I think of my father the most in June. With both Father’s Day and the 10th anniversary of his death falling this month, I can’t help but reminisce on some of my fondest memories. My avid outdoorsman father decided our family needed a dog. He envisioned a well-trained hiking, hunting and fishing companion and set out to find a puppy who fit the bill. Sugar, a rambunctious chocolate lab, seemed to be a perfect match. Even at a young age, she had beautiful lines, an overabundance of energy, and a sweet personality.
From early on, the warning signs that Sugar hadn’t caught my dad’s vision of her potential were there. The contempt-filled glances and not-so-subtle repeated suggestions that perhaps Sugar “could find a better fit for an obedience class,” should have provided some warning. My dad remained undeterred.
The first hiking outing established Sugar’s innate talent and enthusiasm for finding and rolling in anything designed to make the trip home as unpleasant as possible. The second displayed her expert ability in beehive hunting and dispersing. Had my dad been a honey collector, this would have come in quite handy, but for the average hiker, hunter and fisherman, it just meant investing in a large supply of baking soda.
My dad’s hope never dimmed. One day, Dad heard the telltale signs of the bark of a dog on an animal’s trail. He ran out into the backyard, to see which animal had inspired Sugar to find her inner-hunter. Through the woods, Sugar’s excited bark escalated, accompanied by a large crashing noise. She had a big one! Mom was the first to see the prey emerge. She giggled. We giggled. My dad rolled his eyes. Sugar stood in the backyard, tail-wagging, next to the black and white cow she had driven into our yard. Dad gave up hunting soon after.
Dad’s hopes for his fisherman water dog remained strong. The first trips up to the family’s lake property, Sugar was reticent around the water. “She’s just a puppy,” my mom counseled, “maybe next summer.” The next summer Dad was ready. “This,” he announced with excitement, “will be Sugar’s big water year.” He proudly gave Sugar a pep-talk all the way down to the water. Stick in hand, he looked Sugar in the eyes, and tossed it 20 feet off the dock.
“Go get it girl.”
Sugar stoically stared at Dad.
“Come on Sugar, go.”
The stick floated on the surface, beckoning.
Dad got another stick.
Sugar laid down on the dock.
Dad got a treat.
Sugar left the dock.
Dad had an idea. “She’s a lab. All labs swim. She just needs to get used to the idea.”
He called Sugar back down to the dock. “Watch this, “ he counseled, then picked her up and tossed her in the water off the dock.
We all called from the shore 20 feet away. “Come on, Sugar. Come on, girl.”
Her head broke the surface of the water. Sugar was not coming. Sugar was not swimming. Sugar was panicking. Dad threw a large piece of wood for her to climb up on. Sugar ignored it. Her breaths became more and more labored as she attempted to get all four of her paws out of the water vertically. Sugar, the water lab, was drowning.
Dad jumped in, between Sugar and the shore, to coax her in and show her the way. She spotted dad and began swimming frantically toward him. It was working. Sugar was making her way toward the shore.
Sugar reached Dad. Instead of continuing to swim to shore, she clearly decided her rescuer had arrived. She tried to climb up on top of him, out of the water. The more Dad pushed her away, the more determined she was to remain on him. The giant in-the-water King of the Mountain game played out 15 feet from shore. Now it was my dad’s breaths that were becoming more and more labored. Slowly, he managed to swim to shore with Sugar scratching and clinging to his back.
After that day, Dad and Sugar came to an unspoken resolution. Dad would take his children fishing and hiking and on all his outdoor adventures. Sugar would get to be the at-home cheerleader with Mom. This relationship worked wonderfully. The children avoided all things smelly, large hives of bees and played, waded and fished with gusto in the water. Sugar stayed at home, curled in her bed, chased butterflies (and the occasional cow) and dutifully greeted the incoming adventurers with joyful barks, vigorous tail-waggings and lots of wet-sloppy kisses. While Sugar never morphed into Dad’s “dream adventurer,” in so many other ways she was exactly what our family needed. Along with a constant outpouring of unconditional affection, she taught us the value of loving others for who they are, and not who we expect them to be. She helped us realize that no matter how many messes we rolled in, or how many times we screwed up, we would still be family. On the night she died, when we witnessed my dad cry for the first time, we also learned the power of relationships. Clearly, despite all her failings, she was still “man’s best friend.”
Julie Reece-DeMarco is an award-winning, multi-published author, speaker and attorney. She enjoys spending time outside in the beautiful Northwest with her husband and four daughters.