What’s a promise to a dying man worth? Quite a lot as it turns out. I didn’t think so at the time though. The dying man was my cousin. We had been close as kids but had drifted apart as adults until we only saw each other at the occasional family function. On those occasions we would exchange our news in a perfunctory way and then drift off, and so it was year after year. At one point I felt that he nursed a vague grudge but nothing was ever said. When he was admitted to hospital with pancreatic cancer, I visited him out of a sense of obligation and knowing this was likely the last time we would ever speak. His approaching death did not stir any sentimental emotion in either of us. We had long since left our childhoods and the people we were behind. I was surprised then when he asked me to stay as the others shuffled out of the room. The sound of the oxygen machine and heart rate monitor filled in the silence. The visit had exhausted him but I could tell that he was gathering his energy for one last push when he suddenly clutched at my hand pulling me towards him.
‘Promise me that you will look after her,’ he whispered.
His gaze held me steadily. He was not delirious. I remembered a brief dalliance with his now ex-wife, Miriam shortly before they were married but there was no irony in his voice. It was the look of a man who measured his life now in breaths. ‘Who was ‘she’?’ I wondered.
‘Promise me’ his hand tightened, and I nodded reluctantly but before I could say anything more his grip slackened, and his final breath came as a sigh. It was the machines that finally called it.
If I had paid more attention to my cousin’s social media feed, I would have prevaricated until he had passed. Now it was too late.
The next morning, I was awakened by an insistent knocking at the door.
‘You have a date with Destiny’ said Miriam by way of greeting ‘now get dressed’. I didn’t get a chance to ask her what she meant before she pushed me out the door.
We pulled up to a neat semi and she paused for a moment by the gate ‘He only had eyes for one woman’ she said with a mixture of bitterness and amusement. I thought that she was referring to the sudden collapse of their marriage but she turned and then unleashed a piercing whistle that summoned a snarling ball of fur and muscle. ‘ Destiny, meet your new master’. The two of them eyed each other. The loathing was mutual. ‘That’s her default setting. I would have put her down. Would have done it myself, but you promised your cousin.’
‘Your ex-husband’ I reminded her.
She reached into her bag and pulled out a raw steak which she threw at the animal who caught it mid-air and devoured it hungrily.
‘She was a rescue dog. She was supposed to bring us closer together. Can you believe that? It was love at first sight. No one would blame you if you’re having second thoughts, but a deathbed promise… ‘ she shook her head ‘I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.’ And just like that I had inherited a Bull Arab dog. Despite its ferocious nature it was an intelligent animal and it gave me a long searching look. Did the beast instinctively know that I had made her former master a deathbed promise? Destiny’s mouth twisted itself into a death’s head grin and I received two short sharp barks in response to my unspoken question.
‘I wonder why he asked you?’ said Miriam as she carefully cleaned her hands ‘I mean you are hardly a dog person and you two weren’t close.’
‘Maybe he thought it was never too late to learn responsibility.’ I said dryly.
‘God knows you’ve escaped it all your life’ she blurted out ‘I’m sorry it’s not my place’. She was right through and I waved off her apology.
‘Maybe we can share the…responsibility’ she said uncertainly ‘she can be quite a handful and needs to be handled carefully.’
‘Are we talking about Destiny or you?’ I teased suddenly remembering what ended our youthful affair.
‘She reminds me of my younger self. Before I grew up.’
It was true, the intervening years had reshaped her while I felt like I had stayed the same.
‘Two are better than one’ I said timidly reaching for her hand. She gave it a gentle squeeze and smiled. Destiny barked, this time with approval.
Miriam’s smile widened into a grin. ‘I think she picked the right man after all’.
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