Today is Cubbie’s birthday. He would have turned nine. He would have gobbled up a celebratory gourmet dog cookie with a candle in the middle. He would have walked bowlegged through the neighborhood, greeting passing dogs and people with the kind of amiable superstar charm that is reserved for celebrity darlings like George Clooney and Tom Hanks. He would have nestled in bed beside me, keeping me company as I type this. He would have fallen asleep quickly, his barreled body warm and soft and all the things Cub was and isn’t anymore.
I wish I’d given him five celebratory gourmet cookies last year.
Joe told me I need to stop writing sad posts about the dog. He told me enough already, Heidi. You wrote your closure piece, now move on.
So today I moved on. I did what I thought was the best possible thing to do on Cub’s birthday. I loaded Henry into the kayak, tucked Cubbie’s ashes into a waterproof bag and pushed off into the bay at sunset.
The weather was perfect. The water was glass. The air was still and the park was quiet, save for my homeless friend Charlie, who wished us well as we paddled into the calm, orange distance. My son was well-rested and contemplative as I explained to him the significance of today’s paddle.
“We’re going to scatter some of Cub’s ashes in the water.”
“Cubbie has ashes,” he repeated.
“Yes,” I replied.
“We see Cubbie again?” He asked confused, or so I thought.
I wasn’t sure what to tell him. I’m never sure what to tell him. He asks about Cubbie every day. He wonders where Cubbie went and when he’ll see him again. And no matter my response he always tells me that Cubbie will, “come back soon.” He started telling me this well before the pug died. He even invented a song this summer with only four prophetic words: Cubbie come back soon.
“You know that song is going to break your heart some day,” Joe said.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I like when he sings it.”
It turns out Henry, at two and a half, is a lot less confused about death than I am at 31. As we paddled our two-man kayak through sleepy mangrove-lined Coffee Pot Bayou, I explained to him that the pug once loved to kayak too.
“Today is his birthday,” I said.
“We eat cake?” Henry asked.
“No cake,” I said. “Just kayaking.”
I zeroed in on the perfect spot. The kayak forged ahead, slicing a silent part in the emerald water. The sun dipped behind the palms. The sky turned from copper to blue-grey. In the distance I could hear kids laughing, bouncing on their bikes as they pedaled along the cobblestone street that lines the bayou. I smelled a cigar being smoked. I heard a fishing pole being cast. In Buffalo they have three feet of snow, I thought.
I saw the manatee before Henry did. He rose like a floating city beside our kayak, his nostrils breaking the surface to breathe just before going under again. I was untying the bag of ashes when his prop-scarred body emerged within arm’s reach of our boat.
“Manatee!” Henry squealed.
“Don’t scare him,” I whispered.
His snout was the size of Henry’s face and for a second I worried he might tip us over. I reached into the velvet bag, letting ashes sift through my fingers. I’d avoided opening this bag for weeks. Months even.
The sun dipped further behind the palms. The giggling kids on bikes rounded a corner and disappeared. From the sidewalk two women peered into the water to see if they might catch a glimpse of a manatee. Coffee Pot Bayou is like the Rockefeller Center of of manatee sightings and Henry and I had front row seats.
I grabbed a handful of ashes.
“What would you say if I told you this manatee was Cubbie?” I asked.
“Cubbie turn into a manatee,” my son replied, as if this was the most plausible thing in the world. “I want to TOUCH HIM.”
The manatee surfaced again. Henry reached for his flipper and missed.
“Manatees aren’t like dogs,” I said, emptying ashes into his hands. “They can be shy. Here, toss these in the water.”
Henry tossed the ashes. The manatee came up to breathe.
“Cubbie a REALLY BIG manatee,” he said.
For 30 minutes we floated there, the three of us sharing the same coordinates. We paddled and drifted, paddled and drifted until the sun went down, the street lamps flickered on and a million cicadas joined in chorus.
I sealed Cubbie’s ashes in the plastic bag, wrapped it in a towel and placed it at the back of the boat. Henry dipped his hand in the water and traced a circle with his finger. The manatee made a circle with its tail, snorted one last time, dropped underwater and swam out of sight.
“Goodbye Cubbie,” Henry said without missing a beat. “Come back soon.”