As I get older, and especially since I learned two years ago that I had an aggressive prostate cancer, I linger even longer and more lovingly over the past. But I’m not just tugged at by the satisfactions of mere nostalgia. In following those lonely and haunted dirt roads back to my childhood, I’m on a quest to try to understand the adult I’ve become.
And that journey down the highways of memory always dead-ends back with me standing in my crib: I’m laughing and being licked in the face by Midnight, our black Lab puppy, as Dad holds her up to me, offering me my first canine baptism by tongue.
What a wonderful place for consciousness to begin, with a giddy and wriggling puppy anointing me for the sometimes rocky voyage ahead. And, in a sense, it’s a perfect memory. There’s the joy of the moment boy, puppy, father but it’s tempered by the bittersweet knowledge that the puppy will soon be dead, hit by a car. This is my only memory of Midnight.
I can’t tell you how often I hear dog people say: “If there are no dogs in heaven, I want to go where they go.” What is it about our dogs that gets us thinking about heaven, about matters of ultimate concern? What is it about our dogs that pierces us to the depths of our souls?
If there is a heaven, some sort of afterlife, I like to think of it as a place where we get reunited with all the good dogs that we’ve ever known.
No matter how often it happens, it always makes me smile when our miniature poodle, Bijou, or our golden retrievers, Moxie and Harry, or even a dog I don’t know, raises its head toward me in expectation and devotion. Dogs seek our giving hands in the same way that flowers seek the sun.
As I write, our creaky and cranky Bijou is still hanging in there, snoring and snoozing, begging for baguette crumbs and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, grimacing up and down the back steps, still yipping and yapping in the neighborhood bark club teaching all of us how to be game, even on our last legs.
I’m hanging in there, too, my cancer in remission, my depression at bay, pondering the future, dreaming of the dogs I’ll love that I haven’t even met yet.
One of the gateways to true adulthood is when we finally understand that even as we live, we are moving toward death. And having a Stage 3 cancer certainly reinforces that knowledge.
And, not to be too melancholy, but when I think of my last memory, however many years distant it may come, I imagine that it would be perfect to be surrounded by family, Hank Williams’s fine Alabama pining gracing the CD player, and to have my life sealed as it was opened by the sweet kiss of a dog. Maybe the gentle lick of a black Lab named Midnight … or a miniature poodle named Bijou de Minuit.