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by craig   March 24, 2005

I didn't want to go when my parents finally put Calvin down. I was scared. I wanted to chicken-out. My mother was crying silently behind big oval shaped sunglasses that covered half of her face. My father had trapped his grief in his adam's apple, clamping down on it with all the muscles in his mouth and neck, beating it back with convulsive, irregular swallows. Poor Cal, deaf, his kind brown eyes clouded over with cataracts, was too weak to walk more than a few halting steps. His once-proud little body was shriveled, atrophied, almost unrecognizable. He lay on his dog bed and trembled. I felt sorry for all three of them. And in a very real, very cowardly way, I wanted no part of it.

I shouldn't be telling this story. Calvin wasn't my dog. Not really. It's true I named him, when I was a teenager and he was the new puppy who came home in a crate with my father, one highly anticipated afternoon. And I guess you could say we grew up together - a process that, regrettably, takes so much less time for dogs than for people. But after I left for college, and after my sister did the same two years later, Calvin became, indisputably, my parent's dog.

But truthfully, our family pets have always belonged to my parents - or more specifically, to my mom. My sister and I played with them, we rolled around on the floor with them and made them pose for photographs wearing our sunglasses, but when it came time for the real duties of pet ownership - feeding, bathing, cleaning up the puke and the pee - well, we weren't around. Mom took care of all of them. And she didn't do it out of obligation. She did it because she wanted them to be happy and healthy, just like she wanted us to be happy and healthy. They knew it, of course. All the pets we had when I was growing up, they knew the score. Their first loyalty was always to Mom, unquestionably. Who could blame them?

So no, Calvin wasn't my dog. I shouldn't have even been around when it happened, wouldn't have been, if my own life hadn't turned upside down. But I was around, living in my childhood home again, back in my old room, with its soccer trophies and comic books and Joe Montana posters. Back with Mom and Dad. And Calvin. And it's also true that though I named him and taught him to let go of whatever he had in his mouth when I said "release," I never fed him or bathed him or took him to the doctor. Not once. So maybe it's fitting somehow that this final responsibility should fall to me.

I'll give it a shot, Cal.

Calvin was certainly not the smartest dog we ever had. Heck, he wasn't even the smartest pet we ever had, including, arguably, my long departed guinea pig Skater. I guess that's no way to begin a eulogy. But Lassie he wasn't. Even my father, Calvin's most vocal defender, will concede that much. I'm not sure Calvin would have ever learned where to go when it rained without Dazee - our older, wiser terrier - to follow. Until the day he died, he remained petrified of a fox terrier statue in the living room. The doggie-door completely flummoxed him. At the completion of his obedience class, Calvin received the following award: "Most Improved." I'm not kidding.

But what he lacked in smarts, he made up for in pluck, loyalty and (if you'll believe a biased source) looks. And whatever other gaps were to be found in his character (such as his tendency to growl at you if you disturbed his evening nap on the sofa), we filled them generously with love.

I'm also not kidding about the looks, by the way. I know that people always say that about their babies and their pets. We've all seen new mommies and daddies beaming over photos of a child that could break mirrors. Proud, love-blind pet owners will crow about the most miserable little genetic defect of a dog or cat. And there's nothing to do but nod in silent, polite agreement. Calvin however, was one smart looking wire hair fox terrier. I'd show you a picture if I could. I'm sure you'd agree - and you wouldn't even have to lie to me.

Calvin's coat was white, but he wore a large black spot on his right side. His handsome head was almost entirely caramel-colored. He always looked like he was smiling. I think, most of the time, he was. He was a happy guy. And proud and barrel-chested and strong. He wouldn't let go of his tug-of-war rope for anything - unless you cheated and touched his feet. He was a bit on the short side for a fox terrier. But his stature only added to his charm. Calvin was one of those dogs you see in the park and think: "I want a dog like that."

You'd think that until you saw him pick a fight with a perfectly friendly big dog that wandered too close. Calvin didn't like big dogs. I think they reminded him of his own genetic shortcomings, if you'll excuse the pun. Little dogs didn't trouble him. But big dogs pissed him off. When he was alive, I guess it embarrassed me, that Calvin wouldn't share and play nice with others. But when I think about it now, I kind of love that about him. I love it because he was so fearless. He didn't care how goddamn big those dogs were. But mostly, I love it because his behavior was so familiar. I suspect he envied big dogs, the same way we envy the guy with the better job, the guy with the better car, the guy with the better hairline. It was so petty. It was so human.

It's hard for me to think about Calvin without thinking about the place we both grew up. I left my hometown in the fall of the 1993. Since that time, my relationship to that house and to that city has been almost purely apocryphal. I returned so infrequently that "home" ceased to exist as a physical place. It became a feeling, an idea, a point of reference; a series of fixed images and events in my memory that I arranged to help tell myself the story of "me."

This home of my memory - and my imagination - has become infinitely more familiar than the actual geographical location. And that familiarity is due, in no small measure, to my ability to preserve this mental landscape just so, to stop time in my head. But each trip back to see my folks in that friendly two story suburban house causes little cracks in the foundation of that carefully constructed cerebral landscape. And it's a lesson I never learn. I don't know why. I guess my memories are as fixed as the world is transitory. I understand the concept, that the world is transitory, but when applied to my life, to all of these central pieces of me, it's a bewildering thing to behold. New buildings come up. Old ones are torn down. Hillsides become neighborhoods. People move away. Parents age. And dogs get old. So fast. So fast.

I suppose, in a way, Calvin became a clock - a clock that tracked my age, my increasing distance from my own youth, and by extension, from my family. A clock of the first and only rule of the universe: our own fragile mortality. I see myself in the mirror everyday - unfortunately - and my own aging process is nearly imperceptible. My powers of self-deception are well documented (see above). But Calvin I saw, on average, once a year. And he was such a happy dog, so full of life. He was little and funny and cute. To me, he was perpetually 4 years old. Cal never changed. And that was such a comfort to me when so much of my life seemed in constant flux. So when one year Calvin was suddenly, undeniably old, the changes in the dog became dramatic reflections of unacknowledged changes in me, in my family, and in a world spinning furiously toward the end of time. At least, toward the end of this time, my time - which, after all, is the only time that I'm able to comprehend.

I wasn't thinking any of this stuff back then, you understand. I wasn't thinking much of anything back then. I was trying not to think. I was just along for the ride. Literally. I sat in the front seat. Mom sat in the back with Calvin. They had his bed (a big, well-loved pillow that sat for years next to the couch in the living room) back there with him, so he would be more comfortable. So that he wouldn't have to lie on a cold steel table, or on a strange blanket, in his last moments. That's how they loved him. They thought of little things like that. Dad was driving. It was a very bright afternoon. The sun glared on the hood of the car.

Mom had tried to convince me not to come. I'm not sure why. Maybe she felt that she could spare me the pain of it, since I didn't need to go, while neither of them had any real choice in the matter. And I was tempted. But finally, I willed myself to get into the car. I owed it to Calvin. To be there. To be a witness. Even if I didn't want to see it. It sounds stupid, but I owed it to him not to punk out.

I can't remember who carried Calvin into the Veterinarian's office. I know it wasn't me. I can't remember who held the door open. It was so bright outside. I can't remember who was in the waiting room or if they looked at us with sympathetic faces. I can't remember who met us there or what was said. I don't know how we got into the examination room. The air conditioning blew cool on my neck. I couldn't cry.

Mom and Dad arranged Calvin's pillow on the examination table and laid him down on it with exquisite tenderness. He never struggled. He never protested. He didn't even lift his head. He trusted us so completely; he couldn't imagine what was about to happen to him. I stood a few feet away, feeling like I'd betrayed him. I knew he was in awful pain, I knew it was time, but I still felt like Brutus in the bloody senate chamber. That was the most miserable thing about it.

The doctor was very sincere. He spoke to my parents in soft tones. He put an IV in Calvin's foreleg while he talked to us. The IV was attached to the drug that would soon take what remained of his feeble life. The doctor said it would be very quick, that Calvin wouldn't feel anything. He was very re-assuring. He left us to say goodbye in private.

I couldn't think of anything to say. My parents were filled up and spilling over with grief. I felt embarrassed and miserable, standing with my hands in my pockets, witnessing their private grief. My mother kissed Calvin's face and spoke loving words in his ear. My father stroked his back and talked to him. I can't remember what they said. I couldn't say anything. I cleared my throat. Finally, I stepped forward and reached out and touched his flank. I kept my hand there for a bit. I couldn't cry.

When the doctor came back in, everything happened very fast. I wish I could remember. The doctor asked if we were ready and my Mother nodded. I wanted to say something to Calvin while he could still hear me. The doctor put a blanket over his lower body to spare him that final, posthumous humiliation. I touched his flank under the blanket. My head felt separated from my body. I opened my mouth. I could hardly talk. Finally, I managed to get out the following, unremarkable words: "Goodbye Cal. Thanks for the memories."

And then I could cry.

My dad stood over Calvin and cradled him as the injection raced through his bloodstream and coiled around his heart. Like that, he was gone. He closed his eyes and dropped his head over my father's arm. I'll never forget how his neck lay across Dad's arm like soft rubber, his lifeless head dangling; the doctor had promised us it would look like he was sleeping but any idiot could tell Cal wasn't sleeping. Strange, high-pitched noises were coming out of my father. I don't know why the doctor told us that. It didn't look like he was sleeping at all.

When Calvin was a puppy, he would bounce across the yard like his feet were strapped to four little springs. He'd pogo across the lawn in the sun.

He never liked strange noises. One summer afternoon, I scared him by putting a plastic cup to my lips and making a fart noise that echoed across the yard. I kept making the noise until he had wedged himself between the tool shed and the fence to try and get away from me. I was just a kid, but I felt bad about it for a long time.

After Dazee went deaf and couldn't hear us calling her anymore, Calvin would round her up every day, barking at her heels, and send the old girl running for the house.

When we played tug-of-war, if I pulled him to me and then gave him a little slack, he would growl and shake his head twice at me, as if to say, "Watch it, Buster." He'd repeat that exactly, like a dance step, every time I pulled him to me. It cracked me up. Calvin loved tug-of-war so much that when he got older, Mom declared the game off limits, because he'd yank the hell out of that rope and his old teeth would bleed. It must have hurt like crazy, but he'd play anyway, if you let him.

He loved to rub his chest and belly on the carpet. Every morning he would drag himself around my parent's bedroom, powered only by his forelegs, as if he'd been struck with paralysis in the night. His slow progress left a track on the carpet that looped around the bed, into the closet and then out again. It drove my mother crazy. She'd clap her hands at him and shout "No," to make him quit. He wouldn't.

I remember how much he loved to get someone to chase him. How he refused to fetch anything. How he'd get fired up and race around the coffee table in tight circles and then dive face first into his pillow. How he'd perch on top of the sofa like a cat and look out the window. How I said goodbye to him the day I left for college. And how happy he always was to see me whenever I came home. And these memories can't betray me now. They can't ever be proven wrong. They are the only place he lives now.

I probably shouldn't tell you, but I started out writing this with the intention to use Calvin's death as a symbol for the death of my own childhood. I thought I'd write something clever that would frame him as a metaphor for change and the elusive nature of memory. I imagined I could give his death more impact if I highlighted the relationship between his mortality and mine. I thought it would be more interesting that way. But here I am, at the end, where they teach you in school to wrap up your themes and connect them in a way that both surprises and confirms, and I can't do it. Calvin wasn't a symbol. He wasn't a metaphor. He was just a dog. He was just a dog that had to be put down on a day when far more important events were occurring across the world. And that's okay. That's no insult to Calvin, to admit that. I don't have to make him into anything else. I see that now. He doesn't have to represent anything. He was only a dog. But he was important to us. We loved him. Even the stuff we didn't love about him, we loved that stuff too.

And that's all. I'm not going to dress it up to assuage my ego, to make myself look smart, or to pretend that our love for a dog isn't worth writing about. I'm not going to cheapen it with my literary parlor tricks.

And you know what else? I know I said he wasn't, but he was my dog. He was my dog too. He was my friend. Christ. I wanted him to live forever.

- For Mom and Dad

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