It was so very silent, as if sound itself had been stolen from the house. The children were asleep now, as was his mate. Neanderdad slumped sadly in his office, alone, listening to nothingness. He couldn’t get over the absence. He kept turning, hoping to hear those tell-tale sounds, praying he’d get the visit he’d gotten so many times over the years.
First there would be the distance click-clack of canine nails on the wood floor in the kitchen. Then there would be the subtler scuffing of paws on the carpet. Finally, the dog would appear. A wave of warm friendship would come across the hound’s face as it recognized Neanderdad’s presence, the loose jowly skin somehow flopping into a dog-equivalent of a smile. Finally, the tongue would slurp out for a friendly lick. Sometimes, the dog would sneeze on his approach, some strange autonomic reaction–programmed in the shadows of eons past for some other purpose–that had somehow become an unexpected sign of kinship.
But there would be no click-clacking tonight. Nor would Neanderdad hear the scuffing on the carpet. Or any of the rest of it. There would only be the deafening silence of the dog’s eternal absence. For during all of those hundreds of visits on previous nights, something dark and horrible and silent had been slowly growing in the animal’s belly. Recently it had finally pounced. The ever ebullient dog had suddenly become tired and withdrawn. The appetite, which had been insatiable, suddenly disappeared. And suddenly they were rushing their poor friend into the sterile horror of an emergency vet clinic. The surgery removed the cancerous spleen, but it could not remove all the darkness that had spread throughout the dog’s body. He made it home, but his days were numbered.
Despite his plight, the dog had been a champ. Sick with the cancer, hobbled by the surgery scars, and forced to wear an awkward and humiliating cone, he still managed to comport himself with an astounding dignity. Though he must have been in great pain, he still found the energy to wag his tail at Neanderdad and his family. Somehow, he also managed to make those nightly visits to Neanderdad’s office for one last check-in before bed.
False hope had came to Neanderdad’s house, at first. The dog’s appetite had came back. Some of his strength too. And when he started barking at dangerous threats like the UPS driver, it seemed like the dog was back to his old self. His energetic greetings at the door, the violent wagging of his tail and that darn sneezing, was so encouraging that Neanderdad fooled himself into thinking that it would last. He thought they would get many more months, maybe even years, of companionship. All would go back to normal. But the darkness still lurked inside the dog’s body, going about its silent, insidious work. Only days after having that energetic revival, the dog started to again show exhaustion and a lack of appetite.
What drove the dog during that time, Neanderdad now pondered? In pain as he was, how did he keep getting up and offering them such a wonderful demonstration of buoyancy and cheer? At first, Neanderdad thought it was simply cheese. Neanderdad did love to sneak him little bits of this delectable food during this time, against all advice, because he knew it would make the dog happy, if for a brief moment. But the dog still came, even when he would reject treats, even when he was limping stiffly, even when that sadistic cone caught on furniture, corners and doorways. He even came to visit after Neanderdad had come to visit him first, specifically so the dog could avoid the exertion of the trip.
Neanderdad concluded that the dog came to check on him for the same reason he had always come. Neanderdad was a member of his pack. The dog checked in on both children, checked in on Neanderdad’s mate, then traversed the house to check on Neanderdad himself. That was part of the dog’s purpose. He was the watcher of the pack, the glue that helped bind them together. He had served that role since he had joined them as a puppy, even before the children had arrived. He had served that role when the children had been babies that surely provided him with no return benefit. And he served it still, in weakness and pain. That thought brought great sadness to Neanderdad, for all was well for every member of the pack, save for the checker himself.
When the dog’s symptoms had become quite severe, Neanderdad and his mate were forced to consider what actions to take; not to save the dog which was impossible, but rather to reduce his suffering. It became a day-to-day question with only two forms of awfulness as an answer. Neanderdad tried hard to dodge the issue. He convinced himself that there would be a turnaround moment when the dog would suddenly start eating again. He rationalized the dog’s swollen belly and labored breathing. Even as his Mate asked increasingly urgent questions about what was happening, Neanderdad clung to false hope.
Neanderdad’s self-delusions ended suddenly on the fateful morning the dog collapsed on the bedroom floor and would not rise. There would be no more nightly check-ins. There would be no more cheese snacks. No protective barks. No strange, friendly sneezes. Neanderdad and his Mate sat on the floor then, petting and soothing their laboring friend, awaiting the final horror that arrived in the specter of a mobile vet. As the last sleep-inducing shot was administered and the dog slipped away from them, a torrent of tears flowed down rarely used channels on Neanderdad’s face.
So now Neanderdad sat in the silence, listening to the sound of a missing friend. Surely they would get another dog. It might also bark to protect them. It might even visit him as a final check. But it would never be the same. So in honor of his departed friend, Neanderdad rose from his chair, picked up the dog’s abandoned chew toy as a totem, crossed the house quietly, and checked on his safely slumbering pack. Well, at least those that still remained.