Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A successful morning stroll

Every morning after breakfast, just as the blackness outside our windows is diluted to a cold blue light, Bear gets up from her bed with a grunt and heads for the door. With a glance over her shoulder and a stomp of a paw she demands to go outside for her morning wander in the woods. Sometimes she is gone for more than 20 minutes. We're not sure exactly where she walks, sometimes she comes back up the path from our driveway and sometimes down the trail from our woods, the trail that eventually leads up the path to that dog on the hill.

One morning as I sat at the kitchen table drinking my tea and waiting for her to return, I caught sight of her black shape swaying confidently down the trail, weaving around errant sticks and sprays of dogwood emerging at precarious angles from the hardened snow. I imagined the sound of crunching ice beneath her feet as she marched proudly past the kitchen windows, her prize clamped triumphantly in her mouth.

Where did you find that, Bear?

A week later, she came home with the other one.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Snowflakes on noses

It snowed again, after a week of warm weather and rain and snow washed from trees to freeze as sheets of ice on the ground. It fell for two days, off and on, in a drifting, dreamy kind of way, accumulating just enough to make everything pretty again.

In the late afternoon I stood outside with the dogs after hauling two days worth of firewood out of the forest and watched the flakes fall in slow motion from a patchwork sky of evening blue and gauzy white cloud. The sun, riding low in the sky, cast a buttery light all day through the softly falling flakes and as it rode its shallow arc towards the mountains I could make out just a hint of pink about the clouds and on the now white branches of trees.

I threw a tree limb for Murdoch and a tiny stick for Bear. The tree limb had been Bear’s a few days ago. She stomped and barked and whined until I slid it along the ice so she could pounce and then chew on it, ripping it apart splinter by splinter. Later that night she had another seizure and although she bounced back quickly and insisted she was ready to play the next morning, the tree limb lay neglected for a couple of days where Bear had left it, wedged between the trunks of two trees.

Bear told us she was going to have a seizure that Friday night, nudging us at the table where we sat. When I took her to the stairs thinking she had to go out, I recognized the wide-eyed look on her face and the muscle twitch that we now know precedes her seizures. Morgan carried her to her bed, making it just to the edge as her body tensed up, and I sat on my knees on the floor, with her head in my lap and we waited for the convulsing to stop.

Then we gave her a great big bowl of food, having figured out by now that after her seizures she is starving and food helps calm her down so she doesn’t pace aimlessly, panicking on tired legs that give out frequently so she falls hard on the floor over and over again.

She stood scarffing down her second bowl of food, swaying on her feet while Morgan held up her back end and I held up her front, and we couldn’t help laughing a bit at her Labby determination to eat at all costs.

The snow started to fall on Sunday before the sun rose, tiny flakes drifting so casually down against the black backdrop of early morning I didn’t even notice until the dogs returned from their morning pee with sparkling diamonds dotting their fur. And Bear was back to acting like a puppy, galloping through the snow, kicking up sprays of white.

It wasn’t long before Murdoch discovered the tree limb caked with snow and frozen slobber. He picked it up as though it were a twig and brought it to where I stood, dropping it with a hollow thunk, frozen wood on ice. I hefted the five-foot long “stick” as far as I could, which wasn’t very far at all, wincing when it clattered down on his back and head or as he twisted his jaw to catch it, toppling end over end. I let him wrestle with it on his own and I plucked a tiny stick from the snow for Bear, who pawed the ground and demanded we play.

As she chewed her twig to bits I stood there and watched the snowflakes sift down through the dimming icy blue light. I watched them land on Bear’s face and back, tiny six-pointed stars of intricately sculpted glass. They were just exactly what you would imagine a snowflake to be and, landing gently on Bear’s black fur, they were absolutely perfect.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Peanut butter monsters

Steam roils up from the short, round kettle spout. The cap with the tiny hole that pressurizes the steam is flipped up so it doesn’t whistle piercingly. Outside the sky is just starting to lighten. Behind the dark outlines of trees is a backdrop of indigo. The sun is still behind the mountains but the snow on the ground is already starting to glow.

I turn off the burner on the stove and swish some boiled water from the kettle into the teapot before dropping in two tea bags, filling the pot and snugging on the tea cozy. Then I wait for the toaster oven to ding. Bear has already demolished her breakfast and is back on her bed pretending to sleep. I can hear Murdoch clanking around in his kennel, the rattle of kibble inside his food ball, as he rolls it around and eats what falls out.

When my toast is done I pointedly do not look at Bear as I quietly take the jar of peanut butter from the shelf and place it carefully on the counter. The less fuss the better. Bear will definitely get some peanut butter in her Kong. She gets it every morning. But we’re running low and if Murdoch doesn’t get any today it will not be the end of the world, as long as he doesn’t know about it that is.

Murdoch doesn’t appreciate peanut butter the way Bear does. For her, it’s like enjoying a bottle of fine wine, she takes her time, makes sure she gets every last drop out of every molded corner of her Kong. Murdoch, on the other hand, the dog who will eat anything, licks up the peanut butter so fast and sloppily I’m sure he doesn’t even taste it. He then abandons that to troll for food, leaving peanut butter still caked to the inside of his Kong, which Bear then finishes later when he’s not looking.

So I move silently in the kitchen as Murdoch’s food ball continues to rattle around in his kennel, setting a plate on the countertop with barely a sound, pulling a knife from the mug on the counter where we store our cutlery without a clink, opening the door of the toaster oven without a squeak.

It used to be that I would just have to cut a couple of slices of bread, pop them in the toaster oven, or just think about peanut butter and I would hear behind me the quick clip, clip of toenails on the hardwood floor. There would be a rubbery thud of the Kong being spit out on the floor and I would look down to see it roll in its awkward, cone-shaped arc and skid to a halt at my feet against the kick board beneath the kitchen cupboards.

I would turn and make eye contact with Bear standing behind me in a solid, determined stance.

”What?” I would ask innocently and she’d stomp her foot before the word was even out of my mouth.

“Just give me the peanut butter and nobody has to get hurt.”

But now that it takes more of an effort for Bear to get up off her bed, she resorts to boring into the back of my head with her eyes. So I walk quietly towards her bed, pick up her Kong from the floor a few feet away without saying a word, give Bear a knowing smile and return to the counter.

I twist open the lid of the peanut butter jar and I swear it doesn’t make a sound, but suddenly the rattle and clatter of Murdoch’s kennel stops. I stand completely still in the silence and picture Murdoch’s face turned up towards the kitchen, his ear cocked just so, listening. And I wait, not moving.

And then he is leaping up the stairs, taking three at a time so his feet barely touch the steps at all and he trots to my side, neck craning, nose probing the air, eyes wide. “Peanut butter? Awesome!”

“Okay Murdoch,” I say, shifting out of silent mode and letting the lid of the peanut butter jar clunk on to the counter. “Go get your Kong.”

Murdoch turns and clatters down the stairs, spins around, and then clatters back up again.

“Kong, Murdoch,” I say. “Bring it.”

He runs back down again, grabs his ball and then drops it when I say, “No. Kong!” I know he knows this. It takes about ten tries, but he eventually manages to bring his Kong up the stairs and drop it at my feet. By this point it is slick and dripping in spots with slobber. I pick it up carefully from the floor and after I spread peanut butter on my toast, I sweep up a dollop with the knife and split it between the two Kongs.

I carry Bear’s to her bed where she takes it delicately from me, careful not to lose any of the peanut butter inside. Murdoch follows behind and when I turn to him he snaps into a sit and I hand him the Kong. He grabs it in his great jaws, the whole thing fitting easily in his mouth, and turns on his heel, slinking away as though he has just stolen some great treasure.

I settle in at the table to crunch through my toast as Bear works away on her Kong beside me. I can hear Murdoch in his kennel messily slurping up his peanut butter, licking faster and faster as if it is a race. Two minutes later he is back in the kitchen licking crumbs from the floor, and I’m pretty sure I see Bear roll her eyes.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Finding Bear

The snow started to fall before we went to bed. If it had been rain it would have clattered loudly on the roof but it fell silently, glinting through the beam of the porch light and gathering in a thin veil on the deck, the kind that can be blown away with a sharp exhale of breath.

We talked late in the kitchen about Bear, talked about the practical things. Weirdly, talked about when might be “the time” with her lying right there, stretched out on her bed. Would she make it to Christmas? We wondered. What about her birthday, just a week away? Because the past couple of weeks had been difficult, she had changed markedly and we weren’t completely sure if it was because of her medication or if things were progressing. She was losing her balance all the time, walking into things, disappearing into dazes, it all seemed very much like she was over-medicated. But what if she wasn’t?

At about four in the morning I make my way down stairs to the kitchen. I awoke to the sound of Bear’s toenails clicking across the floor, as I do every night when she needs to go out for a pee. Snow blankets the sills and pushes up against the tall skinny windows that line the stairs. I squint out past the pool of light spilling from the window and see it is still snowing.

“Bear, it snowed lots!” I say to her in a half-whisper as she meets me at the bottom of the stairs. For a moment, around the lump in my throat that has been there for months, there is joy.

“I want Bear to see the snow,” Morgan had said during our conversation in the kitchen that night. It was something I had been thinking about as well in the last month as I watched her start to struggle a bit. She loves the snow and I just wanted her to get a chance to play in it again.

And here it is, piling up against the screen door so I have to lean my weight against it, snow ploughing ahead of it like a breaking wave. It gathers in drifts up the trunks of trees and clings to branches. It is magical and sad all at the same time, because it sort of feels like some big checklist we’re working through, ticking off the onward march of time.

The dogs return covered in snow. Murdoch barges in as usual and Bear waits for the way to be clear and then walks through the open door with confidence and I try not to get too excited.

It was just two days before in the wee hours of the morning when I pushed open the door to let her in that my heart broke as she stood there staring at the door, confused, trying to figure out how to get back inside.

That day we were advised to stop her second medication, the one we started a month ago after her latest seizure. Although the levels of medication did not test high in her system the vet did think there was concern over Bear’s reaction to it.

By the morning of the snow, Bear has missed three doses of medicine and she is starting to behave more like herself. She is more alive and playful, she doesn’t fall over or walk into things, she seems more alert, more present. She marches sure-footed through the snow, demands sticks be thrown, does not sink so quickly into such deep sleeps. It is a relief to have her back, even as the threat of another seizure looms now that she is on reduced medication.

But, in the meantime, there’s a birthday to celebrate. And there’s snow.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A trip to the vet

The sky has been changing colour all day. It began a golden pink with blue streaks of thin clouds as the sun appeared over the mountains, then settled into a thin, white-gray that sometimes looked blue, sometimes silver, before becoming heavy with the more serious shade of slate. By the afternoon, as we drive along the dirt road to our vet’s office, it has brightened to a pretty pale gray that seems to bleed its colour onto the mountains, making them look hazy and far away.

The smell of cows and empty farm fields fills the car, sliding in at the back windows, along with cool, damp air that swirls at my neck and the wet sound of our tires flying over muddy roads, the odd ping of a pebble bouncing off the metal bits underneath. There have been heavy dews lately and frosts that have melted mid-morning and mists just hanging in the air, settling on things, that have kept everything wet and mucky.

In the back seat, Bear lies between the two open windows, her back legs positioned awkwardly beneath her, the way they’d finally folded after shakily standing at the window for a short time over rutted roads. We are sure she is on too much medication and our visit to the vet today is to see where the levels of her new medication sit in her system. We hope the dosage can be decreased. Bear has been quite unsteady on her feet lately and she disappears into dazes and her depth perception is all messed up, she keeps banging into things, misjudging doorways and exactly how big her feet are.

When we turn into the driveway at the vet’s, Bear pushes herself up again to look out the window, her nose sniffing the air ravenously. She is excited for exactly 40 seconds, the time it takes for us to park, let her scramble out of the car, clip on her leash and walk the five steps to the door of the little house that is our vet’s office.

It is a step up into the waiting room and Bear, who usually walks right in beside me, stops at the threshold. “Come on Bear,” I say as I step inside. But she looks the other way and I give her leash a tug. If Morgan hadn’t been standing beside her and encouraging her forward, I’m not sure we would have made it inside, but she reluctantly walks heavily into the room and then sticks herself to my side as we sit and wait.

We have been lucky all these years with Bear. Even with her double-cruciate injury a couple of years ago and a mysterious limp in one of her front legs when she was five, she has been a healthy dog; vet visits have been kept to the bare minimum throughout her life.

But then there was this summer. I have lost count of the number of times we’ve been to the vet over the last six months. Bear has been a trooper through it all, the poking and prodding, the seizures, the medications, the knowing that something isn’t quite right but not sure exactly what. She has been very brave, doing all the things we asked, going with the vet techs when needed. But today, she said quite clearly, she’s had enough.

“I’ll just take her to the back to get some blood and then we’ll meet you in the room,” says one of the vet techs. Morgan and I nod in agreement and I hand Bear’s leash to her. This is the part where Bear usually follows along slowly, her head hanging down, her tail between her legs. But today she refuses to stand.

No thanks.

I lift up her back end and walk beside her, taking her collar in my hand as the vet tech keeps hold of the leash. Bear drops her head down, pushes back with her front feet and we are dragging her across the floor. “It’s okay Bear,” I say.

Yeah right.

As we round the corner of the front desk and the door to the back room comes into view, Bear goes limp, drops to the floor and suddenly weighs twice as much as she did just a moment ago. I struggle to pick up her back end and put her back on her feet but I can’t budge her, it is like she has turned to stone.

No way. I’m not doing it. You can’t make me.

“Here,” says Morgan, stepping in to take her leash. As the leash is transferred to his hand, Bear bolts to her feet and makes a beeline for the exit, Morgan just about jogging behind her.

Quick, open the door. Let’s get out of here.

It is kind of funny and sad all at the same time. And as I try to come up with a way to make this less painful I spy the container of treats on the counter. I open the lid and grab a few, ready to coax her forward with her stomach, but as I look, Morgan is already bending down to pick her up and as he walks past me with a mortified Bear in his arms, I pop a treat in her mouth, which she takes quite happily, if not absentmindedly.

You can’t do this. It’s an outrage. Ooo, I’ll have one of those.

We stay with her in the room as the vet takes some blood. It is over in little more than a second and then a quick chat and Morgan takes Bear back out through the waiting room, straight to the exit and outside.

It is pouring when we leave. Big fat raindrops, bright and almost cheerful, reflect the white sky. Mist still hangs on the mountains and the windshield wipers swish across the glass. Bear lies in the back seat with her back to us, not at all impressed with our performance, and we apologize profusely while rain flecks the window.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Excuse me, could we just play now?

Murdoch and I follow the trail through our woods, stopping every few steps so he can drop a stick at my feet and I can throw it for him off into the trees, bare of leaves and underbrush so it is open and easily navigable. Our feet crunch over dried brown leaves, frozen now and covered with a dusting of snow, the kind that collects on flat surfaces and looks like a carpet of tiny Styrofoam balls.

It is later in the afternoon, the sun hangs low in the sky, a flat white disc just visible behind a gray-white layer of cloud. In spots the cloud thins to let through a blush of blue.

I feel like I am just squeezing Murdoch in these days. Our walks are shorter than usual and I resort quickly to the throwing of a stick (which he, thankfully, loves) in hopes that the clipped bursts of more intense exercise will make up for the abbreviated walks.

We are, of course, completely focused on Bear, as we have been since the spring, wanting to enjoy every second we have left, make sure she’s happy and comfortable. We don’t like to leave her alone for too long because she still has to pee all the time and her medication makes her sleepy and somewhat unsteady on her feet.

So Murdoch waits, resorting to long meaningful stares, deep soulful sighs, and then ramming his head under elbows, flopping his chin heavily into laps, surreptitiously licking fingers, hands, sleeves, anything to get attention.

But it has kind of always been that way with him. Sometimes I think Murdoch showed up in our lives at completely the wrong time. When I found him on the side of the road, a rambunctious puppy of indeterminate age, it was just a month before we were moving to our new house taking with us Bear, our two cats and an elderly Max whose relaxing retirement was soon to be completely shattered.

We hadn’t planned on keeping the puppy, he was clearly wild, not trained and determined to use his massive jaw and gleaming teeth to inflict mass destruction on the world around him. No one was safe. Max was bullied, Bear was angry, Chestnut became so stressed out it set him off down the long road of recurring urinary tract infections. Cleo was the only one who seemed to take it all in stride. But then she doesn’t really seem to know what’s going on at the best of times.

I sometimes think if things had been different, if we hadn’t been in the process of moving when I found him, if we hadn’t waffled so much in that first month about whether or not we would keep him, if Max hadn’t needed so much care during Murdoch’s first couple of years with us, if Bear hadn’t injured first one cruciate and then the other, if there had just been more time in the beginning then maybe there would have been a lot more patience. Perhaps Murdoch would have had the chance to start out on the right foot; obedience class, followed by advanced obedience class, followed by exclusive attention at home, resulting in a well-adjusted non-grumpy dog.

But, alas, things weren’t different. Murdoch kind of got a raw deal from the beginning, not that he didn’t have a part to play in that, with his bratty attitude and his disregard for all life. He was not terribly easy on the limited patience we did have.

Murdoch is going to be five soon (we think) and although he’s settled down a lot with the simple passage of time, there is still so much of the delinquent in him, not the least of which is his whole car chasing thing. When Bear was his age she had just spent the year traveling with us by car and canoe halfway across Canada and back again, living in a tent, meeting all sorts of people who gushed over her at every turn, our beautiful, well-behaved girl. The thought of taking Murdoch anywhere there are people, or strange dogs, or vehicles of any kind, makes my stomach flip over. But it’s not fair to compare them I guess. They are completely different dogs, with completely different life stories.

So when Murdoch sidles into a room and quietly slinks up to that stray sock lying on the floor or the exposed mitten in the basket at the top of the stairs or the toque left on a chair and carefully takes it between his teeth and then slides it, with one quick motion, into his mouth before stealing away to sit with it by the fire, I know he is just looking for attention and I think, perhaps it is time to go and play in the woods.

Murdoch and I walk along the trail in the forest, our feet crunching over the snow-dusted, frozen leaves, and I throw a stick for him around bare trees, watching him fly over the ground. The stick becomes progressively smaller as it gets ground down by sharp teeth and bounced off of tree trunks until Murdoch is spitting splinters at my feet. We find a bigger stick to start the game anew and I ask him if he’s ready as I hold the stick above my head and watch his eyes grow wider, his body stiffen, his energy focus. I whip the stick as hard as I can off into the woods and he bounds after it, his feet kicking up little sprays of snow.

He lives for this, I think. And, for a short time at least, so will I.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bear days

A good day in the woods.
Riding in the Jeep.
Swimming at Lenore Lake.
This is how you chew a stick.
Got any more ice cream?
There's a path here, I swear.
At the swimming hole.
Now that's a stick!
In the canoe. One of Bear's favourite things, after swimming, sticks, peanut butter...
Taking the time to smell some flowers.. and eat some grass.
Bear and her shadow.
Stop taking my picture and throw the stick!
On the way home after a day at the beach.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Our amazing disappearing dog

I have lost count of the number of days it has rained in a row. We wake up every morning in the dark now that the days have shortened and night lingers a little longer, a little lazier and heavier so it is like crawling out from underneath a weighted blanket, warm and cozy and difficult to shift in the morning. We let the dogs out on a wet deck plastered with brown leaves glued soundly in place as though painted over with a brush-full of shellac and watch as the sky lightens grudgingly from black to indigo and then gray, a solid gray like a great sheet billowing above the woods.

The dogs come back inside, two black shapes emerging from the blackness with silvery droplets of water clinging to every piece of fur. I towel them off and follow the wet footprints up the stairs to the kitchen and breakfast.

After breakfast and her morning peanut butter stuffed in her kong, Bear is restless. She lies on her bed beneath the black windows and stares at me where I sit at the table a few feet away crunching my toast and watching the steam roll up and out through the spout of my teapot. I try to concentrate on the book I am reading, avoid eye contact. But then she stomps her foot where it stretches out in front of her and there’s a thin breathy whine. I can’t ignore her for long.

“Do you really have to go out?” I finally break down and ask her, turning my head only slightly in her direction, trying to be as non-committal as possible. She may grumble then and if I ignore her some more she will stomp both front feet on the floor at the same time and push herself forcefully into a sitting position, and in a no-nonsense sort of way, stare at me meaningfully with eyes that reach down to the very pit of her soul.

And then I give in, I usually do. She knows I will. Well, she’s Bear afterall, and she’s a good dog and doesn’t she deserve a little scandal, a little excitement, these days? So I say okay and she follows me eagerly to the door after stretching the stiffness from her legs.

I should follow her. But it’s raining and dark and I’m still in my pajamas, so I’ll stand at the screen door and watch and then call her back. She sways out around the door and moseys across the deck, stepping off the edge and outside the reach of our porch light. The blackness there is like a solid thing and it swallows her up.

I can usually hear her rustling through the leaves and the dried up weeds we didn’t cut back this year but the patter of raindrops through the trees, on the deck and the leaves sound very much the same as Bear’s feet shuffling along the edge of the forest and her sounds are lost.

“Beary,” I say, trying to give the impression I can still see her. “Don’t take off. You come right back.” I cup my hand up to my eye and against the screen of the door to block the reflecting light from the kitchen and I squint out past the pale yellow glow of the light outside the door, trying to define shapes in the darkness.

I imagine her picking her way around the pile of wood that lines one side of our path to the driveway, tiptoeing across the rounded rocks and over protruding roots, around Morgan’s tools, the makeshift workbench beneath the trees, past the old woodshed and then stepping into the thick of the forest, melting like a shadow into the darkness that still fills up the spaces between the trees. She will follow her usual path, up and around, poking through the woods, surveying her land, what has been through here in the night?

And then I imagine her winding her way up the trail to the house on the hill behind our woods where that other dog lives with his full bowl of food. She’ll eat it all while the other dog watches, polite and dejected, and then she’ll wander back to her own house, her second breakfast already sitting heavily in her stomach. Later we will watch as she breathes a little more shallowly, a little faster, and her belly expands, her new delicate system bloating with the onslaught of food that is not her “special food”. I should have followed her.

But maybe that won’t happen. It doesn’t always. Maybe today will just be a harmless wander in the woods. Maybe she will appear from the darkness any moment now, her white chin defining her face, her eyes flashing in the dim light. She will stroll casually across the deck, step back over the threshold as though I just called her and she came. She’ll be soaking wet and covered in pine needles.

I stand at the door listening to the pattering rain, the heat of the wood stove at my back while the fresh morning air, cool and damp, pushes in through the screen and I wait for Bear, the amazing disappearing dog.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A day at the beach

We pick our way down the steep trail of rocks and hardened sand, packed and dry with lack of rain. Some rocks give way under foot, skittering down the sloped parts of the trail to a cut channel that could easily be filled with a rivulet of running water. It is as though we are walking on a dried up river bed that once guided a rush of water beneath the green canopy, cutting around tree trunks, down and down, towards the lake somewhere beyond the forest.

There is a beach here we are told, a sandy beach and a bay sheltered a bit from the open waters of Lake Superior. We have been searching a long time for a sandy beach for Bear. She is a southern Ontario girl, spending her first couple of years along the soft shores of Lake Erie. The rocky beaches of the north have been a bit of a disappointment. She’s tolerated it though, because there’s water and swimming and sticks to chase, but we could always tell she missed the sand between her toes.

The dogs run ahead on the forest trail. It is quiet, we are fairly certain there is no one around, but we call to them so they don’t disappear around corners, so Murdoch doesn’t get in to trouble. I hold his leash in my hand at the ready.

It is not too far in, just a couple of twists along the descending path, a bear print or two, and then we can see it, a sapphire ribbon through the trees. The trail fans into a sandy skirt that spills out beyond the scrub at the edge of the forest onto a long strip of beach. It stretches away to the right of the trail, ending in a point where the land scoops around to form the bay. To the left, the green water of a wide river meets the dark blue of the lake. Overhead the sky is a clear, pale blue, the heat of the sun masked by cool breezes off the lake.

The beach is deserted except for the skeletal remains of sun-bleached trees washed up on shore, their branches bristling at the water's edge. Sticks as far as the eye can see.

The dogs are in heaven.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Wondering about Bear

There is no point, I tell myself, in wondering if things would be different had we started the medication like we discussed a month ago. The fact that I am stumbling around outside in the dark just before midnight in my pajamas following Bear as she cuts erratic, panicky arcs through the reaches of the dim porch light over stones and roots, across the deck and back again, ready to jump forward and catch her when she falls, does not change the way things have unfolded over the last four weeks.

And while I kneel on the cool, damp deck with Morgan’s face inches away from mine as he stands hunched over, Bear sandwiched between us in a precarious sit after her legs gave out again as though they had turned to rubber, I still think it was the right decision to make at the time.

A month ago we were given the option of starting Bear on a different medication for her seizures, one that would overlap the current medication she is taking. The idea being that smaller doses of two different medications could result in diminished side effects that Bear was experiencing from taking a larger dose of just one medication. It sounds like a great idea.

We hesitated at first because by the time we got the prescription filled, Bear seemed to be doing better on her increased dose of the original medication. We worried the double dose would put her right back where she started. It didn’t seem fair. So we held off, talked to the vet, discussed options. We decided to wait.

The discussion continued, off and on over the last few weeks until we were convinced Bear could handle the change. On Sunday evening, as the dogs ate their supper, Morgan and I considered starting the new medication right then. But we decided again to wait, just one more day, because we didn’t know how she would react and wouldn’t it be better to give her the medication when we could keep a close eye on her instead of pumping her full of a strange new drug and shuffling off to bed?

Five hours later just as I was slipping in to sleep, I was nudged back by thumping noises coming from the living room below, cushioned bone against wood; the cats wrestling across the floor. I heard a low, rumbling yowl and then a hiss and I knew Chestnut was picking on Cleo again. I considered getting up and chasing him away, but I knew they would stop soon anyway. Then I heard the squeak of the couch and a thumping tail and I couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Were the cats on the couch now, bugging Bear?

And then I heard Bear’s great thick claws scratching at her blanket on the couch like she does when she’s mad or uncomfortable and tries to make a nest for herself. When the loud roaring sounds started I knew something was wrong. I threw back the covers, turned on the light and bolted down the stairs.

“What’s going on?” asked Morgan. I didn’t completely know until I was part way down the stairs and could just see in the pale edge of light that poured down from the bedroom behind me Bear’s dark figure convulsing against the white blanket.

“Bear’s having a seizure.”

We sat with her until it was done. And then Morgan carried her downstairs because she was desperate to move and walk but she could barely stand. I followed with my stomach turned inside out, my hand over my mouth as I watched his feet, which can get tangled at the best of times, shuffle carefully but heavily on to each step, Bear’s close-to-90-pound frame in his arms, a bewildered expression on her face. They are not going to fall, they are not going to fall, I told myself, unable to voice a protest.

And then we are outside in the cold night air watching Bear bobble around on rubbery legs, fall over, look stunned. We tell her to stay down but she won’t, so we help her up again, she paces anxiously away, falls over again. None of us really knows what to do.

It is surreal in some ways because most of the time it is easy to imagine there is nothing wrong with Bear. Lately she gambols about like a three year old, stomping through the bush, skipping after Murdoch up the trail, throwing sticks enthusiastically at my feet and then jumping up to snatch them out of the air. She even leapt over a downed tree the other day to grab a stick I was preparing to throw gently in her direction.

I forget the medicine is just a bandaid, it is not really fixing anything.

When we finally get Bear back inside, half lifting her up the stairs to the kitchen, she nosedives onto her bed, and we decide now is a good time to start the new medication.

“I don’t think we should give it to her on an empty stomach,” I say and give her a handful of her food, which she devours as if she hasn’t eaten in weeks. The medication is a clear liquid and I stand with it in a syringe poised apprehensively to inject into her mouth. “How do I do this?” I ask, hoping Morgan will know more than I. He suggests we use some bread to soak up the medicine and let her eat it.

Morgan cuts a slice from the loaf and Bear is at the counter, suddenly very steady on her feet, focused, alert. She snatches the slice of bread from Morgan’s hand. “What else you got there?” her brown eyes ask.

The food seems to have helped, given her something to focus on, settled her. We sit with Bear on her bed in the yellow glow of the kitchen light, her eyelids drooping, exhausted now. Would she have been spared this latest seizure had she been on the other medication? Would things have been different? Perhaps. But perhaps not. It’s impossible to know and there’s no point, we tell ourselves, in wondering.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It’s the little things

I sit on the warm wood of the deck in a small patch of sunlight. The air is cool in the dappled shade and smells of warm autumn leaves. Each day I can see the sun moving a little bit lower across the sky than the day before, hiding behind the trees and losing power as we slide towards winter.

I talk on the phone to my sister, sit cross legged on the weather worn planks, about a foot from the edge of the deck that floats just inches above the ground at the base of a huge poplar tree. It seems like not that long ago the sun moved across the very middle of the gap in the trees overhead, blasting the deck full-on with heat during the afternoon so you couldn’t sit here for more than a few minutes without beginning to melt. But now it flits along behind the tips of reaching branches, skimming the yellowed treetops, its white light filtering down through shimmying leaves, light and shadow and darker shadow playing across the forest floor, across the deck where I sit, as though I am on the bottom of the ocean, sunlight wavering through water, changing shapes and strips of light playing across rippled sand.

Bear and Murdoch sit on either side of me. Bear’s presence on the deck usually means she is ready to go inside, otherwise she would be lying just off to the right in the clipped weeds and brush, chewing on a stick or staring up into the trees, sniffing the air. I think she just wants to sit beside me instead, but soon gets up and stands at the door. When I glance over my shoulder she gives me a meaningful look.

I hold the phone between my shoulder and my ear; unhook Murdoch from his line because he wants to go in too now. I hold open the door, usher the dogs inside. The wooden screen door closes with a creak and a soft bang and I return to the sunny spot on the deck to feel the last of its warmth on my face and shoulders.

And then there is whining.

I half turn and look at the door. I can just make out Bear staring back, the glint of her eyes, the white of her chin barely visible against the shadowed inside of the house. I return to the door, let her out again. Murdoch has settled into his kennel and does not make a move, which means I will not have to worry about being strangled by his line as he bolts across the deck at the sight of a vehicle trundling down our road. Bear and I can relax then.

I sit back down in my diminishing patch of sun, which has shifted closer to the edge of the deck, but Bear does not sit. She stands beside me and then walks around me. She stands in front of me and looks me in the eye. The tiny stamp of a foot, serious expression in her brown eyes, forehead wrinkled just so. I gesture, “What?” with my empty hand turned up, a shrug of my shoulders. She returns to the door, glances back at me and I realize what she wants.

It is less a patch of sun now than a patch of mottled shadow anyway I think as I get up again and open the door. I follow Bear inside, encourage her up the stairs to the kitchen with a flap of my hand “yes, I’m coming too.” I sit at the kitchen table, the phone still against my ear and watch Bear settle down on her yellow plaid blanket beneath the row of windows; she curls up with her head on her paws, eyes closed tight, and falls asleep. I smile then, involuntarily, and my heart glows a little and I think how wonderful it is to needed like that, wanted in no other way than just to be there. It is simple and perfect and so very Bear.

Monday, October 1, 2012

How to ruin a perfectly good walk

The air smells like autumn leaves and sunshine, wet earth and swamp grass. We are on the trail that weaves its way from the end of our road through new growth forest of mostly poplar, past more mature stands of cool green spruce trees, along the edge of swamp land and eventually up the side of a small mountain.

Murdoch has fallen behind, which is weird. Usually he is more of a “me first” kind of dog, charging ahead, barely looking back. I am suspicious but keep walking because it feels good and free on this warm fall day in the sunshine with the leaves bright yellow like lemon candies wrapped in clear cellophane and stark white tree branches looking polished and new against a sapphire blue sky, unblemished by even the slightest wisp of a cloud.

It is perfect and I want to keep moving over the flattened grass along this part of the trail I haven’t been on in months. It has opened up again after the swamp receded enough for the ATVs to skirt and flatten and ravage their way past the deep pools gathered in the middle of the trail. I took advantage of this mild devastation and picked my way around the muck, sticking to the long grasses that are flattened down like mats and painted sickly gray with dried mud. On the other side of the swamp the trail narrows considerably, hemmed in on both sides by battalions of ten-foot tall new-growth trees standing shoulder to shoulder, lining the path to the mountain. Today, I think, I could walk the whole trail.

Jack trots along beside me, which is also weird. He is the one who usually disappears amongst the trees on this trail and from whom I have to keep Murdoch distracted so he won’t follow and then not return, which has happened more than once. But for the moment we walk together, Jack and I, with the joint purpose of exploration, his collar jingling companionably, and I shuffle Murdoch’s absence to the back of my mind.

I can’t help but throw the odd glance over my shoulder though, wondering. He’s probably found something gross to eat I think as I take in the empty trail behind me that curves gently to the left and is swallowed up by the clamouring new growth trees whose mantle of leaves fills the trail with a yellow glow.

My pace slows as I consider turning back and then I hear him coming, his feet thundering over the ground, claws tearing at the grass, I can almost feel the vibrations as he pounds up behind me. I love this part, I think, as he whips past in a black blur and keeps running, his feet flying in all directions, sunlight flashing off his shiny black coat. Murdoch runs for the pure joy of it.

Jack leaps after him, his ears bouncing up and down with his round gait and I laugh at how different they are and how much fun they have in the simple things and I think how lucky I am to be here with them on this glowing trail beneath an endless blue sky on this warm sunny day. And then I get a whiff of something sour and rotten and pungently wild and I think there must be something dead just off the trail. But I know before I really know and I stop abruptly and watch my spirits collapse around my feet.

A picture flashes in my head of Murdoch alone on the trail after Jack and I have marched away, stumbling upon this rotten thing that could only smell good to a dog and throwing himself into it, writhing with glee.

“Murdoch!” I shout. “Why do you do that? That’s disgusting!” He looks back at me from where he’d been skipping ahead with Jack and I spin around on my heel, start walking back down the trail. “Walk’s over,” I yell. “We’re going back.”

Murdoch charges towards me and I step to the very edge of the trail as he bounds to a stop. “Don’t touch me!” I say, imagining him sidling up to my side, bumping my leg good-naturedly. The hair on the top of his head is slicked up into a cowlick and the soft fur behind his right ear is matted and greasy and his shoulder looks a bit suspect as well. “Just go!” I point savagely back the way we came.

I storm down the trail herding Murdoch ahead of me, thwarting his attempts to get me to throw sticks for him, enticing him onward with the word “swim” snapped repeatedly from my mouth. It keeps him focused and moving forward because Murdoch loves the water and at the spot where the trail leaves the road, a great culvert ushers a creek into a depression in the land where it gathers in a pool that Murdoch cannot resist. My plan is to make him leap into that water again and again until all the stink is washed off. It has worked before.

Today, however, after a good dousing I still detect a hint of odour beneath the cold, earthy smell of the water as I lean in precariously for a sniff. He is soaked through and I can already hear water sloshing about in his stomach. It doesn’t seem right to make him go in again, even though he would do it in a heartbeat. But I don’t want to give him a bath either.

Murdoch has never officially had a bath because the one time I tried to bathe him in a little blue kiddie pool out the front of our house, he eyed the water suspiciously and refused to go in. When I scooped up water in a tiny bucket and sloshed it over his head, he went crazy, running in circles like his tail was on fire and despite a tremendous feat of self-control on his part he did eventually jump up on me, raking his claws across my arm and leaving some lovely red scratches that lasted a good week.

So no bath, but I could spot-wash him, I think. At home I make him wait outside while I get a basin of warm water, a towel and some soap. I wring water from the towel over him and rub a dab of lavender and tea tree dish soap into the fur on his head, behind his ear, over his neck and shoulders. It goes surprisingly well. There is no jumping or scratching or running in circles. In fact I think he almost enjoys it. And when I finish toweling off the excess water, he stands frazzled and clean in the dappled sun on the deck with just the slightest air of lavender about him. But mostly he smells like wet dog, which is pretty much perfect.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Murdoch and the black truck

We are on the dusty road, white and dry again even after a downpour of rain the other night that sounded a thunderous ovation on our roof and clattered down through the trees. It is hot in the sun, so different from the cool of the shade in the forest that opens up your lungs as if for the first time.

Murdoch hurries along beside me as we head for the trail at the end of the road. I am on the verge of speed walking, trying to find a balance between his headlong rush through life and my insistence that he does not pull off my arm.

It has been too many days since we’ve been up the trail. It will be soppy and squelchy with mud even as dust hangs over the road. Murdoch has had to put his needs aside for Bear lately. It does not come easily to him, this thinking of the welfare, the happiness, of others. I cannot leave Bear behind in her eagerness to play, so we’ve done the short walks through the woods, looping up and around, playing a bit of stick, and then back to the house. These long walks have been missed by us both.

Our feet crunch steadily over gravel, my eyes focus on the spot where the road narrows in to the trail far ahead, the stark white of the road beneath the sun giving way to the darker shadows of the tree-lined path. From this distance it is almost a mirage, a mythical destination, a safe zone, because on the road we are exposed, Murdoch and I, to the very real possibility of cars and people and things that make Murdoch’s head spin and usually result in me being dragged to the ground. I focus on that darker spot ahead where the trail begins and I walk a little faster, imagine us already there.

And then the black truck turns out of the last driveway on the road, right where the trail begins. It is tiny from this distance, but the chrome grill flashes in the sun, a plume of dust blooms behind it as the engine revs, Murdoch is already walking taller, stiffened.

The familiar feeling of panic, frustration and anger clash in my chest and before I can even form my next thought I make a hard right, haul Murdoch with me off the road and around the edge of a large gray metal gate, overgrown with weeds and attached with a twist of metal wire to a t-bar hammered securely into the rocky ground. It is an entrance into our neighbours’ property, a gate designed for the passage of vehicles but the trail behind has long been used for walking. Murdoch and I have accompanied Jack a few times along the cool, twisting trail that ends at a sprawling beaver pond.

I am relieved our timing today brought us even with that gate just as the black truck appeared. That truck that makes my stomach flip over and my heart deflate every time I see it. We are destined to collide, the black truck and I. But it’s all Murdoch’s fault of course. I have lost track of the number of times Murdoch has pulled me off my feet when that truck rolls by. One of our first encounters was four winters ago when I lost my footing and got dragged along the snow-covered road on my knees, clinging desperately to the leash as Murdoch – not even full-grown then – bounded after the truck.

Since then it’s as if the universe has developed a rather sick sense of humour about the whole thing because it doesn’t seem to matter when we leave for our walk almost every time we’re on that road the truck appears as if it was lying in wait, its grill flashing that frozen grin, the sound of its engine turning my stomach to stone, its very presence inciting Murdoch into some Tazmanian Devil-like creature and causing me to become a being of pure, unfocused, adrenaline. It is not relaxing.

There are days when I think that truck is out to get us, determined to push my sanity over the edge. Then there are others where I imagine the truck sagging beneath a groan at the sight of us. As it bears down I can almost feel the truck wishing it could disappear, casting about for an escape. But mostly I imagine it getting a kick out of imposing chaos and I am overcome with an irrational anger when it appears as though it has no right to be on the road in the first place.

So this day I outsmarted that truck, and as we disappear around the first turn in the woods, it trundles by on the road and Murdoch twists around to look but the only thing to see is dust rising up amongst the trees and I suppress a giddy laugh that threatens to bubble out of me like some crazy thing and I think, “Not today truck. Not today.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My constant companion

“Just pee in this cup,” I say to Bear as I follow her off the deck in the gray light of early dawn. Clad in pajamas and welly boots I hold my housecoat closed tight around my neck with one hand while pinching the lip of an empty yoghurt container between the fingers and thumb of my other hand, ready at any moment to position it when Bear squats.

She glances at me over her shoulder and walks a little farther away across the open patch of ground to the right of the deck where she pees every morning and night.

“Why are you following me?” her eyes ask. And then she can’t wait any longer, and I slide the cup underneath and catch it all. It is easy. I can’t believe I laid awake part of the night on my makeshift bed on the kitchen floor listening to the clock tick on the wall and Bear breathe soundly in her sleep wondering what I would do if I didn’t get a sample for her vet appointment the next morning. But it is done and we return to the house for breakfast.

The cats have already moved in, sprawling on the soft blanket covering my sleeping bag that stretches the length of the couch cushions that are jammed together on the floor. I have slept there for the past five nights, right beside Bear’s bed so I can wake with her in the night and let her out for a pee.

We started finding the puddles right after her medication was increased following her latest seizure. “It must be a side effect,” I insisted, not really wanting it to be anything else. But this didn’t happen last time, this inability to go more than two hours without having to pee, and not just a little bit, great clear pools that were obviously too much for Bear to hold back. Last time, when the medication was first started, Bear was unsteady on her feet and always falling down, her hips hitting the floor with a heart-wrenching thud.

But this time I imagined her pacing around the house in a panic when we weren’t there or were sleeping soundly in our bedroom on the third floor up a flight of stairs too difficult for the dogs, and Bear in her desperation just having to pee where she stood in the living room or the kitchen or right in front of the door in the entryway. My heart hurt thinking about her embarrassment. So I moved into the kitchen beside her bed and resolved to be with her all the time.

At the vet later that morning Bear tells off a young dog who tries to intimidate her in the waiting room and then somehow gets tangled around a wire bookshelf. She pushes her way behind my chair, hides behind my legs and gives everyone the saddest face possible. But we’re told her blood work looks good and her urine sample is clean and we narrow her problem down to a couple of options, the most likely of which is a side effect of the medication, and we’re given a different medication to try in conjunction with the first.

It will take time for the medications to balance out and for the side effects to hopefully diminish, but for now I will sleep beside her in the kitchen at night and wake up every few hours to let her out, and I will take her to work with me every morning – which at the moment is a horse barn, perfect for a dog with a curious nose – and in between times she will snooze on her bed beside me while I work at the computer, or lay in the grass when I drink tea on the deck. The only time she and I will not be together is when I take Murdoch out for long romps in the woods and each time we will return to find her lying behind the door, waiting.

I am so lucky to have all this time with her, to spend my days with her like the way it was in the beginning when Morgan and Bear and I were on the road travelling with our tent and our canoes before we came to Thunder Bay, before the cats and before Murdoch and Max and Quincy, when it was all Bear all the time. And I think about how time isn’t flying now because I don’t have a million places to be. And I think about how great Bear looks and how she still loves her food and how she skips down the path to the car every day. And I think about the Buddhist philosophy that says things are neither good nor bad, they just are.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The red ball in the woods

Yellow light from the naked bulb above the stairs filtered through the black metal slats of our kitchen chairs and cast long shadows across Bear’s bed where Morgan and I sat with her between us. We talked quietly over Bear’s panting, much more methodical about the whole thing than the first time she had a seizure, practical even.

Less than an hour earlier Bear lay with her head in my lap convulsing on the floor, drool soaking through the leg of my pajama pants. It was three o’clock in the morning and I sat in the silence of the house watching almost calmly as Bear thrashed through her first seizure since starting her medication in May, thinking that somewhere in the wanting to believe things were okay I knew this had been inevitable.

And so, another middle of the night discussion on Bear’s bed. But we are more sure of what to do now, less shocked at it happening, more saddened than anything else.

“I guess it means things are progressing,” we say to each other.

And I think of the day last week when Murdoch and I walked past Bear’s red ball in the woods. It is more gray now than red, faded a bit too after spending more than twelve seasons outdoors buried beneath snow and released in the melt three times. It was a gift from a friend, along with a blue ball and a green one. One for each dog.

The red ball disappeared not too long after the dog’s got them. Lost in the woods somewhere. The green one, for a while, had a blue piece of rope tied to it, looped through the meshy holes, and it acted almost like a sling shot so we could throw it further for Murdoch and he could play tug-of-war with his friend Jack. That ball got stuck at the top of a pine tree for about a year and a half before somehow falling back to the ground and migrating into the house.

I haven’t seen the blue one in a long time. But I think now I remember we buried it with Max.

Over the last three years the red ball has made occasional appearances, randomly carried out of the woods by Bear who walked with the air of someone who knew where that ball had been the whole time, even though I asked again and again if anyone had seen it.

She would disappear for a wander and come back carrying the ball when I had almost forgotten it even existed. “Oh, the red ball!” I would say and Bear and I would play with it for a while.

She carried it around quite a bit this summer, taking it with us on walks, dropping it by a tree to be picked up on the way back.

But that day when Murdoch and I walked past Bear’s red ball on the thin path through the woods that the three of us created this year, I was struck by Bear’s absence and my heart lurched and I missed her achingly. I wanted to turn around and go back down through the trees to our house where Bear waited and I just wanted to be with her.

I think she must be sick of the gushing by now. I tell her umpteen times a day how beautiful she is, how much I love her and I shower her with kisses on the top of her head, the tips of her ears, on the flat part above her nose and that little dimple between her eyes. I kiss her paws and her back and even her pink belly when she sprawls on the couch and tries to maneouver her hips the way she used to, throwing her back legs up and over when she didn’t have the stiffness of an older dog.

I remember the day she left the red ball on our barely there trail, I watched her drop it as the three of us traipsed single file between the trees and I thought to myself, we’ll come back this way so she can pick it up. But we didn’t and the ball was left there.

In the yellow light and slatted shadows of our kitchen at four in the morning Morgan and I sat on Bear’s bed with her between us as sleepiness washed in and the world sort of righted itself again for a little while. We told Bear what a good girl she is and we listened to her pant and we worried a bit and we talked about what happens next.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What about me?

In the evening with the kitchen lights shining on the warm reddish tones of the floor and the caramel tabletop, Chestnut blends in almost perfectly. He has that colouring that almost reflects his surroundings, becoming more or less orange depending on the lighting or object he stands next to.

He orbits the table, circling and circling, to nonchalantly get my attention. At least I imagine he thinks of himself as nonchalant, subtle, a mere suggestion on the periphery. But I follow him with my eyes and when he looks at me, sees me looking at him, he stops, his eyes full of surprise, “oh, you noticed me, little ol’ me just standing here.”

And then he gets a look of panic. “I’m starving you know.”

Monday, August 27, 2012

The dog on the hill

Two black dogs beneath a sweltering sun, made hotter somehow by the passing thunderstorm and lifting of cool mists in the morning that draped everything in refreshing gray.

The dogs went on an excursion through the woods to that squat house on the hill behind our property with no trees and a gorgeous view of the mountain, but no shade. Bear dragged her feet home as I led them back down the trail. It was too hot for her that day, the air heavy and wet in its heat. Not quite cloying, but almost.

The day before was the first time Bear turned around in the woods before she reached her spot, the spot she usually walks to before sitting or playing stick or being told to turn around. She looked at me over her shoulder after stopping on the trail, her brown eyes almost apologetic, sheepish, beneath those black eyelashes, and she asked if we could go home. She decided herself that the walk was over and we turned and followed her back through the woods, over downed trees and under others, swishing through the undergrowth and arriving at a moseying sort of pace back at the house, on to the deck and inside.

The next day she instigated the escape. I know she did. She was the first to disappear. What more could Murdoch do but follow her?

I saw a flash of black between the clamour of tiny tree trunks and the membrane of green, lighted from behind by the passing sun. I heard rustling leaves and the whoosh of panting, hot breath. I thought they might come back. I called again and again and then all I could hear was a slight flickering of leaves in the almost non-existent breeze and the lighthearted call of birds and in the very far distance the low rumble of an airplane.

I knew then that Bear had made for that house on the hill and Murds followed, not that he hasn’t gone on his own plenty of times. Not that I haven’t emerged from the overgrown weeds at the edge of the forest to find Murdoch’s backend sticking out of the white dog house as he polished off the food of the dog who lives there while that dog stared on in deflated disbelief. Not that I haven’t had to replenish that poor dog’s food dish more than once or untangle him from around his dog house after Murdoch chased and intimidated him.

But for a while Murdoch seemed to forget. Or at least concede that it wasn’t necessary for him to bolt up that trail and eat that food and it certainly wasn’t worth it if it meant I would keep him on leash at all times because of it. So, for a while he blasted through the woods around us, content with his freedom and not bothering that dog. But once Bear instigated an excursion up the hill, how could he not go?

How could he not eat that dog’s food and intimidate that dog outside his house and flaunt his freedom? Not that the other dog hasn’t had his freedom too. We’ve seen him at a distance from the windows of our house in the spring slipping amongst the trees like a ghost, before the calamitous growth of green shortened our view through the woods.

It’s Max! We thought at first, just glimpsing the shapes of the dog and not the whole dog himself. His backend seemed to slope down like a German Shepherd, his tail hung low like Max’s. But he’s too black to be Max, I said, though I wanted it to be him. I wanted it to be his ghost slinking about in the woods, watching the house and being part of the forest.

But I know now it was that dog whose sweet face greets me each time I emerge from the woods looking for my dogs or bringing him a bowl of food to replace that which Murdoch ate.

We have never met those neighbours. Their driveway emerges on to a completely different road than ours. Their house is not visible from any part of our property. It is a mystery as to when they are there but I wonder sometimes if they’ve seen me coming out of the woods to embarrassingly round up my dogs and drag them back in to the trees and I wonder what they think.

Monday, August 13, 2012

If you go out in the woods today…

Out the door, we turn left at the deck and head into the thick of the woods. Leaving the house behind we follow the narrow path that cuts a slow winding trail, like the course of a small river, through the trees up towards the back of our property.

I watch Bear’s black figure skip confidently ahead as Murdoch and I start and stop. He dives forward with such force to yank me behind him while I plant my feet and haul him back with the leash so we can walk together, peacefully.

“With me,” I say to him as I give his leash a good tug. Murdoch backs up with muscles trembling in excitement, his eyes focused ahead. “Okay okay okay,” he seems to say as though I am some nuisance to be tolerated.

We start again and I call ahead to Bear. “Wait up,” I say to her retreating form as she disappears around a bend in the trail like some mythical creature we are trying to catch but can never quite reach. Murdoch and I stumble along behind, me refusing to go forward when he pulls and him just giving enough slack in the leash to keep advancing along the trail.

“Bear,” I call as I catch a glimpse of her tail. I chatter constantly trying to keep Bear in earshot while explaining to Murdoch again and again that if he would just walk nicely we would get so much farther ahead. We are not quiet as we bash along over snapping sticks and crashing undergrowth with Murdoch diving from one smell to the next.

We follow the trail around a sharpish corner, clamber over a small tree. I push aside the low hanging branches of another tree that drapes its greenery across the path and I’m vaguely aware of Bear’s solid black form turning right and disappearing into the bright green undergrowth along the trail. But I am mostly focused on Murdoch and not getting the leash tangled in and amongst the surge of small saplings that dot the path.

“Okay Murps,” I say with a sigh as I haul him to a stop again. The next part of the trail is an obstacle course of undergrowth and downed trees and tripping hazards. I hold the leash tight and lean over so my face is level with his and I kiss him on the cheek a couple of times and tell him he’s a good boy and try to get him to agree that this next stretch is going to be a breeze.

I am impressed because he is standing completely still. His right eye, the one I am looking into from the side, stares straight ahead, he is so focused. I assume he is watching for Bear, wanting to follow but waiting for the word from me. I smile at his apparent obedience and straighten up.

About 20 feet in front of us is a black shape lumbering out of the woods on the left. But Bear disappeared to the right just a moment ago, how did she get over there? I wonder. In the next moment I feel like I am seeing double as I know for sure Bear’s black shape went right and Murdoch’s black shape is beside me but there’s also one in front of me and beyond that, another.

Suddenly the woods seem very crowded. And then the black shape in front of us turns and lifts its head and I see the brown muzzle and realize it is a small bear. A cub. Where’s its mother? And then the shape beyond turns and looks, another brown muzzle.

“Oh,” I think I say out loud.

Murdoch and I stand side-by-side, each staring at the pair of bears. Thoughts tumble through my mind so quickly I only glance them as they pass. The moment is so real yet not real at all and as I spin on my heel and watch the forest blur around me I hope that Bear has wandered farther towards the back of the property where Murdoch and I usually meet up with her and that she does not stumble into the midst of the bears. Because I’m sure she was right there somewhere in the thick of the green.

Don’t run, don’t run, I am saying in my head even though my legs want to go faster and faster. As we step back over the downed tree, I yell, “Bear!”, not to alert anyone to the presence of our visitors but in hopes that perhaps Bear will listen this time and come. I keep calling her name as we return down the trail. Murdoch marches along right beside me, there is no tugging or pulling which seems weird to me. He is either sensing the seriousness of the situation through me or he just knows bears are not dogs or squirrels or deer, because if we’d stumbled upon any of those things in the woods I would have been on the ground being hauled through the bush behind him.

When we have turned the sharp corner of the trail and put some distance between the bears and us. I stop and look back. Murdoch sits right by my side not saying a word. I listen for a moment for the sounds of a large animal crashing towards us, but all is silent except for my heart beating in my ears.

“Bear!” I call again. I hear one bark and I wonder what to do. I need to find her. My stomach drops at the thought of this being the way that we lose her when all this time we were worried about the cancer. For a split second I think about going back, I even take a step in that direction but then I know I can’t take Murdoch with me, there’s no guarantee the next time he won’t try and challenge the bears if they are still there. And I’m sure they won’t take too kindly to me just showing up again after I so obligingly left.

So I turn again and run back to the house, adrenaline making me giddy as I leap over tree roots and dodge low hanging branches. Murdoch runs beside me, his collar jingling, and even in this moment of impending panic I am aware of how great it is to run with a dog and not be yanked off my feet.

As we round the last curve of the trail I wonder how I will go back up there for Bear without causing some kind of altercation and how will I get Bear past the bears before she sees them and tries to be a hero? She has chased a bear before and I wasn’t counting on her just giving these creatures a free pass through her woods.

I continue to call her name until Murdoch and I reach the house. We scramble inside and I grab a small bag we keep by the stairs. Inside it are various camping things, like matches and candles and a reflector plate for a camping lantern and flares and the pen-like contraptions they screw into and which set them off, but what I’m looking for are bear bangers. They are similar to the flares but when they’re set off they sound just like a shotgun. It’s all I’ve got. We’ve never used them to scare off bears, but I wasn’t going back into the woods without one.

I am just about to dump the contents of the bag on the floor when I look out the window and see my Bear trotting down the trail, forehead wrinkled, neck stretched tall, eyes focused on the kitchen windows, “Where is everyone?”

I fling open the door and run outside. “Bear!” I say and give her a hug as she stomps onto the deck as if it is a game. I escort her inside, breathe a sigh or relief and inform the dogs there’s been a change of plan. “Let’s go across the road and visit Jack,” I say, and the dogs skip out the door behind me. Our feet rattle the stones on the path like marbles and I look back over my shoulder at the woods, wondering if I might catch another glimpse.