12: The Rainbow Bridge

12: The Rainbow Bridge

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog

The Rainbow Bridge

Fun fact: Cocker Spaniels were given their name because they were good at helping people hunt the woodcock, which the Spaniel flushed out of low bushes.

Ten years ago, my father was seventy-one, but still not retired. He had always taken great pride in his work and defined himself by it, so, to his mind, retirement equaled uselessness and loss of identity. My mom was growing increasingly resentful at being left alone so much during what were supposed to be their golden years. I suggested to her many times that she get a dog for company around the house, but she always said, “We don’t want the carpets to get ruined.”

I tried to convince my parents that a little carpet damage would be a small price to pay for the loyal companionship of a dog, but they still refused. Their last dog was my childhood pet, which had died twenty years earlier, so I figured they were overdue for another one. My plan was to find a puppy so cute they couldn’t possibly resist it. Of course, every puppy is adorable, but the one I found was off the charts — a Cocker Spaniel smaller than my hand, with long, silky ears and big, brown, soulful eyes.

The only problem was that it would pee when I leaned over it or picked it up. As I wiped off my hand, the breeder said, “Oh, that’s just submissive urination. He’s recognizing your dominance. It’s kind of a compliment!”

It didn’t feel like a compliment. It felt like pee.

He added, “It’s a puppy thing. It’ll stop when she’s older.” I took his word for it, figuring a little wee-wee could be tolerated for such a bombardment of cuteness. Armed with this secret weapon, I returned to my parents’ house. My mother fell easily, but my dad remained stony. While my mother cuddled and spoke baby talk to the puppy, he leaned in and whispered to me, “I’ll get you for this.”

In his younger years, my dad was a semi-professional boxer and a reserve policeman in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was as tough as his upbringing, but he had a soft side, too. I often joked with him that he was “rock candy with a gooey center” — tough on the outside but mushy on the inside.

In time, as I had hoped, the dog did her magic and won him over, too. They named her Molly, and she became my dad’s constant companion. I think she was even instrumental in helping him finally retire. It was still hard for him to sit around the house, but having Molly to play with made it much easier. My mom was happier than ever, too.

A few months after I gave them Molly, Dad told me, “That dog is the greatest gift you’ve ever given us.”

I joked, “But, Dad, you said you were going to get me for this, remember?”

He smiled slightly and said, “Shut up.”

Molly filled their days with laughter and slept at the foot of their bed every night. They walked her several times a day, getting exercise they otherwise wouldn’t have had, and meeting neighbors they might never have met.

Five years ago, my father was diagnosed with light forms of Parkinson’s and dementia. He became very depressed. He even stopped singing, the one thing that had given him the most joy in life. We all felt helpless. He had always been the life of the party, the one his friends called on to sing a song or tell a joke, and so the change was painful to watch. I visited him as often as I could, but work and family obligations often kept me away. I was always glad to know Molly was with him when I couldn’t be.

Last year, on the day after Thanksgiving, Dad fell and fractured his hip. He spent three agonizing weeks in the hospital. Since my wife, my mother or I were always at his bedside, we took turns going home to tend to Molly. She always greeted me enthusiastically and then looked out the window to see if my dad was with me. I would tell her he would be home soon. One day, I entered the house so quietly she didn’t hear me come in. I found her sleeping on his pillow.

My father never came home. He developed aspiration pneumonia in the hospital and died of respiratory failure a few days before Christmas. We fought hard to save him because there was still a lot of him left to save, despite his brain conditions. The day before he broke his hip, we had had Thanksgiving dinner and he was very much his old self, so it was devastating to lose him.

When I took my mother home, Molly greeted us as enthusiastically as ever, and then looked out the window again for my dad. My mother sat on the couch and cried. Molly looked over from the window, then ran and jumped onto my mother’s lap, lowered her head and actually seemed to cry with her. She knew something was very wrong.

It was a dark house for several days when tragedy struck again. Molly, who was only ten years old and had always been perfectly healthy, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm on Christmas Day, four days after my father’s death. My mother was inconsolable.

Some say everything happens for a reason, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why my father had to suffer so much during the last three weeks of his life, and why their dog had to die a few days later and leave my mother completely alone. It just seemed cruel and senseless.

A few weeks later, I was talking with a good family friend; Kathleen asked if I had ever heard of the “Rainbow Bridge.” I hadn’t. She said, “It’s a place between earth and heaven where animals wait for the person they were closest to. The Bridge is in a beautiful place with fields for dogs to play in and everything they could desire. Sometimes, the animal dies before its owner, and sometimes they die because they know their owner has passed away and they want to find him or her again. Your dad may have been confused and in need of a guide. The dog is there to lead its master over the Rainbow Bridge and into heaven.”

I was very cynical at the time because of so many unanswered prayers in the hospital, but I hoped that this was true. When I doubt the existence of the rainbow bridge, or heaven itself, I remind myself that a healthy dog somehow knew my father was not coming home and died a few days after he did. I remind myself that my dad had a brain condition, and Molly died of one, as if by some empathetic response, and as if she knew dying was the only way to be with him again. It seems to me life can be meaningless or it can be filled with magic and great mysteries. I choose a mystery.

My four-year-old daughter asked where my father and Molly went. I didn’t want to explain death to her so early, so I told her they both went to Ireland. I imagine the land around the Rainbow Bridge is a lot like Ireland, so it’s a white lie.

Someday, when I’m old and it’s my time to go, I hope the dogs I’ve loved on this earth will guide me across the Rainbow Bridge, too. And I hope my father and Molly will be waiting for me on the other side, happy and healed. I’ll hold him tight, then kneel down and tussle Molly’s hair like I always did. She’ll look at me with those big brown eyes and her doggy smile again. My father will put his arm around me and say, “Isn’t this something, son? It’s all true! And Molly is still the greatest gift you ever gave me.”

~Mark Rickerby

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