Monday, February 16, 2009

My Best Friend

Roger Ebert wrote a blog post about his boyhood dog, and it got me thinking about the best darn buddy I ever had. I eventually wrote out a response for him, reproduced here.

When I was a boy, I had an English Springer Spaniel named Zinger. He was an outdoor dog, too, not because of wall-to-wall carpeting but because of his continued insistence on treating any and all objects within reach as chew toys. We had a spacious backyard that bordered a small forest, though, and I made sure to spend a lot of time with him. And he got to sleep in the garage during the winter. He could bark up a storm when it was suppertime and I fetched his bowl inside, and any possum, tortoise or other woodland creature that wandered into the yard could be sure of a fierce welcome. But he was always very sweet with people, and loved to stick his head through the space under the armrest on our deck chairs and put it in your lap, confident that your hand would find its way behind his ears before long.

I loved taking him on walks, or the other way around when he was big and I was still little. Every sight, sound and smell was a cause for ebullience and a massive tug on the leash in that direction. His favorite part, or at least my impression of his favorite part, was running downhill through a small overgrown grassy area between the church and home. He really put on the speed, his whole body flapping in time with his ears.

I was a pretty lonely, broody kid, the kind they'd call emo today (although my hair never looked that stupid, and the only time I cut myself was when I foolishly forgot the number one rule of knife safety: always hold the blade away from the body). There were times I'd come home from school feeling like the lowest, most pathetic creature on the planet. But when I saw his waggy tail and happy eyes, I couldn't help but feel a little better. And he always knew when I needed some cheering up. We'd sit on the deck for hours sometimes, just me scratching his head and pouring out all the troubles of my confused, heartaching teenage world on him. He wouldn't say a word, but I knew he was thinking, "I know, I'm sorry it's hard, but I love you, I believe in you, and I'll always be your friend."

When I was fifteen, we moved to a new house. The yard was smaller, the climate was hotter, and the neighborhood was a more "modern" subdivision with less character, and Zinger seemed to take this as a cue to retire. He was still always friendly, always happy, but he rested more, and the heat led my mom to let him sleep in the laundry room on summer afternoons. (He didn't care for our new pool, particularly after he fell in while rolling on the ground, scratching a particularly persistent itch on his back.) I knew he was getting old, but I didn't think about what that meant; I didn't want to. But after about a year, he stopped eating his food one week, and we knew what that meant. The trip to the vet was the worst afternoon of my life. I buried my head first in his belly, and then in my father's chest, crying out all the anger and frustration at the unfairness of the world that would put my best friend in such pain, and have the only way to make it go away be to make him go with it. I couldn't stay in the room while it happened. I hope he understood, and forgave me.

That was my first broken heart. A month or so later, a beautiful and vivacious girl named Amanda gave me my second, and it was all the worse for reminding me that this time, Zinger wouldn't be waiting when I got home to take it away.

That was ten years ago. I've known other dogs since, but none quite like him. He was mine, and I still miss him very much. But I remember the look on his face, the feel of his nose on my cheek, and the silent words that I believe he still carries for me, waiting for the time when we can run downhill together forever and a day.

"I love you. I believe in you. And I'll always be your friend."

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