“You just set him up there? Like luggage?”
The attendant working the counter stopped what she was doing and scowled at me. She didn’t appreciate having to repeat herself. There was a long line. People were waiting.
I looked down at the large animal carrier, then over at the luggage conveyor. My father stood nearby. Moments before he had tears in his eyes for much the same reason as what bothered me now. We thought we’d have some time. A moment or two more to talk and share in each other’s presence. How we felt about my leaving.
I looked up. The lady raised an eyebrow and nodded toward the carrier.
I leaned over and looked through the wire door. Two big brown eyes stared back, backed by sixty pounds of playful Labrador puppy and all the love in the world. “All right, Digger, You be a good boy. I’ll see you in a few hours.”
I hefted the cage onto the conveyor and in a matter of seconds he was gone, rolling through the tiny door and into the airport oblivion where thousands upon thousands of pieces of luggage became lost to their owners every day.
I saw him again later, as I was sitting on the plane. He was riding the luggage train, then being loaded into the hold. I wondered what he thought about this, leaving. It wasn’t just for another country, but was a separation from a comfortable life, a good but dangerous job in the Army, a hopeless, empty marriage. I had countless opinions from others about it, most of them negative, but at the moment all that mattered were his and mine. That I knew my father understood, even without his saying it.
Our departure was delayed, then after a bumpy transatlantic flight we got diverted from Milan to the coastal town of Genoa, of which I’d never heard. “Is that still in Italy?” I wanted to ask.
I passed through customs and hurried to the baggage area in search of Digger, needing proof of his wellbeing after such a long and lonely ordeal. I found him on the conveyor, confined still to his cage. When I pulled him down and freed him from impoundment, his gentle and loving soul greeted me, his heart bursting with joy.
I collected our things and found the stranded passengers from my flight. An airport official explained how a bus had been commissioned to carry us to Milan. I looked down at Digger, who wagged his tail. He strained against his leash. We went outside in search of some unattended real estate.
We were the last to board. The only open seats were in the back of the bus. I navigated down the narrow aisle, past the awkward looks and children’s giggles, and sat down. Digger stood in the aisle looking up at me.
“Lay down,” I commanded, motioning toward the floor.
He jumped into my lap.
The way a reunion should be.
Many years later after this flight, after marriage, career changes, making babies, and many more years of enjoying Digger’s companionship, the five of us from our family stood at the edge of the woods, where the ground was not so hard that it opposed all manner of digging and the sun shined most of the day. In the muted, gray light of the evening that day, we looked down at where the dog lay. Were it not for the fact he was wrapped in a towel he would’ve looked almost as if sleeping.
It all had happened so suddenly, without any kind of notice as bad news often does. Just that day I’d driven him six hours from my parents’ house to our vet and their terminal diagnosis and the needle that waited for him all his life to this hastily dug hole along the wood line. It’d caught us all off guard, but especially my wife and I who considered ourselves responsible dog owners and couldn’t understand how his illness could’ve gone unnoticed.
Digger, as you may have already inferred already, had come along at a point in my life where we were just starting out, living in Arizona, with me, the time missing the dog from my previous marriage. Concurrently—but in a much worse way—Franca was missing our son, whom she shared custody of with his father back in North Carolina. So Digger served the role of dog and dependent quite nicely. But it was fair to say that, in date-speak, he was picked up on the rebound.
Oh, but he had it going for him: handsome, dark looks, a charming personality, well traveled (though of questionable lineage), and a loyalty toward his family that knew no boundaries.
Like any follow-on love, however, he had his moments when one might’ve questioned the benefit of his companionship: his indiscriminate eating habits that included amongst its contraband stolen property, sharp objects, and television remotes; a fondness for laying around on the couch all day; and his insatiable, casual wandering. There were plenty of times like these another love might’ve found themselves on the pointy end of a cowboy boot.
But Digger came to us at a time when our hearts were overcast and no amount of bad behavior could eliminate the joy we felt by simply being in his presence, such was his and our devotion to being with one another. Through the trials and tribulations we faced we learned and with Digger there beside us our family grew from two, to three, to four, and finally, the number five we are today.
Death, as we know, has its limits, however, and after we had buried him and were standing there reminiscing about all his antics, my seven year old daughter asked in a soft voice, “Daddy, when are we going to get another dog?”
I squeezed her hand. “Not right away,” I answered.
She looked up at me and said, “I didn’t mean right away. I meant like tomorrow after lunch.”
I smiled, though her innocence took me by surprise. I looked back down at the dog and thought: Isn’t that the way things go, old friend, with lovers and admirers.
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