While Bear and Björn run along the surf, I think back to the day Eric brought Bear home. It was before my drinking was completely out of control. I remember being slightly buzzed because I don’t think I was ever completely sober for more than an hour or so on any given day, and I was usually sleeping during that hour. I got really good at hiding my drinking from people. I went to work smashed more often than not. Honestly, when I look back on how little regard I had for myself or anyone else, it boggles my mind that I somehow never caused an accident or hurt someone else with my recklessness.
Bear was so tiny though, when Eric first brought him home. He was just a tiny puppy. We both suspected he was the runt of the litter. It became obvious really quick that Bear liked to be warm and he hated to be alone. He would wiggle his way into the big pocket on the front of my pullover sweaters and take a nap in there while I was reading or watching TV. He would poke his little head out, but the rest of him would be curled up, nice and warm in that pouch. When he outgrew it, I special ordered something like one of those thunder vests for him. He liked being snug and secure. Bear went through God knows how many fleece blankets. We didn’t let him sleep on the bed with us but I put a heating pad on his dog bed so that he would be nice and warm at night. His bed was as close to ours as we would allow it.
He caught a cough once and like any other sick baby, he just wanted Mama. Bear took up residence on my lap and took all the pets and cuddles I could give him. For most of his life he has been the healthiest dog. He’s always been a good weight and very active. To see him limping along like he is now hurts my heart.
“Where is the cancer?” I ask Eric since I don’t know. I suppose it doesn’t matter where it is, but I’m curious.
“The tumor is under his arm,” Eric tells me.
I frown and say, “Poor Bear. That explains the limping.”
“Yeah, he’s doing his best. I hate that he’s in so much pain. I can only do so much for him, you know?”
“Keeping him alive and miserable is no kind of life,” I reply. “I’ll tell you the truth. At first when I read your message I strongly considered not coming. I thought it would be best to remember Bear as the robust, happy dog with no pain or limitations. Just him at his best, doing his zoomies all over the house and yard, and loving every minute of it. Then I realized that I owe it to him and to myself to see this through. Maybe he’s happy I’m here and maybe he’s not, but I think it’s good for all of us that I came.” By all of us, I mean Eric too.
We’re not close anymore. Up until he messaged me, we hadn’t spoken since that day outside of the doggy daycare after I fell off the wagon. I’ve had slips since then. I’m human. But I don’t give up on myself and I don’t treat it like it’s the end of the world. I’ve had to learn how to give myself a break. Not everything I do is a goddamn punishment, or deserving of one. I don’t go to meetings anymore, but that’s because I feel as though I’ve gotten everything I can from them. Being present, in this moment, watching my old dog run and play on his Best Day is doing more for my soul than any meeting ever could.
“I think it’s good to. I’m glad you made the trip. I know he’s happy, but I’m happy to see you as well.”
“I’m happy to see you too. I’m in a much better place than I was last time.” Last time I was better from a sobriety perspective, but there’s so much more to it than simply not drinking. I found a lifestyle that works for me and that is everything.
“So am I. I thought I was okay then and I wasn’t. I was pretty fucked in the head,” he confesses.
“That’s the human condition,” I say with a little laugh.
“Yes it is. I’ve gotten better. My mom even likes me again,” he chuckles.
“Say what? That’s… impressive.” Seriously, Sabrina is a judgemental bitch. If I never see her again, I’ll be just fine with that. I used to make excuses for her shitty behavior because I was a drunk. When I look back on it, I realize that she is probably the reason why Eric got into that whole “just kidding” thing he used to do. Being honest around Sabrina is not possible. Everything is a trap with her. That’s a lot of head fuckery.
“Yeah, I had a come to Jesus talk with her just over a year ago. She’s been better since,” he tells me. “I mean, she’s had some really good mom moments over the years, but… she was just… her and it wasn’t good for me.”
“That’s not good for anyone, but especially her own kid,” I comment. “I don’t like to judge other people, but she’s a bitch.”
“Yes she is,” he agrees, not phased at all by me calling his mom a bitch.
“Wanna see pictures of where I live now?” I offer. It might do him some good to change the subject. He’s been living with all this heavy shit for a while.
“Yeah, I’d love that.”
I pull my phone out to show him. My condo is a two bedroom and two bath overlooking a golf course on the west side of Maui in Lahaina. It’s light and airy, and less than ten minutes from the beach.
“Artis and I regularly walk to the beach. There’s a public access trail about a half a mile from my condo. She loves swimming. Oh my goodness, is she a fish. If I move again, I’ll be moving into a place that has a pool she can go swimming in. I’ll never get her out of it. Also, she looks absolutely adorable in a grass skirt.” I swipe over to a picture of her wearing one.
Eric laughs and says, “I bet she misses me. You know, Stackhouse, with a place like that I might have to come visit you.”
“Oh no, you’ll love it and never leave,” I laugh along with him.
“Don’t tempt me,” he chuckles.
“Who are you kidding? You love your clients too much, right? You’re not going anywhere.”
“For the right reasons I would happily start over,” he tells me.
“When it’s the right move, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t even feel like starting over. For me, it just felt like the next chapter in my story. I can honestly say that I have never been so at peace with myself.” I don’t know if he fully understands just how big of a deal that is, but it’s a huge deal.
Eric reaches over to take my hand. “It’s really nice to hear that, Sookie. Especially after all you’ve been through.”
“It’s really nice to mean it.” I barely get the words out before Bear comes running at me as full speed as it seems he gets these days. He knocks me over, but I don’t mind. “Bear!” I laugh and get face licks for my trouble. He’s wet and sandy, but I don’t care. This is his last day. Our last day. The weight of that makes me laugh and cry at the same time.
Eric sits on the beach next to me. He laughs as he watches Bear attack me with all the loves he can give. When I’m able to sit up, I wrestle Bear into a hug. He flops onto my lap and lets me give him pets. Björn is much more mild than Bear is at the moment.
“Do you think Bear knows today is his Best Day?” I don’t want to say last day.
“I think he might. He’s a smart guy and he hasn’t seen Mama in a couple years. He knows something is up,” Eric says. Björn flops onto his back on the other side of Eric.
“Plus when is the last time he got a boneless ribeye for breakfast?”
“Seriously,” he chuckles. “Hell, I’d think it was my best day if I got Mama Sookie and a boneless ribeye.”
“Ha!” I laugh. Yeah, right. He’s still charming, I’ll give him that. “Is meat lover’s still his favorite pizza?”
“It is,” he confirms. “And don’t think I forgot how good your belly rubs are.”
“Oh Lord, don’t even bring that silliness up,” I reply. “Just for the record, I still think pineapple on pizza is criminal.”
“So do I,” he smiles.
We spend a little more time at the beach before returning to Eric’s house to load the dogs into his truck for Bear’s last ride. Bear parks himself on my lap and I put the window all the way down so he can put his head out the window as much as he wants. He gets all the pets and loving he can handle while we cruise. I don’t mind that it’s a quiet ride. Eric’s got music on, but we’re not talking. He’s got things on his mind, no doubt. When we stop, it’s for ice cream at this little mom and pop shack of a place down in Tillamook.
“You know, he’s never had chocolate ice cream before…” I don’t need to say that it doesn’t really matter at this point if he has it. “I feel like he should get to have it just this once.”
The only time he’ll ever have it.
“We can do that,” Eric agrees. I’m sure it’s without thinking when he reaches up to rub my back.
“What about Björn? Obviously he can’t have chocolate.”
“He’s a strawberry guy all the way.”
“You should see Artis go to town on shave ice,” I chuckle. I miss her silly butt. I step up to the counter to order a small twisty cone for me. I get a large twisty cone for Bear. I love soft serve. I haven’t had it in a long ass time. I have shave ice in Hawaii all the time.
“I’m sure it’s adorable. Is she still tiny and cute?”
“She’s a little bigger than she was when you saw her last, but not much. Being out on the beach and swimming a lot keeps her trim. Oh, and she does yoga with me sometimes.”
“I feel like I need a video of that,” he laughs.
“Don’t get too excited, I don’t do downward dog that much.”
“Damn,” he playfully pouts.
“You’re not missing much, I promise.”
After Eric orders for himself and Björn, I pay for the ice cream. At least he doesn’t fight with me about it. That’s unexpected. He and I take the cones outside and get the pups out of the truck so that they can enjoy their treats. The tricky part is keeping Björn away from the chocolate ice cream. Bear seems to be liking it, though. His licker is going full speed at that cone, which makes me laugh.
“Some things never change,” I remark before taking a lick from my own cone.
“Nope, and I’m happy about it. I think we could stand to learn a few things from dogs.”
Bear shows no signs of slowing down. I’m not even sure if he appreciates the chocolate, to be honest. He’s just excited to have ice cream. Having his own cone? Baller. The longer the day drags out, the closer we get to his vet coming by the house. At least he won’t be in some unfamiliar exam room. He’ll get to go out surrounded by his people and his brother. I can’t think of a better way to go. We should all be so lucky.
It’s been a long time since I had a day this bad. It absolutely had its perks but when Dr. Reynolds takes Bear away for cremation, I fucking breakdown. I try to keep it together but I had almost twelve great years with Bear. Not a single second with him was a bad one.
Sookie and I are standing there in the yard when it happens. I don’t know what to do. How in the hell am I supposed to wake up tomorrow and move on with my life? Losing Bear is far worse than any break-up I’ve been through.
“That’s it,” I say with tears streaming down my face. “He’s… gone…”
“I know.” She hugs my side and rests her head on my chest.
I wrap my arm around her, giving her a little squeeze.
“I’m glad you could be here for this. I don’t think I could have done it with anyone else,” I say quietly.
“You shouldn’t have to do it alone,” Sookie says. “I’m sorry you lost him.”
“Thanks.” She and I both know sorry doesn’t really make up for the loss of a good friend. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can say.
“Do you want some time alone out here?”
“No, we can go inside,” I say. “The neighbors don’t need to see me snotsobbing.”
Sookie gives me a sympathetic smile and a gentle rub on my back.
“At least you’ve got Björn to keep you company. I’m sure he’ll come in really handy the next few weeks.”
“Yeah. He’s probably going to have a rough time himself. We’ll keep each other in line.” Without thinking I kiss the top of Sookie’s head.
She doesn’t comment or push me away. Sookie pulls the slider open and lets me go in first.
“Is there anything I can do? Would you like some tea or something?”
“Some tea would be nice. Thanks. How long are you staying?” I hadn’t asked. I’m so thankful she’s here it’s the last thing on my mind.
“I fly back Monday,” she says. Sookie goes on to the kitchen and calls out, “Is the tea in the same place?”
“Yeah,” I reply. “Where are you staying? The spare room is available if you want.”
“I’ve got a reservation at a hotel in Portland,” she answers. I hear water running and then the click of the stove when she starts the burner. A few seconds after that I hear the front door open and close. Did she just ditch me?
I drop my head back. I can’t even think about it right now if she did. I wrap my arms around Björn when he jumps up on the couch, where he normally isn’t allowed, and plops his heavy butt right on my lap.
“You’re a good boy,” I assure him as I give him pets and hugs.
Again the front door opens and closes. When Sookie returns, she has a black box in her hands. She comes over to where I’m sitting and sits across from me on the coffee table.
“I don’t know if gifts are really appropriate in this instance, so we’ll call these keepsakes,” she says to me before putting the box on the couch beside me. “I raided your Facebook page for some of these pictures. I hope you don’t mind.”
I open the box and smile.
“I don’t mind at all.” The coffee mug is the first thing I pull out. There’s a picture of his boopable nose pointing at me from the side of the mug. I also find a phone case and a calendar. “What’s this?” I ask when I lift what looks like a piece of driftwood.
She takes a deep breath and says, “It’s an urn. A local craftsman in Maui made it with driftwood I found on the beach. If you already have something–”
I set the urn down and shift Björn off of my lap. I shut Sookie up when I press my lips to hers. She’s still the sweetest woman I’ve ever known. She’s kind and thoughtful and pretty amazing. Kissing her feels like the right thing to do in the moment.
It takes me by surprise when she kisses me back. She doesn’t try to deepen it, but there’s action on her side of things. Damn tea kettle has to get in the way and mess it up with it’s shrill shrieking.
I rest my hand on the side of her face when she pulls back.
“Thank you,” I say sincerely. I’m thanking her for so much more than an urn and a calendar.
“You’re welcome,” she says with a little hint of a smile. “Milk in your tea or just honey?”
“Just honey, please.” I normally do have milk in my tea. It’s not a milk moment.
“You got it.” Sookie gives me a wink and then gets up to fix my tea for me.
I watch as she walks away. Kiss aside, this day would have been a million times worse without her. It’s been a crazy sad and happy day. I just hope what we did for Bear helped him pass peacefully and with a happy soul.
Sookie comes back with a steaming mug. I can see the string from a tea bag hanging over the side of it. She sits on the table across from me again and hands me the mug.
“I wanted to make you a blanket, but there wasn’t enough time to get it to me before my flight last night,” she says. Sookie tries to hold back a yawn and fails. “Sorry. I should probably head into Portland and get some sleep.”
“Stay,” I request. “Seriously, the spare room is ready to go…”
She thinks it over for a minute before she finally agrees.
“Okay, I’ll stay. At least for tonight. We’ll see about tomorrow when it comes.”
“Come on, I’ll walk you back.” I set the tea down on the table. “Do you need anything from your car?”
“I’ve just got a carry-one bag. I’ll get it,” she says. “I know where the spare room is. Enjoy your tea.”
I smile and lean forward to grab my tea again. I take a sip. It’s good. For some reason everything is better when Sookie makes it. That’s always been the case. Sookie gives me a pat on the shoulder and then leaves the room to go get her bag from the car. For the last time the front door opens. I hear the beep of the rental’s alarm system. The front door closes. The deadbolt slides into place. I don’t hear Sookie’s footsteps going to the spare room, but I do hear a door close. I don’t know if it’s the spare room or the guest bathroom. Then I hear water running and I know she’s in the bathroom. Björn leaves the couch to take a lap around the house. Judging by the way he’s looking around, I’m guessing he’s looking for his best friend. There are no tail wags, just sad eyes searching.
I know, buddy. I already miss him too…
I finish my tea. It’s not that late but it’s been an emotional day. I’ll probably turn in too. If Björn wants I’ll even allow him to sleep in my bed with me. I get off of the couch, take my teacup to the sink and then head back to my room. I don’t tell Sookie I’m going to bed. She’s probably already asleep by the time I pass the room. I go to my bathroom to go through the motions of washing my face and brushing my teeth. Björn is on his bed, although I expect that to change before the night is through.
I stretch out in the middle of my bed, expecting to fall right to sleep. I don’t. My mind is racing and blank all at the same time, if that makes sense. It doesn’t. At the moment nothing in my life makes sense.
Eventually I get up, not really sure what to do. I’m tempted to go and cuddle with Sookie if she’ll allow it. When I open my door Sookie is standing there poised to knock. Looks like I’m not the only one having trouble sleeping.
“Hi,” I say quietly.
“I can’t sleep,” she says.
“Neither can I,” I reply. “Wanna join me?”
I open the door all the way and step back to let her in. I leave the door open so Björn can come and go as he pleases. I follow Sookie to the bed. She walks around and climbs in on her normal side while I slide into my normal spot. It’s not weird at all when she scoots over and snuggles into my chest. I wrap my arm around her back, holding her close. In no time I’m out like a light.