FAYETTEVILLE, N.C.—Earl’s dog died Saturday afternoon. It was a dark day. Nobody wants to make the decision to put their dog down.
Blue was his name. He was a Lab mix. Earl found Blue with his wife 14 years ago. Their kids had left home to find careers and make families. Empty Nest Syndrome set in. The retirees were lonely, a little aimless, and bored.
Blue was a welcome member of the family. In some ways, he was a four-legged child. They took him to obedience school. They cleaned up his accidents. They let him sleep in their bed.
When Blue was seven, Earl’s wife, Mary, died of breast cancer. That’s when Earl’s world changed.
A man who loses a wife is a ship in a storm with a busted hull. There are some things a man needs in life, and a partner is one of those things. Mary was his compass, she could guide him through rough seas with her eyes closed. She took care of him. She fed him. Now all he had was Blue.
So Earl and Blue did everything together. They rode in the car, went on walks, ate supper, and went through a coronavirus quarantine together.
Earl has been staying indoors following quarantine orders to the letter. North Carolina has been hit hard by COVID-19, and Earl hasn’t taken any chances.
It’s been difficult. Earl used to socialize a lot. He would visit the grocery store and chat with clerks. In the evenings, Earl used to hang out at different restaurants for supper. Waitresses would talk sweet to him and he would tip them well. Being a widower is lonely.
But when the world shut down and everyone began wearing masks, his social life came to a stop, and there was nothing left to do but sit inside and watch TV with Blue.
“We ate a lotta frozen food, and I read a lot of books,” said Earl.
But, hey, at least he had Blue. The dog faithfully did what all dogs do, it gave Earl a reason to get up at 2 a.m. in the morning for no apparent reason and stand in his backyard, half asleep, whispering, “For crying out loud, go PEE!”
The two had become like twins. The white on Blue’s snout matched the cotton on Earl’s head. The arthritis in Blue’s back legs matched Earl’s stiff knees.
A few days ago, the vet came over to Earl’s house. She wore a surgical mask and gloves. It was pancreatitis, and it was killing Blue. There was no choice. The doc injected a solution into Blue’s veins. Earl held Blue in his arms. He watched Blue’s eyes roll backward.
The memories got so thick that Earl could hardly see without squinting. He remembered everything about old Blue. The animal’s whole life.
Blue was born on a small farm outside Columbus, Ohio. The farmer didn’t know that Blue’s mother was even pregnant until one day (boom) there were a bunch of puppies in her barn.
They were marbled brown and gold, and some of them were black, almost midnight-bluish colored.
Earl and his wife were visiting Columbus. They’d just flown in and were on their way to see their daughter when they spotted the cardboard sign on the side of the road. “Free Puppies.”
So the two North Carolinian retirees followed a series of dirt roads to a house in the middle of nowhere. Soon they were holding puppies on a bright autumn day and had forgotten all about visiting their daughter.
“My wife fell in love immediately. There was no way we were leaving without him.”
They had to rent a car just to get back to North Carolina because flying with dogs on a commercial airliner is not easy, nor is it cheap.
The years that followed were typical puppy years. Dog pees, dog chews, dog vomits, dog poops. That’s about all there is to it. All dog ownership entails is watching a dog ruin your house, then trying hard not to gag when you discover the dog has made diarrhea in your shoes.
When Earl’s wife got sick, Blue became the routine that held daily life together.
“I would go home to let Blue outside to play, or take him on walks and stuff. If it hadn’t been for him, I woulda died in that hospital with her.”
Yesterday, in a small backyard in Fayetteville, two people gathered beneath an oak in Earl’s backyard. Earl’s old friend, Dean, a retired minister wore a surgical mask, and Earl stood with him.
They laid Blue to rest in a large hole that Earl dug himself. The maple cross that marks Blue’s grave is nondescript and simple, bought from a local woodworker.
Earl cried when the preacher read the 23rd Psalm, it was a flood of saltwater and snot. Not just for Blue, but for life itself, which is far too short.
But Earl wants you to know that he’s not unhappy, and he’s no longer sad. I ask him how this can be.
Because, Earl says, “Blue is with Mary now. And she needs him.”
But there’s another reason why he’s not sad. Because this morning, even as I am writing this, four tiny paws have entered Earl’s house for the first time. The new puppy is a mutt, pure black, almost blueish.
“I’m gonna call him Red,” says Earl. “Because there will never be another Blue.”