What my old-ass dog taught me about everything.

Sixteen years ago, Clinton was in office. Google was still a month away from launching. And a big, clumsy hound dog named Clyde was born.

His life started pretty awfully.

As far as I know, he spent his first months tied to a fence. At one point, he sliced his leg open on it. And his owners left him there, a shivering pile of ears and open wounds in the dirt. Luckily, someone was paying attention. More importantly, they took action.

I don’t know the details of his escape. I’m not sure I want to know. It’s too painful to imagine the cruelty he had to endure. I only know that, thanks to a friend at the grocery store where I was working while in college, he ended up in the front seat of my car, his freshly stitched leg swollen to the size of a softball.

I changed his name to Fletch. He didn’t argue.

For 15 years, Fletch and I had each other. Owner and dog. Walker and walkee. Scooper and pooper. I graduated college. Met my wife. Moved from house to house. Had a son. Made a career. I did what everyone does: I grew up.

And Fletch? He got fat. He got thin. He ate fireworks and five pounds of raw chicken legs. Barked at bees. Chased Baltimore rats. Got diabetes. Got cancer. Got better. Got older.

He’s become an ever-shedding marker of time passing — my life and his. Experience and wrinkles. Grey hair and scars. He and I have had a good go of it.

Today, on his 16th birthday — that’s what his old vet records say anyway —I’m doing what people do when they see the end of an era approaching: I’m doing my best to put all this into some kind of context. While Fletch has made it three years past his expiration date, I know the odds are pretty good this is the last birthday I’ll have with him. He’s slow. He’s practically deaf and blind. He paces the hardwood floors in circles all night long like a click-clacking senile banshee.

And while he probably doesn’t know where he is anymore, he’s taught me more than most people. I hope I can articulate them as well as he has:

Don’t make others carry your personal baggage.

Fletch was abused and forgotten. Mistreated and abandoned. And yet he’s never bitten a soul. He’s gentle and loyal. And he approaches everyone as if he’s never been hurt before.

Conserve your energy.

Fletch is a napper, like most dogs. He understands life’s a long haul. There’s more time than you think — and it does no good to push yourself to the breaking point. Naps make those moments when you suddenly break loose in the backyard or flip a chew toy in the air all the more exhilarating.

Be who you are — because that’s enough.

Fletch is not tough. He’s not pretty. And he’s not especially smart. But he’s content. He’s not embarrassed by who he is — he simply is. And he’s loved all the more for it.

Know who feeds you.

9 times out of 10, I’m the one in our house who feeds Fletch. He knows this. That’s why he only really listens to me. In his own dog way, he’s grateful, I think. I imagine we could all learn to be a lot more loyal and kind and dedicated to the people who do the most for us.

Get old, but don’t age.

Fletch doesn’t know today is his birthday. He doesn’t have a fear of getting old. He simply lives each day, and the next, and the next. One nap, one meal, one fart at a time. My birthday is two days after his, and for the first time in 37 years, I’m not going to obsess about it. Years only mean something if you’re keeping count. And starting today, I’m stopping.


Epilogue

We spent a warm spring Sunday lying in the grass with Fletch, petting him, shooing bees, laughing about his legends. Hunting Baltimore City rats. Demolishing Lego masterpieces. Hording empty cat food cans. He breathed slow and heavy as the shadows stretched on. I brought him in at sunset.

He went in his sleep early the next morning. And as he’d been for us, so too were we by his side to the end.

August 8, 1998 — April 13, 2015