On Aug. 22, 2010, a bomb went off inside Clementine’s brain. As I near the anniversary of the death of my best friend, I want to write, in the romantic tones that writers write about their best friend, that Clementine was the best dog I ever had, but that would not be fair to all the other dogs that have barked at me for food and affection. I can write, with a clear conscience, that Clementine was as dumb as the stick she wouldn’t fetch. She never learned to heel or sit or even to roll over and play dead.
I opened the door to her room that morning and found her leaning against the wall, her face buried in the corner as if having put herself in timeout; her left front paw completely bent upon itself. I righted the paw and leaned her against me and noticed a dullness in her eyes. For the past 16 years, whenever she heard me enter a room she was ready to pounce and lick my face. This time she never acknowledged my presence. I waved a hand in front of her face. Nothing.
The veterinarian wore a white lab coat and brown hush puppy shoes that squeaked on the tile floor. He saw life through a pair of thick glasses that magnified his eyes to comical dimensions. He had me place her on the examining table and told me to let go. Once again, she became the leaning tower of Clementine, until the vet caught her. He didn’t need his glasses to tell that Clementine was too far gone for modern medicine to cure.
“How old is she?” he asked me.
I told him I wasn’t sure. I’d found her 16 years earlier, or she had found me. I’d come home from work one day and there she was, having been hit by a car before dragging herself to my front porch. White bone protruded from her back right leg.
The vet bill to set her leg ran in the thousands. I wrote the check without checking my bank account and put up fliers all over town with her picture on it, hoping, a little more every day, that the original owner wouldn’t see one, or if he did, he wouldn’t try to reclaim her. He never did.
I came home from the vet and my daughter met me at the door.
“Why’d Clementine have to die on my birthday?”
“I don’t know, honey. I don’t know.”
For the next three hours, wearing a cone-shaped party hat, I played games with and served ice cream and cake to a roomful of screaming six-year-olds. After the party, I took our other dog, Franny, for a long walk on the trail behind our house. I wanted to tell Franny where Clementine was and what had happened to her, but I figured Franny already knew; she always was the smart one.
Instead, I started singing:
“Oh my darling, oh my darling
Oh my darling, Clementine!”
I always loved singing that dumb old song to that dumb old dog. And I always loved her reaction. She’d cock her head, listening, thinking, or whatever approximated thinking for Clementine. And, if not exactly thinking, living on instinct, waiting for that reptilian part of her brain to tell her it was the right time, the perfect time, to lunge at me and lick my whole face.
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