Friday night … I’m scrabbling around the house to meet a last-minute decision to see the late showing of the popular, Oscar-nominee Zero Dark Thirty. As I scramble to purchase tickets on-line, I run out to the car to grab my cell phone.
I see a lone figure walking down the street; but it’s too dark to see who it is, and I’m not even mildly interested anyway. Then I hear my name …
I squint to see who it is in the dark, and recognize a neighbor. He blurts out, “We just had to put Coco down!”
I know who it is now, and move down the driveway to offer my condolences on the loss many people face each day that tugs at the heart of pet owners even when it’s not your own four-legged friend.
As the neighbor draws near, I’m moved by what I see. A grown man of retirement age, tears streaming down his face and sobbing in fits and starts. As I approach and offer my hand, he moves in for a hug and cries almost uncontrollably.
I’m a bit embarrassed, even though no one is around. I know this neighbor, but we’re not close. We have socialized a few times, but nothing that ever developed into a “close friend” type of relationship. In fact I’m probably a bit put off by such an emotional semi-public display over a pet …
Then the light goes on in my head.
This canine companion had been their only child!
He and his wife had never had children. I knew some of the story. Trying and trying but never finding success.
So Coco, a 13-year-old reddish-brown Chocolate Lab, had been in all manner of relationship and dependence the child they never had.
And suddenly, I realized how much this loss meant to him, the proud parent, who was always seen walking his only child throughout the neighborhood several times a day in all kinds of weather.
So I stayed there with my grieving neighbor; trying to offer as much support and empathy as I could muster. His pain was genuine; it was deep; it appeared unbearable.
I invited him into the house for a drink in an attempt to give a chance to get out of the cold and vent a bit. I wasn’t sure what I would do with the movie tickets I had just bought; but it was obvious he needed someone to listen. But after a few moments he abruptly decided to head home, probably because his wife was back at the house dealing with the very same emotions.
Saturday was a full day for us. Travelling three hours away to the Williamsport area to spend the day with my newlywed son and daughter-in-law. We left early and stayed late. Off and on during the day I talked about what happened the night before and the emotional display that caught me a bit off-guard.
I made plans to visit my neighbors on Sunday morning, to check in and see how they were coping. Carol decided to accompany me; and when we got to their door we were a bit surprised by what we found inside.
After ringing the bell, we glance in through the glass storm door and see a baby barrier! We glance at each other and Carol asks, “Did they get a new dog already?!?” I was certain they wouldn’t have so soon.
When they answer the door, they both burst out crying. The emotions are still raw. The loss every bit as painful. And inside lying on the fireplace stone is a weeks-old Golden Retriever pup!
The neighbors seem a bit unsettled by the puppy’s presence, the insistent idea of a close relative trying to help them recover from their loss in the best way they knew how.
We visit for about an hour, conversation shifting from sympathetic musing on the man-dog relationship, distracting pieces of everyday minutiae, and gushing over the cute fluffy ball of fur snoozing on the floor.
After a period of time, the sleepy pup rouses long enough to sniff and stretch her way into the kitchen where we sit, then plops down on the kitchen floor for another nap.
I watch my neighbor go from sorrowful grief to the affectionate scratching of an outstretched puppy in mid-yawn to the light banter about the differences in breeds and the unconditional love any sociable pet will provide its Master.
Later that day, I saw my neighbor walking his new companion; accepting the condolences of shocked fellow dog-neighbors; and introducing his new friend to the local canine hierarchy.
And I realized that the best laid intentions of a persistent relative was never to fill a void that was so painfully ripped out, so much as an attempt to round off the sharp edges of a very painful grief.
Such hasty action would not be the choice of many pet owners, but it seemed to work in the smallest way, by dulling the incredible ache with much larger prospects for helping a grief-stricken couple cope with a loss more devastating that losing a Man’s Best Friend.