It was August of 1993, my sister had moved to Texas to attend Baylor University. The house seemed so empty. My folks had divorced a couple years before and with my sister gone it was just me and my Mom. It was an odd time. Mom was still trying to find herself now that she was not Mrs. Rick Hartsfield, and I, well, I was a teenager. I was full of emotion, full angst, full of a lot of things. With Heather gone, I was unaware of just how life would shape up to be. Truth is I was lonely, very lonely. I tried to put on a good face, tried to be a \”man\” and not show how I was feeling. Funny thing is, with all that was going on in her heart and mind, my Mom still saw right through the \”mask\” I was wearing. She was able to put aside, if only for a moment, her pain and emptiness and zero in on her child\’s need.
When I was growing up we always had dogs. We had all kinds of dogs. We had a German shepherd, we had mixed breads, and we had an English bulldog. We had just about every dog you could think of. There was a time when my Dad thought we would raise Cocker Spaniels. It seemed like a good idea. Trouble was the first Cocker we got was a few bricks shy of a load. In the end, the Cocker \”experiment\” last about 7 years, with little or no rewards to show.
The back yard was so quiet. No barking, just silence. Honestly, it was kinda refreshing. We had had some tough times with the Cockers. So, the peace was a nice change. However, when Heather left the silence seemed to overtake everything. It sorta crept in from the back yard and filled the house. I must have not hid how uncomfortable it made me to well, because Mom decided enough was enough.
It was a day like any other; summer was coming to a close and school would soon start again. Upon coming home from work one day evening, my Mom told me to head out to the truck.

\”Where are we going?\” I asked.
\”I have to run an errand in Modesto.\” She replied.
\”Can\’t I just stay home while you go?\” I wined.
\”No, you are going.\” She countered.

Annoyed and frustrated, I sat silently as we headed to Modesto. We lived in Oakdale, California, a small rural town of about 10,000 to 12,000 people. The trip from Oakdale to Modesto would take, on average, 15 to 30 minutes depending on what part of town you were headed to. After what seemed to be an eternity, we arrived at a house I was not familiar with.

\”Where are we?\” I groaned.
\”Just stop complaining.\” She fired back at me.

She knocked on the door and a man, who I\’d never seen, greeted us and invited us in. He led us through his home to the back yard. Once we were there I saw the most beautiful Golden Labrador I\’d ever seen. She was thick and broad, just simply a gorgeous dog. Attached to her was a litter of Black puppies. The man told us the pups were pure Labrador, the father being a Black Lab and the mother being the Lab we saw before us.

\”Well, which one do you want?\” My Mom asked.

For the last several weeks I had begun asking my Mom about getting a new dog. She never really gave me much hope that she was actually considering my request. I realized then I had been the subject of an old fashioned parental surprise. I had being telling her I didn\’t want a small dog. We had small dogs for years, and now I wanted something bigger. So, here we were.

\”Are you serious, Mom?!\”
\”As a heart attack.\” She often said.

Immediately, I began scanning these beautiful pups. Which one was the \”one\”. It seemed like I was taking forever, I\’m sure, but it had to be the right dog. Then I spotted the biggest one of the bunch. He was thick and beautiful. His fur shined like a new paint job.

\”That one!\” I exclaimed, barely being able to contain my self.
\”Ah, I\’m sorry, kid. That one is spoken for.\” Said the owner of the dogs.

Well, now my plan was ruined. Come all this way and the dog, my dream dog, was somebody else\’s. Why hadn\’t they come and picked it up already. Was it a cruel joke they liked to play on people who came looking for a new pet. With all these thoughts running through my head, I was unaware of a cute little pup that had found his way between my legs and was now looking up at me. I happened to glance down at him and I smiled.

\”I\’ll take this one.\” I said
\”Looks like he\’ll take you.\” The man said.

I gathered him up and off we went. We got into our truck and headed back home.

\”Well, what are you gonna name him?\” My Mom asked.
\”I was thinking, Capt Kirk!\” I almost shouted.
\”Hmmm, I think you can do better than that.\” Mom replied.
\”I know! What about, John Wayne?\” I said while holding my new friend up.
\”How about Duke?\” Mom asked.
\”Duke?\” I asked
\”Yeah, you know they used to call John Wayne, The Duke.\” She said kind of \”matter of factly\”.
\”Duke…Duke….yeah, I like that. Duke it is.\”

I must have told that story 1,000 times in 15 years, the day I first laid eyes on that wonderful animal. Yet, today it seems clearer than ever.

\”How long will it take?\” I asked.
\”Not long at all, maybe a minute or so.\” Dr. Santos replied.
\”Oh, ok.\” I sputtered, while I gently held my friend.

In recent weeks, time had finally caught up to him. He\’d been stumbling more and more. His legs, which once could more than match mine, faltered under his ever shrinking frame. His, eyes still bright and brilliant, seemed sad now. He was ready, and he let me know. Right before Dr. Santos entered the room this weary soul looked into my eyes, like he did so many years ago, and comforted me. Giving me the strength to do what was best for him. He then stumbled over to my wife and rested his heavy head on her knee. She had become as important to him as I was, and he had to give her peace as well.

\”It shouldn\’t be long now.\” Dr. Santos said.

I stared down at my friend, my dearest friend. He slowly released the tension that gripped him as the medication took hold. His breaths became further and further apart. Those dark eyes began to fade, but his strong heart would not relent. It kept beating to his Doctor\’s amazement.

\”Its ok, old man,\” I said while choking up, \”just relax.\”

With those words his strong heart, finally, was still. Soon, it was just the two of us again. My wife and daughter left to settle up with the front desk and our Veterinarian left as well, more patients to attend to. It was fitting, though; it had been just he and I so many times in the past. So many memories flooded my mind as I gently stroked my peaceful sidekick, too many memories to share, really. We\’d shared a lifetime in 15 years. The truth is, it wasn\’t the past that filled me, it was the present. It came to me that this sweet animal was resting without pain for the first time in a very long time. It was that thought that allowed me to find the strength to say goodbye.
Driving home I kept feeling like we\’d forgotten something back there. Then I realized that a big part of me was in that dog. You see, he had filled the lonely feeling I had inside. He was the only member of my family who never left me. He was always there, no matter what I\’d done. When the climate in the house was uncomfortable, he was always patiently waiting outside for me. He always ready to play ball, to run, to wrestle, to do anything to take my mind off the storm that maybe raging at home. There were days I thought he would outlive me. There were nights I thought I\’d kill him if he didn\’t stop barking. Yet, what never changed was our love for each other. Even though little feet fill the house and laughter is often heard, the house seems empty again. However, the hole he filled is not vacant because he\’s gone, quite the contrary. It is filled, filled to over flowing with memories. Even though he is gone now, he still seems so near. At any minute, I could hear his deep threatening bark, or see him strike fear into the hearts of those that dare trespass on his turf. I don\’t know if dogs to go to Heaven. If they do, and I hope they do, I know one of the first I\’d like to see is that happy face. Though, I bet I won\’t have to go looking for Duke, because like he did the first time we met, he\’ll find me.

Richie from CA