“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Day 35: Rebekah's Dogs Teach us About Family and Caring

It's Wednesday, January 11.  Today my husband and I are taking Zoe to Ottawa for another chemotherapy appointment.  Tomorrow I'll post on how it went.

Now and then, in this corner, I invite a guest blogger to share a story.  Today's post is by a talented student at St. Lawrence University, Rebekah White.  She's from the Adirondacks and spent some time studying in New York City, but ended up transferring to SLU because of our Environmental Studies/English combined major and our proximity to the things she loves most: rivers, forests, mountains, and quiet.

When she sent me this story about the two dogs she grew up with, I was moved by the disarming candor of her voice.  It's just a dog's eyelash longer than the usual post here, and I hope you will not only read it but share it on Facebook and beyond.

First, two pictures of Rebekah with the rest of the students I taught in Contemporary Literature and the Environment.  This picture was taken on October 18, 2011, when we went on a hike through Harper's Falls. 
That's me hugging Zoe, and to the left is Erin Siracusa, who posted for me on Day 21.  Rebekah is immediately to the left of Erin in a pale blue jacket.  This group was an absolute joy to work with.  Zoe loved them too.  Some of the students in this group have known her for all their four years of college.

Rebekah is in the blue jacket in the front row
To read or re-read Erin Siracusa's post, go to Day 14: Waking up in the Dark.

Abiding Company
Rebekah White

I am sitting in the sand because I know that it will not be long before winter intrudes with its cold, icy hands and, brusquely, authoritatively, forces me back inside. I run my fingers through the white dirt, tossing it between my palms, all too aware that the passing of time will soon transform this dirt into snow.
The sky is overcast, as it has been for much of this weekend. I am on vacation from school, and enjoying the surplus time that is allowing me to laze in such ways in the dirt. I zip up my jacket and recline back against my favorite tree, the white pine that has been in our front yard for as long as I can remember.
I yawn and survey our yard which, to be honest, is not that expansive. My parents own quite a bit of acreage, but most of it is in swamp or woodland. We are not the type of family that finds it necessary to devote a large portion of our property to swimming pools or decorations. As a child, I never had a trampoline or a tree house. My father prefers to keep things looking natural, so that’s why, spare a dilapidated swing set, a pair of Adirondack chairs and a gone-by vegetable garden, we don’t have anything on our lawn.
I realize in that list, of course, that I forgot the old dog house. It is behind our house, so I often forget that it’s there. It is conveniently located next to the doggie door that leads in to the back, placed so strategically for the convenience of quick warmth in the winter. My father likes to recount the argument he had with my mother one winter over whether they should put a small space heater inside the doghouse for “his boys.”
My father won, and the dogs were cozy.
The dogs joined our family around thirteen years ago. My younger sister, at the time obsessed with Toy Story, christened the dogs likewise. Buzz and Woody. The brothers. Our dogs were born of the same litter, both mixed black lab; Buzz had some terrier in him, Woody was definitely part beagle. The two were inseparable until Buzz passed away five years ago.
I smile as I think about Buzz, and run another handful of sand through my hands. Buzz was aggressive, always defensive, always on the move. He fiercely protected our family and went after any suspected intruders. Squirrels were the usual target, but occasionally he got into a fight he couldn’t win. Once, he ate three bottles of my mother’s perfume, glass, liquid, and all. To this day, we’re not sure what inspired that gastronomical feat.
On another day, he and Woody decided to chase after my aunt’s ugly Jack Russell terrier. None of us particularly liked the dog, so it was with reluctance that we tried to call the boys back. They did not listen to us but instead rapidly overcame the smaller, yipping creature. We were surprised when they got to her, however, because they simply licked her face and playfully nibbled her stubby tail.
Yet not all of the battles ended so peacefully. Buzz and Woody were fond of chasing after porcupines, and usually they escaped with only one or two quills. On one instance, however, when Buzz must have tried to eat the creature, he ended up with an entire faceful of the spines. My father took him to Sue, our veterinarian, who thought she had managed to pull most of them out. Buzz was expected to make a full recovery.
Several weeks later, though, his odd behavior had us worried.  He had become increasingly aggressive, growling several times at my mother, and frequently attacking Woody. This latter development was especially troubling. As male dogs, it was to be expected that the two would tussle occasionally, and they did, but it was almost always over food. Now, Buzz would go after his brother when he least expected it, and with Buzz being considerably larger, it never ended well.
It wasn’t long before I stepped off the bus one day to the news that he had passed away. Sue confirmed that one of the tips of the quills had probably passed into his brain. We were saddened by the news but even more saddened that he may have suffered in the few weeks between the incident and his death.
Woody was solemn for months. I don’t tend to anthropomorphize, but I also don’t deny the fact that animals can feel sadness. He moped around the house, refusing to eat and sleeping only in restful fits. It broke our hearts to watch him in such despair. Buzz was part of our family, but he was also Woody’s best friend.
However, Woody’s cycle of grief was similar to that of humans, and, like most of us, was able to move on. It wasn’t long before he was back chasing turkeys and rabbits across the lawn, and barking ecstatically when my father arrived home. He became increasingly clingy, following us everywhere we went. If I was in my bedroom and happened to go into the kitchen to get a glass of water, he would trot along behind me. I tried to slip him a piece of food whenever I could. I still felt bad for him. It was as if he were making sure that none of the rest of us got out of his sight and slipped away like Buzz.
When I was seventeen, I took up the hobby of running on the old log roads that ran between my house and the swamp. Woody wore a collar that kept him within the invisible boundaries around our lawn, and he would whine when I stepped over the underground fence. Many times, he simply stepped over the line and bore the electrical shock so that he could join me on my run.
In all the years Woody accompanied me on various runs or walks, he never wore a leash. He stayed by my side. He never left our property, either, unless he was looking for us. Once, on our way home, we found him wandering on the side of the road two miles from our house. After that, we started to keep him inside whenever we had to leave.
I lean back against the rough, cool bark. It is slightly soggy to the touch. I’m sitting where my mother’s flower bed used to be, where Woody used to try to scare out snakes from under the plants. I peer beyond the former flower bed, into the garage, and smile. It is on the shelves of my dad’s wood shop where we keep Woody’s old toys. He only ever liked to chew things when he was a puppy, not like some dogs who like to gnaw bones and rubber playthings their entire lives.
I remember spending one summer afternoon trying to teach him, as a seven year old dog, how to fetch. At that time, I had never heard the phrase, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I was persistent in my efforts, yet every time I threw that stick, he just stared contemplatively at me and laid down on the grass. He was grateful for my company, I’m sure, but he probably thought I was a nut for a throwing a stick and then running after it myself.
When I was home over the summer, I ran every morning before work. Woody, at thirteen, was too old to accompany me, especially since I was running on the road and not in the woods. He was completely blind in one eye and losing vision in the other. He could not hear well, and he had hip dysplasia. His legs frequently gave out. He was becoming a member of the elderly canine society, and as much as he pretended this wasn’t true, I knew it wasn’t wise to take him, unleashed, with me on a four mile run.
As I left the driveway, I heard him whining before the invisible fence. It was beeping a warning to him. He looked sadly at me. “Stay here,” I commanded. I was mildly irritated. I would be right back.
When I got to the end of our two-tenths of a mile driveway, I felt something soft brush my leg, and there he was. He looked up at me, and I noticed the milky blending of color in his eyes. With immense guilt, I commanded him once more to stay and gently nudged him back towards the house. He trotted back, but kept peering reluctantly over his shoulder. When I returned from my run, I expected him to be back inside the house, as an hour had passed and it had begun to drizzle. Instead, he was still sitting next to the mailbox, his fur matted with rain.
I stand up from beneath the tree and brush my dirty hands on my pants. This experience is depressing me because I don’t want to think about where my mind has gone. This was supposed to be a simple nature writing activity, one in which I would write about how the fall colors are so pretty, and the birds are so sweet, and I miss the flowers of summer, and blah blah blah. Instead, I’m thinking about my dog, and how much I miss him, and how much I regret that I was never able to say good bye to him.
He passed away while I was at school, less than a week before I was supposed to come home again. As I meander over to his dog house, I shove my hands in my pockets and sigh. I half expect him to come barreling out of there, panting happily and running in circles as I search for a spare hot dog or biscuit to give him. It is silent. I peer inside the dog house, and somehow manage to smile when I notice that the space heater and his bed are still inside. I’m not going to remind my dad to take them out.
As I continue my journey around the lawn, I console myself with the memories Woody and I have on this ground. He was the horse when my sister and I would play cowboys and princesses. He was the pillow when we grew fatigued and needed a nap. He was a great friend and an even better guardian. I always felt secure with him sleeping by my bed at night.  
My dad drives up then, and I wave to him before walking over. I think about how Woody would have reacted. He would have barked fanatically, his yips making him sound more like a seal than a dog. He would have rushed over to my father, jumping up and slapping him with his paws. My dad would have snapped at him, “Down, boy!” but would then take him inside and pet him and feed him his dinner.
As my father and I walk inside, I take one look back at the lawn and can imagine Woody lying in his favorite spot, underneath the pine. In my mind’s eye, I can still see him there. He’s there with Buzz, waiting patiently for us to come home.

Rebekah and Woody

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