My wife always tells me I have no friends. But that is not exactly true. I had one. Yes, somebody who stuck by me in the best and worst and all of that. But it was more. As I’m digesting the loss of that friend, I realize that – more than the story of faithfulness – a true friend settles into your imagination different after she is gone. As I think back over the last fourteen years, I’m starting to realize the issue is that all the experiences of the formative years of my life I saw through the lens of her. She was always there, a niggling presence at the back of my mind, at the edge of my consciousness; “Is Kidoga thirsty? Where will we sleep that will allow dogs? We need to get back in time to walk her. Who will care for her while go to Dubai or Cairo or Marrakech?” And in more trying times, when the specialty food wasn’t arriving because of pandemic pouch stoppage; when she needed surgery in darkest Africa. I thought of her more often than I did myself, which is weird because I’m pretty selfish.
So here are a few things I have learned from my time with her.
We are all waiting for the marching band. We all think we are epic, amazing, heroic. We all think that our acts of sacrifice are without precedent and are things for which we should be rewarded. Well, after 14 years – 10,000 meals and 30,000 walks and 60,000 cuddles – as I digest her absence this morning I realize that she was the parade. A tiny ten pound marching band playing only for me.
I learned also love is about shit. Well, shit and vomit and smells and lots of stress. Picking it up, of course – God forbid in America any natural process should find its way into the natural order. Better a little un-recyclable forever bag full of natural fertilizer lying in a garbage dump until the comet hits. Worrying about its consistency, its frequency. Trying the right foods and the correct portions. Love is about vomit, especially on my ancient Armenian or Afghan or Pakistan rugs. Aim there, please.
Love is about pain. Real pain of illness when she looks up at you and says with her eyes “I don’t feel so great” and it’s your job to figure out what’s going on. Because she can’t say anything. She depends only on her constant presence and your careful attention to changes in mood and attitude to communicate when something is amiss. And it is about helping her understand the operation or the rehabilitation or the pill she doesn’t want to swallow.
I learned also what it was to be reliable. Wholly reliable, because I was wholly relied upon. If I didn’t feed her, she would not eat. If I didn’t walk her, she would not walk. If I didn’t pet her, she would be sad. If I didn’t understand her sickness, she would suffer in silence. She had nobody else. While I had meetings with Ambassadors and Ministers and trips to palm-fronded islands and walks through amazing ancient palaces – she had me and my scratching behind her ears. And not only was that enough, she glowed with excitement, barking vigorously every time I got home.
Now my friend, my only friend is gone, and I write this as part of the grieving process. It was right. The list of her illnesses was long, at 14. But cancer was the one that had the final say. As I wake this morning, with nobody to care for and no friend to pant at me and bark that she would rather have a different treat – because I knew that too – I am sad.
Nostalgia is memory with the pain removed. I’m looking forward to that day, because my memory is still fresh and sharp with the tang of pain. But that too is natural, there’s a 10 pound hole in my heart, and nobody barked when I woke up this morning. And that is hard.