I was sitting in a McDonald’s with my nephew when he asked me what time it was.
“What grade are you in?” I asked.
“Third,” he replied.
“So, you know how to read a clock, right?”
I took off my watch and handed it to him. “So, what time is it?”
Ethan stared at the watch and after a few seconds he said, “Three o’clock.”
“Very good,” I said. “Do you have a watch yet? You’re old enough.”
“You need one. Did you know you can use a watch to find your way home?”
“How do you do that?”
I placed my watch on the table. “You point the hour hand toward the sun, see?” Then I took a coffee stirrer and cast a shadow over the hour hand. “See what I’m doing?” I said. “That means the hour hand is lined up with the sun.”
Then I took the coffee stirrer and bisected the distance between the one and the hour hand. “The top of the stirrer is pointing south. The bottom of the stirrer is pointing north.”
“So that’s east and that’s west,” Ethan said, pointing in the correct directions.
“You got it.” I said. “But here’s the trick. If it’s daylight saving time you divide the distance between the hour hand and the one. If it isn’t daylight saving time, then you divide between the 12 and the hour hand.” I neglected to mention this trick works differently in the Southern Hemisphere. Why confuse him?
“How do you know this stuff?” Ethan asked.
“I read a lot.”
Ethan sucked on his chocolate milk, lost in thought. Then he said, “Is Pearl dead?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Your father said the vet appointment was at three. I guess in a little while it’ll be over.”
“Will it hurt?’
“No,” I said. “It’s very peaceful. She’ll just go to sleep.’
“I only cried twice,” Ethan said. “Last night and when I said goodbye before I came here.”
“You can cry whenever you want to, Ethan,” I said. “Whatever you feel is okay. If you feel relieved that’s okay too.”
“Just know this. Her suffering will be over.”
“She’ll be in a better place,” Ethan said, probably repeating something his parents said.
We finished our meal and drove to my wife’s office. My dog Felix was there so we leashed him up and I let Ethan walk him in the woods behind the complex.
“He’s a strong dog,” Ethan said, straining to control him.
“Yes. He likes to chase the groundhogs so keep a firm grip on the leash.”
“How old is he?”
“Felix? About eight.”
“Pearl was old,” Ethan said.
“She was here before you,” I said. “I remember when your Mom and Dad brought you home from the hospital. Pearl sniffed you up and down.” That elicited a giggle.
“She was a great dog, kid.”
My cell phone buzzed in my pocket but I already knew what the message would be. After I looked at it I said, “Pearl’s gone, Ethan.”
After taking a moment to absorb the news Ethan said. “She died the same day your dog died,”
“You’re right. My old dog died on Good Friday too. Thirty-one years ago.”
“So, Pearl’s in Heaven?”
“Yes, Ethan,” I said, knowing my old theology professors would be pulling their hair out at my reply. “She’s gone to where all dogs go.”
“I’m sad too. I liked Pearl.”
We walked back to my wife’s office. Felix drank some water and I watched as Ethan stroked his fur.
“When I worked at a restaurant,” I told him. “An old man walked his dog past my window every day for years. Then one day he came into the restaurant and I asked him how his dog was. He told me that the dog died and I said I was sorry. You know what he said?”
“That he was sad?”
“He told me something I will never forget. ‘Life is a series of dogs.’”
“Pearl was your dog when you were a little boy,” I said. “Your first and you’ll never forget her. But you’ll get another one in a few years.”
“A small dog, I think,” Ethan said. “That’s what Mom wants.”
“And when you’re a young man and living in your own house you’ll have a different dog. And then when you have your own children you’ll have another. I think you’ll always have dogs.”
“But they’ll die too. Won’t they?”
“Part of life, kid,” I said. “We have to take the good with the bad. People and dogs will come and go – and trust me, this stuff is tough for grownups too. But you won’t always feel sad about Pearl. One day you’ll think about her and smile.”
“We’re going to bury the ashes at Nana’s house.”
“That’s nice. Grandma and Grandpa loved Pearl too.”
Natalie woke from her nap in my wife’s office and was delighted to see her cousin. After bathroom breaks and apple juice rehydration I bundled them into my car and drove them to a playground. It was a glorious sunny day and the park was filled with laughing, happy children. Ethan took my daughter by the hand and chaperoned her though the throng, helping her up the ladders, taking her down the slides, and pushing her on the swing. Then he chased her everywhere, yelling, “I’m the monster” to my daughter’s squeals of delight.
Surrounded by the sounds of new life echoing across the playground I thought about my old dog. Then I thought about my friend who died on Holy Thursday twenty years ago. Whenever I think of them now I smile, the sting of their loss salved by the passage time. Ethan and my daughter will learn about this mercy eventually. Come to think of it, so will I.
Looking at my watch I pointed the hour hand at the sun and got my bearings. Then I closed my eyes and enjoyed the feeling of our star’s warmth caressing my face. In a little while it would grow dark but I knew the light would return. It always has. It always will. That’s what Good Friday is about. Things come and go but life is always triumphant.
“Goodbye, Pearl,” I whispered. “See you on the other side.”