The first, and one of the only, times I ever saw my father cry was after our Brittney Spaniel Phil disappeared. I was 13. The dog had been in my father’s truck on a warm autumn day and he’d gone into a Chinese restaurant for lunch. It had no windows, or none that allowed a vantage of the truck anyway, and when my father came out, the dog was gone. Stolen my Dad surmised, or perhaps run off, escaped out the slightly opened window.
The afternoon I saw him crying was much like the afternoon the dog had gone missing some two weeks earlier: a bluebird day with not a cloud in sight. I walked up from our small barn towards the house, newly fallen leaves rustling beneath my feet, and there he was by the side of our house, sobbing. It stuck me that this was a strange place to break down. Not out in the woods, or in the privacy of his study, but awkwardly along one side of our house, near the corner. A sort of in between place, a no man’s land of our domestic landscape. But maybe that was the point.
As I recall, he glanced at me, tried to speak and then just shook his head, readjusting the orange hunting cap he always wore. I paused but didn’t say anything. We held one another’s gaze just briefly before I continued up and into the house. A gifted sailor and seaman, navigating emotional waters was not among my father’s strengths and at age 13, certainly not among mine. I had the vague sensation of having seen something I wasn’t supposed to see, like watching an accident by the side of the road.
I was an only child, and with his collegiate schedule, more flexible than my mother’s, I was often in my father’s care. This entailed hunting most fall afternoons, bucking and stacking wood as the days grew colder and helping him ready his wooden sailboat each spring. My father’s pace was brisk, I was always a step or two behind him and at a half jog to keep up.
Phil was the third dog we’d had in my 13 years. As Dad liked to tell people, he was named after his uncle Phil who was, in his estimation, “a real son-of-a-bitch”. As time wore on, my father’s relationship with his uncle softened, and in the end, Dad was the one who discovered him, face down on his well-tended lawn, having fallen from his riding lawn mower after a massive stroke. “Not a bad way to go” my father reflected, surmising that the last thing he’d seen was the view out across the Maine harbor where our family spent summers.
The first dog we owned was named Rex, a German short haired. I have only one memory of this dog: the day he died. In my recollection it was a warm spring day, though it could just have easily been autumn. I must have been 5 or 6. There was a knock at the door, I heard a muffled conversation and then my father rushing out. I followed a few seconds behind. There was Rex, by the side of the road, hit by a car. He was still alive, but only just and by the time we got to the vet’s office, he was gone. We owned an old Dodge Dart and the front seat spanned the width of the car. My father gingerly lifted Rex in, laying him with his head towards the driver’s side in the front, while I scrambled into the back. As he drove he spoke softly to the dog, one hand on Rex’s head, eyes on the road.
After Rex there was Jeff. He was a cocker spaniel that someone had given us, full grown. He had dewy and soft brown eyes and a sweet nature. As a hunting dog, however, he fell well short of the mark. In meadows edged with underbrush and laden with game birds, Jeff would merely stroll leisurely at my father’s side. Dad’s attempts to coax him into the cover pheasant and grouse preferred, tempt him with the gamey scent which would drive any self respecting spaniel into a frenzy, were met by Jeff with cocked head, perked ears and an eager, but utterly perplexed, look. “Jesus Chris” my father would mutter half to himself, half to the dog.
“Come on Merr, this dog’s not going to do a god dammed thing, let’s head home”.
At some point my Dad got the opportunity to shoot over him, I don’t know if Jeff actually managed to flush a bird or if Dad was just trying to train him, but the results were abysmal. Jeff was petrified by the sound of gunshot, and, for some reason, my father became convinced he was gay. Whether this was because he was a spaniel who showed no interest in hunting or because he’d taken some illicit opportunity with a neighborhood dog, was unclear to me, but in either case, he was not the dog for my father. I don’t think Jeff lasted more than a year with us, despite my pleas to keep him.
Phil was the perfect dog for my father. Handsome, independent and a gifted bird-dog. “He’s a one-man dog Merr” my Dad intoned while Phil growled at me from the seat of Dad’s blue truck. Phil spent a lot of time in that truck, went with my father everywhere and clearly I was the interloper when I rode along. His growl was low and guttural, his canines showing beneath his pink gum which raised the closer I came. My Dad wacked him once on his rump, quick and sharp. Phil regarded my father and surrendered a small part of the truck seat so I could climb in.
Unlike Jeff, Phil hunted with panache and vigor. His bright orange and white coat darting through the meadow, plunging into think cover, flushing grouse and pheasant, pointing in perfect poise and retrieving the birds swiftly, with a light mouth. Each summer on our way to Maine my father would drop Phil off at a kennel for training. We picked him up on our way back home, summer behind us, a new year looming. My mother and I would sit in the car, or sometimes get out, trailing along as my father and Mo, the trainer, discussed Phil’s improvements, the areas where he needed more work.
After Phil disappeared, my father dutifully and with uncharacteristic care, placed signs all around the small collegiate town where we lived offering a reward for the dog. A man who generally loathed talking on the phone, he jumped up each time it rang. The calls were always a disappointment.
“What does the dog look like?” he would query and then, always the inevitable, “I thank you so much for calling, but I’m afraid that’s not our dog”. He would get off the phone, shake his head, take a deep breath in, glance towards where my mother and I sat and say simply “no”. By the afternoon I saw him crying, the calls were far and few between.
For my 35th birthday, my father got me my first dog, a yellow lab. My marriage had fallen apart and I was newly separated. I had long wanted a dog but my husband insisted it was impossible in the small city where we lived. After I left my husband, my father found the breeder, wrote the check and came with me to visit the new pup. I named her Shale, “a good name” my father complimented. “You need a one syllable name for a dog, something a dog can hear across a field”.
Shale had a thing for my father, who always greeted her with an abandoned affection, letting her jump up on him and lick his face. He would bend down towards her “hello beautiful girl” he cooed. “She looks good Merr, nice and trim”.
By then my father had moved on from spaniels, divorced my mother and remarried. He’d retired from the University in Massachusetts where he taught and moved year round to the small coastal town he’d summered all his life. At that time he owned a black lab named Huck. Huck had been sent off as a pup to a trainer in hopes of making a great hunting dog of him, a move my step-mother, an avid dog lover herself, was convinced had stunted him emotionally. Huck’s signature trait was a bark-howl that began when you arrived and lasted a good 10 minutes, making any sort of conversation an impossibility. I hunted only once with my Dad and Huck, a beautiful Maine fall day, Canadian air lending a crispness to the landscape. We hunted on a piece of property owned by my cousin, a sprawling meadow which had once been an orchard. The smell of overripe apples mixed with the fresh salt air and we traversed down through the meadow, side by side.
My father had recently taken up what would become a passion in his retirement, clearing and tending land. He seemed more eager to show me the improvements he’d made to my cousin’s property than to actually hunt. “That used to be all alder” he pointed to a stand of mature trees “the dog couldn’t even get through it”. I wasn’t sure if this was a comment about Huck, who seemed to have a lot of try but not much talent when it came to hunting, or his own burgeoning skills as a woodsman. In either case, the stand was regal, enchanting.
My father’s end came quickly. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on a bitter January day, his prognosis was bleak. The oncologist at the small hospital was from Burundi by way of Florida. Her accent and forthright manner simultaneously comforting and disquieting.
“4-6 months without any treatment, perhaps a year with treatment” she told us. In the end, his time was considerably shorter than she had predicted.
He was at home, in the spare bedroom we’d converted for him. The dogs, Biddy and Dinah, and Shale more often than not, were always there, in and out of his room, nosing up to his hospital bed. They licked his hands where they lay alongside his bed, outside the covers. It wasn’t long before he was too weak to pet them, but always said their names as they came in, his voice barely audible towards the end.
The day my father died was a cold, raw March day. Crusted snow speckled the brown landscape having long lost its bright, newly fallen appeal. My father drifted in and out of sleep as I made my way from the kitchen to his room, the dropper of morphine filled. My father had always smelled like the outdoors, a mix of freshly cut wood and chainsaw grease. That smell had long left him, and as I leaned over him to administer the morphine in his cheek, I could smell the inevitable on him, sour and pungent. As the day wore on, the dogs watched me as I traveled in and out of his room. The kitchen table was a veritable pharmacy, my ministrations regular and purposeful.
The gray day darkened to night. There were 5 of us with him: his wife, brother and sister, my husband and myself. The three dogs slept beside his bed. His breathing, which had been labored and compromised by a punishing cough, was easy but faint. The dogs’ tags jingled slightly as they stirred, unaware, or maybe very aware, of my father’s departure.