Dear Dad // No. 23

Dear Dad,

I’ll admit right away that I didn’t think you’d call. But you did. You always defy my expectations, and for the most part I am always happy that you do.

I was sitting on the floor of our living room, catching a few minutes break from cooking Thanksgiving dinner as an episode of Modern Family played on the TV, when my phone buzzed. I took it from my pocket and looked at the screen. DAD, it read. I let out a little gasp of joy and proclaimed to the room, “It’s my dad!” before jumping to my feet and heading to another room.

You were so excited that you barely let me speak. You went on and on about how thrilled you were to have a telephone again, how your friends had taught you how to call me using the speed dial setting I’d preprogrammed into the phone, how wonderful it was and what a help I’d been. I finally asked where you were, to which you said without hesitation, “Oh I’m at the bar.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. What else was there? I was immediately saddened that it was Thanksgiving Day and there you were in a bar (and of course I pictured some sad, forlorn character from a movie, sitting under dim lights as wafts of cigarette smoke float through rays of sunlight pouring through dusty windows). But then I became torn. Had you not been at the bar, you wouldn’t have enlisted the help you needed to call me.

And so on that day, Dad, I was thankful for once that you were “at the bar.”

You called me again on Saturday, just to chat. It took four tries before you realized you were actually dialing me and that I was actually there, but then you got the hang of it. You’d called to ask me if we’d ever had a dog.

“Yes, yes!” I practically shrieked. Not only were you calling me, but you remembered something too? Could this holiday actually be this special? And so it was that I spent a half hour or so on Saturday, November 29, 2014, telling you about Hope.

She came to us when I was in the eighth grade and we lived in our second house in San Diego, the one with the sunny kitchen and no living room. I’d begged for a dog for ages, often sneaking away from our booth at art shows to spend my breaks with a potter who traveled with her splendidly large Great Pyrenese, a dog who looked more like a walking oversized cotton ball than anything else. Up until this point we’d always been a cat family—cats and fish. You liked to keep aquariums, which you believed one should do in their most natural state, which really meant that you cleaned it only after the water grew so murky you couldn’t see anything. You’d taped a razor blade to the end of a scrap of wood, and once the tank got to its greenest, murkiest point, you’d scrape the razor blade down the side of the glass, peeling off sheets of slime that disappeared into the water filter. It always felt a little like you were unearthing something new, as if we’d traded our old aquarium for a new one—oh, look! Fish!

But as much as I begged for a dog, we never got one. They were expensive and took more work to care for than our cats. But then one day I came home from school and there she was, a beautiful red head sitting in our kitchen. I remember that it was gorgeous outside that day, and C, J and I took a tennis ball and went out front into the cul-de-sac and threw the ball for her. She never wanted to give it back to us, so each time she returned we had to wrestle it from her mouth, which somehow only made us love her even more. She was a 90-pound Golden Retriever named Hope, and she was just what we needed.

At night we fought over who she would sleep with. C and J shared a room at this point, C on the bottom bunk and J on the top. They’d beg you to make Hope stay in their room, and you’d command her to lie down with C in her bed. Like the good dog that she was, Hope obliged. And after a few minutes, when you’d walked back to the kitchen to sip your wine and entertain Mom with your singing and philosophical musings while she cooked, Hope would hop out of C’s bed and make her way down the hall to my room instead. She’d curl up beside me atop the comforter and shimmy her velvety head onto my pillow. I’d press my forehead into her fur and breathe in the smell of her—soft and warm and comforting, with a tinge of earthiness. Then I’d roll onto my back and watch the moon crest through the night sky as Hope snored softly beside me.

And so it was that Hope became my dog. She was our family dog, of course, but there was something about the two of us. We gave each other our hearts, through and through. There was an understanding between us, a tugging closer of souls who recognize something within each other that they’d been searching for, like I’d imagined falling in love felt like. Hope waited for me at the front door every day, so that when I turned the corner as I walked home from school, I could see her there, behind the screen door. At night I took her for walks around the neighborhood, often after dark, often the tiniest bit scared because I hated the dark and the way it never failed to make me think of my dreams, the dark kitchen and the hole I always fell down.

You even remembered the second dog we adopted, a black-and-white shih tzu named Oreo a family friend gave us one day when I was in high school. Oreo wasn’t house-trained—or anything trained, really—and we hadn’t had to train Hope at all. She’d come to us with that part of dog ownership already completed. But we didn’t really end up training Oreo; Hope did it for us. And Oreo became Mom’s dog, the one who she snuggled with at night on her side of the bed. I used to whisper all my secrets to Hope, knowing she would never tell, and I wondered sometimes if Mom did the same to Oreo. Mom and I both found what we needed in those two dogs. Love and devotion and companionship, no matter what happened. These dogs didn’t know about Disneyland or wine or gin and tonics and beer. They only knew the soft bends of our pillows and the way we held them when we needed to feel the warmth of something we loved near our hearts.

You and I only talked about the good things about Hope and Oreo, Dad. You mentioned at the end of the conversation, briefly, that they’d died, and then you moved on. It had never been that easy for me though. Hope’s death was one of the hardest moments of my life. The way the cancer came, fast and sudden, eating clean through her wrist bone on her front right paw, so that when the vet flipped on the light to show me the X-ray I burst into horrible sobs right there in the office. There was nothing there, Dad. Just an absence where there should have been bone connecting her leg to her paw. On the day that it ended, I couldn’t get Hope to walk through the door into the vet’s office. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that she knew what she was there for. The fact that she refused to walk through the door made my heart shatter. She wasn’t ready, but her body was. I was sobbing already and couldn’t get her to move, and so you came back out and helped me carry her in. There were some people there, paying for something at the register, and their eyes filled with pity when they saw her, which only broke my heart even further. I didn’t want people to see my glorious dog this way. I wanted them to see how beautiful she once was, red hair rippling as she ran, the soft velvet of her ears and her smile when she’d found a long-lost tennis ball.

When the vet came into the room, she asked if I was ready. “No, yes, no,” I said. One is never ready for things like that. One knows it’s the right thing to do, that your beloved pet is in constant, excruciating pain that she tries to hide from you, but one cannot make this decision with any ease. I’d prayed for two weeks that she would fade away, comfortable and calm, in her sleep. But that didn’t happen, and here we were, making a decision we didn’t want to make.

When she fell to sleep, just as the vet said she would, I burst into renewed tears and reached to touch her, but stopped. Her body was there, but it was lifeless, and there was something intensely missing about it.

“Where did she go?” I asked aloud without thinking.

“Oh, Ash,” Mom sobbed, wrapping her arms around me.

I cried for a long time, there in front of her. You left the room. I don’t think you could see me like that. My then-boyfriend (now husband), B, buried Hope at his parents house at the foot of the woods, wrapped in her favorite Little Mermaid sleeping bag, which was once my sleeping bag. I had gifted it to her when we adopted her, because she loved it so. She used to carry it around the house, moving it from room to room with her. There is a little plaque at her grave, a gift from B’s parents. It says Hope on it, and a little bird adorns the edge.

To this day, I haven’t forgiven myself for Hope’s death. It’s as if there should’ve been more I could’ve done to save her. Anything I could’ve done to save her. When I was young, I’d told myself that this moment wouldn’t happen, that Hope would “live forever” because that’s what she had to do, for me. I needed her to do that, and that day at the vet’s office, she tried to fulfill that wish for me. She tried to resist, to live forever. And yet, life doesn’t work like that.

There are some statements we make because it feels like pronouncing them into the air, out loud, wills them into Truth. Where there was nothing before, there are now our words, creating the reality we seek.

Things will get better.

The universe will provide.

It is only one night.

He loves me the same as he loves them.

This is my name too.

Hope will live forever.

But we didn’t talk about these things on the phone that day. We talked only of the good. Of the drives we took to the beach, finally joining the other beach walkers with their dogs. Hope racing down the hard, wet sand, her red hair shining in the sunlight, and the other dogs racing with her. They ran into the surf and bounded through the waves. We built sand castles that she walked through, knocking over the turrets and licking our faces, salty with sea water, as we protested. We lay on the floor in the back of the van as we drove home, her fur drying in spindly curls until we got home and gave her a bath with the hose in the front yard, still in our bathing suits.

We talked of how she used to open her presents at Christmas, tearing the wrapping paper off with her teeth. Of how she once opened one of C’s presents by accident, she was so excited to receive her gift. How she and Oreo would lay on the floor together and lick each others faces before snuggling together, the best of friends. We talked of what good dogs we’d had, because it was so very true. And on that wonderful Thanksgiving Day, we shared memories together once again, and gave thanks to a cell phone, spanning the long miles between us, and tugging them closer together for one special afternoon. We gave thanks, to each other and to memories, the thing that we share together.

Perhaps this is how things live forever, Dad. You, me, Mom, C, and J. Hope and Oreo. This is how we live on, even past our times, through the sharing of memories with words. Pronouncing them into the air, out loud, and willing them into Truth. Where there was nothing before, there are now our words, living forever onward, pulling us from the fragile wisps of memory into something real.

Love,

Ash

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