I have a photo of an older man sitting on a couch with legs outstretched
on a hassock, lost in a book. Beneath his legs, a black-and-white puppy
chomps on a chew toy. The man is my father, the puppy my first dog,
Teddy. I took the picture when my parents visited shortly after my husband
and I bought our home. Sixteen years later, we are still in that house.
Both Dad and Teddy are gone.

Late one sultry summer evening when Teddy was four years old, I took
him for a before-bedtime walk down our dead-end street. At the end of the
street, you can hear water going over a dam placed during the nineteenth
century to provide power for a small factory. The rushing sound is pleasant
and permanent, proof of the small river even though you never see it.
That evening I was thinking about odds and ends, Teddy was sniffing,
and we were ambling along. At one point, he went up the slight incline
between two houses. The boundary line is marked by a long row of floribunda roses that ends at a line of pines. I watched insects flying about
in the glaring light from a street lamp.

When I looked at Teddy, all I could see was a black tail up and swishing,
its white tip dancing about. Then I looked up the slope and saw a much smaller black tail with white tip up and dancing. My first thought was,
‘Oh, a puppy.’ My second thought was ‘That’s not a puppy.’ When I edged
backward far enough to see them clearly, Teddy and the skunk were nose
to nose, sniffing each other curiously and without fear. It seemed as if I
watched them for a very long time. Then I pulled slightly on his lead, said,
‘Teddy, let’s go,’ or some such, and he turned, whining softly, toward me.
When we walked far enough to be in the dark again, I turned and looked
back. The skunk sat squarely under the light of the street lamp, watching.
Not disturbed, or even tense, just watching. Finally, it trotted across the
street and into the darkness of bushes on the other side. I walked Teddy
up the middle of the street and straight to the house. He kept looking back,
but the street was empty.

Teddy was already very ill that summer with the autoimmune disease that
killed him at age seven. Yet I remember him as he was then, brave and
gentle, only slightly marked by tiny ulcerating skin sores and toes
beginning to twist after being attacked by a body defense system that had
turned on him.

One of the strongest memories of my father is from my early childhood.
My grandmother (Mom’s mother) called to say a bat was flying around
the house. Dad found a tennis racket and I followed him up the street to
Nana’s house. He cornered the bat in her upstairs bathroom and tried to
get it to grab onto the strings of the tennis racket. I thought it was fun,
then I got bored, and then I just wanted him to bash it with the racket so
we could go home to dinner. He simply kept working, leaning over Nana’s tub to place the racket near the bat’s feet, all the while talking to it softly. Eventually the bat gripped the strings, Daddy slipped the racket out the opened window, and the bat flew away into the maple trees.

I first wrote part of this essay while my father was alive, and I finally got
up the courage to read it to him. I asked him if the incidents I wrote about had actually happened, and he said, yes, they had, pretty much as I
remembered them. I asked him why he had trapped spiders under bottles
and taken them outside to go free, or battled the neighbor’s cat (at the neighbor’s request) with a broom until it let go of a songbird that flew
away, or dueled the bat in Nana’s bathroom, and his answer was simple:
“I hate to see anything die that doesn’t have to.”
When I was a girl, I marveled at a friend’s father who took off a leg to go
swimming. My Dad explained he had an artificial leg because he had lost
the limb in combat in World War II, an event that seemed to be a common
denominator for my friends’ fathers. I had always wondered why my Dad
seemed so quiet on Palm Sunday, a day I associated with new spring
clothes, gifts of palm fronds at church, and expectations of Easter.

After Mom broached the subject of war one day, I asked about Palm Sunday,
My mother told me that on Palm Sunday 1945 Dad and some other men
came under fire and dived into a hole. When the sun set, my father was the
only one alive to climb out. He had been a few months past his nineteenth
birthday then, about the same age as my older brother was.

For Daddy, the last walk into night was almost instantaneous. He went to
the mailbox on a summer Saturday, posted his letters, came home, opened
the front door, and fell to the floor. Despite Mom’s CPR and a quick call to
911, he was never resuscitated. Teddy’s last walk took a long time, a
gradual decline marked by an enlarging liver, skin sores that wouldn’t heal,
a gradual inability to get up from the floor without help. Yet, the night
before he died, Ted got up from his bed in the kitchen, walked to the front
door, and waited for my husband to come home from an evening meeting.
Teddy would not go to bed until all of his flock was home. As fate or chance
would have it, my two gentlemen died within six weeks of each other.

I walk a different dog now, and I no longer see a skunk under the light at
the end of the street. I see Teddy and my Dad, and for the last few years,
my Mom, waiting patiently under the lamplight. Sometimes that image is
seductive. But I look back up the street, at the house my husband and I
bought together, the house where he and my son wait for me. Only a year
after Teddy fell ill, when Joseph was turning two, I pushed the pediatrician
who always said “He’s an active boy, he’ll talk when he’s ready,” into
getting a consultation to learn why Joseph wasn’t learning to talk. The
answer was autism.

My Dad and Teddy probably spent no more than a week together, but they
were much alike. They were two of the bravest and gentlest beings I have
ever known, not despite what happened to them, but in part because of it.
Their gentleness was not weakness, but an expression of internal strength.

An accident and head injury stopped me from practicing medicine as a
doctor, but that knowledge was more precious than money when we were
hit by the tidal wave of sudden illness and I had to manage Teddy’s, and
then Joseph’s, medical care. Although I stopped writing when I went to
medical school, I began again after the accident. Now I write about life as
a way to learn how to live it.

Teddy was insistent on walking the full length of the street, even when it
took painfully long to do it. My Dad didn’t affect the history of World War
I, but he worked small miracles for almost everyone he met in our town.
The church was full for his memorial service, attended by two generations
he had taught in school and retired teachers who wanted to thank us for
the time he had given in mentoring them.

I need to wage my daily wars, be patient even when it is unclear why I need
to be. And when the time comes, and I have walked far enough, I will head
for a lamplight full of loved ones who have gone before, the ones who
represent Home.