Saturday, July 23
I push my iPad to the side of my tray table and reach halfway over the snoring software salesman in the aisle seat. The stewardess hands me my ginger ale and I return to the business of grieving.
Gliding my finger across the iPad screen, I comb through picture after picture of Cabo, playing, pouting, sleeping and begging — in short, being the typical golden retriever that she was. My first dog. My first experience of love without condition and in my terrifying final months of alcoholism, my reason for carrying on.
One week earlier
Friday, July 15
It’s 6:30 a.m. and I awake to find Cabo standing in the middle of the dining room, confused and immobile. I open the patio door for her to go outside but she’s paralyzed with anxiety. I coax her, nudge her and finally carry her outside to see if she’ll walk and do her business, but her strength and energy are in rapid and obvious decline. At 14 years, I’ve seen Cabo through more than her share of injuries and health scares, but something is very different right now. In minutes, I’m piling her into the back seat while calling the veterinary hospital down the road.
I spend the five minute ride telling Cabo how much I love her. I hear myself thanking her for making me happy every single day of her life. She tries to stand in the back seat but eventually she lies down and sighs. I accelerate through a red light.
Two veterinary technicians are holding a stretcher at the door when we arrive, but I carry her to the back room myself, lowering Cabo onto a stainless steel table as three vets busily encircle her.
“She had old dog vestibular disease a few months ago,” I offer, hoping that this is a passing recurrence of the canine version of vertigo.
“Sorry, but that’s not her problem today,” one of the vets says as she presses a stethoscope into one of the tumors on Cabo’s stomach. Her tone is grim.
“Why don’t you wait in here while we see what’s wrong,” another offers, leading me to a tiny examination room.
Ten minutes later that doctor returns and through her own tears, she gently breaks the news — the time has come to say goodbye. Cabo’s journey that began in a bright New Hampshire farmhouse full of 11 squealing puppies has reached its end in the back of a small animal hospital just north of San Diego.
The doctor leads me back to the stainless steel table. The vets and techs have all disappeared, leaving the room strangely serene. Cabo is wrapped in a fluffy white blanket with paw print designs, breathing slowly and staring off in the distance. One look at her tired eyes and I know.
I bury my head into her fur and whisper all those things we tell our pets when the Universe gives us the opportunity to say goodbye. The vet places one hand on my shoulder and with her other, she supports the weight of her own unborn child — a metaphor not lost in the moment.
Minutes later, with Cabo’s collar in hand, I shuffle bleary-eyed through the lobby, where a woman and her young daughter coo at their wiggly puppy. They grow silent as I pass.
Saturday-Sunday, July 23-24
I finish my ginger ale, close my iPad and unsuccessfully try to sleep. At some point over the midwest, Saturday becomes Sunday and we finally touch down in Boston just after 7 a.m. Welcome home.
The neighborhoods around Fenway Park, once familiar tributaries of my daily commute, feel lifeless and eerie so early on Sunday. The glare of the sun disappears as I turn right into the entrance of the hospital, where a bored valet hands me a ticket, hops in my rental car and speeds off.
I pull out my phone and call my sister. “Hey.”
“Are you here?” she asks. “The priest is waiting.”
“Yeah, I’m downstairs. Where do I go?”
“The ICU is on the eighth floor. Just take the elevators to eight, go right and I’ll meet you at the door.”
Friday, July 22
Sometime mid-morning, my iPhone buzzes. I’m just getting out of a meeting, so I push the call through to voicemail. Minutes later, I listen.
“Hey, call me as soon as you get this,” my sister says. I do.
“It’s dad…” she says. And even though I have no idea what’s about to follow, I know everything. I’ve been preparing for this moment for twenty years. My father, age 99, has slowly spiraled into dementia and other gathering health issues in the past few years and speaking with him earlier this morning, he sounded weak and disoriented.
Turns out that he fell backwards down the cellar stairs in our uncle’s house on Cape Cod. EMTs took him to the local ER, where Dad complained about neck pain. He never complains about pain but an MRI reveals why this time is different — he broke his neck in two places.
I knew it was time to fly home when my sister sent the picture of the medical helicopter hovering high above the trees en route to the ICU in Boston.
Sunday, July 24
I wasn’t prepared to see him like that.
In a hushed, sun-drenched room on the top floor of the hospital lay my dad, tubes coming out of his mouth and his nose and a bandage on his head, surrounded by a bank of machines softly beeping. A broad-shouldered African priest with sad eyes stands by the bed and when he sees me, he envelopes me in a massive hug. “Courage,” he says.
I turn to the bed. “Hi dad,” I say as my chest tightens. “It’s me.”
Dad’s eyes open wide with recognition, tears welling as he tries to sit up, much to the distress of the nurses.
“Lie back, Joe,” one says to him with jovial familiarity, “You need to relax.”
“OK,” he says agreeably, though the tubes in his mouth render speaking a heroic task.
My sister, sleepless and frayed, holds my dad’s left hand as I reach into his right. The priest begins the Last Rites.
For the remainder of the afternoon, my sister and I sit on opposite sides of the bed, holding Dad’s hands and speaking softly to him as he drifts in and out of lucidity.
The day is not without laughter. At one point he awakes and my sister leans into his ear and asks, “Do you know where you are, dad?”
“You’re in the hospital. Joseph and I are here with you.”
“I am?” he asks with wide-eyed surprise.
“Yeah, you had an accident…”
“Oh, shit,” he mutters with the annoyance of a man who’s just realized he left his wallet on the train. And then he laughs at the absurdity of the moment. We all do.
Mali and I broke up on July 5 — ten days before Cabo passed. Looking back on that day, it seems quaint that I felt like my summer had just been ruined. The morning after Cabo died, she brings me a cannoli from the local market, hugs me and asks how I’m doing. It’s awkward and sweet and uncomfortable and reassuring.
Back in Massachusetts, I stay in Dad’s old bedroom in my sister’s house, my mind frazzled but my body still on Pacific Standard Time. Mali calls me from California each night and chats with me until I fell asleep. We talk about a future again, and after the past three weeks, it feels good to have hope for something.
“So how’s he doing?” she asks.
“He’s not in pain but he’s not eating, either, and there’s nothing they can do. So it’s just a waiting game at this point.”
“And how are you doing?”
“I’m OK. I mean, it’s brutal to see him like this, but I’m grateful that I can be here. What’s happening with you?”
“I don’t want to talk about me,” she says with mock annoyance. “Your dad’s in the hospital and you just lost Cabo. I want to talk about you, you goofball.”
She calls me “Goofball” all the time. In the darkness of the bedroom, I smile.
Wednesday, July 27
There’s a knock at the bedroom door. I look at the clock and it’s not quite midnight. I know what’s coming.
My sister is crying.
Saturday, July 30
Because Dad served in both World War II and Korea, the Army sends an honor guard to the cemetery, who conclude the service by firing three rounds into the blue summer sky. You can barely hear the traffic off in the distance as the lone bugler plays “Taps.” The honor guard then fastidiously removes the flag draped over Dad’s coffin and fold it into a tight triangle, gingerly handing it from one to the other until it reaches the ranking officer – a Lieutenant Colonel, just like Dad.
He hands the flag to my sister and says, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
As the throng around the grave slowly disperses, we see the funeral director, Dad’s old friend, brush away a tear.
Monday, August 1
I’m heading back to California, staring at new photos on my iPad — the photos of the first day I brought Cabo home, in the summer of 2002. My then-girlfriend and I brought home a brother and sister from the litter and we dropped by Dad’s on the way back to Boston.
As the puppies ran amok throughout his house, Dad beamed with delight. One of the pictures shows me holding little ten-pound Cabo in the kitchen, while Dad pats her head and smiles.
Looking at the photos, I’m transported back through time to a muggy, shirt-drenching summer night when I was 22 — just over a year after my mother had passed away. Dad and I sit in the front room, chatting as the sun sets. Abruptly, the fans stop and the lights go out. Summer power outage.
“Well, I guess that’s that,” I say. “I’m getting a beer. You want one?”
“Are you kidding?” he replies as if I’d just asked him if he’d like to pull off a fingernail. “The food will all spoil if you open the refrigerator.”
“Old wives’ tale,” I say. “I’m getting a beer.”
“Bullshit,” he says. “Be patient. The power will come back on soon.”
Five minutes later he caves, “OK, you can go get us some beers, but hold on, I’m going with you.”
“Why?” I say.
“Hold on,” he replies, disappearing into the kitchen and reappearing with his emergency flashlight — his eternal vigilance a source of constant pride. “OK,” he says, “the beer’s on the bottom shelf. I’ll shine the light there so you can see it. Grab a couple of cans and close the door right away. Got it?”
He shines the light on the bottom of the refrigerator door. “OK, go ahead.”
I open the door and the flashlight finds a twelve-pack of Coors.
“You know,” I say as I begin retrieving cans, “I’ll bet the guy who invented the emergency flashlight figured it would go to way more important use than stuff like this.”
Dad’s not amused.
Chased by visions of rotting cold cuts and spoiled cheese, he shouts, “Close the door!”
I greedily reach in to grab two more cans, but I start dropping more than I’m holding. I hear cans rolling on the linoleum as I hurriedly slam the door shut. Mission accomplished.
Dad, refreshed at the mere thought of cold beer, skips over to the cupboard and points his light at a couple of cheap plastic mugs that he pulls down and we each fill ours with beer.
“Salud!” he says, and just like that, the power comes back on.
Dad roars with laughter.
“Gad! We were running around like a couple of dumbbells.”
“We sure were,” I say, following him back to the front room.
“Let’s leave the lights off and just savor the moment,” he says with exaggerated formality.
“Sounds good to me, Dad.”