To Jim Torsky, who like many of us, had to say goodbye to a dear friend.
I grew up watching reruns of Lassie on Nickelodeon. I longed to be just like Timmy and have an unbreakable bond with a dog all my own. I imagined all the things my dog and I would do together. If I were trapped in a well, my dog would bark for help. If a rattlesnake bit me, my dog would drag me safely home by the collar of my shirt. And, if my dog and I happened to be aboard a burning ship floating aimlessly in the turbulent sea after the crew had leaped overboard taking with them all the life vests, my dog would certainly know how to bark out an SOS into the ship’s radio. My dog and I would be an extension of one another, just like Lassie and Timmy.
I was seven years old when my older brother Patrick told me we were getting a puppy. Patrick burst into our shared bedroom where I was going over multiplication tables to a classroom of stuffed animals that were struggling with the concept. He ripped the little chalkboard from my hand and tossed it to the floor, barely missing Perry the Penguin. I began collecting a scream in my throat determined to deafen my brother, who I assumed was going to hold me down and fart on my face like usual. He cupped his hand over my mouth, wrapped his free arm over my torso and dragged me into our closet.
“I’ll take my hand off of your mouth and tell you a secret if you promise not to yell for Mom,” he whispered to impart the seriousness of the message he had to deliver, then blew a big breath in my face to let me know that he had just eaten peanut butter.
I shook my head to indicate my consent when he took his hand from my mouth and slumped down so that we were eye-to-eye. “I heard Mom on the phone,” he said in a barely audible murmur. “She’s getting us a dog.” I shrieked in a frequency that only our awaiting puppy could have heard and attempted to bolt for the closet door. He grabbed me and smacked me in the mouth bloodying both my upper and lower lips. In retaliation, I kneed him in the crotch as hard as I could and while he fell moaning into our clothes hamper, I freed myself from the closet and our bedroom.
“What in the hell happened to you?” my mother asked running for the paper towels.
“The dog, dog—” I wheezed, blood running down my chin and covering my large gapped smile.
“We don’t have a dog,” she said holding a wet wad of paper towels to my mouth and perhaps wondering if I was delirious from the loss of blood or the rubber cement I sometimes inhaled.
“But, we’re getting one,” I screeched through the soggy mess affixed to my lips. Pulling the bloody gob away from my mouth, she laughed and shook her head in confirmation and smiled while she examined the cuts on the insides of my lips and wiggled my teeth to ensure that they weren't lose.
A week later my mom came home with a tiny wavy-haired Golden Retriever poking his wet nose out over the edge of the brown box that she was carrying. I loved him from the moment I saw him. I actually loved him from the moment that I knew we were getting a dog, but now that I saw him, I really loved him. I finally had my Lassie.
My parents debated for days over what to call him and they occasionally took into consideration the names that my brothers and I offered, but much to my consternation, they were not as sold on names from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as was I. I thought Shredder was a perfectly legitimate name for a dog, even if it was the name of the turtles’ arch nemesis. My parents decided finally to call him Mac and my dad believed it was a fitting name for a dog who was obviously as Irish as the family to which he belonged and who had very large paws like the wheels of a Mac Truck. After Mac chewed his way through my baby blanket, an encyclopedia and the arm of Rocky, my stuffed raccoon, I felt that Shredder would have been a completely suitable name.
Mac and I spent hours running and playing in the backyard. Well, I mostly ran and played and he spent the majority of his time chewing grass underneath a laundry basket that I had trapped him under so he wouldn’t get away. When I tired, I laid in the grass next to the laundry basket and poked my dirty index finger through the holes to stroke his snout. He especially liked it when I forced dandelions through the holes for him to nibble on. I loved his sweet puppy breath that smelled of grass and fibers from my baby blanket and I couldn’t wait for him to get bigger so that I could ride him to school.
He did get bigger, and unfortunately, so did I. I was never able to ride him to school, so I contented myself with dressing him in my clothes. I thought he looked particularly dapper wearing my white briefs while his tail wagged frantically through the fly. He reminded me of Tom Cruise in Risky Business, the epitome of cool and I pinned black sunglasses to the fur on his ears. He was the younger brother that I never had. When I made myself a bologna sandwich, I made him one too. When I got a haircut, I came home and trimmed the long hair that hung from his legs. And, when I came home from Sunday school, I recounted the entire lesson to Mac.
“In the beginning,” I boomed while Mac rested his head on my lap and I imitated the preacher at the Pentecostal church that my family attended, “God created the heavens and the earth.”
“What are you doing?” my mother asked poking her head inside my bedroom and scanning for dishes that tended to pile up on the empty spaces of my desk, nightstand and floor.
“Reading the Bible to Mac so he won’t go to H-E-L-L,” I replied, careful to spell what I thought was a forbidden word so I wouldn't get in trouble for cursing.
“I don’t think you need to read the Bible to the dog,” my mother said snidely and closed my bedroom door behind her with a twist of the knob that indicated that she was looking forward to me returning to school on Monday.
“Pagan,” I whispered under my breath so that only Mac could hear and he glanced up at me to concur with his glossy mahogany eyes. Mac and I both knew if anyone was bound for H-E-L-L, it was my mother for screaming profanities from her bedroom every Sunday morning when she put yet another run in her pantyhose, only to tear them off and slide on a fresh pair that she would ruin en route to her bedroom door. I knew that with each “Son of a Bitch!” emanating from her bedroom I was allotted an extra five minutes to play with my hair.
Mac developed an intense ear infection that caused him to grunt and rub his head methodically on the carpet in a motion that mimicked a metronome. My mom tried to coax him into the backseat of her Pontiac Sunfire for a trip to the vet first, with gentle cooing; second, with exasperated cursing; and finally, with the Tic-Tacs in her purse. Ear infections are fairly common among dogs with floppy ears, the vet explained while he peered inside Mac's ears with a light.
“What’s that?” the vet asked pointing to the quarter-size bald spot that was pink and raw on Mac’s right paw. My mother and I glanced at one another, then at the floor and shrugged.
“He licks it all the time,” my mom finally managed, afraid she might be deemed an unfit pet owner.
The vet determined that much like girls who play with their hair, or people who bite their nails (like me), Mac had developed a nervous habit. I didn’t dare mention that he sometimes licked it so loudly at night that my mom couldn’t sleep and would give him a Benadryl to knock him out. When I protested about drugging the dog, she claimed that the vet had once prescribed an antihistamine when Mac swallowed a bee. He was the size of a grown adult at 120 pounds, so at least she wasn’t administering him an overdose. The vet also mentioned his weight and wondered how he had gotten so fat. I didn’t bring up the fact that I fed him bologna sandwiches or let him lick my ice cream bowls either. Mac was immediately placed on a diet and prescribed a bad-tasting ointment to discourage him from licking his paw. Can dogs taste? I've eaten kibble before and swore that anything with taste buds would rather starve.
“How did he develop a nervous habit?” my dad interrupted while my mom struggled to deliver the prognosis. “He’s gay you know.”
“Mac is not gay,” I fired back.
“Sure he is, look at the way he squats when he pees, and he probably has a nervous habit because of the way you brush him, Conor.”
“Dogs like to be brushed,” I said with authority and sarcasm in my voice.
“They don’t like their fur brushed the wrong way,” my dad retorted.
“Big hair is in!” I screamed running to my bedroom and slamming the door wondering how I could belong to such an unfashionable family. What did my dad know? He wore flannel shirts and had a beard. He looked like a lumberjack.
I didn’t care if Mac was gay, he was still my dog and I wanted him to know that it didn’t matter to me. I questioned what gay dogs looked like and finally it struck me. That night, I waited for my parents to fall asleep and I snuck out of my room and into the bathroom with Mac on my heels. I locked both of us in the bathroom and plugged in my mom’s curling iron. I was going to give Mac a makeover. I curled the long hair that hung from his legs into tiny spirals and asked if he had any plans for the night. He looked at me as if to say, “I don’t care if you’re gay, you are still my master and it doesn’t matter to me.” When I had finished, I marveled at my work and knew that although my mom would be mad, she would also be impressed since she was a beautician.
When I entered high school, Mac and I didn’t spend as much time together. Often he was busy licking his paw while I was going to movies or attending parties with friends. We did however find the time to catch up every night. I confided in him who got in trouble at school or which teachers likely drank on the job or went home and dialed sex hotlines and he licked his paw. By then, he was getting old and had bad arthritis that caused him to moan, or the dog equivalent, when he tried to stand.
Although my mom swore she never liked him since he bit her on her ankle when she was cooking, she babied him and gave him an aspirin every day to help with his joints while I was away at college. She came to rely on Mac to keep her company while she wandered between rooms tidying up.
By the time I was 20, his arthritis was so severe that he could barely walk and sorrowfully, my mom and I made the sad decision to end his suffering. I said goodbye to my best friend for the last time. My mom and I rode home in silence for what seemed like an eternity. She softly sighed, placed her hand on mine and said, “remember when you used to read the Bible to Mac.” She wasn’t so much asking me as she was reminding me. As she blankly stared down the road, she squeezed my hand and said to herself, “I think he’ll go to heaven.” I think he did go to heaven.