The love of a good dog
My good friend Vince Riley is someone I always enjoy talking to. It helps that we are neighbors. I like hearing of his outdoor pursuits. Plus he is also an international airline pilot flying for Delta and I like hearing of his travels. His job takes him and his passengers across the globe too far off destinations.
Sometimes, like school kids, we will text each other. “Flying over Iran and want you to know I am thinking of you back home,” scrolled across the screen of my cell phone a few weeks back. “Why do I remind you of a terrorist,” I jokingly typed. “No, because it’s 100 degrees down there,” he replied, knowing we were in the middle of this winter’s first snow storm.
So you can imagine my shock when last Sunday morning he texted the words “Just found Kacie dead – could use a friend right now.”
Kacie was Riley’s beloved yellow lab. They say everyone has only one dog of a lifetime and Kacie was his. Even more sentimental was the fact he received her several days after 911. Being a commercial pilot, that fateful day hit him extremely hard, and his new puppy provided much needed distraction from a day we will never forget.
It wasn’t long before both of us stood overlooking a wooded hillside on Riley’s property, places where Kacie could always be found running, exploring and basically living a dog’s dream. Her sudden death devastated him. Just a few days earlier we watched her investigate the scent of critters that had passed through their yard, now we looked for a place to bury her. There is no doubt he hoped to have her much longer, even though she was getting up there in years. But, everyone’s days are numbered and dogs are no different.
I tried as hard as possible to offer some support and do the things a friend is supposed to do in these situations, even though my words felt sickeningly empty. My eyes welled up and a tear began making a toboggan ride down my own cold cheek. This sure wasn’t my plan and Kacie wasn’t even my dog.
In past years I would have been embarrassed by my own tears. I’d felt like a wimp. But time has a way of changing many things including your ideas about manhood. I’ve come to accept my impulse to tear as just another fact of aging. They don’t really care whether timing is convenient.
Every single person who has pushed the odometer on their own hunting legs carries around a boatload of heartbreak, that steady accumulation of loss, whether its children, parents, friends, and yes, even dogs. It seems as if this ship of grief never stops taking on more cargo. Every so often it slips its mooring and drifts where it pleases, reminding you that we are sometimes more cabin boy than captain.
As Riley and I stood side by side in silence both wiping our cheeks, I remembered a statement made by General Norman Schwarzkopf. He said “A man who doesn’t cry scares me.” Seemed strange at the time, coming from one of the hardest men our country will ever know. I like it because there have been times I cry. For example, the long moan of a trumpet while someone plays Taps is sure to leave me wet-cheeked.
On the other hand, if you find yourself crying at something you fully don’t understand, you may not be completely normal either. But know you have some company.
Nothing infiltrates a man’s personal defenses like the untimely death of a good dog. Emphasis on good! All of us, men and women alike, carry the imprint and the craving for unconditional love we received as babies. As a child, you could have puked on your parents at the start of a long airplane trip. So what would they do? They would probably have cleaned you up, gave you more food and drink and let you repeat the performance and still love you as much as ever when you finally landed.
But let’s face it, adult love is different, never totally unconditional, never absolute. Screw up bad enough or long enough and love will pack its tent and find another camp. This is why we need dogs.
You could axe murder everyone in your office or plow into a group of pedestrians while fleeing the police. But when you pull into your driveway your dog will still shiver and whine with uncontrollable love and excitement just to see you. If a loss of that kind of magnitude doesn’t make you shed a tear or two, then I agree with ‘Stormin’ Norman Swartzkoff: You scare me too.