It was a few weeks ago that I noticed him. Standing in the shadows. I recognized him immediately, of course. Joe Black.
In the movie, Joe Black [Death] is Brad Pitt handsome, suave, and sophisticated. Coming all too soon for the media mogul played by Anthony Hopkins, Joe agrees to a reprieve in exchange for a tour of life on earth.
In real life, Joe Black isn’t handsome. And he doesn’t negotiate.
Her weight loss was what I first noticed. And her energy was off. I chalked it up to the summer heat. But as the days passed, I knew something was amiss.
“Lymphoma,” the vet said. (Joe nodded sagely in the corner behind him.) There was time, said the doctor. Options. Treatments. (“It’s a lie,” Joe said.) The words became a blur as my legs buckled beneath me.
We took Sammy home. We lived those next weeks with such tender care, such focus, such determination. And Sammy lived like royalty.
On a rare and glorious summer day, with my precious son, her master, we walked together the paths of seasons past, visiting the haunts of carefree boyhood, knowing all the while in the recesses of our hearts that today we had the cares of men.
I watched as Sammy nuzzled and played with my boy. The sky clear, the summer sun warm. The moments filled with unbounded joy. And tinged with that contingent sadness that came with the knowing that these days of summer would be all too brief.
I could feel the gentle breeze from the fetch of the lake. Across the sweeping field of fresh cut grass, I saw Joe watching. I pretended not to see him.
With such intensity we held her close and whispered in her ear. A noble dog. The treasured one who had brought unbridled joy to a young boy’s heart. The one who played with him and walked with him, in the rain and in the snow. A creature who knew only love, no matter the seasons of the year. Or of life.
The day grew short. In the parting, there was such grief.
I held her as she slipped away. My hands still ache from the digging in the hard, dry earth. I laid her to rest beneath the apple tree in the yard in which the boy became a man, the place they both loved so much. I worry that she will be wet and cold and lonely. I miss her terribly; and I grieve the empty place in the heart of my sweet boy that I can never heal.
I know why the great masters have always sent their students to the charnel grounds. It is only there that we begin to burn with the recognition of all that is so transient. And learn to find the truth in what remains.
It is perhaps Joe’s one and only gift, that lesson seared by our mortality: live.
I want to live these last days of summer with urgency and fervor. To know the crisp morning air, to feel the intensity of the sun, to hear the sounds of the crickets and the bats, to watch the flickers of the fire flies in the dying light.
Summer wanes. Sammy’s gone. I scan the perimeter for Joe Black. I don’t see him. But I know he’s there.