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A Healing Heart
Lab with a wise old soul helps family navigate loss.
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Lab with a wise old soul

There was little discussion of who would keep Tag, my brother’s young black Labrador Retriever, after John’s death. Tag was a living connection to John, and though a grief greater than my own was unfathomable, I knew my mother needed him most. She had lost her broad-shouldered, broad-grinned son. She needed Tag, if only to curl up with when death’s demons haunted. Tag and my mother mourned together. During their first year, a solid rap on the door would send Tag into the fullbody wagging frenzy he reserved for his master’s return. In the seconds before rationality reigned, Mom, too, hoped my brother was about to bound into the house. She had hung John’s Carhartt jacket and ratty baseball cap on a hook above his cowboy boots in her mudroom. It deluded her into thinking that he would be coming back from Colorado for Christmas vacation, with another semester of veterinary school under his belt, on the days when denial was her only method of survival.

John and I had often booked the same flight from Denver to Chicago to descend on Mom in unison for the holidays. On this winter morning I sat alone, squeezed between strangers. I dreaded Christmas without John.Uncovering the ornament he had made in first grade or his knit stocking, stretched out from our tradition of flooding each other with gag gifts, promised to reignite anguish that would feel new and raw all over again. At least I had Tag to look forward to. I couldn’t wait to see that dog.

I was approaching our prearranged meeting place outside O’Hare when I saw them—the unmistakable combination of my stylish mother behind the wheel and a slobbering, yet regal, Tag, straining out the back-seat window.My mom and I greeted each other cautiously, not out of animosity, but restraint. We instinctively knew that if we held each other’s gaze, the sorrow of another holiday without John would overwhelm our weak levee.

“I’ll sit in back with Tag,” I said in a desperate attempt to throw sandbags between our grief.“How’s my boy?” I asked into his eyes while ruffling his ears and scratching him under the collar, where he liked it best. As we pulled away from the airport, Tag straddled my lap to resume his position at the window.Breathing his freshly shampooed scent, I rested my head on his side and hid my burning eyes from Mom’s glances in the rearview mirror.

Despite the lapses between visits to my mother’s house, Tag and I were inseparable when we were under the same roof. He slept at the foot of my bed, trotted down the stairs after my slippered feet, waited as I fixed my coffee, and even crowded into the bathroom as I showered and blew my hair dry.What made this unusual was that Tag was generally aloof. While my mom adored her dog, she complained that he wasn’t cuddly, that he’d always give her his rump to scratch instead of his muzzle. I couldn’t help remembering that John was the same way.As the only male in our household for many years, John would often put the brakes on touchy-feely stuff. He told my mom he would give her backrubs— he on the couch, she sitting in front of him on the floor—only if she refrained from pleasurable noises. An “ooh, that feels good,” and his hands were in the air.“I’m outta here,” he would say and be off the couch, heading to the kitchen to pour himself a Coke. My practical self attributed Tag’s uncharacteristic affection to my resemblance to John. Like me, John had been fair-skinned with honey-colored hair; perhaps we even had a smell or pheromone in common. But my spiritual self believed it was more than that—that part of John’s soul was with Tag, and when Tag and I were together, John and I were too in some way.

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