The van pulls up to the gas pump beside me, or on the other side of where I am, really, and the woman in the passenger side is co-piloting, “Pull up a little more, James” and the van glides to a smooth stop. They are a little too far out from the pump, I think, and I might have to help them manhandle the hose that far. James comes in from the driver’s side to open the woman’s door, and the side door to the van is one of those that opens automatically. The woman busies herself with something in the van and James goes to the back of the van and brings out what looks like an aluminum staircase. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I wonder that he can pick it up, but it fits the van side door perfectly and the woman leads an ancient white Lab out of the van.
This is not just an old dog but a very old dog. She struggles down the steps they have made for her but they don’t hurry her at all. “Come on, Carol, you can do it, what a good girl, Carol, “ and Carol is wearing a diaper that the woman removes as she walks Carol towards the grass. Carol’s tail flips back and forth as she walks beside the woman, and I wonder if Carol can see.
“How old is she?” I ask the man as he is struggling with the hose. I pull it out for him and he takes a step back, unsure of my intention at first.
“Sixteen last month,” he tells me, “my oldest found her in the middle of the road, just sitting there, just a puppy, back in 2000.”
I have a story just like that one but I can’t tell it right now, not at this moment, and I can’t explain it, not to a man who has a sixteen year old dog.
“Carol was ten when Danny was born,” and the man motions to the van and I realize there’s a kid inside. “He’s six now, they live next door to us, he’s never known a day in his life without her.”
He tells me his son in law built the steps out of aluminum, he’s an engineer, great guy, good husband and father, paid seven hundred dollars for it to be made, out of his own packet, so Carol could keep going with Marie and him on trips. Marie and Carol come back and I help Carol up the steps. She doesn’t realize I’m a stranger at first then her ears go up, hey, who are you? My name’s Mike and I love you because you are a lab, and an old girl dog, and I know how to pet your ears. Oh, you do, you do, and I love you because you love old girls dogs and I will give you kisses on your head, and Carol makes a new friend just like that, and so do I. Danny is a bright eyed kid who tells me that he’s reading to Carole and that she likes dinosaurs and he gets to hold her water dish, as if I might be easing in on that. Marie puts the diaper on Carol, just on case, and they pour water into a small red bowl and Danny gets to hold it like it’s Holy water, and he is clearly in love with the old dog. They’ve made a harness for her, a seat belt, and as Marie is strapping her in Danny is asking her what book she wants to hear and I help James load the stairs. It’s a light weight thing, and built out of more than seven hundred dollars’ worth of work and I know it.
“You’ve done an incredible job with your family James,” I tell him as we shake hands. “Thank you for what you have done for her.”
“Took the bed off the headboard and footboard so she can still sleep tween us.” He says but he’s suddenly serious.
“We just want to keep her going until Christmas,” James tells me and I realize they’re bargaining and accepting all at once, and trying to explain to me why they’re still hanging onto her, “everyone wants to come home this year to…see her again.” And he looks away from me as the door closes.
Danny is talking to Carol as I walk back to my truck and I wonder what it’s going to be like for him to lose her. These are good people, I tell myself, and they’ll let him cry, mourn, allow him the expression of grief and agony some families deny their male children. They want her home for Christmas, where she can have a piece of turkey and be happy at the treat, and her people will love on her, but she the time comes she will tell her mom and dad that she is tired, and her hips hurt, and she has never felt anything but loved, but please, the pain, and it is time, and it is okay now.
Danny’s heart will break like it never has before. They’re going to kill his dog and he won’t understand about the pain or the time. Young, he will now understand the loss of love, the loss of a loyal and true companion and member of his family and perhaps the first expression of unconditional love that has lasted his entire life will be extinguished and his heart will break. Danny will forever know that dogs are short lived creatures and that each moment with them is a gift. He will grow up to be the type of person who stop in the middle of the road and picks up a puppy and when he had kids of his own they’ll be just like that too.