Yeager's Last Bath
His back end bows to the right as he attempts to stand and look up at me. My dear companion of these past nine years. Nine years we have spent together, reeling from our own personal hells, and finding a rhythm of life that would grant us reprieve from the death that once gripped us. We found our oasis at the top of Maple Hill Drive, where every year the trees in full splendor would draw life to their branches and waken us with the sweet song of birds in the midst of thriving life. Golden rays of morning sunshine would bask our faces with their tender morning call, that was until I realized my sheer curtains provided more of a show to passersby than my modest Baptist roots could allow to continue. Curtains closed on my unintentional show of indecency and the golden mornings were reserved for after the coffee was brewed and in hand downstairs. My next home will have to welcome the morning sun at a better angle to avoid the main roads!
I am not truly a dog person. I like them enough, the well-behaved ones. And Yeager was the best; with the occasional naughtiness that would later provide laughter and pleased eye rolls from my children and I. We would recount the nearly two whole pizzas he once ate with a mere breath that would give him a rotund abdomen. Our vegetarian St. Patrick’s day feast, vegetarian thanks to his finding the corned beef foolishly left unguarded; revealing the glutton that resided in this otherwise noble canine.
We came to Maple Hill, in what felt like flight from Camp Lejeune; a place that once held pride of country in my heart, but later came to represent the cruel combustion of a marriage and family life that I had held so dear. Yeager, Sergeant Yeager to the Marine Corps, had served dutifully in Iraq and Afghanistan, until a legacy IED would claim the life of his handler, Lance Corporal Abraham Tarwoe, and wound Yeager. We both lost something in Afghanistan that shook our world and rattled out the pieces of what we thought we knew, in an explosion whose shockwaves would take years to recover from.
Yeager would get his bath on the front lawn, dutifully standing still while I would massage the suds through his strong body, awaiting his favorite part of the otherwise disliked bath time. After he was rinsed, I would tell him to shake it off, as I stood back. A quick shake of his body, and sprays of water would find my body already covered in wet dog hair that clung to my arms and legs. I took a picture of my legs once, and sent it to a man that I was dating, asking if he liked the European look; he didn’t find my humor comical, we are no longer dating. Then Yeager would dart around like a puppy exuberant to be alive, racing around the house, stealing soccer balls from the children and taunting them to chase him. When he remembered himself, he would come to me for the capstone moment of bath time, the treasured time when I would take a dry towel and rub him down and he found himself in pure bliss, prodding me to keep drying and rubbing his body that held the memory of the merciless desert sands of the Middle East.
Today, the painful effort he exerts to stand at attention is a vision of the stark reality, that our time together is coming to an end. His once strong hind legs would hold his body upright, his front paws on my shoulders as we would sway to the crooning of Michael Buble in my kitchen as dinner simmered on the stove; the only male to gleefully dance with me in the solitude of our home. His eyes were for me. They would seek me out, for approval, for direction; steadfast was our presence in one another’s lives for this near past decade. I was his last handler, the last human he would follow till death, but this time it would be his own death and we both knew it.
His slanted stance after his bath garnered my respect. The hind muscles atrophied with age, the telltale signs of a Labrador who has defied the statistics of mortality rate. Chocolate eyes looked at me, knowing his favorite part would be met with less vitality. I rubbed his coat with the dry bath towel, this time more tenderly than in years past. He had liked the aggressive rub down that would cause his fur to be disheveled for hours. Now tenderly, so as to not knock his weakening body over, I dried him, fluffing his ears and seeing his sweet snout exposed under the towel, and I wonder if this will be the last bath that I give him. I fear that at any moment, his organs will malfunction, something will happen abruptly, so that the dog who seemed to never age would suddenly be gone from my life.
He is nearly 15 years of age. Six of those years he served our nation, saving Marines and Sailors, along with innocent Iraqi and Afghan citizens. He means something to this nation, and I am humbled that for his remaining years, my children and I have done life with him. We have laughed until it hurts at his antics, and have had our tears captured by his fur and licked away with his tongue. We have lived on hospital campuses together and brought a dash of happiness to the wounded service members. We’ve traveled the nation, telling his and Lcpl. Tarwoe’s story, humbled by the reception in each new place. It has not been lost on me, that the love and the experiences that have been so benevolently heaped upon me through Yeager, are only possible, because a man lost his life. There is a somber realization that our love story is only possible, because someone’s was ended abruptly and violently.
Something presses against my chest as I mull over these thoughts, and consider a day when Yeager no longer greets me in the morning, and his toys are not underfoot. It has felt like a long off chapter that would inevitably end, and once the page is turned, life will never be the same. Yeager, my constant companion, beckoning a new day for our family that leaves me in a state of wonder and panic that moments will slow, and his body will find some mystical spell that will cause him to live out the days of my lifetime, never to leave my side. I have found a new normal, a new me that I love and appreciate, and he has been through it all with me. He has heard my cries, witnessed my late nights of study, and ran with me as I found a new strength that I never knew was possible. He has been my constant companion, an illustration of the Divine presence that I know is there but cannot see or touch but through His creation; the benevolent hand of a merciful Father who reaches down from the heavens and touches our weary hearts with the wonder and splendor of life, beautiful life.
~ I wrote these words on June 27th, 2021. Yeager passed away on July 7th, 2021. This was indeed, his last bath.