I suppose there is a time in every young boy’s life when he is affected with that wonderful disease of puppy love. I don’t mean the kind a boy has for the pretty little girl that lives down the road. I mean the real kind, the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail, and sharp little teeth that can gnaw on a boy’s finger; the kind a boy can romp and play with, even eat and sleep with.
He seemed to understand he had found a friend. He came willingly.
I drove with your mom into the foothills of the North Carolina Mountains to find you waiting. We’d been waiting on each other for much longer. We had so much to look forward to. When the idea of a dog first began to take shape, I knew even then it would be you so that when I looked into your eyes for the next twelve years we were both certain.
You came home to our little single bedroom apartment as if it had always been that way. The stairs up to the second floor seemed intimidating only because you were so small. So I carried you in. Amy taught you to walk up them the next day and there would never be anything to keep you from my side. We ran through surrounding neighborhoods and took long walks around the lake at Lotta Plantation. We found a little swimming hole where you learned to retrieve by hurling yourself off a rock into a clear, deep pool in the finger of the lake. The first time the stick was thrown you jumped. You never balked. I threw the stick and you retrieved it. A simple act filled with so much trust and love. We would walk every last trail before we left. When we left, there was no hesitancy.
We hiked into the Pisgah National Forest and the Linville Gorge Wilderness. We swam in the creeks, napped on Shining Rock, lounged in Windy Gap and climbed Cold Mountain. When it came time to trade the mountains for the beach you came without a second thought. It was one more adventure together and if I was going then so were you. We adventured a lot then. We drove the length of the east coast and I showed you my childhood home in cold Pittsburgh. We drove all over. There are few spots I stop where there s not some story of you.
You were smart and kind as you grew older. We moved into a small three-bedroom house along the Carolina coast. We invented Dog Ball, survived the Mad Fish—a twelve foot, pop rivet, v-hull boat which nearly capsized and would carry us countless times to Masonboro Island Wildlife Refuge. You met Bear and Caleb—two mentors for how to be man’s best friend. We walked the campus university as they showed you how to handle the responsibility to be anywhere without being tethered to someone’s hand. They taught you how to fight and groomed you to one day run as the alpha in the small pack of dogs that would gather when we met for ultimate. We found the north end jetty and began taking long walks along the sandbars scouting surf breaks, chasing the ball and perfecting our tricks. You taught these tricks to your cousins Roscoe, Woody, Louie, and Moses.
When we left the small home along Whiskey Creek, where I saw you hit by a car and by some grace able to jump up and come running, we moved into your last home along the big Cape Fear River. You let me drive Sonny Days and we fished the big water out in the Atlantic and the Intracoastal Waterway and the river. We carried on whole conversations without saying a word. I think you loved the boat rides as much as anything, chest leaning into the wind and ears flapping. I picture you this way often when I go now. Then, in the dark of morning, I swung my feet over the edge of the bed and you would rise right behind me. We sneaked out quietly trying to not wake your mom. I no longer had to ask you to come. I could prep the boat or the boards in the garage in the night and in the morning just tap my leg and away we went, adventuring. We drove through nights and camped on the Outer Banks in spring and fall, riding waves and walking new sand bars and piers. These were some of my favorite days.
Abby was born and when she was able to walk we took her adventuring with us. You two became partners. I think you watched over her for me, staying near her side knowing my love for her was like our own. Then came slip-n-slide, more fetch and hiking and our walks along the beach now had three of us. Then Sadie was born and you made room in our times for her too. We traded some adventuring and did Dad-type-things, hanging in the cool of the garage, fixing toys, throwing the occasional ball. We stayed undefeated in Dog Ball and swam in the ocean after dawn surf sessions, experts now at rising and sneaking out without waking the house.
Our last weeks were tough. You were still full of life at the start. There was so much hope in the long drive to Raleigh for the specialty vet. And there was sadness. Though you hated the vet since the blow dealt back on Whiskey Creek you came anyway and though the drugs made you sick and you hated to take them, you did because I asked you to. There couldn’t be enough fetch-cough be damned. You would have great days, bringing the ball from the garage and charging it down from our throwing spot in the corner of the driveway, lobbed passes over limbs and passes thrown through trees. We did our tricks and played with the Frisbee Abby bought you, and my own. Our last game of fetch was on a cool, blue overcast evening at the beach. You ran down a couple, probably wondering why I didn’t throw it further or test your swimming. Your cough scared me and I wanted more time. That’s the thing. There just wasn’t enough time. Twelve years was not nearly enough.
One last time after my thirty-fifth birthday we walked the sandbars and stopped at the pier and jetty. We rode the boat to Masonboro and strolled the shore. I think it made us both a little sad. A week later and the ball held no interest. Still, we played with Abby and her waterslide, grilled and hung out in the garage. Your last night was blue like our last fetch. You asked out for the bathroom and didn’t come back. I think I knew, so I went to look. I called your name in the moonlight and you finally made it into the edge of my vision in our neighbor’s yard by the corner of their front steps. Long before I used to joke that if I threw the ball one more time or called one more time and it meant your life, you would have done it. Then, I walked through the damp grass and called again. You rose from the neighbor’s yard and followed on wobbling legs to the porch. I heard the collapse of your body force the air out. I scooped you up and carried you inside to our spot by the leather reading chair. I’m not sure if it was when we made the door or if it was on the floor by the chair. I said I loved you and goodbye. I asked to wait and watch for me. That was it. I drove through the blue night with your head in my lap, nuzzled deep in your neck, and handed you to the vet. I see you everywhere. I brace myself every time I enter the door from the garage when returning home. Underneath the sound of the garage door I’m fairly certain I can hear you bark. I keep a tennis ball under the back seat of the truck still. Your water bowl in the garage is still full. I leave it for your cousins when they come to visit. And for me.
My world was that much brighter with you in it, adventures that much closer. Most of the time now I beg for company or try to work up the courage to go alone. I still talk to you at sea and wait for your trot and lick when I come out of the surf. The girls are growing fast and they are my new adventurers, without them I may be lost. I will take them to the adventures they want and the ones we shared.
There are no good words for your loyalty, love, and your gentle and patient soul. You may be all that is best in me. I’m sorry for every lost second spent frivolously. I jealously guard every one spent together. There are a lot of these. I wonder if I will always step out away from the bed. I wonder if I will always wait for that lick behind the ear from the back seat or even just turn around and pause before stepping forward. I hope so. I really pray so. I pray I will see you again. That you’ll be waiting and when you’re sure it’s me you’ll come trotting, then sprinting and I’ll brace myself as you break into a run, that you will lick and nuzzle my hand and I will bend down to put my head in your shoulder and yours in mine, then we will rise and turn to face whatever is next. I hope so. I pray so.
I hope and pray he doesn’t miss me with too much hurt. He knows the great secret and I wouldn’t want him to waste it brooding. He knew my whole life, the parts that mattered most or carried the most responsibility. He knew my wife, my brothers, my friends, my family and my daughters. Some time ago I wondered if I would regret not having a son. I was wrong. I was given a brother, a friend, a paired soul, and a son. I was given you Sonny. You were all that I would ask of a puppy, a dog, a friend, a boy, a man. You are a big piece of my heart. I love you Sonny.