Man’s Best Friend

It was a little after 8 in the morning, and the day already hinted that by mid-afternoon, central Virginia was going to be hot. At that exact moment, I didn’t care about anything other than finding Brandon. We’d had plans to meet that morning at his office, and he was nowhere to be found. I suspected a raging headache from too much fun at a concert the night before, so I turned my car South in the hopes that I could jar him awake.

Driving down 684, I was madder than a pack of rabid bears wrestling with a hornet’s nest in the middle of a hurricane. As I pulled into the gravel drive, I saw his stepfather, a man who has been a part of my life almost as long as Brandon’s, sitting with his truck door open, staring off to the side of the house. Walking toward Gordon, I followed his line of sight, and what was waiting caused all that anger and venom to rush right out of my body only to be replaced with the deepest sense of desperation.

His chocolate body lay in the shadow of the deck, and the dog that always came to greet me no longer had the strength to raise his head much less stand. Gordon and I moved two buckets over to be closer as we sat, and in between lessons in bee tending and learning that Brandon was on the grain truck and trying to get home, I assessed the severity of the situation that was unfolding. Eventually convincing Gordon to go home, my heart hurt for the call I knew I had to make, and my fingers shook as I reached for my phone. When Brandon answered, I explained that he needed to get home now; his best friend needed him. And in that moment, I’m not entirely sure which one of us I meant—me or the dog—but this situation was going nowhere good for anyone, human or dog, fast.

As I waited, I sat on the concrete next to his head, trying to coax just the tiniest drip of water onto his tongue. I filled the time telling him stories of his daddy, nonsensical anecdotes about the many misadventures of our three decade-old friendship. I laughed as I told him stories about the time his father dropped his pants in the middle of a church service, so only I could see, and about the night he’d been convinced he was trapped in the backseat of my four-door truck.

As the minutes moved slowly by, my stories turned, and I gently trailed my hands down his flank, feeling his labored breathing. I shared with him how it had been his daddy’s teenaged arms that reached out to hold me up when I stumbled away from the grave site, and how he’d driven me to school my first day back after my own had died, reinforcing his commitment to leave at any time if I needed to. I told him about the day he drove me to the hospital, and how when he’d heard the doctor say my mother would be gone soon, he stared down at me as he simply said, “Call me,” before he left to give my sisters and I the privacy we didn’t know we needed.

I have no idea if that dog understood a word I said, but I know that hearing my own voice was a small comfort in the painful good-bye I’d inadvertently stumbled into. All I knew was that I had to keep that dog alive until Brandon got home, and I willed my silly stories and sobs to be his lifeline in the hopes he could wait that long.

I have found that there are friendships that last only for the blink of our life’s eye. Nothing really happens to end it, no fiery explosions or Shakespearean-level dramas; rather, you just fade farther away from each other once you move out of dorm rooms, change jobs and locales, or start circling in new orbits in your own lives. You look back on those moments, and you may feel the pull of sadness, but eventually, you just remember those long-lost friends with nostalgia and the internal promise to reach out soon, knowing you will forget to find the time.

Unlike friendships for the moment, with friendships that span lifetimes, you can’t remember, or imagine, a life without the other in it. In these, you manage to stand witness to the worst in each other’s mutual existence. If you are lucky, you aren’t sharing in those rock bottoms, but with each memory of your lowest point, they are always there in the background, their bodies bending the light that shines behind them just enough so that you can see the way up from the bottom of the barrel you are drowning in.

In these friendships, you tend to speak your own language—one made up of shared memories, private traditions, and the secrets that you mutually hide from yourselves. That’s the one drawback to a lifelong friendship: the other one sometimes knows you better than you know yourself, and just like their unwavering faith in you, they don’t hesitate to remind you of your own brand of bullshit when you need it most. They see past the history, and they accept you for who you really are—your most authentic self—even when you aren’t sure who that is anymore.

When Brandon pulled into the drive that day, I watched as that dog reached down and found the last remaining strands of his strength, rising to meet his father as Brandon ran to him. And in what felt like mere seconds later, he wagged his tail, laid down, and said his final good-bye to the man he’d been born devoted to.

I don’t know that there is ever true dignity in dying, but I like to think that he found a little in those last moments as he waited for Brandon to return. As I quietly moved to the kitchen, looking to call the vet to say he wasn’t coming in, I prayed I was able to give them both some comfort in taking care of the practicalities and hoped that I could spare Brandon some of the pain.

I learned something about life that hot day from that dying dog. I learned that no matter how much we might want to give up, it is worth holding on for the ones we love. I only hope that when my time comes, I find the same strength to stand for the people who have made my life easier, stronger, and fuller because they simply are part of it—just like his father—my champion, best friend, and brother—has always done for me.

 

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