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Short Story by Gary Archibald

Do You Know What the Word “Agape” Means? By Gary Archibald
It’s been a long, long time since I sat in a classroom. My recall is not very good. I’m older now, so that’s my excuse. I tell myself that what I learn today and forget tomorrow is just a part of life. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe there are lessons learned that cannot be unlearned. Maybe, because I’m foolish and stubborn, I have chosen not to see the light. Silly. I should know better.
In this life, I’m realizing that getting old doesn’t mean that I have to be lost along the way. Sometimes, we have to pay attention in class. Listen to the teacher. Yes. I should do that more often. I don’t have to be sitting at a desk to learn something vital, something illuminating.
I still have a lot to learn.
* * *
Present day
When it’s cold outside, as winters are in Canada, I wear extra layers. I am a walking furnace. Through the fresh light blanket of snow, the cutting persistent wind, that crisp hauntingly quiet air, I find my way down half a block from my house to the community mailbox. I am not alone. Charlie’s along for the short trip. Right next to Daddy’s side, she wouldn’t miss the chance for a late evening outing to retrieve an assortment of periodicals, advertising pamphlets, and bills.
She’s elated. There’s an energy that can not quite be contained when she’s excited. Labrador retrievers are nature’s transcendent, eternal optimists, and happy souls. Charlie’s the poster child so-to-speak of the movement in our family. Her tail wags “Yes! Absolutely”, her feet do the happy dance.
Her content is clearly on display. From the moment I started to lace up boots in the foyer – which she realized was a sign that one or more of us would be in transit – Charlie was committed to the effort.
“Charlie”, I said, “I’m just going quickly to get the mail. It’s cold out there.”
Tail wagging with exuberance, suddenly became tempered. She now had that look; the one that conveyed the notion of disbelief, puzzlement, and a hint of sadness.
Daddy. Did you want to go outside alone? Without me?
OK then. You can come. My smile said what I was thinking and knew would be the eventuality. It’s hard to say “no” to Charlie. In a flash she was at the front door. If she could open it herself she would, expecting me to be right on her heels. She could hardly contain herself. I could not get dressed fast enough. Every second that delayed the venture pressed her patience. But Charlie knows the routine very well. I never say “no” to her company. That’s my little girl. She knows that she has my heart. Each and every night we go through the same sequence of events. It always winds up the same.
“Charlie sit.”
She sits. But her tail is wagging, sweeping the floor from side to side like a car’s windshield wiper. She wiggles too. That always puts a smile on my face. It’s her unique little dance, like a shimmysideways version of Chubby Checker’s iconic Twist, a dance craze that swept America and parts of the world circa 1960. She would have been a star alongside all those teenagers doing the twist on that famed TV show American Bandstand hosted by Dick Clark. You are my silly little girl. Yes you are. Yes you are baby.
Okay! Okay! I’m under duress at this point. Too slow to get my winter garb on. But as I bend down to tie my boot laces, Charlie’s there with big wet kisses to my face. Almost done baby girl. I am giggling aloud. It tickles. OK: my parka zipped up, keys in hand, I put her leash on, we’re now out the door. It’s funny I think to myself about the many times before that we have gone through that same routine over the course of the last 5 years, since Charlie was a pup. It was in the middle of summer, on a hot humid August day that we brought Charlie home. A week prior, the family decided definitively that it was time for a new addition. We had been pondering this possibility for several months with great consideration of what it would mean to “have a baby”. A puppy would fill the void of a quiet home, instill energy, and liveliness. And of course, there would be a great deal of love to go around. Whichever puppy was brought home would be the centre of attention, no doubt for a long time to come. That’s how I envisioned it. That’s how it played out.
She’s grown so quickly since that first day. As a puppy she was taken from a litter of nine. Her mother was a golden lab, her father a chocolate. Charlie is a black lab like four of her siblings. The four remaining came out like mom and dad. Two chocolate and two golden, making a large, healthy, and happy family of eleven. When light strikes her velvety fur coat, there are flecks of chocolate that can be seen on Charlie’s muzzle and in the hairs on her paws and the insides of her long sinewy legs. She has always been athletic too, putting her svelte physique to good use in games of fetch and tag.
From our first introduction, our family fell in love with her, hopelessly. It was in the things Charlie did, everything really, that endeared us to her so, and still does. When she barked for the first time, it startled me. There was an attitude behind it. I laughed aloud. She was adorably cute and diva-esque. She wanted to be heard, and seen, and loved! Her agenda was important and we should all take notice. But what she got, especially the plentiful love part, she gave right back. Even more so. She would follow me around the house. I would pick her up in my arms and kiss her like a baby. She was soft, and warm.
She loved to be close. And we loved to be close to her. At night, separation anxiety was an issue at first – so too was the potty training, but she soon got the hang of it. Charlie is very smart, and that’s not papa’s pride talking. Lab’s are a highly intelligent breed. Moreover, they are well-tempered, loyal and immensely loving and sensitive dogs. Charlie’s no exception. In fact, I think that she is remarkably aware of her surroundings, her family, the nuances that shape each and every moment of life. She’s always engaged. Her interests are genuine; if you are one of them – then you’re in for some intense engagement.
Trips with Charlie to and from the house to the mailbox never seem to run a standard course. She’s learned to walk with me while on the lead, but it has taken some time. She just wants to interact and explore everything, because in Charlie’s eyes and nose, everything is worth exploring. When she was a few months old, going for a walk was an adventure. Everything had to be sniffed, investigated. Of course the novelty of her new home, the neighbour’s lawn, fire hydrants, dandelions, bees, squirrels, the little kids riding their bikes and the like, were at times, seemingly too much for her to handle all at once. So much stimulation! Her excitement was not containable. In her exuberance, I saw passion defined. I envied her natural disposition. How could she be so animated, so happy, so energized by everything always? It couldn’t just be because she was a puppy, could it? Five years later, she’s the same. There’s a light on deep within her. There’s life. I can feel it. It’s the most tangible spirit I have come to know outside of my own. I smile, thinking of how much I admire her truth. She is who she has always been, without apology. Age, nor circumstance, nor influence could extract her vitality. Deep to her core, there is a manner of seeing and doing in this world that is all her own. She’s the most honest creature I have ever known.
I love her because she is genuine.
“Okay Charlie! Okay, easy!”
Charlie’s pulling on the leash. Dead ahead. There’s another person coming towards us on the sidewalk. There’s another dog on a leash. Charlie’s not the biggest dog in the world, but her strength pound for pound is impressive. She can easily pull me off balance, especially in the ice and snow. Slow down please baby girl.
“It’s Okay, Charlie’s friendly!”
I shout ahead as Charlie practically dog-sleds me forward to say hello to the strangers getting closer. This is one of the moments when the dog school training seemed to have not sunk in. We still have work to do on the lead.
“No worries at all”, responds the person in a sky blue winter coat. Her voice is muffled. Her fur-lined hood covers her head, a scarf hides most of her face. Now that we are several feet from each other, I recognize the voice. Somewhere inside that blue parka that has swallowed her whole – it’s Mr. Paul Giordano’s daughter Mara. He’s my neighbour who lives directly across the street from the communal mailbox. She’s a good kid. She attends the same university that I did many years ago. She’s in law school and a good student, that I know. Her father is a reserved, modest man, but his understandable pride in his only child is heart-warming. Like Charlie, he too can’t quite contain his excitement about Mara.
I like Mr. Giordano and his family. Six years ago when we first became acquainted, he was friendly and gracious. I met him while he was walking a very young lively Rex, just a puppy at the time. An older gentleman, now retired – he is a short, stout man with a neat moustache, round face, bright hazel eyes, and a warm smile. He was very easy to talk to. And soon, we would make a habit of conversing
daily while walking our dogs, or going to check the mail. We took the time to converse about anything and everything. This was not idle chatter. This was our routine, it had substance, trust, and meaning to us. I always look forward to it. I think he does the same. He never seemed to judge me, no matter what I said. He always listened intently. When he spoke in that soft, reassuring voice – there was never any malice, nor discontent. There was peace, insight, and character in the man and what he said. He’s the same now as he was when I first met him. Now, even more so. He would on occasion tease me too. When are you and the misses going to have a baby? What’s wrong with you? I would smile and he knew the answers. He knew it all before I said a word. He always listened intently; I had his complete attention. He never interrupted. He was engaged.
He knew that children were not in the cards for me despite wanting, and trying to start a family. He knew there was pain and he saw it in my eyes. He gently held my arm: I see how you are with Charlie. I know that you have a big heart. You would have been a good father. That’s OK. Charlie’s your little girl now. And what a beautiful girl she is.
Not idle chatter. Not by a long shot.
I look at the two dogs in a playful, warm greeting tussle. The truth is: Charlie and the Giordano’s Boston terrier are in love. Rex. What a playboy. I’ve seen him around the neighbourhood. He’s a bit of a brat. Naughty. Not the best trained, not the best mannered. But he’s cute enough. But that’s still my little girl so slow down young lad. Decorum!
Charlie’s so excited to see Rex that the bouncing and prancing has the dog’s leashes intertwined. Goodness. This always happens.
“Charlie! Sit baby.” I plead to no avail.
“It’s alright, they’re friends.” Mr. Giordano’s daughter is amused by the flirtatious affair. “Rex really likes your dog!”
I can see that. Okay Rex. That’s a little too familiar I think. Down boy.
We untangle the web of leashes. I realize that I don’t often see Mr. Giordano’s daughter walking the dog at night.
“How’s your dad?”
“He’s inside resting. I think he’s just a little tired today, feeling a little under the weather.”
I pause and think to myself; it’s odd not to see him and his furry little buddy going for their after dinner-time walk around the neighbourhood. They don’t go far but they always go. I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing the pair go for their evening stroll together that not seeing them seems to upset that the natural order of things.
“Please give him my best. I hope to see him up and around soon.”
“I will, thank you. Have a good night. C’mon Rex. Say bye to Charlie.”
Off they went. Charlie and I got the mail. Just a bunch of flyers advertising for a new sushi restaurant, some coupons, and other junk mail. No bills this time. Good.
“Looks like we’ll spend some extra loot on treats at the pet store next time Char-Char.”
That’s one of my pet names for her. It just came to me one day. And it has stuck. Charlie seems to understand. She does her little wiggle-twist happy dance of approval. I close the mailbox. The wind has picked up a touch. It’s cold. Really cold. I forget just how many layers I have on for the moment. I’m OK but I look down at Charlie and I can tell that she’s walking gingerly on the soft snow crunching beneath our feet. Her feet must be freezing. I remember how frostbite can affect dogs as readily as human beings, under the same frigid conditions. Even a short stint of exposure in temperatures like this could lead to some catastrophic health problems.
“My bad Charlie. Sorry. We go home now quickly.”
Back inside I give Charlie lots of hugs. I place a warm blanket over her and begin to rub all over her body. Despite her natural black silky fur coat, she feels cool. She shivers a little. Poor girl. Daddy’s got to be smarter.
“Sorry Charlie. Let’s go sit and snuggle by the fire place.”
* * *
Late March brings more outings. I need the fresh air. Walks with Charlie are longer and more enjoyable, in part due to the milder conditions. Daytime highs are reaching the low double-digits. Everyone is out. The mail-lady seems to be in better spirits. Charlie and I see her at the box. She’s always on time: 1:00pm sharp, Monday to Friday. We say hello. She gets the usual Charlie greeting – a big kiss and a hug, tail wagging, and of course, the Charlie dance. The mail-lady loves it; she’s a definite dog person. I don’t let Charlie do this to just anyone, but with the mail-lady, Charlie seems to have genuine affection. It’s reciprocated.
There’s a couple of letters. One says that I am pre-approved for a new low-interest credit card. Junk. The other is one that I’ve been waiting for.
“Let’s go around the block one more time?”
The answer is a resounding “yes”. Charlie’s on her best behaviour, walking right beside me as she should. Now that’s how we learned to walk in dog obedience school. She’s happy that our time has been extended today, hence the good graces. Daddy’s girl knows how to play the game. Besides, I could use the exercise. And, I don’t want to open the letter, not yet anyway. This letter holds my present and my future. I am afraid of the present and horrified by the future. An extra few blocks to stretch our legs will do nicely. I need to work out the tension, relieve the stress of anticipation. We walk briskly at first. Every once and a while Charlie looks up at me with that sweet, loving face anticipating that at any moment we break into a jog. She’s in for that any time. But I walk briskly because I am not at ease. Her face shows concern. It’s not our usual pace.
What’s wrong Daddy?
I slow down, and Charlie alongside me. I’m feeling nauseous.
Time to head back to the house to deal with the contents of the envelope weighing heavily in my hand and on my stomach.
Once home it’s lunch time for Charlie. She does the usual dance in front of her bowl. There’s a little more wiggle when she’s hungry. Her tail is a wild metronome. One heaping big scoop of scientifically healthy crunchy bits fills it. In a flash it’s gone. Even mealtime is a track and field event for Charlie. She then dunks her head in her water bowl. She’s loud and thirsty. Then she sits. She waits. She looks at me with those beautiful, big brown eyes.
“No more baby-cakes”, I say. She’s disappointed. “On your bed. Daddy’s got some work to do.”
She follows orders. Pouting. What a big baby. Spoiled yes. My fault, no doubt. I will give her some carrots as her afternoon snack in an hour or two. She loves that. For now, her belly is relatively full. (Labs can always find room for more food). She lies on her bed in the great-room. I turn on the fire place for added warmth and comfort. I give her a rub. In minutes she will nestle-in and nap like a princess for the afternoon. At least one of us will find some rest.
Now, I must deal with the letter.
Procrastination has been a personal affliction for many years. I could have opened the letter at the mailbox. Instead I hesitated. This is not like tearing off a bandage quickly: intense pain of a short duration. The contents of this letter could hurt a lot more and have definitive repercussions in the shortterm and long-term. My pulse races. I can feel a cavernous space in my chest, hollow, dark, full of silent foreboding echoes.
I walk into my home office and sit at my desk. I place the letter before me. I read the bold printed type: PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL. That’s above my name. It registers. It reinforces what I already know is at stake. I look at my name once again. All that I am, so I believe, is imbedded in that name: my successes and my failures, my hopes, my fears, my dreams. This letter could make a declaration about who I am, and what I am henceforth.
I open the envelope. I take out the letter. It’s dated two weeks ago, addressed to me. The first paragraph is merely preamble. The heart of the matter – what is vital to me, lies in the second:
We regret to inform you that clinical trials of the experimental drug IDB-24 will not be available to cancer patients who live outside of The Netherlands. This is a government subsidized program designed for a very small select group of citizens. As you may be aware and can appreciate, the waiting list for participation in the study is exceptionally long. We will keep your file in our database. If there are any changes to the accessibility of the drug program which would allow for your application to be considered in the future, we will surely contact you.
And so, there it was. My life, my reality confronted.
The cavernous void in my chest widened. I felt like the world was slipping away, beyond my grasp, and I was sinking deep into dark waters. The sound of life was stifled in a faint blue sky, becoming mute; I could see the sun setting above the waters, and I beneath. The birds, and the blue sky rose up and away into the stars. My eyes blurred in the ocean-dark, deep now receding beyond the daylight.
This was my truth. Did this letter seal my fate, my last hope?
There are moments when the human condition can take very little more pressure beyond its breaking point. Was I there? In contemplation, I felt a surge of pain rush to my head. The letter’s callous message was now sinking in. I laid my head upon my crossed arms, on the desk. I pushed my chair back away from my desk, so that my weary eyes could see the hardwood floor beneath me. I tried to quiet myself
from within. My breathing slowed but was heavy. My body was trembling. This was fear in naked manifest. I was lost. I tried to close my eyes in an attempt to stem the tidal wave of thoughts so richly deep in murk. But I could not close them. Muted and heavy, the tears fell to the floor. My face was dry, but I could see the droplets of water wet the surface upon impact. One after another, each hushed drop cascaded and marked melancholy and despair at my feet. I was momentarily blinded by the glassy, fluid procession.
Charlie, I had not noticed, had awoken and wandered into the office. She was delicate in her maneuver.
As gentle as the first time I held her in my arms five years ago on that summer day, as warm and soft as her temperament has always been, I now find her at my side. Gentle kisses on my face. She’s now standing on two legs with the other two on my chest. Face to face, I see in her eyes, concern and comfort. Like a lifeline pulling me from up and out of the depths, Charlie has rescued me out of a mental Marianas Trench, at least momentarily.
“Thank you baby girl”, I whisper in her ear. Charlie’s hind quarters start to gyrate, her tail wags happily. But it is tempered and controlled. She understands the moment. And like my favourite neighbour Mr. Giordano, she gets me. She has listened and she understands.
You’re welcome Daddy. I’m always here for you.
I hug her and kiss her. I gather myself. I need to get out of this space, to find the light, and in so doing try to lighten my mind. The nausea sets in again. Fresh air will do me and Charlie some good.
I get up and walk to the front foyer; Charlie knows that we are going outside. She’s got that hop in her step but it’s quieter. This time she patiently waits at the front door while I get ready to go outdoors. I smile to myself as I zip up my parka. I look at my dog. It’s a long look in appreciation. I feel a surge of emotion flood over me. She’s always there. She’s always been there, like no other. I am sick, she knows. It doesn’t matter to her. Perhaps, I am on borrowed time. That fact has not changed a thing between us. My heart breaks though, thinking of life without her. That, I do my best to conceal. These are troubling times for the family and yet, not wavering ever is her love. Yes, Charlie’s love could never tested because there isn’t a test. It’s higher order stuff. That is what I know. Lesson learned. Lesson appreciated.
It’s a touch cooler now this afternoon. I add an extra layer. I can’t afford to get sick, catch a cold or worse. I got little booties for Charlie’s feet and a sweater. She doesn’t like them but I put them on anyway and assure her that she’ll feel warmer in the cold and snow. She does the dance. I’ve convinced her that Daddy knows best. She approves of anything that will get us out the door as soon as possible. Yes, she’s a good girl, with an agenda. I smile. “Let’s go see how our friend Mr. Giordano is doing. And your boyfriend.”
Already excited, when I mentioned Rex, there was a little extra wiggle in her dance. I smiled at my little girl as only a proud father could.
* * *
Agape (Ancient Greek: ἀγάπη, agápē) is “love: the highest form of love, especially brotherly love, charity; the love of God for man and of man for God.” / unconditional love

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S. Fontana is a LifeLearn author.

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  • Hayley King says:

    Gary – Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. You captured the very essence of Miss Charlie!

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