Every fall, for the last few years of her life, my father took the dog of my childhood on a solemn walk.
Together they'd trudge westward on Route 20 to the veterinary clinic a half mile from home.
Ordinarily he would have driven the short distance, wrestled our fluffy, St. Bernard mix from under the front passenger seat and carried her into the office. He is a slight man but wiry and could handle the sixty-five pounds of canine resistance.
These trips, however, weren't ordinary. On these occasions, my dad would set his jaw and hold his breath, bracing for the possibility that he might return alone. He didn't want to struggle with this faithful friend on the day she wouldn't be coming home.
When the day finally arrived – when the vet listened to her chest and nodded slowly that it was time – the news took him by surprise.
She'd always come home.
This thankless, depressing job had been left to him. It never even occurred to us, or him that it should have been a shared task.
“It was awful,” he told me later. He'd stroked her fur as she lay on the cold, stainless table. He described how they swabbed her forearm and administered the final medication. She never made a sound, he said, she just closed her eyes and went to sleep.
He walked the half mile home with just her collar and leash.
And then there was silence.
His limbs still braced for the onslaught of escaping dog as he slowly opened the garage door. But no flash of fur or scramble came from beneath it. Thirteen years of muscle memory would now begin to atrophy.
A few days later a small cream-colored envelope arrived in the mail with the vet clinic's embossed lettering on the return address.
No one ever opened that card.
He just held it and cried.
I had never seen my father cry before that day.
Truth be told, I thought his tears were really for his own mother, my grandmother, who had died at least a decade earlier.
He had mourned her, of course, but in a stoic, tearless way.
A perfectly understandable transference in my mind, I try and reason. This love we have for animals seems perfectly uncomplicated, unlike the love we have for people.
It pains me to think when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer last spring, the demise of our old dog was the first thought that jumped into my mind.
It's horrible to think of my father this way. That, when he dies -- as we all must do – the hardest moment will bear my witness. And then the silence afterward …
I will look for him in the grocery store. I will see him in every man with a puff of curly white hair. I will miss his perfectly imperfect grin and his “fancy meeting you here.”
I know it's not the same, but I can't help but feel my love for him is perfectly uncomplicated.
We didn't fight. I never feel judged. He was just a supportive, loving presence. A person who was capable and fallible, but honest and loyal, too.
He never seems disappointed in me even when I felt I was nothing but disappointing.
But he is always there.
Silently, stalwartly, doggedly there.
My dad is.
Any thought to the contrary is too unbearable to think.