The Gift

By Jake Lunsford

To type with one hand; that is his only request. The other hand is for him, his head on my lap, my hand on his head. Those are the terms. I give him that and think of another while he sleeps. Happiness is having two hands so that one may rest on a dog’s head while you search awkwardly for the letter Q. 

My little Armrest is six years old now, eight years less than the Old Dog who will forever overshadow every canine relationship I’ll ever have, though he’s been gone two years today. I never thought he would last as long as he did, so I picked the Armrest up in Columbus, Georgia, and let him sleep in my lap as we drove east to the coast, one hand on the wheel, the other on his tiny little head. I remember the indifference the Old Dog showed when I plopped the new fur ball on the living room floor that first night. I think the very idea of a “transition” dog gave him those final four years. Good dog.

I can feel his breath through my wool undershirt. There is a stirring plot on the television, but I have no idea what it is. My eyes are studying the little whiskers on his cheeks. It perplexes me that a dog would have whiskers until I consider the fact that he makes a living crashing through the underbrush after quail and pheasants as surely as he does propping up my right hand. But truth be told, he does a lot more propping than crashing. The quail sleep as soundly tonight as he does. But I still tell people he’s a good bird dog. That’s the least I can do for my little Armrest. Plus, good is an adjective I get to define as I see fit, and my right arm does feel abnormally weak these days.

Most of the time I spend with him I feel guilty as hell. I know he’s happy just being with me, but his daddy was a two-time national field trial champion, and I haven’t hunted him seriously since he almost went hypothermic fetching sea ducks south of the Cape. I think that’s when I figured out he isn’t made for hunting seriously, at least not with the opportunities we have right now in our lives. He’s a 35-pound spaniel, not a 70-pound black polar bear like the Old Dog, and getting away from the coast for a trip to the uplands is harder these days than it used to be. 

But mostly my guilt isn’t for him and his lack of opportunity to let his genetics shine. Mostly when I look at him, I feel bad for the way I treated the Old Dog. I was too strict, too demanding. He stayed outside most of our life together, until he got old and the cold seeped into his bones. The Old Dog got me more hunting invitations than I ever would have garnered without him, and I wasn’t the only grown man in Northeast Georgia who cried the day he died at the ripe old age of fourteen. I have yet to hunt with his better. But I never let him lay on the couch with me, even at the end. For that I am ashamed.

And so, tonight, I’ll sit here and miss the Old Dog and let my heart spill over for him this once a year with the many things I regret. Armrest will sleep in my lap tonight, and I’ll write this in twice the time, with half the hands I normally would, and be glad of it; that I get this opportunity to make amends. Armrest will sleep by the fire on cold nights, and ride shotgun after a hard hunt, muddy seat be-damned. He’ll get compliments he doesn’t deserve and biscuits he shouldn’t eat, with the hope that he’ll carry them over to where the Old Dog is when the time comes. Maybe he’ll be gracious enough to tell the Old Dog how much of that was meant for him. Maybe he’ll tell him that I’m sorry, and that I miss him. 

Maybe the greatest thing about dogs is also the saddest; that they are only with us for a fraction of our lives. As the old pass away and the new pee on the living room floor, they give us the chance to try again, to rectify our shortcomings, and be better than we were the last time. 

What a fine gift that is.


About the Author

Major Jake Forrest Lunsford, USMC is a native Georgian currently hunting and fishing in Rhode Island while serving as Commandant of the Marine Corps Fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.