David and I were talking about Luca, our 14-year-old husky, this morning. Luca’s age has finally caught up with our pup. The dog that used to make us laugh as he galloped around my parents’ huge yard now has legs that give out underneath him. His coat used to be a gorgeous gray-and-white that would make people stop in the street to comment, but now is faded to brown in spots, and is matted and falling out. He still follows the kids around as they play, corralling them, barking furiously if one of them steps out of (his) line–the fierce protector and playmate, always, always watching over us. We’re afraid it’s almost time. This week, I’m not doing so well with that.
It’s been seven years since Dad died. Seven years ago this week, we were holding vigil at the hospital, with David running back home a few times a day to let Luca out while the rest of us–Mom, my brother, two-month-old Saoirse and I–huddled in the waiting room, or gathered around Dad’s ICU bed, or listened to the nurses tell us again and again, “it’s time,” only to have our hearts seize up, waiting, and discover it wasn’t quite time yet. Seven years, and the children are finally starting to understand enough to talk about their grandad, have conversations, ask questions. I look at my kids–look at our family–and often think about my own dad, the child put into foster care, the kid that never got adopted out of the system. I see my children, with their warm home and organic applesauce and My Little Pony stuffed animals, and want them to know their roots. When the girls want to talk about smoking–it’s a hot topic these days–I talk about how easy it is to become addicted, how my dad finally quit when the doctor told him he had to quit, because once you start, it’s so hard to stop, and it’s really, really important that someone in your life tells you it’s not a good idea to start in the first place. When they ask why I stopped eating meat for a couple of decades, I tell them it’s because Granddad grew up working on the farms of his foster “families,” and I heard some stories that really made me want to stick to plants. When I draw pictures for Saoirse’s lunchbox, make pancakes with cherries in them, turn on a nature program about animals on the TV for them, it’s because Dad used to do it. When I dream about places I’d like to take the kids, I remember the wonder of hearing about the travels Dad had after he signed up with the Air Force. As kids Paul and I didn’t know the background behind those stories: we just heard about motorcycling through a desert, ordering sushi from a laminated picture card in a Japanese town, jumping from a high tower in the middle of the ocean. It sounded so wild. I didn’t know the loneliness behind those adventures. Not at first.
Here’s the thing about my dad: so much of his past was rooted in hurt. How I wish I was more careful of that when I interacted with him, but in the moment, you’re too busy reacting and aggravating than you are protecting that other person, as we all should, and I didn’t. I wasn’t protecting my dad’s heart, because my dad, with his need to make things just so, and his fierce rules, and his giant, impromptu bear hugs, was all about protection himself. As a teenager, I wasn’t so much of a fan of this trait. As an adult–an adult who understands the stories behind the stories she tells her children–I get it. I finally get it, Dad.
Luca was a shelter dog when we adopted him. His original name was Chaos. I’d wanted to take home a sad little red-haired mutt named Lady, but David took one look at this Chaos–he alway wanted a husky, because apparently David really likes to vacuum dog hair–and knew he was our dog. “Chaos,” who didn’t pay one bit of attention to us when they let him out of the cage to roam a little. Chaos, who trotted off along that shelter fence, strong and independent. His name was CHAOS, for Pete’s sake. Who adopts a dog named Chaos? We later figured was supposed to be a part of some breeding operation, and was given up because he wouldn’t cooperate. Chaos.
The dog that became Luca was one who wouldn’t sleep unless he was beside our bed. The one who jumped up on hind legs to give us hugs when we asked. The dog that allowed me to avoid being mugged at gunpoint one evening because he was at my heels. He, from the shady past, the one who was abandoned, is our protector yet, even in his last days. So much time has passed with him by our side.
Seven years. And so much time has passed without him.
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