Were I allowed to pick one, and only one moment to relive, over and over, for all the rest of time--the happiest, most perfect moment of my life--I have no doubt which I would chose. It came on Christmas Eve 1995, at my folks' place. My dad had another year-and-a-half to live, Mom had just more than eight, and a couple of months earlier, my daughter had turned 6, the consammate age for Christmas. Before 6, I suspect kids still aren't sure what's happening. (It must be like going to the circus for them, only their parents are the clowns). After 6, it's one illusion after another peeled away, year by year.
At that age, they're developed enough to memorize those great songs--the ones about Frosty and Rudolph and who's coming to town--but they're not yet commercialized enough to expect their gifts to require batteries. They have developed no immunity to the Christmas-magic bug and they're feverish with symptoms--the laughter, the anticipation, the delight of being surrounded by family--and no matter how hard we resist, we can't help but catch it from them.
As perfect as the girl's age was, the gift I got her was even better. A puppy. For five years previous, I had repressed the urge to get her one. I gave other things instead: soft-edged toys, pop-up books and crayons, all of which she outgrew in slightly more time than it took her to unwrap them. Having come comparatively late to fatherhood, I wasn't prepared for how quickly little kids move from one competence level to the next. One week, they're playing happily with simple wooden block letters, spelling out "C-A-T" and "A-N-N-E," dressed like a fairy princess in one of those other-worldly dresses Grandma came up with. The next, they're ready for toy dinosaurs, the names of which they've already learned to spell, and can't even get that princess dress over their expanding heads anymore.
Still, even with what little I knew about children, I knew a thing or two about puppies. And I knew you could hardly go wrong by combining the two. A week before Christmas, I went to the Humane Society shelter and found Molly, maybe 1-month old and eager to be taken home. (I lied and told my daughter the pound had given Molly her name and that, by law, we had to stick with it. I should have let her name her own dog, of course, but I was fearful that she'd come up with something only a 6-year-old could think was a good dog's name. In another decade, I didn't want to be standing out in the night, calling for "Starbright" or "Jasmine" to come inside while the whole neighborhood listened.)
My dad looked after Molly in the days before Christmas Eve. He didn't mind. He'd had dogs all of his life, and besides, I think he welcomed the distraction. It kept his mind off the reality that all the cancer treatments he was getting were doing little good. Taking care of Molly gave him something to find pleasure in, and he was looking forward as much as I to the presentation.
I lined up a big box--big enough that our girl might think she was being given her first five-horse-power lawn mower--wrapped the lid separately so it would pop off easily, and arranged ahead of time for Molly to be hidden when we arrived on Christmas Eve. Under normal, more sedate circumstance, the kid would have undoubtedly heard a yip or two coming from the basement. But with the entire family gathered, Mom's carols playing in the background, with the clatter of food being prepared, glasses clinking and eight different conversations going on at once, those yips went unnoticed. As the family started to distribute the booty from under the tree, I slipped out. When I returned with the big box, she was on her knees in the center of the room. My wife had cleared a space in front of her without being too obvious, and she had no idea what was coming.
She was excited merely by the size of the gift. As soon as she ripped into the wrapping, Molly went to wriggling. The box wriggled with her. The kid froze, a bow in her hand and a hint of terror on her face. A second or two passed and I thought my heart might explode. Dad laughed. It was such a good thing to hear him laugh again. With that laugh, Molly pushed the lid off with her head and stood up on two legs, tongue out, ready to go to licking. She grinned a big puppy grin to my daughter and let out an excited yelp. It was puppy talk for, "Here we go, you and I. We're gonna have some fun, aren't we?"
And that's the moment I want to relive until the end of time, should it turn out the afterlife works in such a way. To have made my daughter weep for pure joy may be the highest thing I will have ever accomplished.
But then, I didn't do it by myself. And for the next 16 years, Molly continued to make my kid happy, even when I, or the rest of her life, was unable to.
The day after this Christmas, my wife wrapped Molly in a blanket so she wouldn't be cold, and we drove her to a vet to be put down. By the time we finally did it, it was clear we'd avoided it longer than we should have. At first, we waited until her friend and master got home from school to say good-bye, and after that it became a matter of wishing she'd slip away quietly in the comfort of her own surroundings.
But by Christmas Eve, 16 years to the day from when she wriggled out of that big box, it was obvious what had to be done. How pleasing it would be to imagine Molly in her rest, experiencing that same moment, excited as a loved puppy, over and over and over.