Thursday, November 02, 2006

Life's but a walking shadow

He’d wanted a dog. A yellow lab. And he was so sure he was going to get his dog that he picked out a name—Addison, after a girl he liked on his bus—and started telling stories to anyone who’d listen about all the fun he and his dog were going to have.

His parents resisted at first. His dad traveled and his mom, who wasn’t much of a dog person anyway but was home raising two kids, knew the training and the care and the feeding would fall completely on her.

But they talked it over, and they looked around at dogs, and when they found one they both loved they decided to surprise him on his fifth birthday.

And when he finally met his new dog—after a scavenger hunt that took him to his favorite places all over the city—he threw his arms around her neck and reveled in her kisses … and right there on the spot decided to name his new yellow lab Shadow.

Shadow was a lot of puppy, full of energy and constantly on the prowl for attention and love and a lap she could sit on during her brief—very brief—moments of rest. But the boy loved her and played with her and she loved him back, and even though she whined when she wasn’t getting attention and she left hair everywhere in the house, she became an important part of his family. The boy’s grandfather was especially fond of Shadow, and he found every excuse he could think of to come over and play with his granddog.

But Shadow was still a puppy who chased after squirrels and ran into the street and took off on adventures to explore the neighborhood. The boy and his little sister were too distracted by swings and bugs and Jedi knights and Disney princesses to keep much of an eye on her, and their mom was too distracted by laundry and dinner and driving and paying the bills to give her the constant supervision she needed.

So the summer he turned seven, the boy watched his father dig a trench around the yard and install an invisible fence. And overnight Shadow went from the dog everyone worried about to the dog everyone could finally enjoy. Even the boy’s mom and grandmother—who had never been big fans of dogs—grew to love her.

That fall, the day after Halloween, the boy's mom let Shadow out to play in the yard while she worked in the house. Just like she had done a thousand times.

When the phone rang 15 minutes later and she saw her neighbor’s name on her caller ID, she debated for a moment whether to pick up or to finish the projects she was working on.

But she answered the phone. A moment later she was bolting out the door to find a group of people hovering over Shadow in the street.

And then she remembered she’d forgotten to put on Shadow’s invisible-fence collar.

Shadow had quickly discovered that the end of the yard wasn’t the end of her world anymore, and she’d darted into the street—right into the path of a red pickup truck, who hit her and drove away. Two high-school girls who had been behind the truck stopped and cared for Shadow, and the neighbor had come out to see what had happened.

Among the three of them, they’d had the presence of mind to call the number on Shadow’s collar, and when the boy’s mother got to them, she found Shadow lying near death—in shock and hopefully not in pain—with one leg tucked awkwardly under her broken body.

The boy’s grandmother soon arrived, and the group carefully brought Shadow to the side of the street, where she quietly died under the watch of an impromptu mix of family, friends and strangers.

While the boy’s grandparents grimly took Shadow to the veterinarian to be cremated, the boy’s mother went to his school to bring him home and explain what had happened. The boy’s beloved aunt had died last February after struggling for a lifetime with a debilitating illness, so for the second time in less than a year, the boy found himself sobbing over the complete randomness of death and loss and anguish. He was only seven.

His sister, who will turn five in a week, still hasn’t wrapped her little brain around the concept, but both kids seem to appreciate the idea that Shadow is now able to run with Aunt Dana along some bucolic beach in some undefined location.

And when the kids’ uncle comes to visit next weekend for his niece's birthday, he is going to give them big hugs and lots of love and he’s going to tell them jokes and throw them in the air and make them giggle.

And I am going to try very hard not to think about the fact that it could just as easily have been one of them who ran in front of that truck.

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