To understand my story, you first have to understand the relationship between my father and his dog.
You see, my father loved his dog more than anything else in the world, including his own family. Or at least that's the way it appeared to me. There were no pictures of my mother or me in his wallet, only that big, sloppy, clumsy dog. He took his dog everywhere he went - on family vacations, out in the fields, even to bed at night! He showered every ounce of love he had on that dog, and it made my blood boil.
Back then, I was an only child growing up in a farmhouse deep in the South Georgia countryside. The wooden house sat at the edge of a thick forest that stretched on for miles. It was a drafty old place with high ceilings, cavernous hallways and dark hardwood floors that creaked loudly with each footstep.
My father was an ex-army colonel, and a strict disciplinarian. He had a cold and stiff demeanor, as if some army trainer along the line had squeezed every ounce of emotion out of him. As the years passed, I grew more and more distant from my father. In fact, sometimes I was downright scared of him. And I paid little attention to any awkward attempts he made to show his affections.
But every human being needs an outlet for their emotions, so my father got something that wouldn't talk back or challenge him - a dog. As if by divine intervention, a stray black lab came bounding onto our property one day, wet and starving. After some half-hearted attempts to locate the original owners, my father named him "Mac" and welcomed him with open arms into our home.
Mac constantly tried to play with me - jumping up on my lap, nudging me with a dirty tennis ball in its mouth, licking my face. But I shoved him away each time, sending him running back to my father. Over the years, Mac never seemed to get the message that I wanted no part of his affection. I even shut the door to my room to keep him out.
When I was about 13 years old, Mac grew sick with cancer. My father watched in horror as his dog deteriorated before his eyes. Mac spent his days lying in the middle of the family room, panting and unable to eat, his sharply defined ribs heaving with each pained breath. When my father would reach down to pet him, a joyous recognition would flash in his eye, only to be extinguished by his agony.
We had no choice - my father made the hardest decision of his life and had Mac put to sleep. After it was done, he wept and spent many hours alone. Each part of his daily routine - driving to the store, walking around the property, reading the paper in the morning - seemed empty without Mac around. But to be honest, I felt no sadness. Deep inside, I felt like we could now be a normal family with Mac out of the picture.
One day, I walked into my parents' bedroom and noticed a strange wooden box sitting on my father's nightstand. It was nailed shut, and had the name "Mac" engraved on a brass plate. When I confronted my mother about it, she rolled her eyes and told me the ghastly story. Shortly after Mac's death, my father had had him cremated, and now kept his ashes beside the bed.
Well, that was the last straw. My father couldn't stay away from that dog when he was alive, and now he was clinging to him in death. I simply could not live another moment with that dog in the house. So one night when my parents were away, I grabbed a shovel, stole the box from their bedroom and ran through the dark into the forest. I buried that box under a tree and covered it with pine straw. It was so far out in the woods that there was no way my father would ever find it.
I knew I'd get the beating of my life when my father came home, and I didn't care. The look of agony on his face made it worth it to me. Now he would pay for not being the father I wanted. Hysterical with rage, he dragged me out into the forest the next morning and made me dig under every tree for that box. But I honestly couldn't remember where I had buried it. After days of trying, we finally gave up.
Needless to say, our relationship soured even more after that. We rarely spoke to one another, and when I grew older and left for college, I rarely returned home. Christmas seemed like a painful obligation, with a cold chill hanging over us as we sat silently around the festive table. My poor mother tried everything she could to bring us together as a family, but the damage had been done.
I eventually married and moved far away from my parents. They barely knew my wife, and we spent most holidays with her parents up north. But the bitterness of my childhood wormed its way into my marriage, and before I knew it, we were divorced. In the following years, my parents passed on, leaving the old family house cold and empty.
I dreaded the Christmas season of 1985, for I knew that for the first time, I would truly be alone. The sounds of Christmas cheer were like nails under my skin, and I drank heavily to block them out. So when I was asked one day to look after the old family house while it was being put on the real estate market, I quickly agreed. Perhaps deep in the country I could get away from all the bright lights and wretched merriment.
What I discovered was that the old house was a dark crypt of painful memories. Although the outside was run-down, everything inside was left as it was, as if my parents had suddenly been plucked from the earth by some unseen force. Fortunately, this also meant that my father's bar was still fully stocked. Without hesitation, I grabbed a bottle of scotch, made myself a fire in the old stone fireplace in the den, and drank myself to sleep.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I was awakened by an odd thumping noise coming from upstairs. The house was dark and cold, and my fire was long extinguished. In my drunken stupor, I had forgotten to leave any lights on, and now I was enveloped in the blackness. After an eerie silence, I heard the thumping again, this time sounding like something moving about in the upstairs hallway, the floorboards creaking under its weight. I remembered that squirrels and other small creatures sometimes found their way into the house when I was young. But this sounded larger than a squirrel.
The thumping sound descended the stairs and moved closer and closer toward the den. Through my drunken haze, I recognized it as the rasp of claws on wood. I heard it enter the room, then stop. I fumbled around me in the dark for a candle, found one on the mantle, and lit it.
I could scarcely believe my eyes. Sitting in the doorway, slobber dripping from the sides of his mouth, was Mac, looking strong and youthful. He made no move toward me, but just stared at me with twinkling, excited eyes. After a long pause, he whirled around and ran out the door, barking loudly.
I guess it crossed my mind that this was very strange, being visited by a dead dog in the middle of the night. But I found myself following him as he bounded through - and I do mean "through" - the front door. Before I knew it, we were running through the frosty night deep into the woods, the brittle pine needles crackling under my feet. My flickering candle cast strange shadows on the dark trees towering ominously overhead, as if they were encircling me for the kill. After what seemed like miles, Mac suddenly stopped under one of the trees and began pawing at the ground.
Now, have you ever have one of those moments when you finally realize you're dreaming, and you have the power to wake yourself up? Well, this was one of those moments, and I wasn't about to be fooled.
"Okay Mac, I know what this is about," I heard myself say. "I ain't digging up your ashes, you hear me? I know this is a dream, and I'm gonna wake myself up now. You ain't ever gonna leave these woods." With that, I pinched myself on the arm. Mac stopped digging, looked at me with that goofy grin of his, then slowly vanished. I could feel chill bumps on my skin, and I knew that, any minute now, I would be awake.
To my surprise, I found myself still standing in the forest. Mac was gone, and the ground showed no signs of his paw prints. But now the trees had taken on a strange, burnt orange glow, and the air was thick with smoke. Was I awake, or had I just moved into another dream?
I turned around, and my jaw dropped. The old family homestead was on fire - a giant tower of flame licking the night sky. I ran back to the house, but it was too late. The fire had been burning for almost an hour, and everything was gone.
Shortly thereafter, fire investigators reasoned that a stray cinder falling out of the fireplace as I slept caused the fire. The house was so old and wooden that it burned in no time at all. What was miraculous to them was that I had somehow walked out the door in my sleep when the fire started burning. Otherwise, in my drunken stupor, I certainly would have died.
But I knew there was another part of the story: that Mac had come back and guided me to safety. And I also knew that there was only one thing I could do to thank him. I grabbed a shovel and went back to that spot in the woods where I had stood the night before. I dug right where Mac had been digging, and sure enough, I found the box I had buried many years before. I then bought a plot near the foot of my father's grave and laid Mac to rest - much like he had slept at the foot of his bed when I was young.
My life changed after that Christmas. I married again, had a son of my own, and have tried every day to be the best father I can be. I told no one about what really happened that night, but I think of Mac every day. Most importantly, I learned that you must give of yourself if you expect anything in return. And that everyone is capable of unconditional love - not just four-legged creatures.