My sweet boy wants a dog. Always has. And when we see dogs, we stop, ask their grownups if it’s okay to pet them, then offer a calm, open palm for the dog to sniff.
And that’s usually the end of it. Sweet cream Butter, who is now about as Three as a child can get, watches me pet the dog. And I do love petting dogs. They’re so deliciously grateful for affection. I tell them sweet stories and scratch them right above the tail and accept their gross kisses. Because they don’t throw things at me or scream at me or expect me to wipe their bottoms. I dig that about dogs.
But Butter will pet one dog every time we see him. He lives right near Butter’s home-based toddler preschool, and we visit him three days a week.
I walk the two miles uphill to Butter’s school right after lunch, then bring him down the hill to visit Nick.
Nick lies in wait every day in the open garage that is obviously his alone. It’s mostly empty, save dozens of soccer balls, a few empty and soiled boxes labeled “Dole bananas,” and a well used old dog bed.
I would say hi to Nick as I walked up the hill three days in a row, telling him as he wagged his tail that I’d be right back with his friend Butter.
The first time I walked by Nick, I assessed the situation. I have a decently-sized fear of dogs, and I don’t enjoy encountering dogs left alone to protect a garage. Two clues put me rather quickly at ease. 1) Yellow labrador. 2) Wagging tail and mellow posture. I chilled out and walked past.
I thought nothing more of him until I was almost at the open mouth of the garage with a toddler strapped on my back. Crap, I thought. If that dog hates strollers or kids or ergo carriers, this might be a stupid way to walk home.
Butter wanted to stop. I explained that without the dog’s parent, we didn’t know if it was friendly. We didn’t want to make a dog nervous. That a dog alone at his own house can be dangerous because they want to protect their home. But my two-and-a-half-year-old son, the one who most recently reminds me how I dislike hitting and screaming and throwing toddlers, was insistent enough that I let him out of the ergo. I made him sit on the sidewalk quietly and calmly. I called to the dog and held out my hand. Butter did the same. The dog wagged his tail, but wouldn’t come.
I told Butterbean that a dog who doesn’t come to you doesn’t want to be pet. And as he was processing his disappointment, the dog rose, stretched, and walked to his water bowl. After a good, long drink, he walked out of the garage, past us, to pee. Then he wandered back and plopped right at my toddler’s feet.
They were in love.
Every day we stopped to say hello. We talked to the neighbors walking their dogs about the yellow lab, who was apparently named Nick and who allegedly hated other dogs. All the locals walked their dogs on the opposite side of the street to avoid major confrontations. But I got to walk my toddler on the Nick side of the street because my son, for all his amazing virtues and glaring flaws, is not a dog.
We visited Nick all Fall and through the winter. We even once met the dog’s father. He was in the garage petting Nick as we walked by. I paused to tell him how we appreciated his lovely pet.
“Well, my neighbor doesn’t,” he told me. He went on to explain that his neighbor was furious that Nick relieved himself on her property. As he told me the story, Nick’s dad didn’t notice that the cold was making his nose run. As he talked to me and struggled to get up from Nick’s side, I realized he must be at least 90 years old. Mid-nineties is my best guess. He told me how he cleaned up after Nick four times a day but that the neighbor was still grouchy about it. I marveled silently that he could walk from the front door to the garage four times a day. He seemed that weak. I offered that four times a day seemed like a lot and that I would give a neighbor a lot of credit for being that conscientious.
He told me he wished I were his neighbor, instead. I told him I’d be honored.
Call me biased or prejudiced, but I try to go out of my way to be kind to people who seem to need a little more. I’m a softie, I’m a bleeding heart, but more importantly, I have a grandma in her late nineties. I know most of society ignores and avoids the elderly. I didn’t really have time to listen to a long story, but when people really need to talk, it’s always long. I think that people willing to tell their stories are an opportunity to learn and to connect, and I wanted to be kind to this elderly gentleman. I had no idea if he had family, a regular source of food, or a support network to help him as he aged. I figured Nick was important to him, and I wanted the man to know that we were quite fond of his sweet friend. So I stayed and listened.
And after that I noticed how dirty Nick was. That he was shedding fistsfull of hair. I can’t imagine that bending down to care for a dog is easy when your body is giving you a hard time. So I bought a dog brush and put it in the stroller so I could brush Nick. I made a note about calling a mobile grooming service and asking Nick’s dad if we could give him the gift of a traveling shampoo and nail clip.
Every day, the house’s door was slightly open, in case Nick wanted to come in. As the winter grew colder, we sometimes saw the front door closed and the garage empty. I was happy that the dog and his man had each other on cold days and nights.
As the sun grew warmer in Spring, Nick was often out of his garage on the sidewalk, in a patch of sunshine. He found a nice nest of leaves near his dad’s stairway and eagerly accepted our pats and scratches.
And one day he was dead.
I was pretty sure as I drove by that morning that he wasn’t breathing. And by the time, three hours later, I walked up the hill to greet my tiny little man at school, Nick was gone. Above the place I saw him last laying was a soccer ball suspended from a tree, with the words “R.I.P. Nick” written in black Sharpie.
In the five minutes we had between school and Nick’s garage, I had to tell Butter that Nick died, and I had to explain about death. The latter part wasn’t hard. I knew what to say, how to make sure to reassure that most of us can get better when we’re sick, and that most people live a very long time. And how to say that all life ends and there is a beginning and a middle and an end; and that Nick was at his end. I knew to again reassure him about the people we know who are not dying.
It has been weeks, and Butterbug still talks a lot about wanting Nick back. We talk about how you come back from vacation and come back from work and come back from school but you don’t come back from dead. That some people believe you come back different. But that nobody comes back the way you knew them. That memories are important, that knowing someone like Nick is a gift and we can always be happy we knew him.
And oh I cried for that dog.
After Nick’s death, the house door was never open. The garage never closed or changed. I began to worry about Nick’s dad.
I meant to write a condolence card. But I never did.
I meant to offer meals or a home for the soccer balls. But I never did.
And last week as we walked by I heard the front door open. I looked over to see Nick’s dad emerging from the house. I waited for a moment, wanting to tell him how much we miss Nick. Then I started to walk away, worried that I’d sound creepy. Then I backed up, cursing the coward in me and cheering on the person who believes that of all the people in the world, the 90+ set need someone nice to stop their hurry and to talk. Then I started off again, thinking that the last thing I had time for was a long talk with a man recently bereft of his best friend. Then I backed up, mad at myself for being so selfish. Then I started to walk again (no joke, the dude is really slow and I had time to start and retreat at least four times) but turned around to see he had almost crested the last of his eight steps and would see me in a second.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he answered cheerfully, still watching the steps. He looked up at me once he was safely on the sidewalk. He smiled.
“I’m so sorry to hear about Nick. We really enjoyed visiting him on our walks.”
He beamed. “Yeah, he was a good old friend. I can’t get used to him not being here.”
“I’ll bet,” I said. “How are you doing?”
“Not well,” he said.
“Do you need anything?”
“No. No. Thank you. The community has been really kind, and they’ve come together since Nick died.”
I smiled. He turned toward the garage and turned back.
“He was a really good ambassador,” he said.
“He really was,” I said. And smiled. And walked away.
As we started, Butter said, “I want Nick back.”
“I know Bean. Did you hear Nick’s dad say he wants him back, too. We were happy when we could pet Nick. And we want him back. But Nick died. Nick isn’t coming back. We’re going on vacation, and we’ll come back. Mom goes to work and Mom comes back. Peanut goes to school and Peanut comes back. But Nick isn’t on vacation, Nick isn’t at work. Nick isn’t at school. Nick died. Nick isn’t coming back.”
And that still makes me cry.