Growing up

I was seventeen and, on a bitterly cold, bright and clear winter day, my father took Red out to the back of the property and shot him.

It is as clear to me now, many years later, as it was then. The day was one of those that you find only in the north. At the time, we were living in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba – later, we moved to Toronto – an entirely new living experience with its urban chaos, so different from the prairie space and silence we were used to.

That day, instead, was filled with silence, as was every other day. It was so clear, cold and still that the air, itself, was like the ice on the duck pond. I was sitting on the edge of my bed and my mother was beside me. Her arm was lightly around my waist. The Bible was open in my lap to Psalm 40 and my lips moved, quietly pronouncing the words.

I heard the sound of my father's boots on the back porch and looked up, through that crystalline stillness to see him, a moment later – the porch door swinging shut on its spring – carrying Red, carefully wrapped in a tartan blanket and coddled in his arms, out toward the back forty.

Red, an Irish Setter, arrived to us, a fat ball of red fluff and paws, when I was only 3 but, it didn't take long for us to become fast friends. He seemed to adopt the gregarious and active child that I was and, by the time he left, there were scarcely minutes that we didn't pass together or, at least, in each others company.

It was 1972 and, at that time, living miles away from the nearest town – Wheat's Corners - the only time the veterinarian came out was when my father's Morgan horse, called Lily, was limping and Dad couldn't figure out what was wrong with the leg. Dad loved that horse and, when it was her time, he couldn't do it. He called Mr. Sampson from down the road at the next farm to have him do it. Dad never got another horse.

“Patrick,” said my mother, her hand rubbing my back. I watched my father slowly grow smaller in the distance and, finally, he disappeared over a rise. My mother indicated the Bible and we began to read together.

When the report of the shotgun came, carried loud through the still air, we both jumped.

My mother had made a nest for Red in front of the fireplace – all blankets and pillows – but, he usually eschewed those favours and simply lay on his side with his belly toward the fire and his legs extended, panting and his tongue lolling. When he moved, he whimpered in pain.

My father returned about an hour later. At the time, I didn't know that, already, in the Autumn and before the ground froze, he had prepared the place for Red. The earth had been carted into a shed so it would not freeze. When he stopped in the doorway, his eyes red from crying and sweating from the effort of burying an animal in frozen ground, he said:

“Mother – Felicity – let's leave the boy a piece.”

Abiding, my mother rose, stroking my hair and, then, taking my father's hand, I heard them descend the stairs and, later, the sounds of them sobbing and my heart collapsed. I continued to sit, staring at the pages of the Bible but, I was no longer reading.

I didn't cry that day for my friend. I didn't know what to do. That came two days later.

I came home, running, from the school bus because that had been my habit. On the front porch, waiting expectantly, or just inside the door, would have been Red, his tail wagging furiously and polishing the floor boards. Instead, there was just the weighty space of his absence. I cried and, hearing me, my father came, saying:

“Let's take a walk, son.”

In boots and heavy parkas, we walked out to the back, in silence, until we came to a place where a plank had been hammered into the hard ground. My sorrow could not have been greater and, beside me, my father was silent until I felt the weight of his arm across my shoulders. The cold threatened to freeze the tears on my cheeks.

My father was never a man of words – he was a man of actions – but, in that moment, standing before the snow-dusted grave, he broke his code.

“You never lose the ones you love, son,” he said and his arm, strong, tightened around me.

“They are always with you in your memory.”

Today, they are all alive in my memory: my father with his slow, deliberate ways; my mother, delicate and determined and, Red, my first and greatest friend.

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