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.

Thor at fourteen years old.

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.