12: What a Pal

12: What a Pal

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Touched by an Angel

What a Pal

Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.

~George Eliot

My best friend in high school and I refused to be called “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” And instead of saying, “I love you,” we said, “What a pal,” running it all together as one long word — whatapal. When we said it fast enough it sounded like “waterpail,” which became our secret word to express that no matter what else happened, we had each other. Sometimes I called him “What a fella,” (said fast it became Waterfalla) although we never could find a good variation on “What a girl,” so we let that idea go.

We spent a great deal of time in the park and searching different routes to familiar places. We often took my Collie, Duff, with us. Jeff and I walked next to each as we headed down the street from my house. Duff would begin our adventures walking a few steps ahead of Jeff, wagging his tail, head held high, smiling his dog smile. Then he’d gradually slow down until he was walking beside me, with Jeff a few steps behind us.

“You like Duff better than me,” Jeff would lament, feigning insult. “You’d rather walk with him than me.”

“No, he likes me better than you like me,” I’d joke back. “See, he wants to walk beside me. He’s not ashamed to be seen with me.”

Our walks were leisurely. We’d stop often so Jeff could take photos. He and his camera were never apart. Duff and I were never impatient. We had all the time in the world.

While our time together was happy and carefree, as idyllic as a tender movie about young love, our time apart was full of strife. We both felt trapped, powerless in situations beyond our control. We didn’t know where we fit in the world. Shortly before high school graduation, Jeff shot himself. My world collapsed. We had talked about suicide many times and had promised each other that if one of us ever killed ourselves, the other one would not be sad. We vowed if there was any way we could come back to the other, we would.

But talk and the brutal reality of suicide are worlds apart. We had no idea of the finality. The ache. The loneliness. The endless “what if’s” that had no answer.

Jeff left me his camera, which helped me navigate the overwhelming sorrow and loss. Through the lens, life was bearable. I could still find beauty, see joy. Even if the beauty and joy were not my own, I knew they existed.

Time passed.

I went to college, worked, fell in love, said “I do,” and had two sons. I inherited my parents’ love of Collies and had three Collies during my adulthood, including one my children grew up with. With my Collies beside me, I worked on my dreams of becoming a writer and on Jeff’s dreams of becoming a photographer. Like Jeff, I was seldom without a camera.

Through all the twists and turns of my life, I spoke to Jeff, especially when I was alone taking pictures. I’d tell him how much he’d like shooting whatever it was I was photographing. I’d focus the camera on landscapes, flowers, the lines of old people’s faces, architectural details, leaves blowing in the wind and imagine Jeff seeing them along with me. I knew his spirit was with me.

But two springs ago, while on a three-day photography trip in a remote area of Oregon, a strong feeling washed over me that it was unfair to hold on to Jeff. He had left the physical world more than three decades earlier and perhaps by keeping him alive in my heart I was preventing him from going on to what lies beyond death.

I held that thought driving along the winding back roads of Eastern Oregon, the sun sinking closer to the horizon. I got a room in the only motel in the tiny town of Heppner, a place I’d never been before. As the moon shone through the windows of the modest room, I said a tearful goodbye to Jeff, to someone who had filled the role of best friend long beyond his death.

My marriage had ended ten years earlier in divorce and I’d chosen to focus on my children rather than jump back into the dating game. Now my children were grown. While we talked often and they came home for vacations, my time with them was limited to days here and there. Geronimo, our family Collie, had died at the age of twelve the previous winter. I had never felt so alone.

When I returned from my trip, I checked Collie rescue sites on the Internet. I wasn’t sure about getting another dog, since I worked long hours, but I thought perhaps an older dog wouldn’t mind. He could sleep the days away and have plenty of energy for evening walks catching tennis balls. I’d checked the rescue sites in Oregon, Washington, and California before without any luck. Maybe this time I’d find my way to a new pal. But once again, there were no good matches.

Frustrated, I typed “Collies for sale,” “Collie needing home,” and “Collie breeders” into Google, following every link. My heart skipped a beat when I found a listing for puppies in an Oregon newspaper I’d never heard of before. Deciding there was no harm in at least getting more information, I called the number.

The price was quite high. “It’s just as well,” I told the breeder. “I work too much to give a puppy the attention he’d need.”

“I have a three-year-old male,” she replied. The price was reasonable.

I asked where she lived. In Heppner — the town I’d been in when I said my goodbye to Jeff. “What’s his name?” I asked, stunned at the coincidence.

“On his papers, he’s Whatafella.” I caught my breath and held on tight.

I drove the 250 miles to pick him up the next day. He stood by the fence expectantly, as if he knew I’d be coming for him. We became best friends before the ride home was over. He walked by my side without a leash. He waited patiently for me to come home at night, recognizing the sound of my car from the first day. And at night, no matter where he was when I fell into bed, he got up, trotted over to me and put his paw on my arm before he settled down beside my bed. None of my other dogs — all of who loved me and whom I loved in return — had ever done that.

He accompanies me when I set off to take pictures and sits beside me when I write. He reminds me I’m not alone and that in this world the possibility for connections with others is never far away. His presence reminds me that life is more mysterious than we can imagine and the possibilities for happiness are endless.

It is impossible not to believe that this Collie — who I named Casper — was not Jeff’s parting gift to me. He knew I loved Collies. And he didn’t want me to be alone.

Love transcends many things in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Casper is living proof. What a pal.

~Nancy Hill

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