It was, among daily life’s many rituals, my favorite.

I’d pull into the driveway at the end of a long day.

Fairbanks, the Best Dog Ever, would jump up and stand by the porch steps, his face one big smile, his tail wagging like there was no tomorrow.

I’d come down the walk, stop in my tracks and say, “C’mon, Banks!”

Bolting down the steps, he’d sprint directly toward me, veering off at the last second into a wide circle – past the miniature Japanese maple, out to the driveway, around through the hostas and back up onto the porch, where he’d crouch like a coiled spring, tongue out, tail still wagging …

“C’mon, Banks!” I’d repeat. And we’d do it all over again … and again … and again …

I thought about those glorious homecomings with tears in my eyes Monday as I lifted Fairbanks up from the driveway and onto the towels my wife, Andrea, had spread across the back of the car.

His eyes clouded by cataracts, his hearing all but gone, his fluffy tail motionless between his arthritic hind legs, Bankster looked back up at me and, I swear, one last time he smiled.

He came into our lives 13 years ago, rescued at the last minute from a kill shelter in Alabama by The Golden Retriever Rescue Lifeline and trucked all the way to Maine along with more than a dozen other equally lucky pups.

I’d just written about the good people who run the rescue program, and Andy and I went to the park-and-ride lot in Biddeford to watch the offloading.

It was love at first sight. Fairbanks came down the ramp and sidled up next to Andy, who melted on the spot.

The next thing I knew, I was writing a check for the adoption fee. And just like that, all of our lives took a turn for the better.

If you’ve never had a dog, you may not get how a non-human can become part of a family. If you have, then perhaps you’ll understand.

Fairbanks was more than just a friendly dog. He was, to us and to so many who crossed his path over his long life, an actual friend.

Some might remember when I last wrote about him just over four years ago.

Back when he was a local celebrity.

Andy managed an upscale clothing boutique on Middle Street at the time and, rather than leave Bankster alone at home all day, she began bringing him to work.

Sitting there in the display window, at eye level with whoever passed by, he proudly served for more than a year as the Old Port’s therapy dog. To this day, people tell us how their daily “Fairbanks fix” made their workaday lives a little less wearisome, their burdens a little bit lighter.

“So handsome,” wrote one of many admirers on his “Friends of Fairbanks” Facebook page. “You light up my workday. Thanks, Fairbanks.”

Andy eventually changed jobs and, alas, Fairbanks lost his window on the world. His fans were crushed.

Still, life went on. We adopted another rescue dog, Sofie, to keep Bankster company during the day. And we tried mightily not to notice time’s inevitable advance.

His end-of-the-day welcomes slowed from four loops around the driveway to three, then two, then one … until finally he stayed put on the porch and gamely waved with his tail.

He slept more and, when he did play, moved more gingerly. His 4-mile walks shrank steadily until anything over a half-mile was likely to leave him lame for a day or two.

His facial hair turned gray.

But his spirit, dare I say his love, never wavered.

Last year, as I spent most of my time sick in bed, Fairbanks sensed something was wrong. Tail wagging, he’d stare into my eyes for what seemed like hours, as if to say, “We’ve got this. Things will get better.”

And they did. At least for me.

They say golden retrievers have an average lifespan of 11 or 12 years. Yet even as Fairbanks limped past 14, Andrea and I had trouble accepting that this gift, this once-scrawny little guy with the outsized grin, could ever stop warming the world around him.

But as we Googled “dog end of life” and scanned all the checklists on “when to know it’s time,” the evidence slowly mounted: Night wandering? Check. Loss of vision and hearing? Check. Inability to climb stairs? Check. Increasing incontinence? Check. Weight loss? Check …

Then it was Monday. From the moment we awoke, the 3:15 p.m. veterinarian appointment hung heavy over the day until finally, as the clock hit 3, I took a deep breath, hooked the leash onto Fairbanks’ collar and said, my own throat tightening, “C’mon, Banks. Time to go.”

Our veterinarian could not have been kinder. She examined Fairbanks, asked us about this and that, and gently assured us that, yes, we were making the right decision.

Upon hearing the words, I suddenly felt panicky. I wanted to scoop him up, run out to the car and make a beeline for home, where everything would be perfect again and Bankster would run to his heart’s content.

Instead, I held his front paw and watched as the vet administered the sedative and left us all alone for a few minutes.

Our tears flowing freely, Andy and I hugged and petted the dog of our dreams. Then he kissed us each on the chin one last time, lay down and, ever so slowly, drifted off to sleep.

Only then did I realize I still had my slippers on.

Only as I got in the car and closed the door did I fully grasp how attached we’d become to that furry bundle of pure, unadulterated friendship.

Only now, as Sofie and I sit here amid the silence, do I appreciate how much a dog can fill an old house – and beyond – with his simple presence.

Time surely will heal all of that.

Still, as I look over at the corner of the living room and spot a Fairbanks fur ball hiding in the shadow, I’d give anything for one more sunny afternoon, one more welcome home, one more wag of that brilliant tail.

Goodbye, Bankster. May you run in peace.

 


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