Dear Barkley

Preparing a best friend for a life apart

Watercolor illustration of dog sitting next to a couch.

Dear Barkley,

You might be wondering why I ordered 12 boxes of your favorite dog food, a martingale collar, and a plush, red sweater to wear next winter. No, it’s not your birthday. That’s not for another three months and five days.

I’m a planner, as you know, and ever since my days as a supply officer in the Army, I’ve taken to heart a certain mantra: Tractemus omnia.

I want to make sure you have what you need in case tomorrow doesn’t go according to plan. The odds are high, I’m afraid. A man my age is a delicate flower. Every petal that is plucked weakens his stature. And if the torus cannot be repaired, the stem will wither away. Heart surgery at 71 is a solemn occasion.

But while death knocks on my door, the real source of my dread is the smell of that damned hospital. Bleach, urine, decay … all wafting through its pristine veneer. When will those who run a hospital realize that no amount of industrial soap can mask the malodor of human suffering?

You’ve sensed my worry, haven’t you, Barkley? Frantically circling around my armchair when I’m on the phone or crying when I close the door to use the toilet. I’m sorry, Little One. I mean no harm. I’m just adjusting to certain possibilities of the future.

I’ve made certain you’ll be in good hands if my fortunes turn. My sister’s daughter, Sandra, volunteers at a dog rescue and has two huskies of her own, Sibyl and Harry. You’ll get along with them just fine, she promises. Now, getting along with my niece? That I cannot guarantee. When Sandra was 7, she was intensely annoying, always doing some kind of dance move or magic trick that ended with a smarmy grin. Applause, applause, bow, more applause, bow, bow, encore, vomit.

Yes, people do grow out of bad habits, but some things don’t change, namely ego and a smarmy grin, even after 35 years. Sandra’s second husband, Lowell, whom I’ve met just twice, is in the insurance game. He’s a nice enough fellow, albeit a doormat, so should you wish to go to the bathroom suddenly, I’m sure he’d lie down and oblige.

I know, I should be nice. A lifelong bachelor should be grateful to those willing to be helpful during his twilight years. But it is often the case that, at some point, I will find a person, no matter how generous or intelligent they may be, insufferable. I blame it on the pheromones.

Why I couldn’t be born into this world a gazelle, I don’t know. But if being close to a furry one is my consolation prize for advancing the mammalian class, I’ll take it. What I’ve discovered since middle age is that tending to a dog is life’s most sublime gift.

Yes, Barkley, there’ve been others. I’m sorry, I hate to tell you that, but it’s true. Fribble, Tarmac, Zeus, Jeanie, Gidget, Althea, and Fitz. But no one was as adorable or as loyal as you.

Dog bone

From time to time, you’ll get a visit from Dorothea. She was the wife of my best friend, Carl. We became close when he was in hospice. Very close. If you’re reading between the lines correctly, then yes: Dorothea and I were more than just friends.

But we had our unspoken rules of decorum — respectful of the dying, mind you. During Carl’s time of need, Dorothea and I did not share our feelings toward one another. We buried them deep in that wasteland part of our minds where impolite thoughts go to die. We even stopped speaking to each other for over a year after Carl passed, as a way to cool down and be respectful of the dead. But it was obvious how we felt for one another. Everything that eighth-grade crushes are about — blushing, shyness, cracks in the voice — we experienced as men and women in our late 60s.

When we finally picked up where we left off six months ago, a huge burden had been lifted. We still felt strongly toward one another and longed for the days to reunite. We spoke every day on the phone — not an easy thing for a terse guy like Yours Truly. She could’ve talked about ornithology, for all I cared, as long as I heard that Lauren Bacall voice of hers. It electrified me, made me feel relevant again.

When I mentioned that we should express how we feel in the biblical sense, she became silent. She met someone during our time away and was moving with him to Sedona later that month. She didn’t know how to tell me. She was thinking we could just talk and talk, and life outside our conversations didn’t matter. “I didn’t want to risk losing you again,” she said and admitted her naiveté . She then hinted that I could pay her a visit before she left and perhaps change her mind.

I could kiss her maybe. Finally. I could charm her away from her current boyfriend. A man named Lloyd — also in the insurance game.

What I’ve discovered since middle age is that tending to a dog is life’s most sublime gift.

The roles were reversed this time, and eternal bliss was mine for the taking. I wanted her more than I ever wanted anyone else before. But I couldn’t. Not because of karma or guilt. I don’t know who this Lloyd is, but, as such things as crimes of the heart do exist, robbing someone of companionship is an act deserving of the most condemnation. I’ve learned you not only starve someone of intimacy but also of something we mammals cannot live without: routine.

I do take comfort, however, that Dorothea has taken a special interest in you, Barkley. Expect a hello in person every Christmas and Easter before she visits her grandkids. Be nice to her when she stops by. Don’t bark, don’t bite. Just sidle up next to her and offer your back to be petted. Like you, she’s one of the good ones. She’s just a victim of bad timing.

My hand is starting to tire, Little One, so I’m going to sign off. But before I go, I feel somewhat obliged to impart some fatherly advice. Mammals have this tendency to disappoint one another. The frequency and depth are significant, I’m afraid. But don’t be shy to forgive a little. Life is so much easier to bear when you accept its blemishes. No one’s perfect, and if that’s what you’re holding out for, solitude will be your only friend.

So, when you come across that overly eager chocolate lab in the dog park, don’t judge him if he wants you to join him when drinking from a dirty bowl of water or run endless laps around the park. And should he sniff your rear end, don’t be shy to sniff back. You might just have a friend for life.

When it came to you, Barkley, I like to think I practiced what I preached. Yes, it may be true that some dogs are easy, programmed to be loyal. But there’s a quid pro quo there, a social contract for which I must do my part. For every perch of your chin upon my knee, I scratch your belly. For every wagging of your tail, I speak two octaves higher to say hello. For every one of your winces at the scary noises at night, I chew on your dirty ears to distract you. I do so not because it’s fair — but because I have no choice. My love for you compels me. You’ve earned the title of “best friend.” When our time together ends, I hope I have done the same.

I’m grateful, Barkley, I really am. For giving me a little bit of joy — no, for giving me a lot of joy in this small life I’ve led.

Yours always,
Arthur aka Dad

Ross Berger headshotRoss is a TV screenwriter and a narrative designer of video games. His book Dramatic Storytelling & Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide to Video Games and Transmedia (published by Taylor & Francis) comes out this fall. Ross is a graduate of Brandeis University (BA, philosophy) and Columbia University (MFA, playwriting).
Mensa of Western Washington | Joined 1993