The Day I Finally Understood My Father

Dad didn't expect much from the new dog, but he had definite plans for me. (Originally published as "A Dog as Free as the Wind.")

January 1997 RD ClassicsFrom the time I was old enough to do chores on our Indiana farm, I knew what my father expected of me. Homework was done on time. People were treated fairly. Excuses were best unsaid. And I would be a doctor when I grew up.

Three generations of men in my family were doctors. That was what we did. I knew it was what I would do too. I got my first stethoscope when I was six.

I heard stories of the lives my grandfather had saved, the babies he’d delivered, the nights he’d sat up with sick children. I heard similar tales about my father. As he grew ever more godlike in my mind, so did the force of the expectation that I would follow in the family tradition.

On my birthdays my father would hand over the professional talismans of my predecessors: my grandfather’s glass syringes, a mercury thermometer that had belonged to an uncle. I was shown where my name would go on the brass plaque on the office door. And so the vision of my inevitable career was engraved in my imagination.

But as college neared, I began to feel that becoming a doctor was not engraved upon my heart. For one thing, I reacted to situations very differently from my dad. I’d seen him hauled out at three in the morn­ing to attend a child who’d developed pneumonia because his parents hadn’t brought him to the office earlier. I would have given them a hard time, but he never would.

“Parents want their kids to be all right so bad, they sometimes can’t admit the child’s really sick,” he said forgivingly. And then there were the terrible things—like the death of a ten-­year-­old from lockjaw—that I knew I couldn’t handle.

What troubled me most was my fear that I wasn’t the son my father imagined. I didn’t dare tell him about my uncertainty and hoped I could work it out on my own.

With the dilemma heavy on my mind the summer before college, I was given a challenge that I hoped would be a distraction. Dad kept horses on our farm and a kennel of bird dogs, which I trained. A patient had given my father an English set­ter pup as payment for his help. As usual, Dad turned the dog over to me. “See what you can do with him,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect much, though.”

I didn’t anticipate problems. Jerry was a willing pup of about ten months. Like many setters, he was mostly white with a smattering of red spots. His solid­-red ears stood out too far from his head, though, giving him a clown-like look. Just the sight of him gave me a much-­needed chuckle.

The first part of his training was easy. He mastered the basics: sit, stay, down, walk. His only problem was “come.” Once out in the tall grass, he liked to roam. I’d call “Jerry! Here!” and give a pip on the train­ing whistle. He would turn and look at me, then go on about his business.

When we finished his lessons, I would sit with him under an old pin oak and talk. I’d go over what he was supposed to know, and sometimes I’d talk about me. “Jerry,” I’d say, “I just don’t like being around sick people. What would you do if you were me?”

Jerry would sit on his haunches and look directly at my eyes, turn­ing his head from side to side. He was so serious that I’d laugh out loud and forget how worried I was.

Before long, I introduced Jerry to birds. His posture was perfect. He’d move compactly to the scent in a low crouch, placing his feet carefully as he went. When he was on the birds, his body stiffened. Holding his head well forward, he lifted his right paw slightly in a classic point.

After supper one evening, I took him out to the meadow for exer­cise. We had walked about 100 yards into the knee-high grass when a barn swallow, skimming for insects in the fading light, buzzed Jerry’s head.

The quail he’d been trained to hunt never behaved in such a way. Jerry stood transfixed. After a moment, he began to chase the swallow. The bird flew low, zigzagging back and forth, teasing and playing, driving Jerry into an exhilarated frenzy of running.

The bird led him down to the pond and back along the meadow fence, as though daring him to fol­low. Then it vanished high in the sky. Jerry stood looking after it for a while and then ran to me panting, as full of himself as I’d ever seen him.

In the days that followed, I noticed that birds no longer mattered to him; running did. He would just take off through the grass, fast as a wild thing.

I knew when he’d scented quail because he’d give a little cock of his head as he passed them. He knew what he was supposed to do; he just didn’t do it. When he’d finally come back, exhausted and red-­eyed, he’d lie on the ground with an expres­sion of such doggy content that I had a hard time bawling him out.

What’s wrong with this darned dog? I asked myself. Why won’t he do what I want him to?

I started again from the beginning. For a few minutes he would listen solemnly. Then he’d steal the ban­danna from my back pocket and race across the meadow, nose into the wind, legs pumping hard. Sometimes I’d see only the tall grass move behind him.

Running was a kind of glory for him. Despite my intense desire to train him well, I began to feel a strange sense of joy when he ran.

I had never failed with a dog before, but I was surely failing now. When September came, I finally had to tell Dad that this bird dog wouldn’t hunt.

“Well, that ties it,” he said. “We’ll have to neuter him and pass him off to someone in town for a pet. A dog that won’t do what he’s born to is sure not worth much.”

My father was harsh when it came to his dogs. He didn’t want faults getting into the breed’s gene pool. Still, being a house dog would kill Jerry’s spirit. The next day, I had a long talk with him under the oak tree. “This running thing is gonna get you locked up,” I said. “Can’t you just get on the birds and then run?”

He raised his eyes to my voice, look­ing out from under his lids in the way he did when he was shamed. Now I began to feel sad. I lay back and he lay down next to me, his head on my chest. As I scratched his ears, I closed my eyes and thought desperately.

Early the next Saturday, Dad took Jerry out to see for himself what the dog could do. At first, Jerry worked the field like a pro. Coming upon a covey of quail, his point was classic. My father took two birds, which Jerry retrieved in good order.

Dad looked at me oddly, as if I’d fooled him about Jerry. At that very moment the dog took off.

“What in hell is that dog doing?”

“Running,” I said. “He likes to run.”

And Jerry ran. He ran along the fence row, then jumped it, his lean body an amazing arc. He ran a hun­dred yards and then headed down toward the pond, hitting the water in high, wing-like splashes that caught the dazzle of the sun. He ran as though running were all ease and grace, as though it made him a part of the field, the light, the air.

“That’s not a hunting dog, that’s a deer!” my father said. As I stood watching my dog fail the most impor­tant test of his life, Dad put his hand on my shoulder: “We’ve got to face it—he’s not going to measure up.”

The next day I packed for school, then walked out to the kennel to say good­bye to Jerry. He wasn’t there. I wondered if Dad had taken him to town. The thought that I had failed us both made me miserable.

But when I went into the house, to my great relief Dad was in his chair near the fireplace, reading, with Jerry asleep at his feet.

As I entered, my father closed his book and looked directly at me. “Son, I know this dog doesn’t do what he should,” he said, “but what he does do is something grand. Lifts a man’s spirits to see him go.”

He continued to look at me steadily. For a moment I felt he could see into my very heart.

“What makes any living thing worth the time of day,” Dad went on, “is that it is what it is—and knows it. Knows it in its bones.”

I took a solid breath. “Dad,” I said, “I don’t think I can do medicine.”

He lowered his eyes, as though he heard at last what he dreaded to hear. His expression was so sad, I thought my heart would break. But when he looked at me again, it was with a regard I hadn’t seen before.

“I know that,” he said. “What really convinced me was when I watched you with this no-­account mutt. You should’ve seen your face when he went off running.”

Imagining his intense disappoint­ment, I felt close to tears. I wished I had it in me to do what would have made him happy. “Dad,” I said, “I’m sorry.”

He looked at me sharply. “Son, I’m not disappointed in you. Some­day when you’re at the place I am in life, you’ll understand this. Of course, I’m disappointed that you’re not going to be a doctor. But I’m not disappointed in you.

“Think about what you tried to do with Jerry,” he said. “You expected him to be the hunter you trained him to be. But he just isn’t. How do you feel about that?”

I looked at Jerry, asleep, his paws twitching. He seemed to be running even in his dreams.

“I thought I’d failed for a while,” I said. “But when I watched him run, saw how he loves it, I guess I thought that was a good enough thing.”

“It is a good thing,” my father said. He looked at me keenly. “Now we’ll just wait to see how you run.”

He slapped me on the shoulder, said good­night and left me. At that moment I understood my father as I never had before, and the love I felt for him seemed to fill the room. I sat down next to Jerry and scratched him between his shoulder blades. “I wonder how I’ll run too,” I whispered to him. “I sure do.”

Jerry lifted his head just slightly, licked my hand, stretched his legs, and then went back to the joyful place of his dreams.

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