It’s finally the day that I depart for Montana, and I’ve packed the truck with all the supplies I’ll need to eat, sleep and fish for the next three weeks. Enough stuff, actually, to stay twice as long if I’d like. Although I planned to leave around 8 am, it’s close to noon and I’m pacing the house, pretending I need to find one more thing for the trip. Roxanne knows I should have left hours ago, but she also knows why I haven’t. So when I take the leash from the hook, she smiles and says “just one more time.” Saying nothing in return, I fasten the clasp to Sunny’s collar and take him for our third—and final—walk of the morning.
I hate to say goodbye. Whether to a person, an animal, a place, a thing, or simply an idea, I just don’t like to do it. I’ve been this way since I was a kid, when each Sunday brought its dreadful farewell to the weekend. My issue with Sundays went deeper than that, though, because it was on that day—while watching an episode of Bonanza—that I first realized everyone and everything I knew would have to die one day. My mom, my dog, my uncles, my aunts, and, yes, even me. I don’t remember what happened on that particular episode, or if it even had anything to do with the show, but I didn’t like to watch Bonanza after that.
When I was in college, a friend and I who lived in a dormitory would show up at some friends’ neighboring apartments sometime on Friday afternoon and stay until Sunday. We did it every weekend, and when the guys who lived in the apartments went to bed we’d just crash on their couches because, I guess, neither of us wanted to say goodbye. Even now, as a supposedly mature adult, I’m often the last to leave a party, and, when the second to last person or group of persons leaves, I close the door behind them and exclaim “Gee, I thought those people would never leave!” The eight guys who lived in the two college apartments never formally invited my friend and me stay the night, they just accepted the fact that we’d imposed some type of squatters’ rights on them. They actually had a pretty good attitude about it, though, and at some point they had a couple tee-shirts printed with “The Things That Wouldn’t Leave” on the front. They printed “Thing 1” on the back of mine and “Thing 2” on the back of my friend’s. I hadn’t thought about this much until last year when I learned that “Thing 2”—a guy we called Fish because he drank like one, and, I suppose, liked to catch them—had died. I learned that on a Sunday.
Earlier this summer I said goodbye to my old fish truck, a 2010 Ford Expedition with enough miles to make me and—more importantly—Roxanne nervous about my trip to Montana. My replacement plan was simple: I’d find a similar model with ten to twenty thousand miles on its odometer, buy it, then sell the truck I called “The Great White Whale” to a private buyer. Saying goodbye would be tough, but I’d get to approve of the new owner which provided some assurance that The Whale would go to a good home. Somehow, though, I stopped at the local Chevrolet dealer and, after some transactional details I’m still unsure about, I signed the adoption papers for a brand new Suburban and gave the guy behind the counter the keys to The Whale. Just like that, I’d replaced The Whale with a shiny new green truck that my friend Cam immediately christened “The Green New Deal.”
Sunny, the yellow dog on the end of my leash, is the third dog that Roxanne and I have had in our family. Our first was a cocker spaniel named Linus that she suggested we get for my birthday the year after we married. Linus was a great dog around anyone who knew him, or, more importantly, anyone whom he knew. But as happens with many breeds, the cocker spaniel’s popularity incentivized a rash of selfish breeding practices, and Linus inherited an irrational fear of things like paper bags, trash cans, open ovens, open refrigerators, and—most tragically—unfamiliar people, especially small ones. For a while we controlled his encounters with people in general, and small people in particular, by using leashes, fences, and crates. But we needed a more reliable plan after Roxanne gave birth to Daniel. The dog took to Daniel pretty well, but small people have a way of attracting other small people, so we hired a dog psychologist to help us work with Linus. We made progress at first—good progress, actually—until one day someone left the gate to our yard unlatched and the neighbor kid found Linus roaming the streets. Everything was fine when the boy brought Linus to the front door, but when the kid turned and walked away from our house, something in Linus snapped and Roxanne watched in horror as our dog charged into the street and sunk his teeth into the boy’s arm.
After we said goodbye to Linus, the dog psychologist told us the best medicine would be a new dog, and, because she believed we deserved a good dog, she recommended a place that trained leader dogs for the blind. All of the dogs in that program had great temperaments, she said, but, because their standards are so high, some fail and are offered up for adoption. The guy on the phone laughed when I told him we were moving to the Upper Peninsula the next week and I wanted to adopt a dog to take with us. The waiting lists were two to three years, he said, but he took my number and said he’d get back if something miraculously came up. Two days later he called and told me about a dog that hadn’t been trained because of heart worm and cataracts. If we would take on the expense of completing the heart worm treatments, and if we would refrain from making any “blind leading the blind” jokes, the dog was ours. Sampson, a yellow lab the same age as Daniel, moved with us to Houghton.
Sampson’s cataract-clouded eyes watched over the growth of our children for twelve more years, and, after he died, the heartbroken kids insisted we replace him with another yellow lab. Roxanne preferred a smaller dog, but we’d furnished all the rooms in our home with carpet and couches in either a dark or light shade of a color we called “yellow lab,” so another yellow dog made sense. And so it was that an undersized yellow Labrador retriever named Sunny joined our family in the summer of 2005.
Although the kids picked the name Sunny before they had a chance to see the dog, their choice was perfect. From the first day in our home, he found immediate comfort in the glow of even the smallest patch of sunshine. As a small puppy, he circulated about the house like a hairy high-energy sun dial. Mornings by the east-facing windows, evenings by the west-facing ones. With age, he perfected the art of sunbathing and quickly learned the difference between the leading and trailing edge of a sunbeam. He used that knowledge to maximize the duration he’d be under the beam, and to minimize the number of moves he’d need to make from window to window.
The “puppy crazies”—those moments in life when something deep inside compels us to run like hell in circles for the sole purpose of running like hell in circles—were encoded permanently into his DNA.
I mean none of this to portray Sunny as a lazy dog, though. The “puppy crazies”—those moments in life when something deep inside compels us to run like hell in circles for the sole purpose of running like hell in circles—were encoded permanently into his DNA. Both of ours, actually. Sure, time has slowed us, but we’ll still drop just about anything for twenty or thirty laps around the coffee table. Or at least we’ll try.
But now, with over fourteen years behind him, time has won. Arthritic hips don’t navigate the stairs and trails the way they used to; and aged ears don’t respond to commands and calls, not even in the selective way they used to, partly because he has lost most of his hearing, and partly—as Jimmy Buffett once put it—because “he don’t care what most people say.” His body is misshaped by numerous tumors, mostly those benign fatty ones that plague so many dogs. But the cancer tumor on his back is bigger than his heart, and that—being the heart of a Labrador retriever—is enormous.
Still, we walk the trail we’ve walked an uncountable number of times. He stops to smell every flower his failing eyes see, and he marks his favorite trees to warn the other dogs—especially the younger ones—that they are still guests in his woods. A squirrel crosses the trail in front of us, but Sunny doesn’t chase. Instead, he cocks his head to the side, just the way he does when someone says “please” and he thinks they’ve said “cheese.” Then, after a few seconds, he gives the squirrel a deep “in my younger days” bark and limps his way on with our walk.
Toward the end of Sampson’s life, I carried him up the stairs to bed each night and back down each morning. Everyone except me saw his pain, but I believed my care was best for him. It wasn’t. We prolonged his life because we—well, I actually—didn’t want to say goodbye. So the day we brought Sunny the puppy home with us, Roxanne told me that she couldn’t—and wouldn’t—let that happen to him. When it was time, she said, we would do what was best for him, not what we—meaning I—thought was best for us. I told her I understood, but understanding something like that is easy when your puppy is young and full of piss and vinegar. Fourteen years later, after time has stolen most of the piss and all of the vinegar, it is not.
Back home, I take off his leash and return it to the hook. Sunny pushes his head between my legs, which is his way of asking me to scratch his ears and rub his back. Roxanne says it is time for me to go, so I hug her, kiss her, tell her I love her, and promise to be careful. Then, with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, I tell her that if the time comes while I’m gone, I know she’ll do what is best for Sunny. Then I say the same thing to Sunny.
I start the truck, back out of the garage and look at the vertical sidelight window beside our door. There, in the first pane at the bottom, I see the nose, the gray muzzle, and the dark eyes of a faithful friend who—for fourteen years—has watched me drive down this road, always to return for another walk in the woods or mad dash around the coffee table. As I turn from our driveway onto the road, the GPS shows 1,197 miles to my destination. I lose my final battle with the tears when I think of something I’ve said to Roxanne so many times before: “The only thing more sad than seeing that face in the window . . . is not seeing that face in the window.”