Monday, December 27, 2010

Greatest Christmas gift ever

Morgan and I brought home Max’s shiny new wheelchair on Boxing Day two years ago. It was the most thrilling part of our Christmas that year when we pulled the sparkling chrome contraption out of the box and assembled the various pieces. When put together it looked like a cart with two small mountain bike tires slightly angled at the rear and a couple of metal arms that would run along each side of Max’s body, parallel to his back.

I flipped through the instruction booklet, examining the different straps and clips that would attach the cart to Max, hoping to make his introduction to this apparatus as smooth as possible. But enthusiasm gripped us. We had been searching for a chair for Max for three months by then and had been thinking about it at least four-times as long. In our excitement we descended on him like a pair of ravens investigating a particularly shiny object in the snow.

“The strap goes over his head like this and under his chest.” “No, wait, that’s backwards. Take it off again. It goes like this.” “His leg goes through here. Wait. It has to go in this way. That’s right. His legs go like that and that piece clips in there.”

It was an intense flurry of activity as we poked and prodded, but Max just stood there patiently dipping his head down for a drink from the bowl on the floor in front of him while we pulled and tugged and adjusted straps.

When he was ready, we opened the door and shunted him outside. He stood there for a moment in the fading light, the snow a cool slate blue all around him while we waited anxiously, barely breathing. He took his first step, followed by another and another and then he was trundling around the open area in front of our house, snow caking into the tread on his tires.

“Good boy Max!” both Morgan and I cheered, while Bear skipped about in the snow looking for a ball, completely oblivious to the event at hand. Max looked at us as if to ask what all the fuss was about and was the camera really necessary?

I don’t know what it must have been like for Max to suddenly be able to walk again, to go effortlessly where he wanted to go, but he seemed absorbed in the moment when he trotted down the snow-covered driveway. I had to run to keep up with him.

He planted his great front feet with purpose, one in front of the other pulling him along the road faster and faster while his back legs hung down, scissoring in time with his front legs as though helping to propel him. Max jogged determinedly down the road he hadn’t been able to walk along in months. It was like he had a score to settle.

I suppose he did. By the end of the summer that road had defeated him. He couldn’t go any farther than the end of our driveway before his back legs gave out. I began sneaking past him to take Bear and Murds for walks while he dozed beneath the trees outside our house. More often than not, when we were halfway down the road I would look back over my shoulder and see a tiny Max in the distance his front legs dragging his collapsed backend toward us, sending up small plumes of dust from the dry dirt road. We’d hurry back and I would half-carry an exhausted Max up to the house.

That first evening in his new wheelchair must have felt like a victory. I stopped jogging with him and he continued on his own, barely noticing my absence. I watched him beeline down the road, seeing for the first time the shape I would soon be so accustomed to, as Max became a tiny blue shadow with wings in the half-light of the snowy landscape.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best buds

Fat flakes of snow drift through the crisp air like weighted feathers and patter against my hood. It sticks to Murdoch’s fur as he strides out in-front, head held high, tail swaying eagerly. The world is colourless. A snow-covered road hemmed in by squat snow banks that give way to white narrow strips of filled-in ditches that in turn give way to gray trunks, marking the edge of patches of forest. Above, gray-white clouds become a solid dome, metallic and heavy with snow.

It is all a great blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled by the prints of romping paws and clomping winter boots.

We walk down the center of the road towards the trail that begins at the frozen creek where the road ends. I breathe in great swathes of clear wintry air and share in the giddy sense of freedom that makes Murdoch bounce along on his toes.

In the distance I hear a soft jingling and I stop to look back up the road from where we came. Jack, the neighbours’ dog, and Murdoch’s best friend in the entire world, is running towards us, his feet barely touching the ground as though he’s been shot from a cannon. I smile as I watch his creamy-coloured body fly over the snow. His dark ears, peppered with black hair, flap out like tiny wings as he runs, giving him an expression of immediacy.

When he is a few feet away he plants all four feet flat on the ground and slides past, then turns sideways as he skids to a stop in front of us.

“Hi Jacky!” I say. His Lab-like face beams with excitement as his pink tongue sticks out in a pant from between his smiling black lips.

He turns abruptly and continues to run down the road to the trail. Murdoch stiffens and surges forward eager to follow, but I make him walk with me more sedately as we watch Jack become a spot of pale colour against the white road ahead.

When we reach the trail, Jack is waiting for us. Murdoch sits and waits while I remove his leash. I picture all his energy gathered into a tight ball in his chest as he looks at me, eyes huge and round, mouth closed tight as though it is taking every ounce of effort to sit still.

“Okay,” I say and wince as Murdoch explodes to life. Usually he explodes right into Jack, jumping all over him, forcing him to wrestle. But today the two of them run. It is as though they are celebrating the snow, the cold, their friendship. They run side by side up the trail through snow that reaches up to their knees, leaping through it as though they are frolicking along the shores of a lake. They jostle each other and run for a stretch with their sides pressed together.

I trudge behind at a distance, weighted down by my huge winter boots that make my feet look twice their normal size. My snow pants swish with each trodding stride I take reminding me how cumbersome I can be, how inefficient on my two legs compared with their four as they move effortlessly through the snow, running faster and faster until they are the size of ants.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Just a giant puppy

Morgan backs the car up to the growing pile of garbage that looms out of the pit like a wave anxious to crest. Wind slices across the elevated clearing of the local dump as people rush to throw their bags of garbage onto the heap and then jump back into their vehicles, slamming doors against the cold. The two women who work at the dump are hidden beneath thick layers of clothing. Protected against the elements they stand outdoors as though completely untouched by the wintry weather; hoods pulled up around their faces obscure their true identities.

The sun shines down from a clear sky but the icy atmosphere scatters any heat and stings our faces as we pull bags of garbage from the trunk of our car, then sort our recycling into the appropriate bins. The dump is a small one but our visits usually stretch towards the hour mark as we chat with the women who work there, but it is not a day to stand about so we say quick hellos, how are yous, and Merry Christmases as we walk swiftly back to our car.

And then I stop in my tracks as one of the women calls after us, “Oh, I have puppies.”

“Puppies?” I say, turning to watch her walk towards us.

“They’re Rottie, Shepherd, Collie mixes,” she says.

“Ooh, how cute,” I can’t help but exclaim as I smile at Morgan. He agrees they sound cute but with far less enthusiasm.

For a moment the cold is forgotten, I want to hear about these puppies and even though she’s not specifically asking if we want one I briefly entertain the idea of a new dog.

“How many dogs do you have now?” she asks.

“Just two,” I say, then think of Murdoch and add, “But one of them is like having five.”

I know we’re not getting another dog any time soon, but the fact that I can consider the idea without collapsing in a heap and curling into a fetal position speaks volumes for how far Murdoch and I have come.

About five weeks after I plucked the six-month-old hairy beast from the side of the road and resorted to just about begging someone to take him before realizing he was ours for good, I vowed I would never, ever, under any circumstances, have a puppy again. “Why would someone purposely do this to themselves?” I asked Morgan, deflated and worn out and nursing a few new bite wounds after my latest battle with “the spawn of satan”.

Morgan assured me it wasn’t usually like that then reiterated his theory that perhaps Murdoch wasn’t quite right in the head.

Murdoch is three now, we think, or at least closing in on three, and as I watch him sleep in front of the door, peaceful and calm, I can’t believe he’s the same dog. His side gently rises and falls with each breath and his long black body curves in a relaxed C-shape. Four legs run like spokes on a wheel straight from his shoulders to meet at the hub in a jumbled cluster of feet.

He must feel me watching him because he opens an eye and stares back through the wispy ends of a shaggy eyebrow. “Hi Murds,” I say quietly and he curves his back a bit more, conjuring a stretch that travels along his spine, down his legs to his toes. He closes his eye again and sighs.

He looks serene, but he doesn’t fool me. Within that slumbering form lies an eternal puppy, a pushy brat who thinks he should be the pack leader, a bully who gets carried away and always takes roughhousing just a little too far, a thick-headed mule who drags me behind him chasing cars. He still growls at me occasionally and sometimes tries to eat the cat. So, while I have warmed to the idea of getting a puppy someday, at the moment I’m good.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Murdoch? Is that you?

Morgan’s sister and her husband have a gigantic Doberman Pinscher. His name is Larsson and he’s the size of a small horse with long muscular legs that let him leap up a flight of six stairs in a single bound.

As we enter their house, Larsson explodes up the steps towards us then spins and spins on the spot, filling the entryway with his long, sea lion-like body. His hair is super-short, so slick and shiny he almost shimmers as he spins. I just stand back and watch.

If it weren’t for my experience with Murdoch and his huge jaw and giant blocky head and over-exuberance for life, I think this dog might intimidate me, but Murdoch prepared me for these situations (and insisted I read countless books on dog training). So I wait, and laugh, because what I see in Larsson is a bigger version of Murdoch, just more hyper – which I really never thought was possible.

His feet, a rich chestnut brown that fades about mid-leg to black, thump and stomp as he propels himself in circles, head down, soft silky ears flapping on either side of his slim, bony head. His tail, about the length of a sausage link, wiggles back and forth.

When he slows down enough for me to get his attention, I tell him to sit and then run my hand over the top of his smooth head. I cup his velvety brown chin in my hand and tell him he’s a good boy. I leave my toque and mitts at the front door and climb another short flight of stairs to the living room. My toque is not my favourite, I had to leave that one behind after Murdoch got a hold of it for the hundredth time.

He snatched it from the basket I keep at the top of the kitchen stairs as I ushered him back to his side of the baby gate. He clattered down the stairs with it clutched between his teeth. Even though he hasn’t actually destroyed anything in a long time, preferring instead to parade around with stuff in his mouth, I can’t turn my back on the possibility he may decide to shred his latest catch, so I followed, trying not to make it a big deal, trying to keep that tone out of my voice that signals to him this could be the start of a really great game as I say, “Uh-uh Murdoch, that’s mine.”

He padded quickly across the space from the bottom of the stairs to the front door, flicking a couple of sideways glances my way from eyes that were twice their normal size. My green toque, my favourite toque, the fleecy, warmest one I wear all the time, stuck out in small crushed folds from between his lips on either side of his giant square jaw. I imagined it inside his mouth, all bunched up and slowly absorbing every last drop of slobber.

I reached out and grabbed a corner of the toque, “Mine,” I said firmly and felt his hold loosen. Clearly he wasn’t in the mood for a good fight that day and in a moment had spit the toque out in my hand. I held it up between my thumb and forefinger, wet and glistening with new globs of slobber almost artfully splattered across the fabric. Older, dried slobber shimmered through from beneath. I didn’t have time to wash it so I wore another toque on our trip to visit family, a striped one of pinks and pale blues and grays.

We sat in the living room of Morgan’s sisters house admiring our new nephew when Larsson clip-clopped past with a small green toy cup in his mouth. I glanced up to see him flick his eyes in our direction and recognized Murdoch in that sly, yet bratty expression. He saw me looking at him and changed course to trace out a big circle around the perimeter of the room before the cup was taken away from him.

A few minutes later he appeared again, his long legs striding with great purpose along the same path, this time with a super-hero action figure clamped in his long jaw.

I should have seen it coming, but it never crossed my mind until much later when Morgan called to me in another room over the sound of Larsson’s feet marching along his well-worn path, “He’s got your toque.”

Of course he does.

I got it away from him by offering up a potato chip in exchange. He tiptoed hesitatingly towards me and carefully laid the toque at my feet. “Thanks a lot Larsson,” I said, picking it up and wiping it off on my jeans. “It’s like I never left home.”