name, but there was no evident sign that he heard me. I tried again, but still his nose remained where it was.
“Good morning, Harper,” I said loudly, even a bit impatiently.
Hearing that Harper’s tail began to wag, and when he pulled his head out of the snow bank, his face was coated in a thick Kabuki mask of snow. In that second he looked like a puppy again, instead of the dignified elder statesman Labrador he’d become. My heart contracted at this abrupt reminder that it had been ten years since we’d brought him home, and I shivered.
I attached Harper’s leash to his collar and tugged as gently as I could. “Let’s get you indoors, your highness,” I said to him. “It’s getting cold.”
In reply, Harper spun his tail in lazy circles, as though he were a small, lethargic propeller plane trying to work up the energy to take off for home.
Simba obligingly took the first step in the direction of home, leading Harper by example, but matching his measured pace the rest of the way home, as though he knew we had to move more slowly, with more softness and patience, even though the snow was falling heavier now and the chill was settling to stay.
Throughout the winter of 2011 I worked feverishly to finish the rewrites and edits on my first novel, Enter, Night, which would be published that October. I worked around the clock, occasionally falling asleep at my desk, or collapsing on the futon in the guest room across the hall from my study. Although I had written nonfiction books and edited anthologies, Enter, Night was my first long-form fiction and there was a lot riding on it, both personally and professionally.
One of the principle protagonists of the novel was a twelve-year old boy named Finn Miller, who owned a black Labrador named Sadie. When I first conceived the novel, I had imagined Sadie to be a yellow Labrador who looked like Harper. When it came time to write it, however, I changed Sadie’s color from yellow to black. Finn was a character who resembled me. I was superstitious, and didn’t want Sadie to resemble Harper. I didn’t want to tempt fate through the alchemic medium of creation.
Since elements of that novel drawn from a very deep, very true part of me, I felt responsible for whatever I wrote into existence. I would never be able to forgive myself if any part of it came true.
Harper was eleven years old that summer. His body was brittle with age. His coat, which had been gold for most of his adult life, had turned a sort of pale ash blond that somehow recalled the color of his fur when he was a baby. He now needed help getting up on the bed, and help getting down. He often seemed confused about where he was and his hearing had faded considerably. One night in the park, he wandered out of sight for just a moment, long enough for him to cross the street in a daze and narrowly miss being struck my a car.
Even so, he still climbed the stairs every day to sit in my office and watched me—made me—write that novel.
At several points when I dawdled, I glanced down and saw Harper glaring at me as if to say, Get back to work, you lazy ass. You’re not finished yet. The first time it happened, I laughed. The second and third time, I paused and looked hard.
The fourth time it happened, I snapped a photograph of Harper’s face to check my reaction against the mental image. Indeed, Harper looks like an editor on deadline with a recalcitrant, malingering writer on his payroll.
That spring, I took to walking the dogs separately because Harper simply couldn’t keep up with Simba any longer. Paradoxically, instead of being a bother, the separate walks had the effect of bonding me anew to each dog, matching their needs with an exactness that had perhaps not been entirely present in past years. Instead of pulling Harper along to meet Simba at least halfway, or forcing Simba to walk at a near-standstill, glacial pace, each dog got his own time, at his own speed.
In August, we took Harper and Simba up north to the cottage. As was his habit, Simba made a beeline for the water and plunged in. This time, however, Harper seemed somewhat confused by his surroundings and established himself under a tree near the dock. In time, he waded into the water. The kids threw sticks out into the water for Simba to fetch, but there was no question of Harper being able to participate.
Instead, I knelt beside him on the beach and threw small twigs into the lake near the place where he stood. He was able to fetch them by taking a step or two into the water. When he did, I clapped loudly enough for him to hear me. In reply, he slowly swished his tail back and forth in the water, making whirlpools.
On the last afternoon, I took a series of photographs of the two dogs. The photographs of Simba all reflect canine virility and power leavened with tenderness and gentleness—a euphoric black Labrador by the lake in August, playing with children, fetching sticks, swimming sleeping.
For his part, Harper’s age was a massive, inescapable truth told through the lens of the Nikon. The perfect coffee-colored eyes were filmy, set deep beneath heavy lids. His coat looked white in the sun. Still, Harper never looked more beautiful to me than he did at that moment. The entire history of eleven summers was there in his face, a face of vast kindness and dignity, and the pure essential sweetness that is peculiar to very old dogs.
|Harper and Simba|
In one frame in particular, my favourite in fact, he’s standing on the edge of the dock with his back to me, staring out across the lake, caught between the water and the sky. Harper body is slightly bent, but still proud and upright. In that photograph, he resembles a very old lighthouse keeper on his final rounds, the last watch of the night.
In October, my novel came out to very kind reviews.
In December, we flew to Palm Springs for Christmas, leaving Vania with Harper and Simba, as usual. When we returned from California, Harper and Simba welcomed us home with exactly the same jubilation as they always had when we returned from “away,” which encompassed everything from the store up the street to the other side of the world. It was all the same to them—when we were home, the pack was complete.
On New Year’s Eve, we had a dinner party—smart, loving, witty, erudite friends. Harper slept next to my chair. From time to time, I’d lower a piece of roast beef in my hand without looking down. Invariably, I’d feel a gentle mouth take it from my fingers. I listened for the swishing sound of Harper’s tail against the dining room rug. It came, as regularly as clockwork.
Two mornings into the year, I came downstairs to find Harper prostrate on the kitchen floor in a spray of vomit and diarrhea. He’d had some sort of terrible seizure in the night. He was initially unresponsive, and when he came out of it, he was disoriented. I cleaned him up and led him outside.
On the patio, he simultaneously vomited and soiled himself again. His legs buckled and he went over on his side, his legs kicking in a spasmodic tarantella of undignified, disconnected, seizures. I held him, trying in vain to shield him from the hard stone of the patio as he shook, trying to absorb the shock with my own body.
But we both knew we’d reached the end of our walk. What was left now was dignity and mercy, and that terrible, necessary love.
When the vet came, I laid my grandmother’s crocheted afghan on the kitchen floor. It was the afghan I always placed in the back of the car with him on our trips up to the lake, where he was at his happiest. I’d like to think it carried the some scent of that joy and anticipation.
As gently as I could, I laid Harper down on top of the afghan, tucking the edges around his prone body. His sides rose and fell, in an almost imperceptible rhythm of shallow breaths. I removed his blue leather collar and massaged his neck, feeling the flattened place where it had been for twelve years, feeling the ridges above and below it.
I lay down beside him, spooning by body against his, one arm along his back, the other holding him across his chest. I stroked his head and whispered his name, and told him I loved him. It occurred to me later that the positioning of our bodies there on the floor—his back against my chest, his head under my chin—was almost a perfect horizontal version of the positioning of our bodies that summer day in 2000 when brought him home, when I carried him in my arms and promised him: I will always protect you and keep you from harm and pain, whatever the cost. You’ll never be alone, and I will love you forever.
“Good morning, Harper,” I whispered. His tail thumped weakly on the floor in recognition and acknowledgement. “Good morning, Harper.”
As I held him, the vet injected him with the drugs. His body jolted, stiffening in my arms, and he let out a soft squeal that burned through me like acid. Then his body went slack in my arms, and I knew he was gone.
That night, after I’d brought Simba home from the neighbour’s where I’d sent him during the vet’s visit, after the house was still and dark and quiet, I got down on my knees and offered up the imperfect prayer of a middle-aged man long unaccustomed to praying.
Dear God, please take care of my dog. His name is Harper. He loves small dogs and small children. He loves carrots and flowers. He loves puddles and rain and snow. He loves people. Never let him be alone. Let him feel love forever. Let him hear “Good morning, Harper” every day until the end of time, and beyond. Amen.
In the pitiless iron-grey winter months of early 2012, Simba and I hiked the fields and paths that the three of us had walked together. We moved more quickly without the encumbrance of Harper’s age and infirmity, but it was a Pyrrhic victory at best. The new briskness of those walks only served as a reminder of his loss.
We lived in a haunted house—coming home at night with Simba after our evening walk, I would imagine I saw the familiar, slumped shape at the head of the stairs, but when I turned the light on, Harper wasn’t sleeping there. I took to leaving all the lights on when I took Simba out in the evening.
For his part, Simba drew closer to us, not with any obvious sense of mourning for his housemate, but as though he was more aware than of our need for him in Harper’s sudden to him inexplicable, absence. Too, he seemed to relish being the only dog in our lives. He appeared to grow younger, more playful. He cuddled more, and was gentler in temperament when he encountered potentially hostile dogs outside the house. He took up Harper’s spot under the second desk in my study while I worked, supervising my writing, but with fewer indignant glares when I checked Facebook and Twitter instead of working.
At night, he took to sleeping at the foot of our bed, something he’d never done before, and he woke us every morning by whacking his thick tail against the door.
Slowly, the keening grief over Harper’s death receded in the face of Simba’s determination to love us hard enough to drive it all away.
When spring made its first tentative knock in early April, our walks through the park and along the river became longer and more joy-filled. Simba thundered through the mud puddles, sending up a spray as he passed, bounding across the thawing like a black storm.
On the evening of April 26th, while at dinner, I received a devastating telephone call on my mobile. My great friend Mark Braun had been killed that morning in a motorcycle crash.
The details were unclear, but Mark had been riding the bike. He had apparently lost control of it somehow and had crashed. No one else was had been hurt, but was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. His wife, my beloved friend Lauren, was beside herself with grief and loss. She and Mark had been high school sweethearts. They were one of the closest and happiest marriages I had ever known. The thought of them apart was unthinkable.
I had met Lauren years before, in correspondence over the course of researching. The friendship had deepened with uncanny swiftness warmth. As Lauren has said many times of me, “I missed you before I even knew you.” I felt exactly the same way about her. When I flew to Chicago that first weekend to meet Lauren and her husband in person, Mark was gracious and respectful, but he did entirely warm to me to me until he was certain that I had his wife’s best interests at heart, and that my intentions were of the highest sort. Once assured, he opened his life and heart to me, making me a part of their family.
Mark was a true Renaissance man—a blue collar construction worker who was better read than most of my friends, a man I would call a philosopher with no hint of irony. He had written a book on faith, and had done me the honour of asking me to write the introduction, which I did. Always respectful of my friendship with his wife, never intrusive, he would still cherish our talks, as would I. They lasted for hours, those talks.
In time, I came to think of him more as a brother than a friend.
And now, I had lost that brother, decades before his time and my dear friend Lauren had lost the love of her life.
I flew to Chicago to offer whatever comfort I could to Lauren and her children, and to delivery the eulogy on April 29th. Though sad, the memorial service was upbeat and dignified. Occasionally we laughed through our tears, but we also know that our lives had been irrevocably changed by this tragedy. I stayed on for a few days before returning to Toronto, and Lauren and I made plans for her to visit us in July.
When I walked through the door on the first day of May, Simba welcomed me home. I took him out to the park right away and let him run. The ground was warm and dry, and the grass in the park had just been cut. Simba flung himself on his back and rolled in the fresh-cut grass in such an excess of euphoria that I took out my iPhone and shot a short video of it. I recall thinking that I wished Lauren could see it—Simba’s joy was so pure, so contagious, that it might act as a balm, even briefly. I looked forward to her spending time with him when she came, and letting him try to heal her the way he’d healed us.
On the night of May 5th, I took Simba out to the park at around 10:30 p.m. for his last walk of the night. There was a full moon that night—reportedly the biggest full moon of the year. The press dubbed it “the super moon,” and it was magnificent in the night sky over the city. The light appeared to subtly change as the moon ascended, turning orange, then almost pink. The park was full of amateur astrologers and moon-watchers of every sort, as well as families who’d let their children stay up later than their bedtimes just this once.
Simba’s gait seemed slower and more measured that night. He walked closer to my side, and was much less inquisitive than usual. I put it down to the shadows of the people milling about the park in the darkness. As a schoolboy at boarding school, we’d raised world-champion huskie. The full moon would frequently have an agitating effect on the dogs. I wondered if perhaps Simba sensed something out of the ordinary in the way the moon was shining, something that gave him pause.
To me, though it was just a beautiful, fragrant, late-spring night.
After the walk, Simba and I made our way through the dark house to my study. I planned to write for a few hours before bed. Simba curled up beside me. I took great pains not to move my bare left foot, which he was using as a pillow for his head.
Before opening my laptop, I made this manual notation in my journal: The “super moon” is rising over the city. I just came in from walking Simba. The air smells like lilacs and fresh grass. Families are gathered at the top of the hill leading down to the park to watch the sky. There’s a lot out there to love tonight, and much in here to be grateful for.
As I worked, I listened to the sound of his breathing grow steadily slower and more regular, then he began to snore. I smiled at that welcome, familiar sound.
Looking up, through the windows of my study I saw that the moonlight seemed to have taken on an odd, crimson hue. Pouring down from the night sky, it appeared to subtly alter everything in touched, tinting everything—grass, trees, sidewalks—the colour of blood.
Two nights later, Simba was dead.
As he had every other day of his life, he had woken us that morning with the soft thump of his tail against the bedroom door and the delicate whine that was just loud enough to wake us, just loud enough to let us know he was ready to be let outside and fed his breakfast, but also faintly regretful, as if apologizing for waking us too early.
Simba had two long walks that day, one thought the graveyard near the house, the other down the path through the field, over the bridge, and down to the path along the river. The warm, clear spring air was a posy of cherry and crab-apple blossoms, bursting foliage, and the ubiquitous, sun-warmed lilac, so fresh that it seemed almost unborn.
That evening, after feeding him, I left for a longstanding dinner invitation down the street, at the home of a young couple with whom we had grown close.
An hour or two passed, then my mobile rang. It was Brian.
“Was Simba OK when you left him tonight?” Brian sounded worried. “He hasn’t moved from the kitchen floor in two hours, and his belly seems a bit swollen. And he won’t eat anything, not even a treat.”
I assured Brian that Simba was fine when I left him. I mentioned that we’d had two long walks, and it had been warm, so he was most likely worn out from the exercise, and that I’d fed him, so he was probably full.
When Brian mentioned Simba’s distended belly again, I said “It’s probably gas. He may have gotten into some garbage, or eaten something in the park when I wasn’t looking. We’re probably just overly sensitive. You know, because of Harper.”
Brian sounded dubious. “If you say so. But take a look at him when you get home and see what you think.”
I pushed back the prickle of alarm at that, annoyed with myself for feeling it at all. Simba had been more than his normal self all day, and he’d been resting quietly when I’d left the house that night. Fate didn’t work that way—nature didn’t either. I’d lost Harper and one of my best friends within the span of five months. That was grief enough for a decade. The law of averages alone was on my side. Simba was fine. Simba was tired. Simba had eaten something foul, in typical Lab fashion. Terrible farts would follow, or diarrhea. Simba was fine. Simba was fine.
I spent another half-hour with our friends, and then excused myself.
“Simba’s feeling a little under the weather apparently,” I said, keeping my voice light. “He’s probably gotten into some garbage.” I smiled, but it felt somehow forced. “Labs, you know, they eat everything.”
When I arrived home Simba had apparently still not moved. I knelt down beside him and stroked his head. He swished his tail lethargically on the floor. I looked into his eyes. To me, they seemed unfocussed and a bit duller than usual. I stood up and crossed the kitchen floor.
“Come, Simba,” I called softly. “Come here, sweetheart. Come, babe.”
He tried and failed to raise his head off the floor. Instead, he lay back weakly, exhausted, and began to pant. “Brian,” I said, trying for a controlled calm I didn’t feel. “We need to get him to a vet. Right now. You were right, something’s terribly wrong here. He’s not fine.”
In the car, I sat in the back seat with Simba, his head on my lap. In the darkness, I suddenly felt his tongue on my hand. He licked me tentatively at first, and then with a new urgency was somehow terrifying in a dog that had been trained never to lick.
As calmly as I could, I said, “We need to hurry. Drive fast as you can.”
Emergency veterinary clinics in the pre-dawn hours are not designed not to soothe the terrified and the desolate, be they human nor animal. They’re designed for ruthless sterility, not comfort. The overhead fluorescent lights are designed to burn all night.
These places smell of iodine, of alcohol of disinfectant.
They smell of animal pain, if pain can be distilled to attar, and they smell of residual human grief. Dogs sense this, and instinctively hate these places. Their owners, huddled on vinyl chairs and couches in the waiting rooms, sense it too and feel the same.
No one comes here unless they have to, unless they’re facing some unthinkable severing, and all the posters of smiling golden retrievers and wondering kittens tacked to the walls can’t disguise this dreadful truth.
So they—we—hold our dogs and cats, gently or tightly, looking neither left nor right, avoiding any eye contact with everyone else, as though death itself might be a catching disease, like kennel cough, or ticks, or canine parvovirus.
In the examining room, the veterinarian attending Simba told us that he was hemorrhaging internally. His distended belly was literally full of blood. She suspected hemangiosarcoma, an insidious, lethal, rapid-growth cancer that occurs almost exclusively in dogs, particularly in retriever breeds. When one of the tumors ruptures, it often results in the dog bleeding to death.
I told her that Simba had been perfectly fine three hours earlier.
She said, “It’s entirely possible for this to occur, without warning, in a matter of hours from apparent health. It’s that aggressive.”
“But you see,” I said. “We just lost our older dog, Harper, in January, and my friend Mark was killed last week. This can’t be happening. It’s too soon. Couldn’t it be something else?”
“It could,” the vet replied. “But I’m afraid this is very, very serious. Simba could die from this. You might need to prepare yourselves.”
The overhead light was very, very bright, and I felt slightly nauseous. In the distance, I heard a frightened dog whimpering. The pitch was higher than Simba’s and I knew it wasn’t him. I recall deriving momentary, ridiculous comfort from that notion.
“Prepare ourselves for what? You can fix it, can’t you? I mean, can't you just stop the bleeding and excise the tumor? He could be fine, right? I mean, it can’t be that serious. He’s only eight years old. He’s young. He’s very strong, you know.”
The vet sighed. “That’s possible, yes, if it’s only one tumor. But in these cases, it’s rarely just one. Even if we excised the one that’s causing the blood loss right now, you could be facing this same situation any time afterwards.” She paused. “What you’re definitely looking at is more surgery for Simba, with a difficult recovery each time. You’re looking possibly debilitating chemotherapy, or radiation. And even then, his prognosis is not great.” She let that sink in. “Right now, we’re going to go and prep Simba for surgery to stop that bleeding. You two should talk about how you want to proceed in the event that we find…well, in case it’s worse than we hope.”
After she left, I remember looking down at my watch. It was one o’clock in the morning.
Three hours ago, I had been drinking Beaujolais with our friends down the street, telling them about Mark’s funeral, about how much I missed him, and what a comfort Simba had been when he greeted me on my return from Chicago. Six hours ago, Simba and I had been walking along the river, feeing the cool drift of the spring evening, smelling the peaty-rich perfume of damp wakefulness rising from the riverbanks.
This cannot be happening. Life doesn’t work this way. Not this cruelty, too.
The discussion Brian and I had was mercilessly brief: we decided that if there were more than one tumor, Simba wouldn’t wake up from his sleep. In a way, the decision forged in the circumstances. Once again, we’d found ourselves with the terrible power of life and death, even in the service of the prevention of suffering. The prospect of Simba having to endure the pain and indignity of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or further invasive surgery was inconceivable to either of us.
For my part, I made myself believe that there would only be one tumor. I visualized it. I pictured it being excised. I pictured the wound cauterized, the blood no longer flowing, instead being absorbed back into his powerful body.
Simba was waiting for us in the pre-op waiting area. Some technician we hadn’t seen—someone we didn’t know, someone who didn’t know us, or Simba— had had leashed him to a pole. He pulled against the pole, straining to reach us. He’d been given a slow-acting sedative in preparation for his surgery, but is hadn’t kicked in yet. We sat huddled together for a time, the three of us, Brian and I stroking his fur.
I said his name over and over again and told him I loved him until tears came, and I could no longer say his name, or anything else.
With those tears came the one mistake for which I will likely never be able to forgive myself. Simba, always preternaturally sensitive to the emotional weather around him, especially mine, had picked up on my anguish, no matter how hard I tried to hide it. In spite of the sedative, he was becoming agitated and distressed.
In that terrible moment, it made dreadful sense to me to remove myself, to leave Simba there with Brian, who’d somehow found the strength to put his own dread somewhere Simba couldn’t find it. Removing myself seemed like an act of kindness in that instant, not the monstrous, cowardly betrayal it would feel like later, and forever afterwards.
I buried my face in his neck and whispered, “I’ll see you soon, baby. It’ll be all right. Stay here with Brian. I love you. Go to sleep. I’m just going for a walk. I’ll be back.”
Then I walked out, leaving him in Brian’s arms, forcing myself not to look back, and thinking: One tumor. It’s only one tumor. Just the one. I’ve lost Harper. I’ve lost Mark. I can’t lose Simba too. It’s not possible. Just one tumor. They'll stop the bleeding, and he’ll be home in the morning
When it was over, after they’d surgically opened Simba’s body and found that his spleen was riddled with multiple hemangiosarcoma tumors—tumors that would have killed him within six months—they injected him with the pentobarbitone that shut down his brain function and stopped the beating of that magnificent, brave, loving heart while he was still deep in the sleep of surgical anesthesia.
The lead veterinary surgeon came out and told Brian that Simba was gone. They told him that nothing could have been done, and even temporarily prolonging his life would have brought him great suffering.
Brian asked to see his body one more time, to say goodbye. He clipped a lock of Simba’s black fur and tucked it into an envelope. He told me that Simba had looked peaceful, like he was sleeping.
At home later, because I asked him to relay it all, Brian told me that Simba had followed my departure from the pre-op area with uncomprehending eyes. He’d strained against the leash towards the doorway through which I’d passed like an accidental Judas.
Then the sedative had kicked in, and he’d begun to drift.
I don’t remember much of 2012, particularly anything after May of that year. It was all finally too much—both of my dogs, and a friend I loved like a brother, all within five months.
Memories of that year appear in flashes—the hard winter, the increasing green of the park as summer asserted itself, the sound of children playing in the schoolyard across the street from the house, the low red moon that night, and, mostly, the shockingly normal way the world unrolled afterwards, as though the passing of these three beautiful souls—two dogs and a perfect friend—hadn’t even left a ripple in its wake.
On the morning after Simba died, I went to the dog park. I don’t know what I was looking for that morning—ghosts, perhaps. My eyes were red and sore, and the sunlight was very bright, almost searing. I stood at the top of the hill and looked down at the field where Harper and Simba had played, where they’d grown into adult dogs, where they were known, where people might remember them. If their souls were anywhere this morning, they’d be here, running with that early morning pack of dogs at the bottom of the hill.
An older woman I didn’t recognize was hiking up the hill with her dog. He was carrying a stick in his mouth, grinning foolishly. He’d obviously had a good romp. His fur was flecked with grass. The woman likely wanted to get him indoors before the sun rose much higher in the sky, making an already warm day unseasonably hot.
She waved at me. By instinct, I waved back. Dog people are like that—we don’t know each other’s names much of the time, but we know each other’s dogs’ names.
Except in this case. I didn’t know this woman at all.
“Whew,” she said gaily. “It’s going to be a hot one!” The woman looked around. “Where’s your Lab? You have a Lab, right? I’ve seen you guys here before.”
I stared at her, still not recognizing her. “He died,” I said. “He died last night. He’s gone. Simba’s gone.” I began to shake. My vision blurred, and the entirety of the previous twenty-four hours crashed over me in a wave of pure loss, and annihilating guilt.
Without a word, this stranger walked up to me and embraced me. “I’m so sorry,” she said, holding me as I wept. “I’m so, so sorry. I know. I know. Dog people know.”
And though I can think of little more alien to my WASP constitution than allowing myself to be embraced by a strange woman in public, let alone a dog park, I surrendered to it in even welcomed it. Because, dog people know.
Brian and I realized that if we were ever going to have another dog again, it would take planning, and have to be now. As incongruous as the thought of loving another dog might have been at that moment, the practical calculation of time—the lifespan of the average Labrador, our respective ages, the time we expected to remain in our house before contemplating some version of retirement, or downsizing in favor of being able to travel without encumbrances—we knew that if we wanted to welcome another dog into our lives and our hearts, we would have to do it that very summer.
Brian’s grief, though quieter, was perhaps even more annihilating than mine. If possible, he’d loved Simba even more than I had. Whatever else might come of this, I sensed that if there was to be any healing of his wound, it would most likely only come from being able to love another dog again—perhaps not as much as he’d loved Simba, but still, at least, to love again.
It had been twelve years since I had spoken to June Onda. Harper had never been sick a day in his life, except the last day. He’d never suffered from any of the ailments that plague Labs. I wanted that health in another dog, at least as a chance. If we were going to do this again, I wanted the odds as much in our favor as possible.
I looked her up online, but the available information suggested that she had retired. Further research yielded the sad news of her passing. Pressing further, I learned that her legacy dogs had fallen under the care of her best friend, a woman named Laurie Warvill who ran a Labrador kennel in the town of Beaverton, Ontario called Asklar Labradors.
I spoke with Mrs. Warvill on the telephone. I told her about the loss of Harper and Simba, and that I felt a connection with her through June Onda, through Harper. She was very kind, very gentle. She understood. She and invited Brian and I to come to Beaverton to meet her family and her Labs, with no pressure to do anything but visit.
“We don’t need to make any decisions,” Brian and I told each other, in several versions, several times on the hour-long drive out to Beaverton that afternoon. “We’re just going to look, all right?”
Outside the passenger-side window, the trees rushed past the window like a torrent of green. Remembering another trip like this, twelve years earlier, I felt old and useless, and empty. I had no more love to give. I’d been bled dry of it.
At Asklar, Mrs. Warvill and her husband greeted us warmly. An elderly dog lay his muddy head on my lap and gazed generously up at me in welcome as we sat and talked about dogs, and love and loss.
“Bring out Henry,” Mrs. Warvill requested of her daughter after about twenty minute. To us, she said, “I want you to meet Henry. He’s a year and a half old. I think you’ll get along very well.”
From the house came a galloping black streak—slim, with an enormous, glorious head full of very white teeth, and a very pink tongue. He came over and sat down next to us like a polite, precocious child on his best behavior in front of his parents’ friends.
Henry was frankly adorable in all of his gangly puppyishness. He was the same age Simba had been when he’d come to live with us, but the similarity ended there. They couldn’t have been more different. Where Simba was all chest and haunches, and power, Henry was like rich black molasses poured from a height.
Mrs. Warvill suggested that Henry and I spend a bit of time together. She attached a rudimentary leash and collar to him, and, at her invitation, I led him out across the field, behind the barn. We sat down on the grass together, Henry and I and stared at each other.
I said, “You don’t look much like a Henry to me, sir.”
Henry cocked his head to one side and swished his tail in the dirt.
I thought for a moment. “You look like a…Beckett.” The name had come to me suddenly, as unbidden has Harper’s had twelve years earlier. “Beckett,” I said again, trying the shape of it on my tongue, with an emphasis on the hard “ck” and “tt” sounds.
With each consonant, his tail wagged harder.
“What if you came to live with us, and we changed your name from ‘Henry’ to ‘Beckett?’ You know, as in Samuel. You’re dark and existential, sort of. Would that be OK?”
“You know,” I admitted to Henry in a conversational tone, “my heart is broken. Completely and utterly smashed to smithereens. Brian’s is, too. I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t even know if I can love you, but I already like you a great deal, and you’d be very welcome in our house. Most of all, Brian needs you. He needs you more than he probably knows. Probably more than I do, even. Maybe we could make it work? What do you think?”
Swish, swish, swish.
He lay down and laid his head in my lap and regarded me with a look of infinite optimism, and no small measure of genial good humour.
Sure, the look said. Call me Beckett. That’s fine. I like the name, and I’m not all that attached to “Henry.” Let’s get this thing started. I’m sure we can work something out. You have a broken heart that needs some healing. As for me, I could really use a family. I’m small and I don’t take up a lot of space. And I’m a good dog. I think you can see that already, am I right?
“Yes,” I replied. “I can see that. Whatever, or whoever else, you are, you’re a very good dog.”
Swish, swish, swish, swish, swish, swish.
When I brought Henry back around the barn, Brian and I excused ourselves and told Mrs. Warvill that we wanted to take a drive into Beaverton and talk amongst ourselves. But it was all pro forma by then and all of us knew it, including the newly-christened Beckett. When we returned from town an hour later, we told her that we’d love to bring him home to live with us, and she told us she was very happy.
Mrs. Warvill pulled out a sheaf of papers and told us she had something to show us. “I really think this was really meant to be,” she said, pointing to the canine genealogical chart that showed Beckett to be a direct descendant of Harper’s mother, Clover. Some strand of the DNA-borne miracle that had lived in Harper lived on in Beckett. The thought filled me with wonder, and was even a comfort.
But he wasn’t Harper. Harper was gone, and dog would ever be Harper again, nor Simba, no matter how magnificent that dog might ever be.
Beckett was a young dog who had spent his young life on a farm with a single-level ranch house. Stairs baffled and frightened him. It took a week of coaxing and cajoling to teach him to walk upstairs, then another half-week till he was comfortable with them at all. In either case, he galloped up or down like a child who’s been given some onerous task they know won’t go away till it’s finished.
The first morning of his life with us, I had a lunch meeting downtown with my agent. I put him in the crate we’d borrowed from a neighbour, but Beckett let out such fearful howls of terror at the prospect of being left alone, locked up, that I relented and called a friend’s teenage daughter to babysit him while I was away. I was simply beyond enduring the sound of any more pain, any more distress, or anything else that sounded like loss or fear of separation.
When I returned, he was curled up at the foot of the sofa, fast asleep, looking young and vulnerable, and so peaceful, that I took a picture of him lying there. We never used a “crate” again, and he rewarded us by only ever tearing up one book in a fit of anxiety, or pique—not one of my books, thank God.
Other than what we knew of him from our own brief acquaintance, we had no sense of who he was, or what he was like. Another neighbour recommended a dog trainer who made house calls, and who was reputedly something of a miracle worker/dog whisperer. We bought a package of five sessions with her with the intention of finding out what Beckett could learn, and what kind of dog he was.
We gave up after three sessions—he was literally perfect.
She pronounced him a “soft Lab,” meaning his nature was gentle and loving, tending towards the submissive. He gamely learned the basic commands—come, sit, stay, heel—in less than a week, and he preferred the connection of a leash than walking without one. He never strayed far when he was off-leash, and came when called. He loved chasing sticks and balls, but was roguishly reluctant to give them up. He was gentle with children, didn’t care about cats, and—unlike both of his predecessors—barely acknowledged the existence of squirrels. Like Harper, he seemed to adore, and was fascinated by, smaller dogs.
“Beckett doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” the trainer said. “He’s a very, very special Lab. You really lucked out with him. He’s a very rare dog.”
One evening when he’d been living with us for six weeks or so, we went to the hill brow above the park. It was a perfect late-summer pre-twilight: the light on the grass was of the gilded variety unique to that particular time of year. The air was warm, but cooling, with the barest hint of autumn carried on the breeze like an afterthought.
I sat down cross-legged on the grass. Beckett lay down beside me, and we both watched the dogs and their owners gamboling in the distance with tennis balls and sticks. Further afield, a rugby team practiced passing drills. As I caressed Beckett’s head, my thoughts wandered back to Harper and Simba, as they did several times a day in those weeks following Simba’s death. They played down there too, I thought. Harper and Simba used to be part of that pack. The three of us used to own that park—it was part of our world.
Suddenly I felt Beckett’s soft pink tongue on my hand, smooth as the inside of a rose petal. I looked down. He was still stretched out beside me, but he wasn’t looking at me. Instead, he was focused on licking my hand. He licked and licked, with increasing urgency now, almost as though he could read my thoughts, almost as though he were trying to say, in his turn, Please don’t be sad. I’m here. I will always protect you and keep you from harm and pain, whatever the cost. You’ll never be alone, and I will love you forever. And by the way, please forgive yourself.
As I write this, Beckett is three weeks away from his fourth
birthday, October 30th. We call him the Halloweiner.
In the two years he’s been with us, he’s grown and thickened in body, but there remains a delicacy and gentleness to him that is uniquely his. Approaching four years old, his fur is still as soft and lush as that of an expensive plush toy. When I hold him, he feels almost bonelessly supple in my arms. His ears are his most striking feature: large and thick, like the most luxurious black velvet curtains in Christendom.
He sleeps in Simba’s dog nest—I couldn’t bear to throw it away after Simba died, and Beckett went to it instinctively that first night. He eats and drinks out of Harper’s bowls. When I’m at my desk, working, he dozes in the same spot underneath the second desk where his predecessors dozed. When he wants to go for a walk, he fetches his own leash and drops it at our feet. Unlike either Harper or Simba, Beckett delights in squeaky toys, and the silence of the house is regularly shattered by a cacophony of squeals as he gallops triumphantly around the house with his shark, or his pumpkin, in his mouth.
A year ago he earned his “Lab card” the afternoon my writer’s group was at the house in order to workshop some fiction. We were in the living room when I heard a dish crash to the ground. There was Beckett with a wheel of cheese in his mouth—the entire wheel—grinning like he’d won the lottery.
I think I see genetic traces of Harper in Beckett sometimes—when he’s excited, his tail moves in a circular propeller-like motion just like Harper did, especially when he was a puppy. There is a solemnity to Beckett’s gaze, and an unnatural kindness, gentleness, intelligence, and sensitivity, to his nature that likewise reminds me of Harper. But it likely just Beckett being the dog Beckett was born to be.
Mostly, though, I love him as though he were the only dog in the world.
We walk in the evenings, long walks across the bridge and to the park on the other side. Because of Beckett horror of stairs, I have never been able to coax him down the steel ones leading to the path along the river. Sometimes I regret this. Other times, it just feels like a new story being written in days and months, in weather and seasons, in months and years.
This past Labor Day weekend up at the lake, he played with my godchildren nonstop. He took his first boat ride. He was deeply suspicious of the boat initially, but enjoyed it immensely when he realized we’d still be there to hold him when the boat soared into full flight across the water. Beckett swims cautiously, with small, delicate dog-paddle strokes, like a mid-century country club dowager reluctant to get her hair wet.
My goddaughter Kate, in particular has forged a bond with Beckett. It warms my heart to see her gentleness towards him, to see his responsive gentleness towards her. On the last day up at the lake, I snapped a picture of Beckett and Kate lying side-by-side on the dock. Beckett is holding a stick in paws that look miraculously like small black hands. Kate is glancing sideways at him with a face of pure adoration.
For his part, my godson Michael, who is now ten, brings a kinetic, masculine energy to his interactions with Beckett. Ten-year old boys and Labradors are natural partners in crime. Beckett seeks Michael out for ball throwing, for chasing, for hugs, and is rewarded abundantly.
The night before we returned to the city on Labor Day weekend, I woke at two in the morning and found I couldn’t fall back to sleep. All around me, the cottage was full of the sounds of sleeping people, of sleeping dogs.
Outside, through the windows, the lake glowed in faint argentite streaks, separate from earth and trees only where touched by starlight, where the pewter was lifted from the black in a bas-relief post-midnight diorama of light and dark.
I rose from my bed in the dark, careful not to wake anyone, and tiptoed to front door. Standing on the porch, I gazed out at the dark mass of lake and sky.
Harper and Simba had grown up here, played here. They’d fetched sticks in that lake. They’d dozed in the sun on that dock. They’d been loved here. They were remembered here. I felt the weight of all those fourteen years suddenly, so heavy on my heart that I was momentarily breathless with the crushing ache of it, with how much I missed them. Alone, with the night wind from the lake on my face, I wondered where those years had gone, how the dogs could have simply vanished from life, taking those twelve years with them.
This evening, as I walked Beckett through the October twilight, I think I may have found the answer to that question.
Pausing on the bridge, I looked down at the path along the river. My path. Our path. It was empty tonight, filling up with the first drift of autumn leaves and the encroachment of evening shadows. The river was fulsome after a recent rain. In the distance a flock of mallard ducks took flight into the low evening mist.
It came to me suddenly that I had been looking for ghosts.
Ever since their deaths in the span of one, cruel, half-year, I’d yearned to see Harper and Simba on that path, and everywhere else. I wanted to see myself, too—younger, stronger, and full of the joy of their company. I wanted to feel the time before.
But tonight, the path was empty except for the falling leaves.
In that revelatory moment, I saw my life as a glorious painted Chinese fan with illuminated panels made of years.
Open, the panels of that fan are illustrated with memory rendered in seasonal colours: variegated hues of rich yellow and black, the colour of snow and falling leaves, spring flowers, spruce, the hard blue of lake water in summer, the roseate glow of firelight on snow-soaked soft fur in winter, the red of a nylon collar, the faded blue of leather collar studded with silver stars, the crocheted segments of an old afghan covered in dry white hair.
Closed, the fan folds time and memory in on itself, securing them forever.
The ghosts of Harper and Simba weren’t out there, because they’re inside. I’ll carry them safely within me till the day I die, and their memory will haunt me benevolently, keeping me warm. Their memory is as much a part of the tapestry of my life as the books I’ve written and will write, the lines on my face, my expanding waistline, my receding hairline, the colour of my eyes, my ancestry, my family of the heart, my ability to love, and my ability to forgive—even to forgive myself.
If angels are indeed the mediators between God and men, then surely dogs are the mediators between men and angels. It's dogs who seem to effortlessly embody the virtues their human masters hold out as paramount—loyalty, kindness, guilelessness, protectiveness, selflessness—angelic virtues that we, their human overlords, rarely attain without overriding our own craven nature. They’re entirely at our mercy, entirely dependent. They place their well being, indeed their lives, in our safekeeping.
And when it’s time, they trust us to take their pain away permanently—a terrible power to have, even when used for mercy. They bring the love with them when they come, and they leave it when go. While that love is indeed a renewable resource, it comes with a Faustian caveat: however much you love, however hard you love them, that’s how much it’s doing to hurt. The lesson they teach us is that love is worth it.
The sheer joy is worth it.
Here as elsewhere in life, love is not for cowards. It’s not for the weak, or the faint-hearted. Love comes at a terrible price, but those of us who’ve ever loved a dog—those of us who literally cannot imagine a world without dogs in it—it’s just the cost of being blessed.
Beckett paused on the bridge and looked back at me. In his mouth was an enormous orange plastic ball. He looked so ridiculously comical in that moment that I laughed out loud. He cocked his head and looked quizzically at me as if to ask me what on earth I was looking at, what on earth I was looking for, why I’d stopped his walk.
Receiving no reply, he padded over to where I was standing. Gamely, he sat down beside me and simply waited for the joy to begin again.
His tail swished once or twice as if to say, The movement of life is forward, you great whacking twit. I’m here. Let’s go! I want to run! This is our time! Let’s have our adventure!
I reached down and stroked his head, feeling ineffable gratitude for my whole ridiculous, messy, love-filled life measured out in Labradors, and everything it entailed.
Then, without looking backward, Beckett bounded ahead across the bridge towards the park.
|The author's godchildren with Beckett|
© 2014 Michael Rowe. All rights reserved.
Michael Rowe was born in Ottawa and has lived in Beirut, Havana, Geneva, and Paris. An award-winning journalist and essayist, his second novel Wild Fell was a finalist for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award. He welcomes readers at www.michaelrowe.com
|Beckett and Michael Rowe. All photographs in this entry were provided by the author.|
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