Recently, I thought about the motto of Boys’ Town: “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother.” I had to bear a load, but he wasn’t heavy either. He was my friend.
A few years back, our cat Snow White passed away. Our daughter was inconsolable. She desperately wanted another pet, and so we again went to the Humane Society. There we saw an 11-pound puppy that my wife and daughter fell in love with. The staff assured us that he was going to be a small dog, but I had a feeling he was going to be big, he had big paws. He was only a few months old, and we named him Romeo. At first, he was so tiny that he could walk under Shakespeare, our beagle-lab mix, and he would dive into my wife’s lap as he raced across the room.
Over time, he got bigger, much bigger! He got to be 88-pounds, and turned out to be a smooth-coat Collie. Diving into my wife’s lap got tougher, and soon Shakespeare was going under him. He was quite the “Green-eyed Monster” – soooo jealous of any attention Shakespeare got. We’d laugh as he “inserted” himself between “Shakes” and us. He was also Little-Mister-Supervisor for Shakes. If he went out in the backyard to “take care of business,” Romeo followed him. It didn’t matter if Romeo had just been out, he had to go out and watch over his pal.
At the same time, he was always so gentle with babies and little kids. Sometimes, he would get one of his “babies,” one of his chew toys, and have tug-a-war with us, and he’d be very rough. Still, he was so gentle with the little ones. It was quite comical; he’d hold the toy very daintily and just let the little one pull and tug it.
For a big dog, one of his favorite things to do was walk between our legs. He’d stand there, waiting for us to pet him or scratch his back. When he did that with the little ones, he’d literally lift them off their feet. He was quite the herding dog. He’d grab Shakes by his ear and drag him around, and do the same to little kids – if he thought they were going somewhere they shouldn’t.
He was also very protective of the little kids. If I tickled or roughhoused with a kid, he’d bark in protest. One time, when I was “torturing” one of the kids, he got quite excited, and I finally said, “Don’t just stand there, Lassie, go get help!”
He did. He raced from the room, and a moment later returned with some friends who had just come in the front door. We were in hysterics about that story for months!
Many times, he’d bark at nothing. We used to joke, when he barked, somewhere in Orlando a doorbell was ringing – and he just had to let us know. He could also be quite the scared-y cat; at the first rumble of thunder, he’d hide under my desk and paw me until I comforted him. His concern for others was so sweet. If I sighed in frustration or sadness, he’d come and comfort me. If my wife was sad or if she was pain, he would care for her, too. He was, “Just a little lover,” my wife would say.
One year, for my birthday, my wife got me some wine from one of those “grapes to glass” places. We went in, did some tasting (and got quite lightheaded), and picked out a nice red. We called it Romeo Red and kept one of the empty bottles. It had such a nice picture of him.
Then came some bad news: a tumor, inoperable. It was up under his right back leg and deep within his internal organs. Surgery was impossible, but a biopsy revealed that it was benign. We were thankful for that.
Then there came the time when we had to say goodbye to Shakespeare. We laid him to rest in the backyard, and went back to the Humane Society. It was then that Juliet joined the family. She was a wild and brash young dog, only a couple years old, and she and the dogs that visited the house would wrestle and play. Romeo would stand off to the side and bark at them – like an old man chiding the kids for playing too rough.
As the years rolled along, his muzzle went gray, the tumor grew, it became hard for him to breathe and he had several strokes. One time, his hip displaced, and he howled in pain. We called the vet and he told us to bring him. Lifting him into the car, he settled down, just doing that had fixed it. He so loved riding in the car, we took him around the block, just to make him happy.
As the tumor got larger, walking and even breathing became difficult. Many days he would sit on the futon and prop himself up so he could breathe without choking. Finally, we made the decision to release him from his pain. We rode to the vet’s office and went inside. We went to the same room we’d been in with Shakespeare. As he was a big dog, we spread his blanket on the floor, and I sat with him for a few minutes.
The vet and his nurse came in. Getting down with us, they ended his suffering. He gazed into my eyes, and I saw the dark milky cataracts that had clouded his vision. I held his face in my hands, and he slipped away, quietly and without pain. The vet offered to cremate him, but there would be no return of his ashes. I elected to carry him, despite his weight, and it was then that I thought of that saying from Boys’ Town. It was difficult, but I managed, and we got him home.
Juliet was confused, and she insisted on checking him over. We let her, even as I got the shovel and did my duty. As she sniffed his muzzle, I swear I saw a tear fall from her face! We laid him to rest next to Shakespeare, his old friend; I felt it important that they stay together, forever.
Oh, and we still have that empty bottle of wine. I catch myself gazing at it occasionally. No, he wasn’t heavy at all. He was my friend.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.