I said good-bye to an old friend today, and the ache in my heart is far greater than I thought it would be. It was Tax Day 1998, and my wife and daughter went to the Port Charlotte Humane Society. Alexa was turning six in a month, and we had said she could finally get a dog. It was there that they saw a Beagle-Labrador mix. He was a cute little fellow; fully grown, but he looked like a Labrador puppy; the only hint to his beagle heritage were his tough little paws and his big floppy ears.
Alexa settled on the name Shakespeare because Id seen a dog by that name earlier that day in the North Port Humane Society, and she found it a cute name. It was also kind of ironic that April 15th is traditionally considered to be William Shakespeares birthday (the exact date isnt known). The lady at the human society said that Alexa could call him that, if she could spell it. Not the sort of thing that most typical first graders could do, but then Alexa has never been typical. She spelled it, and we took him home.
It was clear that Shakespeare had been on the street for some years he was not housebroken at all! He did his business everywhere and I do mean everywhere and chewed on all manner of things. Hed also clearly been abused. When lying on the floor, if anyone moved their foot near him, he would scream and howl in pain and run. It was many years before he got over that.
He did so enjoy running and playing with Alexa two children enjoying the simple joys of youth. When we moved to Orlando, we got an apartment at first one that took pets. We were in luck, our building and three others backed up to a huge open green space. Every day, wed let him out the back door, and hed go racing around the area at top speed running and playing with the neighbor children. Oh, the joy evident in his face brought warmth to our hearts.
A short time later, we got a rental home, and he displayed his hidden talent he was a singer. One day, while watching the Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera, Shakespeare began singing along with the opera singers. Jo and I couldnt contain our glee; we burst out laughing. Shakespeare, totally insulted, left the room, and kept right on singing in the other room. We were amazed to hear him match the pitch and cadence of the singers; this was no mere howling. Yet, he didnt sing along with just any music, only opera or so we thought.
And we had our chats. Id come home from work, and it was a scene right out of Leave it to Beaver Alexa and Shakespeare running to greet me at the door. Id get down on the floor next to him, and wed talk. He would grunt and groan and give a woof, and Id say something similar right back to him. Then hed say something else, and Id respond. Some nights, wed keep it up for five or ten minutes; much to the delight of the family. One time, little Monica, Alexas friend from next door, was there and watched the exchanged. She asked what I was doing, and I said I was talking to the dog. Her eyes grew big as saucers, and she wanted to know what he was saying. I told her he was asking us to scratch his ears. After that, she was convinced that I was Dr. Doolittle.
When the TV show Ripleys Believe It or Not held auditions for the most interesting dog in Florida, we went to them. We put on Britney Spears he fell asleep (no offense, Brit); we put on Les Miserables he sang, and was quite the hit with the judges, newspaper reporters, and the staff of the Ripleys museum. But, he didnt win. Still, we had fun.
Later on, while watching the movie Raid on Entebbe, I learned that opera music wasnt his only preference. The Israeli soldiers started singing some sort of cantor song, and he joined in again, matching their rhythm and cadence. I never even knew he was Jewish!
About the same time, Jo Ann was volunteering at the Orlando Science Center. Every December, they held an annual Pet Fair, a festival to celebrate the joys of pet ownership, and we would help out. We brought Shakespeare along and he was very popular; he gave several concerts, and the organizers asked us about Shakespeare doing some commercials the next year to promote the fair. So, a year later, Jo Ann took him to all the local TV stations, where he sang on the news programs to promote the fair. There she was, agent to a new star!
Not long after that, we made quite the interesting discovery. While watching the movie The Wiz, Jo Ann noticed that the movies musical tracks had been mixed wrong; they were all slightly off key. As she was the one with a musical background, I took her word for it. Me, I couldnt tell a high C from a flat F. Then, at the end of the film, Lena Horne came on as Glinda the Good Witch, and started singing. At that point Jo Ann proclaimed that her song was finally on key. And, at that moment, Shakespeare started singing. So, not only did he only care for good music, but he had perfect pitch as well.
His next performance occurred while we were watching the TV show American Idol. Once the initial auditions were done with, and the final dozen were singing their hearts out, Shakespeare began to render an opinion as to how good they were; he would only sing along with the really good ones. We soon realized that he was quite the good a judge; he often picked the grand winner.
Then, age began to take its toll. It is such a pity that dogs do not live as long as people. His eyesight dimmed, and soon he could barely see. We had to start leaving lights on around the house at night, so he could find his way. When we watched A Night at the Opera, and he didnt sing, we knew his hearing was gone.
There would be no more concerts.
He developed skin cancer, and the Vet said that there was nothing to be done. When it spread, it would be time to say good-bye. He had a stroke, and a seizure; the wail that issued forth from his lungs when he suffered that would melt the heart of the cruelest monster that ever lived. Then came the weight loss; he didnt eat much, and his legs began to weaken. He didnt have the strength to get through the doggy door, and even the front stoop was too much for him to get up.
He no longer ran to greet me at the door.
Still, we kept him warm and comfortable; so long as he wasnt in pain, we would bear any burden so that he might live. Often times, he became confused and scared thinking that he was all alone and he would weep and wail, until we came to comfort him.
And then his legs gave out, and his mind slipped away. He could barely walk, and when he did, he just wandered about the room, bumping into things. Mostly, he just lay on the floor, a mournful, sad look on his gray muzzle. The eyes did not react, the ears conveyed no sound, and his head hung low.
Together, Jo and I took him to the Vet. For once, there would be no question as to cost. We stood next to him, our hands on that great, large heart of his, and could only nod as the Vet asked us the question one, last time. I ran my hands down his soft coat; he had a few rough patches, and some lumps from the cancers growing within him. Still, his fur was as soft as I remembered from his youth. He kissed my hand, and I returned the sentiment.
He slipped away, quietly and peacefully, with Jo and me holding him in our arm; is there any better way for someone to leave this world, than surrounded by those who love them? May we all be so lucky.
The Vet offered us a paper bag to carry him home in, but I refused; a bag for our friend? Never! I carried him back to the car, and set him on a pillow for the long drive home. Wed picked out one of his favorite beds and a nice blanket, and I got a shovel from the shed. Somehow, this day, I did not mind doing physical labor; although, the dirt did seem unusually heavy. A nice little spot in the corner of the yard was his place, and we laid him to rest. Afterwards, I did not care about the dirt under my fingernails or the doggy smell on the back of my hand the spot hed licked as I held him. Yet, I wanted to get cleaned up; after all, you cant see your own tears in a shower. I think Ill be taking a lot of showers this week.
About an hour later, a strong wind blew the front door open; thatd never happened before, and one of Shakespeares chew toys rolled in from the yard. I like to think that it was him saying good-bye, but thats silly after all, he was just a dog.
I said good-bye to an old friend today, and its odd how eleven years could slip through my fingers so very quickly.
I said good-bye to a dear friend today, and never did I think that I a grown man could be reduced to tears by the passing of only a plain, old dog.
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.