Sarah Smiley of Bangor is the author of “Got Here As Soon As I Could” and “Dinner With The Smileys.”
In 2011, I had three boys — 10, 8 and 4 — and my husband, Dustin, was about to leave for a yearlong deployment. In the middle of the impending chaos, I decided we needed a puppy. Everyone thought I was crazy. Still, I found a brown-and-white Brittany who would be ready two weeks before Dustin left. That Halloween we surprised our boys with a quivering, jumping puppy on their walk home from school.
Lindell, our youngest, named him Sparky, and then promptly wanted the name for himself. No one cared about trick-or-treating. The boys went to sleep in one room, in sleeping bags, with Sparky between them. He was their comfort and mine while their dad was gone.
Last week, those grown boys — now 22, 20 and 15 — carried Sparky when he couldn’t walk, and ultimately, to the car for his final ride. I’m finding it hard to get over. I knew it would be difficult to lose Sparky, but losing Sparky as my kids leave the nest feels especially unfair.
It feels like a metaphor.
It seems like yesterday Little Lindell, with his sticky hands and striped shirts, read books to Sparky for kindergarten homework. He shared the more mundane parts of Sparky’s life for show-and-tell, and Sparky slept next to his bed for more than a decade.
I can still see a pre-teen Ford, empty leash in hand, chasing Sparky down the camp road on one of his unauthorized, multi-mile sprints, and how Ford rescued a bird in our house that Sparky, with his strong hunting instincts, had brought in.
Owen loved the way Sparky leapt four-feet into the back of our vehicle. He cheered like it was the Olympics. And three years ago, when we got another Brittany, “Rocket,” Owen helped Sparky save his bed — the orthopedic one — from being stolen by the puppy.
Back when the kids were small, and my canoe was full, Sparky learned to swim beside it, two-thirds of a mile to our favorite island at the lake and back. I didn’t need to look; I knew he was there, effortlessly gliding through the water, his breathing like a metronome. At the island, he’d disappear for an hour, then return when I whistled. He was often the easiest part of my day — minus the unauthorized runs and the bird.
As the kids grew older, one by one, they came to the island less. It was just me, Lindell and Sparky, and then me and both dogs, alone with the memories of when the island was filled with kids fishing and jumping.
This summer, Sparky started swimming slower. I brought him into my kayak more while Rocket swam beside us. And I guess I knew. It seemed like he knew, too, because he didn’t jump out. Sometimes, Lindell took Sparky across the water in his fishing boat.
In November, Sparky fell down the stairs, and that was the beginning of the end, though he waited until all his boys were home and beside him one Sunday morning. He basically died in my arms — the dog who knew no bounds, who could do anything I asked of him — but the vet helped him take his last breath while I watched in disbelief. I will never forget my grown boys — echoes of those little boys running down the sidewalk 12 years ago — carrying him, still on his bed, to the car.
Lindell turned 16 the day after Sparky died. Soon, the older boys will return to college. During the quiet parts of my day, in an increasingly empty house, I still look for Sparky in his favorite spots. I look for the boys, too, when the sun hits the rug where they used to build Legos. An empty collar and forgotten plastic toys fill my mudroom. I can still hear all the memories.
It’s the end of an era, and Sparky’s passing made that clear. But what a beautiful era it was, and I couldn’t have asked for a better dog to help me raise a family.