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Blane Klemek column: Saying goodbye to an old friend

Columnist Blane Klemek and his dog Duke. Submitted photo.

Many of you have no doubt come to know, through my words most likely, a canine companion of mine. This column, which I've been writing for many years now, has included from time to time my mention of Duke: my devoted, fun-loving, and hardworking Chesapeake Bay retriever. My old friend, you see, is no longer at home and no longer able to greet me when I open my car door. And oh how I miss him.

Duke Rocky Cocoa, his full given name recorded on his American Kennel Club registration, was one of a kind. Born in September 2004, Duke, in his thirteenth year, died in my hands on May 12, 2017 as he laid comfortably on the backseat of his hunting car, undoubtedly content in thinking that his trip inside the vehicle to the vet was just another joy ride to another adventure somewhere.

To tell you the truth I never gave it much thought about how it would all end someday. Indeed, such endings were far from my mind, when, every day, 365-24-7, my dog was there, lying on his rug, not wanting much except to be near me, and always, always, happy to see me no matter my mood, no matter the time of day, no matter, no matter. Regrettably, it's easy to take such companionship for granted.

I believe a person would have a hard time understanding the bond between human and dog if that person never experienced such deep connections with these kindred souls. Social creatures they are, pack animals to be sure, a dog's social fabric is tied to the family and their place within the family. As such, though hard to say where Duke believed his place was in my family, all of you can rest assured that his place was, and still is, in my heart.

Duke's last 48 hours on earth were comfortable and happy for him. He was fed anything and everything he wanted, and then some — venison burger and venison sausage, homemade pancakes soaked in butter and real maple syrup, cheese sticks, cookies, and more. His back legs, barely functioning and able to hold his large yet lean and strong body upright, seemed to strengthen during his last hours, which provided me pause in carrying out the measures I was at last prepared to take.

Difficult as it was for both me and Duke during his final days, I nonetheless would lift his 80-pound body into my arms and carry him down the stairs outdoors where he could lay in the sun, or, with assistance, walk on familiar wooded trails, or down to Assawa Lake, or to the road out front where he could "smell things" and do his business that, until then, he would do by himself.

Duke, a once athletic and vibrant companion able to run like the wind, leap 15 feet off the end of a dock, and hunt like there was no tomorrow, rests now and forevermore. His life and memories of times we shared together, still very fresh and very real in both my mind and heart, are playing cruel tricks on me as old habits, old sounds, and old scents resist the hollow heaviness of reality.

Though brewing a pot of coffee has always been the first thing I do each morning when I crawl out of bed, the first sight of the morning would be Duke laying peacefully and sleeping soundly on his rug in the living room. I still find myself more than two weeks later glancing in the room for a glimpse of him as I walk to the kitchen.

At night, while I watch television, I sometimes think I hear his muffled "woof" outdoors, a signal that it's time for me to let him in. And when I arrive home from a long day at work, I still feel Duke's presence outside my car waiting for me to open the door so he could stick his big head inside and rest it on my lap while I rub his ears and coo softly, "Good boy. Good Duke."

And I still experience the impulse of calling Duke for our long established custom of taking long walks down the dusty dirt road. As soon as I put my hat on, Duke knew it was time for our walk as he'd get up and say, "Let's go!" while smiling that big toothy smile that stretched from one floppy ear to the other.

And go we did; to so many places, on so many adventures, on so many occasions that it was impossible to imagine it ever coming to an end. Ever.

I love you Duke. I hope you knew that. I hope you felt that. Thank you for giving me your all.