Monday, September 27, 2010

The Murdoch uncertainty

Beneath the yellow warmth of the early morning sun, cool air carrying the slight dampness of the night before swirled lazily around us as Morgan and I discussed the basics of tennis. I stood on one side of the net while Morgan sat in his wheelchair on the other side. It was just Morgan’s second time playing, the first being the evening before as the dark blueness of twilight descended on the court painting everything the same shadowy indigo. We called it quits when the tennis balls seemed to fade in and out of existence as they flew through the air.

Now, in the brightness of day, we started again. As we conversed over the net, my dog radar suddenly went off and I turned to see another couple stepping from their car with tennis rackets, a Frisbee and a border collie.

“Oh, look!” I blurted out somewhat involuntarily and watched as the three of them entered through the gate and jogged past us with a friendly wave to the second court. I had seen this dog before playing Frisbee in the open grassy field that rolled away from the fenced in tennis courts towards a row of houses in the distance. Walking along the gravel path one day that winds through the open space I watched as this black and white dog flattened itself into the ground as though made of nothing more than shadows and felt the intense stare from a distance as her eyes remained glued to her owner and the blue Frisbee in her hand.

Today the collie took up position in the shade beneath a weather worn bench as her owners began to play. She focused intently on their every move, her entire world was there on that court, everything else faded away. I could feel her presence as Morgan and I hit the ball back and forth, the very air vibrated with her intense purpose, her unspent energy held at the ready, waiting for just one word.

When it finally came, the dog was on her feet and moving across the court with such ease and grace, it was as though she had never been lying still. She flowed out from under the bench, and moved like a steady, rolling river purposefully cutting its way through the landscape to retrieve one ball at a time. Somehow, she knew which of the yellow fuzzy balls belonged to her owners and which ones were ours.

“We should teach Murdoch how to do that,” Morgan said as we stopped play to watch.

“Yeah, right,” I said with a laugh, “Could you imagine it?”

I pictured his large black shape galumphing across the court after every ball, leaping up and catching them before they sailed over the net, each ball getting heavier and heavier as they became saturated with dog slobber. Somehow along the way I’m sure he would find himself tangled up in the net, ripping it to shreds in a panicked attempt to escape its evil clutches.

Morgan and I do a lot of surmising about Murdoch. It has become somewhat of a game that usually begins with “Can you imagine?” and ends with descriptions of mass destruction and chaos, sometimes unspoken and left completely up to the imagination.

Visiting Upper Canada Village in Cornwall, Ontario, Morgan comes flying down a ramp in his wheelchair and spooks a couple of horses pulling a wagon. “Oh my god, could you imagine if Murdoch were here?” Morgan says as we watch the coachman take control of the sidestepping horses. I just shake my head, picturing myself being dragged behind him as he lunged and barked maniacally at, first the horses, then the giant wagon wheel as it trundled by.

At a park with my nephew, I pause atop the play structure and spot away in the far corner an off-leash dog park. Through the chain-link fence I can see a crowd of dogs, tails waving happily in the air as though the canine community is meeting for a chat over morning coffee. If Murdoch were in the mix he would be like a fox loose in a chicken coop. I imagine the air suddenly full of multicoloured tufts of flying fur as the black tornado rips through the once pleasant playtime. Amidst the ensuing melee would erupt deep-throated, no-nonsense growls and barks and when the dust finally settled, Murdoch and I would be banned for life from any further attempts to play with other dogs. I would leave quietly and quickly, dragging Murdoch behind me who would no doubt still be trying to start something even as the gate slammed shut in his face.

In the backyard of my sister’s house I gaze into the deep blue, crystal clear water of the swimming pool. “If Murds were here,” I think, “We would never get him out of there.” I imagine his lanky body barreling so quickly down the stairs to the poolside that he trips himself up with his oversized feet. But that doesn’t stop him from launching himself through the air, a kamikaze leap into the pool, gangly legs flailing for a moment before the desperate splashing attempts to swim while inhaling every last drop of water. I imagine the hacking and gagging, the less-than crystal water becoming gray, a film of long hairs woven together on the surface of the pool, the giant hair clog in the filter, a less than welcome house guest.

Poor Murdoch. I think sometimes we don’t give him enough credit, letting our imaginations carry us completely away. Maybe he would be a good ball dog on the tennis court. For a moment I see him sitting up straight and tall on the sidelines, watching the ball fly back and forth over the net, waiting. When I say “Okay Murds!” he jerks to life, off and running, perhaps not as gracefully as the border collie - moving more like a train wreck waiting to happen than a gently rolling river - but he’s doing it. Perhaps we could teach him this I think. Murdoch is full of surprises I remind myself, and sometimes they’re even pleasant ones.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Face of change

Dark amber liquid poured from the spout of the teapot into my mug, sending swirls of steam up into a beam of morning sunlight. Individual pinpricks of water shimmied in place for a moment and then disappeared as though swallowed up by cooler air outside the pocket of warmth. I cupped the mug with both hands and held it up to my face to let the steam play across my nose, inhaling the comforting, rich scent. I took another deep breath to prepare myself before reaching for the phone.

I had played over in my mind countless times the story I was sure I was about to hear. It could have very well been one of unbelievable destruction, embarrassment and shame; in other words a story that was plastered from stem to stern with Murdoch’s messy paw prints and claw marks, with great chunks missing that remained clenched in his teeth.

It had been just about three weeks since I last saw my dogs, leaving them in Morgan’s capable but less than hands-on hands. I admit, I was worried about not being around for a month to buffer Morgan and Murdoch’s rocky relationship, but with me gone, Morgan was forced to step into my role as chief dog-walker, stick-thrower and cheek-pincher and found that, surprisingly, he enjoyed it. Morgan and Murds were actually doing stuff together, hanging out and, dare I say, bonding. It was kind of nice.

But when Morgan told me he was taking Murds to visit friends who were camping with their dog on a lake with other campers nearby, I was a little nervous to find out how it went. I already had a number of possible scenarios running through my mind, none of them ending particularly well. I cringed to think about the myriad things that could have gone horribly wrong.

I was ready to hear how Murdoch had terrorized the other campers, started a brawl, bit another dog. Would we be spending a small fortune on surgery to sew an ear back on? Anything was possible.

I braced myself and dialled.

“He was great!” said Morgan, his voice leaping into my ear with enthusiasm. “Fantastic! He was such a good dog!”

“Really?” I asked with a little more disbelief than was maybe necessary. “Murdoch?”

I settled back in the oversized chair in my parents’ living room with my mug of tea and listened as Morgan regaled me with stories of just how much Murdoch acted like a normal dog. He didn’t jump on anyone, or bare his teeth. He didn’t eat anything valuable or rip through any tents. I had to stop Morgan mid-sentence and make him repeat what he said about Murds looking the other way when a rottweiler growled in his face. He behaved as near to a perfect gentleman as we could even begin to hope of such a delinquent dog.

When Morgan told me Murds even came when he was called, breaking off a carefree gallivant with the aforementioned rottweiler along a sandy beach, a great swell of pride took me, followed by a small pang of jealousy to be the one to have missed this border-line historic moment.

I often think about Murdoch somewhat wistfully. He’s the personification of: “We’ll laugh about this later.” He is a much better dog in retrospect than he appears to be in any given moment and while he probably will never be an actual perfect gentlemen, Murdoch has developed his own special brand of charm over the last two years, becoming more fun than scary.

Two years ago I fantasized about the days when Murdoch wasn’t in my life and constantly questioned our decision to keep him, which was really more of a default than a decision since nobody else wanted this particular hellhound. Now I can’t imagine my life without him.

Murdoch does everything with great enthusiasm. His main purpose in this world seems to be to have fun at all costs, which sometimes leaves me stripped of my sanity. But I can’t wait to see him again. I can’t wait to stand next to his quivering body as pure excitement for life rolls off him in waves. I miss his big square pushy head, his forever licking tongue, the way his eyes pop out of his shaggy face when he knows he’s doing something wrong but just can’t help himself. I even miss our stand-offs when we’re both trying to figure out which one of us is actually thinking two steps ahead and which one is really good at faking it.

It's weird to think of the way he was two years ago, an angry whirlwind of teeth and claws who listened to nobody and seemed bent on complete annihilation of all things good, because now I wouldn't change him for the world - except maybe the psycho car-chasing thing.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Doggone crazy

I sat in the back seat of the car as it glided along the road, tightly hugging turns and bouncing over dips, my eyes flitting from scene to scene; corn field here, house there, giant tree, blue sky, white clouds, dog asleep in the grass.


My eyes locked onto the unmistakable shape of a black lab flopped on the lawn in the sun. It lay with its back to the road just off the front porch of a small farmhouse, along the edge of a perfectly straight line of shadow cast by the roof overhang. Sun shimmered familiarly off the midnight fur, making it glisten against the bright green grass. I whipped my head around to watch it as we drove by and it was all I could do to keep myself from telling my dad to stop the car, jump out and run across the road to lie down beside that dog before throwing my arm across its body.

Even in my dog-deprived state I knew that would be crossing some sort of line, so I sat back and sighed and missed my dogs even more.

It was two and a half weeks since I had last seen Bear and Murdoch and I was starting to go a little bit crazy. I knew I would miss them when I left town to visit family, but less than a week into my trip I found myself focusing on any four-legged, wagging-tailed, furry animal that fell within my line of sight to the complete disregard of everything else around me. I knew I was really in trouble however when within the second week I was torn between my two-day-old niece and the puppy visiting my sister’s neighbour.

As we stepped inside the neighbour’s house with the new baby to delighted oohs and aahs, I caught a glimpse of a golden haired puppy being ushered through a door into another room. My heart leapt and I had to restrain myself from dashing down the hall and following its gangly-legged body as it disappeared around the corner.

To be fair, I had already oohed and aahed over my new niece and now dutifully faded into the background so everyone else could get a look at her and cuddle her brand new tiny pink body, but I thought I should at least wait a few minutes before piping up “can I see your dog?” How do I do this without insulting anyone? Would it be weird, I wondered, if I slipped quietly around the corner without a word amidst all the hoopla? And then I honed in on my two-year-old nephew who was wandering around looking for something to do. “Would you like to go see the puppy?” I asked him.

A baby gate, like the one we use for Murdoch, split the hall and contained the big, liquid-limbed puppy behind it. She lay pressed against the wall, her pouty face turned in our direction and as we neared she stood up with the awkward confidence of a growing five-month-old just getting used to her body. She then placed her paws on top of the gate and pushed herself up to meet my hand as it smoothed over the downy hair covering her little round head.

I was struck by how gentle she was. Murdoch was six-months old when I found him and if he was the one on the other side of this particular gate, I’m not sure the gate would still be standing. More likely there would be a Murdoch-shaped hole in the middle of it and I would have been left flattened on the floor with a vague impression of a black whirlwind that just blew through.

This puppy kept her paws to herself and when she sat down again and I cupped her buttery, soft face in my hand, she didn’t once try to bite me. My heart melted right there as I looked into her dark, soft eyes in that caramel face. Her eyebrows seemed to push in slightly at the sides, giving her a concerned look, but with her black smiling mouth, it was the type of concern that made you believe she was thinking only of your own well being.

I reached around to scratch behind one soft, floppy ear covered in krimped, frazzled hair the colour of creamy butterscotch and she poured herself into a puddle on the floor. She lay back against the wall again moving as though every bone in her body had about a million joints.

I looked around with what I’m sure was a dopey smile on my face and found my nephew had already lost interest in the puppy and was on to something else. I tried to entice him back, not ready to tear myself away. Would it be weird, I wondered, if I climbed over the gate and gave her a big squishy hug?