I am a sap for tradition, and no season preys on my weaknesses as thoroughly as this. Every ornament on the tree has meaning, as does every decoration elsewhere in the house. A hideously ugly treetop ornament that has grown too fragile for the top of anything is now the centerpiece of a candle arrangement. The ugliness is irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that it’s the tree-topper of my youth, given to my parents by my mother’s parents.
During the rest of the year, that ornament resides in a shoebox from my mother’s favorite shoe store in Philadelphia. At the bottom of said shoebox, the cushioning newspaper is dated January 1, 1964, the year my parents, my brother and I moved from New Jersey to Virginia. Resting on top of the ornament once it is cushioned, is the front page of the Washington Post dated January 1, 1984, my first New Year celebrated with Joy, my bride of nearly 30 years. Atop that rests the Washington Post from January 1, 2000, the first day of the new millennium. Sixty or seventy years from now, when I am no longer wandering this planet, I like to think that my son’s children will have a direct, physical connection with happy times that will by then have stretched back four generations. Memories are important, and I’ve always believed that it is one of a parent’s most important duties to create them for their children.
Another most-valued decoration is an otherwise unremarkable sleigh filled with stuffed animals, pulled by a stuffed toy dog.
When our son, Chris (now 27 years old), was four years old, he wanted a dog more than anything else. When we told him that he was too young, he begged for the stuffed dog that he’d seen on television—sorry I don’t remember the brand. A dog lover myself, I thought that was a sad compromise, but he loved that toy. Six months later, he asked for a real dog yet again for his fifth birthday. Clever parents that we were, Joy and I told him that he could have a dog when he turned seven, knowing that he would forget all about it.
Turns out the kid had a memory. In 1993, as his 7th birthday approached, he cashed in his chips, and we were stuck. A promise is a promise, after all, and in June of that year, we found ourselves with a new addition to the family: a six-week-old black Lab puppy. Because she officially belonged to Chris, he got naming rights. He chose the name, Joe. We tried to explain that that was a boy’s name, but he seemed unmoved, and Joe seemed unbothered.
Joe-the-girl-dog, or JoeDog for short, was first and foremost a Labrador retriever. She lived to love humans and to swim and to terrorize birds and squirrels. A happier creature never walked the earth. Here she is romping with the family in a picture that appeared in People Magazine after Nathan’s Run was first published.
One time, when she was barely a year old, the tip of her tail got caught in a slamming door. She yelped, but was over it right away—despite the bleeding from the tip of her ever happy tail, which slung gore around the house as if we’d slaughtered pigs. Think carpet, ceiling, walls, furniture—everywhere. And the more attention we bestowed upon her, the happier she got, and the worse the horror show became. I won’t belabor the point, but suffice to say, it takes weeks for tails to fully heal. To this day, I wonder sometimes if the new owners of that house still find smears and spatters despite our efforts to clean and repaint.
JoeDog loved to retrieve, but only those things that she was not allowed to have. Joy’s slippers were her favorite, as was Chris’s childhood Polar/Teddy bear. She never tore them apart, but she’d chew on them and prance proudly in front of us, knowing that she was instigating the chase-me game that she lived for.
Thanks to the success of my early books, we were able to move to our dream house in 1997, located on two acres of wide-open fields. A house pet at heart, JoeDog loved being outside, doing whatever dogs do when they’re not licking their backsides or rolling in shit. She mostly slept in Chris’s bed—often pushing him to the floor—but sometimes she would choose to stay out all night, and we’d find her the next morning snoozing in her dog house or, as she got older, crashed on the sofa of the screened-in porch.
Age brought paunch, as is often the case with Labs, and as she crossed into her 9th and 10th years, she came to love lying in the open bed of my Ford Explorer during nice days, and on the floor of my office when it was cold or rainy. Periodically, a loud snore or a cloud of flatulence would remind me that she was there.
Meanwhile, Chris got involved in all the things that an adolescent-cum-high schooler-cum college student gets involved with. After eight years in the house with the big yard, we moved to a new place with no yard, but lots of stairs, and at age twelve, it all proved to be a lot for JoeDog to handle. She developed some hip issues that were manageable, but then came the liver issues that were not. As a radiator of love, she got all the patience and treatment that we could provide, but late one night, while I was working upstairs in my office, we heard this terrible tumbling sound on the steps, and when we rushed to see what happened, there lay JoeDog on the landing. She’d tried to climb, but just couldn’t handle it.
As I sat on the top step, cradling her head in my lap, we made eye contact, and we made a silent deal. This life wasn’t fun for her anymore. The next morning, while the rest of the family slept, I got up and took her to the vet for the last time. Folks, I swear to God, having been a Paramedic for 15 years, and having buried both of my parents, nothing has ever shaken me as deeply as I was shaken that day. After all those years of loyalty and friendship, I prayed that I’d done the right thing by putting her to sleep, but how can you know?
JoeDog visited me that night. In as vivid a dream as I’ve ever had, I was sitting on the floor, Indian-style, and JoeDog curled into my lap and licked my face. I’m way too hard-assed to believe in that woo-woo shit, but I’ve never been more comforted.
The following Christmas, as we were putting up the decorations, Joy pulled me aside and showed me the surprise she’d been keeping from me as part of the Teddy-bear sleigh. The little bear in the back—the one that Chris and Joe loved equally—now contains JoeDog’s collar, her favorite chew toy and a dog biscuit. Apparently it’s a dusty decoration, because my eyes burn every time I touch it.
There you have it, I’ve come clean. Any memories to share? How about pet pics?