This story is by Paul and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
We’ve lain here since she quit eating and drinking and I don’t feel the floor any longer. Her blonde head lies in my lap, and each warm breath washes across my thigh, a soft, loving caress. Periodically, her long tongue gives my leg a wet kiss that leaves a trail of cool.
When she reached the point where she couldn’t get up on my bed, I lifted her. When pain made getting down difficult, I helped her. When she couldn’t stand to go I held her. This week the pain reached the too much point, and carrying hurt her so we’ve been sleeping together on folded blankets on the kitchen floor. I clean up when needed.
I stroke her gently, talking to her, and she moans softly, a begging sound, like an apology for not being able to take care of me any longer.
“Yes, Darla, I’m here, sweetheart, I won’t leave you, I love you.” You’ll leave me soon though The tears are constant streams of hot running down my cheeks and the congestion they cause has given me a raging headache.
Darla has been my companion for the 14 years since my wife died. She appeared when I needed her and filled a huge gap in my life. She was a way of keeping a small piece of Paige. I don’t know what I’ll do when she’s gone.
My wife of 45 years died and I sat for several months staring at her. Our 6 kids and their 14 kids crowded around, begging and threatening to get me to do something. I kept saying, “I don’t think I want that. I’m comfortable.” Then I’d resume staring at her Urn, reliving 45 years of my lost life.
Being widowed at 76 is rough. There are thousands of little shared habits and rituals built over a lifetime and in an instant they’re all useless and you’re lost.
My family formed 2 camps, one begging, “Please come to dinner (or whatever) with us.” The other threatening, “Get off your dead ass and do something old man or we’ll have you committed,” and they switched sides so often I was never sure who was on which team.
I understood they wanted me to live and not sit and die. To get away from that I walked, alone, depressed as hell. Sometimes I’d have to respond to someone’s hello or how are you and I’m sure most realized what they got back was much less than a half-hearted response. Misery ran my life.
I’ve never understood what changed in me that day. What prompted me to stop where Paige had worked. She’d helped our friend Steve open a pet store then worked there for him at a pittance salary 20 hours a week because she loved the animals. I’d neglected all of our friends after Paige died, they carried too much of her with them.
“Hi Ian, haven’t seen you in a couple months. Been thinking about you though.”
“Hi, Steve, sorry, I haven’t been around much. It’s been hard.”
“I’m sorry. I miss Paige too. I’ve put off hiring anyone because I don’t want to look, I’ll never find another Paige. I loved her too, Ian.”
“Many did, she gave a piece of herself to everyone she met. She loved taking care of the animals. You’re a good friend, Steve, thank you.”
When I turned she was sitting by the door watching me, her eyes ‘Seeing Me’ something there, I know her and I couldn’t look away. We became a tableau, neither moving for minutes until her golden head cocked to one side seeming to say, “—well?” I was in love in an instant.
I’d never liked dogs, they’re too dependent. They were okay, and I never kicked any. I did emphatically push one little Pomeranian that wouldn’t stop mounting my leg away once before the owner confined him. Cats were my favorite. I never had to walk a cat, and they only approached me when they needed petting.
“I don’t care how much, Steve, I want her.”
“She’s yours, Ian. I’ve been waiting to see you and decided if you didn’t show up soon I’d be knocking on your door and would not take no for an answer, I’d drag your ass here if I had to, for Paige.”
“Thank you, Steve.”
“Her name’s Darla, she’s a golden lab and was Paige’s favorite, Darla never left her side. Paige said she had a plan to wheedle you into agreeing to a dog.”
“I have no doubt she did, and even less she’d have succeeded.”
Darla brought my life back. She became a channel to Paige and I lived again. Dinners and other things, lots of birthdays with family and talking to all our friends again. A few platonic dates too because anything else seemed like betraying Paige.
Darla never left my side. She didn’t push on me, just made sure she was never farther than 2 feet from me. Within a week she was sleeping snuggled against me, her head in my lap sitting on the sofa. If she wasn’t allowed I wouldn’t go, but after I registered her as a Service Dog there was nowhere we weren’t allowed.
For years we walked for miles every day until there was more pain than pleasure for us and it became a daily around the block. That evolved to only on weekends with a long sit on the front porch after to talk with any passersby in the milder months, in the living room in front of a fire in the cold ones watching and waving at them.
All walking became a chore for us these last few months so we mostly sat on the porch or in the living room. Many stopped and sat with us to talk and knew the door was always open, Darla greeted each with a sniff and a lick.
It’s been 2 days since we’ve eaten, I couldn’t leave her. Paper towels cleaned what little mess there was.
I was cradling her head when she touched my palm with her tongue saying her soft good bye. She shuddered and stopped breathing, her final exhale a warm wash across my hand and leg as her chest slowly collapsed. I felt her heart give its last little flutter and her jaws loosened letting her warm, wet tongue slip into my hand. Her bladder gave out its last as she relaxed against me like no living thing can.
Deep, wracking sobs started, and I closed my arms softly around her. In mostly garbled sobs I said, “Goodbye, Darla. I love you, sweetheart. Find Paige and wait for me.”
I don’t know how long I’ve sat here crying, holding her while her body cools, thinking, I’ll just a sit here for a little while longer. What a wonderful companion you’ve been, sweetheart, you’ve kept me alive. I’ll miss you my love . . . my last love.
I gave Darla a kiss and said, “I don’t think it’ll be long now, Paige, I’ve waited long enough. I’ve missed you so much and I’m so tired and lonely. I’ll stop eating.” For a year I‘ve forced myself to eat because I never get hungry. It was an easy way for Darla and I’m as wasted away as she was so it’ll be quick.
“They won’t miss me for a week and that should do it. The family will understand. Since I was a teenager, I’ve denied any form of a deity or afterlife, but right now, my loves, my hope is I’ve been wrong. If you and Darla are there, I’m coming love.”
His cleaning woman found them, Darla snugged against him with her head in the crook of his right arm. His family did understand and gave him the final wish he’d scrawled on the paper towel clutched in his hand. .
To my dear family,
Cremate Darla and me and mix us with your mother then spread us on the rocks at the mouth of the Russian River for the winds and tides to carry away and we’ll walk there together forever. Please do this for us, I love you all, but I’m so tired and lonely. I’ve missed your mother for 14 years. It’s time now, I can’t go through that loss again. Don’t cry, party, celebrate I was here. All of you are the reason I was here. You are the future, the hope I’ve tried to pass along. Enjoy life, all of its flavor and texture. Try to do more good than harm. I can barely hold this pen now. Very peaceful. Maybe another day, 2 at most. Goodbye, I love you all, your PaPa.
A squiggle that may have been an attempt to draw a heart was the last character.