The McReynolds are our neighbors and best friends. Belinda McReynolds is my wife’s closest friend, Dave McReynolds is mine, but our relationships range further than is suggested by those initial pairings. Belinda is my second best friend, I’d say, and Dave is my wife’s. Some relationships are strong enough to pool with others without forfeiting their unique bond. Like Saturn with each of its moons. The McReynolds had a beagle named Thaddeus. Everyone loved Thaddeus, or Thadd as he was normally called. He was the most abiding—in a wise way—dog you could ever meet, one of those lynchpin creatures in life.
When our boy, Paul, got hit by a truck, and was in bed recovering for months, Thadd came over and kept him company. He basically boarded with us, becoming part of our family. He wasn’t just a companion, though: he boosted the boy’s spirits when my own—despite the face I tried to put on everything—often felt buried under a city turned to rubble, like I was letting my son down by not convincingly going through the motions he needed to see me go through. I didn’t know that he’d walk again, his leg was broken in so many places. Shattered. Shards were removed. You couldn’t figure how there’d be enough bone left to make a working leg. There were two surgeries. The second involved a grafting of hip bone. When the doctor cleared his throat, in post-surgical summation, and opined, with a gravity worthy of Newton dropping an anvil out of a tree, “It’ll be a long road back,” I wanted to strike him on my son’s behalf, as if he was making some pun about the byways and paths Paul wouldn’t be able to travel down under his own power.
That was a time in our lives that could have been worse, as bad and scary as it was. Instead, I ended up getting closer with Paul, after a couple years of us drifting apart, despite my lies to self that nothing of the kind was happening, which I think had a lot to do with Thaddeus. The dog was a brightening agent for my son, a presence to look forward to seeing each morning, which isn’t something you can always say about parents, or ever say about parents, maybe. That’s what a dog can do. The right dog. Not that there are really wrong dogs. But if you’ve ever had one, you know the certain kind of dog I mean. The dog who is receptive to what you are going through, and takes in the entirety of your ordeal through the openness of its own eyes, but refuses to adopt an attitude suggesting you should compromise the one you’ve always had, because you will have it again. You still have it, if you want it. Or a better attitude, which comes in the form of a clearer, or greater, purpose.
Thaddeus was simply wise that way, and you couldn’t help but know it, even as you wanted to ask him—I know I did—how he knew what he knew.
We talked about art in comic books during those long weeks when bone hopefully knit to bone, and didn’t dissolve into cloudy piles of spent minerals that would be absorbed into the blood stream and flushed away, never again to do what they had been there for. I lent Paul my beloved, dog-eared copy of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, as if to keep the canine theme going, and he actually liked it. He turned me on to Otis Redding, who I never knew much about at all, and triggered a passion I’ve had ever since. Any time I hear Otis Blue, a part of me—the best part of me—is back in my son’s room, where I watched him handle something—with a little help—that turned him into a man who wouldn’t break. And maybe myself a tiny bit better of one. He went to bed at night and awoke in the morning looking forward to seeing someone’s eyes. They weren’t mine, and God love his mother, but they weren’t hers either. They belonged to that dog.
The exercises were almost worse than not being able to move the leg at all. When the time came for them to be done, they were a daily agony. “Ready?” I’d say to Paul, leaning in on my chair—a sturdy chair for a sturdy undertaking—from one side of the bed, with Thadd at the foot, focused on Paul’s face. The body’s progress would be undone without the spirit’s effort. The taking on of new pain after all of the numbness, what Paul described as a blank feeling in his leg. The same doctor who had cited the arduous road said, “And here comes the hard part,” when we got to this stage which itself was hard enough to get to.
As I worked with my son to help him flex his leg an inch more each day, I felt like any second we’d hear the snapping of bone, such was the look of agony on his face. But it was teeth-gritted agony. The type that says, “I’m okay, it has to be done.”
Thadd, meanwhile, radiated understanding and a look of unflappability that I took for well-informed faith. A creature who instinctually understood imperativeness and duty to others and one’s self, and that Paul would be fine. We both would. I never had to ask Paul twice when Thadd was there. “Ready as ever,” Paul would say, and we’d start. The results wouldn’t have been the same without the dog. I’ve always believed that. I’ve always known it.
You never want your kid to suffer, but I don’t know what we would have been later in the years following when Paul went off to school, moved several states away after graduation, and made the choices in his life that he ultimately made, without our time in that room. I’m not certain we would have been two people who felt it was imperative to talk on the phone two or three times a week, with real talk, not the going through the motions, “how’s the weather, dad?” chatter, which isn’t much different than punching a time clock. You don’t want the timestamp, even if you’ll take it if you have to. It can be stunning the things you end up being grateful for, while still recognizing them as bad things—or bad people, in other instances, whatever that means with our need to label what’s right and what isn’t, who’s good and who’s not.
My wife Bridget and I felt we owed both Thadd, insofar as one can owe an animal—which can be a lot more than I knew—and the McReynolds, who seemed to think this was the way matters should proceed. They could help us, and they did. You don’t always know what form the help you give will take. It makes itself known to people who are the most willing. That’s the kind of people the McReynolds are, and the kind of dog that Thadd was. He engendered feelings that previously you’d only had for the humans you loved the most. Feelings you can’t really put a name to, save to say you can’t put a name to them; and then, as an English aunt of mine said, “there’s you done.”