Some years ago, after both of my parents realized their marriage was destined for ruin but before they chose to call it quits, my father bought my mother a pure-bred Shih Tzu. The floppy little dog was white with black spots, weighed about as much as a half-eaten sandwich, and had enough personality for ten animals twice his size. Someone in my family, I suppose my mom, chose to name him Thor—long before the Marvel adaptation would make the name start to feel cheesy.
Eventually, things got rough for my family. My dad got into some legal trouble, lost his job and our house and my mom saw the out she’d been waiting for. She told us she was taking a job in Connecticut and that the family needed the money, but I was already old enough to see through the charade. Weeks passed before she finally came back for a weekend visit. She spent most of the trip with my younger brother who was still in middle school, and when I got up on Monday morning he was gone too, and so was Thor. Just like that, it was just my father and I—two strong-willed guys that had never gotten along.
My dad had his demons, many of which were arguably born in the service. He was a combat medic in Vietnam, and although he maintained a passion for his country and for helping fellow veterans, he never forgave the Army for whatever it was he saw while he was over there. Maybe he’d always had a thing for drugs and alcohol, or maybe those struggles were born in the conflict he refused to discuss, but back before a stroke took much of what made him himself away, he was a man of emotional extremes. As a kid, I saw only anger and the repercussions of that anger. As an adult, I mostly remember the sadness.
My father, a prominent figure in our small community for employing many of the town’s residents, became a pariah, and as his son I became one through relation. My long-term girlfriend, a motivated young woman from a wealthy family, decided to break things off soon after my mom left. The Hollings family was poison, and although my father was ultimately acquitted of the white-collar crimes he was accused of, by then it didn’t matter. Maybe that’s why my dad took it so hard when he found out my mom had given away the dog. Thor was one of the last relics of a better time gone by.
He put up ads in newspapers, printed flyers and was even interviewed by local TV as he campaigned to get Thor back. I was too wrapped up in my own drama at the time to give it much notice. Eventually, I started seeing the woman who would one day be my wife, and I left too. He got Thor back soon after I left, but a year or so later, when I told him I was getting married and that I planned to join the Marines, that hate for the military he’d harbored since Vietnam proved stronger than his love for me, and he angrily rejected our invitation to the wedding. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he wasn’t a saint either.
I didn’t come home for a few years. It wasn’t out of spite, I just didn’t have a home to come back to. The house was gone, my brothers and parents had all gone their separate ways and Jamie made California feel like home for me. I didn’t speak to my father much, but I’d get pictures every once in a while—of my dad and that tiny little pile of black and white fur he brought with him everywhere.
While I was gone, my brother opened his own business, a small auto shop and used car dealership in Jamie’s hometown of Torrington, Connecticut. My dad, with decades of experience running multi-million dollar facilities, came on as the shop manager. Thor, now covered in scraggly, unkempt hair that was usually more brown than black or white, became the shop dog. He was there at the birth of Hollings Automotive, while I, one of the Hollings boys, kept in touch via e-mail from 29 Palms.
Eventually, of course, I came home to visit. I’d sit on the shop couch and pet Thor’s dirty head while my brother built race cars and my father manned Microsoft Excel. Then, after I was stationed in Massachusetts, I’d come by more often. I still remember the night my father and I finally addressed my wedding.
I passed him a beer as Thor climbed on his lap. His eyes filled with tears and he just said, “sorry I didn’t come to your wedding.”
I leaned over in his office chair inside the little lobby of my brother’s shop, put my arm around him and just said, “don’t worry about it.” We clinked beers, and that was that. It was all I needed from him.
One day, my dad suddenly felt like something was wrong, but for the life of him couldn’t seem to communicate what it was. I’m told he stood abruptly and just walked out of the office, got in the Lincoln Mark VIII I’d bought for him when I came back and drove it to the hospital. By the time he walked inside, he didn’t know his own name. The man had a stroke and simply defaulted to survival mode. It worked, but he’d need surgery to prevent another one. A few weeks later, he called me as he headed in for what was to be an out-patient procedure, and we joked about how they’d better not screw up. It seemed funny enough to both of us until I got a call from my older brother, telling me that’s exactly what had happened.
The next time I saw my dad, he didn’t know who I was, but I think he knew that he was glad to see me. I visited every week; he usually thought I was my older brother, but that was fine—they were always closer anyway. I knew he’d be happier to see Earle than me, so playing along seemed like the right thing to do. I also took Thor home, much to my wife’s dismay. He was already thirteen years old and couldn’t have much time left, I told her, he deserved to spend what time he had left with family.
Thor lived for three more years. He couldn’t walk well, so I’d load him in my day pack for hikes then let him out to explore when I found nice spots to rest. He smelled like bad cheese no matter how much you washed him, and needed a special diet that required more preparation than the meals I cooked for myself. When Jamie left to take care of her mother when she was ill, all I had were the pets—Thor, our dog Frank and our cat to keep the house noisy enough to feel like home. Thor was a good dog, and he looked out for me in those dark times just like he did through my dad’s years of loneliness.
Eventually, Thor took a nasty spill off a retaining wall on my property and broke his hips. I once broke a kid’s femur in a rugby game, and Thor’s yelps for help sounded startlingly like that young man’s. They were desperate, frantic, even angry… it was the noise, not the sight of it, that was hard to handle. I wrapped him up in a blanket and consoled him like a child until he began to calm down. His breathing was rapid and shallow, but he trusted that I was there to help him. I sat with him for a long time while my wife cut up some steak in the house. She brought it down to us in the yard, but before she could sit down next to me, I asked her to go back inside. He whimpered and ate, but the movement aggravated the injuries and he began to grow frantic with pain again. I laid beside him and consoled him until the wailing subsided to shallow breathing and low whimpers.
And then I shot him with my rifle.
Shih tzu’s aren’t a manly breed of dog but Thor was a manly bastard. He knew better than anyone that life is hard, brutal even, but family is what got you through it. Thor was family, in more ways than I was, through ten years of traveling with a dog tag on my boot. He was there for my mom in those early days of their divorce, my dad through his darker times and my brother’s business when they needed a pet, a friend or a mascot. Thor was the Hollings man my dad and I both always meant to be—someone you could count on, no matter how bad things got.
Someone accused me, not too long ago, of being callous and devoid of emotion, thanks to my years in the Marine Corps and, I have to assume, my general disposition since. I get called a lot of things in this line of work, and rarely do they affect me, but this time it did. I found myself back there, rifle in hand, whispering that I was sorry to a dog that, honestly, knew my father better than I ever have, and I worried that they may be right. I worried that there was something else I should have done, but too many years of facing the idea of death in my mind, for one reason or another, had numbed me to its severity… its finality.
I’m no badass tough guy. I’m not a Navy SEAL or a Delta commando—I’m just a dude that’s been some places and done some things, but I’ve been to enough places and done enough things to know that there are corners of my soul that come alive when the rest of me shuts down. Those corners aren’t the Alex that tells stories at dinner parties or tweets about Batman, but they’re mine nonetheless. That night, as I have in the past and will again in the future, I closed myself off to the feeling parts of my mind and relied on my callous ability to do what I felt needed to be done. I was the person I’ve been accused of being.
I miss Thor. He was around for more than half of my life, and when I walk past the grave I built him I wonder sometimes if he felt like I betrayed him in his last moments of life. He was 16 years old, mostly blind and deaf, and had been fighting an infection for some time that had left his skin red and peeling. I know the vet would have put him down on a cold metal table, but Thor didn’t. I wanted him to die with family, in familiar territory, without fear. I wanted him to live his life right up until it was over.
I hope he understood that.
Images courtesy of the author