The Best Gift I Ever Got
I’ve always been told that my name is cool. Not that anything inherently sounds suave about “Hugh Hunter,” but that is fits me. It’s unique. It’s bold. One time, somebody told me “it sounds like it should be in lights.” I try to remember that and use it as inspiration when I’m not feeling myself. Whenever people give me compliments on my name, I always say the same thing. “I appreciate it. My parents did me a solid.”
My name was and remains to be a great gift. I got a lot of other gifts too. “Divinely endowed,” some might say. I can write, I can play basketball, I can even hold a note on a good day. I’ve always found the intangible gifts more meaningful than the material, but the best gift I ever got came from a woman who loved me, even if only for a moment.
My father was a dog breeder (amongst many other things) for the majority of my childhood. Any given year, we raised anywhere from 6 - 16 German Shepherds in our backyard. I learned a lot about dogs in all those years, and I learned a lot about myself too. Though many dogs came and went, I only ever considered one of them to be my dog. Her name is Sasha. She’s a black and tan shepherd with perky ears and a funky attitude. But I love her. And she loves me.
I raised Sasha from a puppy; we got her when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I gave her shots, took care of her when she was sick, taught her how to walk on a leash, and more. Sometimes, I would come home from college just to visit her. She would look at me out of the corners of her eyes and let out a snort of exasperation.
You’ve been gone for so long, and I know you’re not staying a long time, either.
“Don’t be like that, Sasha-girl,” I’d say. She’d give me the cold shoulder for a little while, but eventually would let me brush her and I’d sit and tell her about my classes, the “no-good” girls I was dating, my dreams to be a writer one day. She’d lick my palm when I finished a story or complaint.
I hear you, boy. You can do it. Just keep trying.
When I was finishing up high school, Sasha started getting sick. She had a couple serious conditions over a period of two or three years, on into the beginning of my college career, one of which was a crippling case of arthritis that severely restricted her movement and left her in immense pain frequently. I cared for her as much and as well as I could during these times, from near and far. She had a German last name (my dad was big on having official breeding papers with heritage and bloodlines, etc.), but I liked to call her Sasha Phoenix. She had this way of rising from the ashes, so to speak. Each time we took her to the vet was a “I’m not sure if she’ll make it through this,” time, but she always did. She always made it back home to snort at my mom and sister with her funky attitude and lick my palm in encouragement.
In 2012 I was pledging a fraternity, so needless to say, my life was in disarray. I was super busy all the time, pressed for cash, and generally stressed. One day, though, I found enough time to make it back to my parents’ house. I intended on a short visit, but when I saw Sasha and we exchanged our usual pleasantries, she looked a little more unkempt than usual. I spent the next two hours thoroughly brushing her and bathing her. It was March, so still a bit chilly, but that day was warm. We sat out in the sun, chatting and brushing, brushing and chatting. She seemed to be in good spirits, and her arthritis wasn’t restricting her as much as usual. I hugged her and kissed her nose when it was time for me to go, and for some odd reason I thought about taking a selfie with her. I had never done it before, but that day it seemed right. My phone was out of battery though, and so I didn’t trifle with it. I said my goodbye and headed back to school. Sasha didn’t even snort at me, just licked my palm.
My sister could hardly keep it together. She spent the first few minutes of the call bawling into the receiver. Sniffling, crying, wailing. I tried to calm her down and waited for her to compose herself. “Sasha died,” she cried. “Sasha died.” And I cried with her. I had just seen Sasha two weeks earlier.
I snuck home in the middle of the night later that day to bury my dog. Although it’s technically illegal, we dug graves all over the yard and always buried our own animals. My dad thought digging graves built character. I just believed our dogs should get to rest somewhere familiar. When I got home, my dad had already buried her, but I sat outside with her grave, a mound of soil and Georgia’s red clay, all night.
It was another month or so before I finished my pledge process, but more so than any of the requirements to join the fraternity, my mind was occupied by the fact that I didn’t have any pictures with Sasha. Why didn’t I take the selfie? I asked myself a thousand times. The night I visited her grave, I scrolled through the files on an old desktop computer in our house. I swore I had seen a picture of Sasha on it once, but I couldn’t remember. I searched every folder I could find. I went into the temporary files, the deleted files -- nothing. I figured it wasn’t meant to be, but it still hurt me. I would never see my dog again.
I finished my pledge process and celebrated the life that comes after such an accomplishment. For the past year, I had been dating a woman who was also in a Greek organization, and so she was sensitive to the scenario and provided me with great support. Now that I had my life back, I invited her to a nice dinner and we ended up at her place afterward. She said she had gifts for me to celebrate joining the fraternity. I sat on the side of her bed and opened up the box. There were all the usual suspects: wristbands and lanyards, ties, paddles and other wood crafts. It was all very thoughtful. I emptied the box and thanked her profusely.
At least, I thought I emptied the box.
I noticed a small blue box at the bottom of the larger box. I grabbed it and it seemed rather dense. I opened it up to reveal a silver rectangle. A picture frame. It had bones carved as decorations into the body of the frame. At the bottom center of the frame were the words “my dog.” I looked at my girlfriend and she pointed back to the blue box. I reached into the box and pulled out three pictures of Sasha.
The first was of her about five years prior, on a sunny day in the same backyard that she’s now buried in. I remembered the day. We had been doing some leash training and taking pictures of how obedient Sasha and a couple of other dogs were. This particular photo had a more “candid” appeal, though. The other two photos were action shots of Sasha obeying various commands. I was in one of the shots, my slender teenage body positioned alongside her, holding the leash as she followed her instincts.
“It took me a few times,” my girlfriend said. “I had to look through every file on the computer, but I found them. I was so excited I jumped up and down. Sent them right to CVS and got them printed.” She had driven the hour-long distance to my parents’ house on multiple occasions and completely mined the computer to find those three photos.
I wrapped myself up in my arms, rocked back and forth off the edge of the bed, and cried my eyes out for about twenty minutes. She rubbed my back the whole time.
That relationship has long since ended, but I still have the frame. And the pictures. In fact, they’re prominently and openly displayed in my home. What my then-girlfriend gave me was more than a gift, obviously. It was something so thoughtful and considerate and genuine that it changed me. She also taught me how to do the same for others. When I give gifts now, I think about the effect they will have on the person. Not just now, but in five years. Ten. Twenty. Will my gift be story-worthy? What aspect of your personality will it illuminate? Does it have the power to make you a better person?
I’ll always be thankful for the greatest gift I ever got, and for the giver too. Every day that I see my dog on my mantle, I’m reminded that there are people in the world who would go into space and bring you back stars if you wanted them. I try to surround myself with those people. I try to be that person. Every day that I see my dog on my mantle, I’m reminded of that warm day in March when we bathed, brushed and chatted. I think about how seldom life gives us perfect endings, and I’m even more thankful for that one. I haven’t heard a snort of felt a lick of the palm in over five years. I miss it. But I can envision it like it was yesterday. And luckily, thanks to an amazing friend, I don’t have to visualize everything in my mind’s eye. I can see my dog.