Sunday, June 24, 2012

Out of the mist

I peer down from the kitchen to the front door at the sound of tapping at the window. Morgan stands outside, his head slightly bowed, holding Murdoch’s line. His empty collar swings from the end like a pendulum.

Murdoch bolted the second he realized he was free. Morgan had tugged his line, encouraging him off the deck into the wet grass and Murds resisted, jerked backwards and shucked his collar.

My boots crunch over wet gravel as I walk down the driveway and onto the road with a leash now attached to the empty collar. I call Murdoch’s name into the incongruous brightness of the silent evening draped in a heavy mist.

It is almost 10 o’clock at night but it is still light enough to pass for two in the afternoon of a gray overcast day. There should be people around, sounds of life buzzing away in the distance, emerging from the woods, but there is nothing. It is as if the mist has swept it all away and suddenly I feel as though I have fallen out of time.

I stand in the middle of the road, the only person in the entire world, engulfed by the eerie silence and watch the mist float and hover amongst the trees, muffling the forest. My voice seems extra loud to my ears, it has no where to go but just bounces around in the mist and I wonder if Murdoch can even hear me.

I can just make out the end of our road where the trail begins. The trees are dark shapes that melt away into gray nothingness. I think I see something moving in the mist at the trailhead. I stare at it for a moment and think perhaps it could be Murdoch, but I do not want to go down there. I do not want to walk any further along the road and be swallowed up by the mist.

I turn my head to the side to try and define the shape out of the corner of my eye. It could be a bear lumbering about at the edge of the woods. It is just a shape, a black shape changing and morphing into other shapes like a shadow set free.

I am considering returning to the house when I hear the distant sound of hooves galloping over wet earth. I can almost feel the ground vibrating beneath my feet and I imagine a great white horse thundering out of the mist like a mythical creature in a fairy tale.

I turn in the direction of the sound and watch as it gets closer, coming through my neighbours’ woods, across their lawn towards the road where I wait behind a stand of trees. I can feel the sound in my chest, I can hear claws tearing at grass, his breath panting heavily in and out of his mouth and then I see a flash of his legs behind tree trunks.

“Murdoch,” I say. And it is silent again. I can’t see him but I know he is there, trying to figure out where my voice came from. “Murds,” I say again and the thundering resumes and he is weaving around tree trunks and leaping across the gaping ditch and scrabbling to a halt beside me on the gravel road.

His panting crashes around me, a sudden surge of life in this deserted world, and I breathe a sigh of relief at finding him, at no longer being displaced in time. I clip his collar around his neck and we walk briskly back to the house, our feet crunching together over gravel through the shifting mist.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A wandering Bear

“Guess what Miss Bear did today?” I said into the phone, trying to sound stern while I glanced sideways at Bear where she lay innocently on her bed.

“What did she do?” asked Morgan in a mock-serious voice.

“She took off on me,” I said. “I was in the woods with her and Murds and she just disappeared. And she completely ignored me when I called.”

“Well,” he said with a smile in his voice,  “that’s good. She’s a rebel.” And with an extra boost of enthusiasm added, “Rebel on Bear.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I wasn’t really mad at her.”

I was frustrated however as I watched Bear wend her way up the trail, her black shape like a solid shadow amongst the bright green undergrowth of giant leaves and scrub trees, getting farther and farther away.

“Bear. Wait up!” I called as I wrestled Murdoch on the end of his leash. She ignored me and kept walking with some purpose around the darkened trunks of trees, climbing over a fallen log. “Bear!”

Each time I tried to take a step forward Murdoch surged ahead, yanking me with him. I had to use my whole body as an anchor, leaning back, wrapping both hands firmly around the leash and giving it a good tug sideways to break his powerful stride. Only when he stopped pulling and stood at the ready did I attempt to try again. “With me,” I said forcefully, expectantly, as if perhaps this time he would understand.

Ahead, Bear melded into the darker shadows of the forest floor where the golden sun filtering through the canopy didn’t quite reach. And then she slipped into the thick of growing weeds and she was gone.

“Great,” I mumbled under my breath, and then I yelled again, “Bear!” trying to sound cheery and not frustrated at being ignored by the “good dog”. Usually it is Murdoch’s name bouncing unsuccessfully amongst the trees as Bear wanders casually nearby. But after a number of walks which involved returning to the house without Murds and without the sounds of him crashing through the bush somewhere on our property, I decided he would walk on leash, properly, as in no pulling.

His entire body became like one taut muscle ready to unleash its explosive energy on the world and there were so many stops and starts Bear didn’t even glance back at us as she disappeared into the woods. Apparently she didn’t have the patience for that sort of thing.

By the time Murds and I stumbled and wrestled and grumbled our way to the back of our property, Bear was long gone. There was no sign of her; I couldn’t even hear her shuffling over the forest floor. But then I couldn’t really hear much above Murdoch’s anxious panting, his expectant shuffling that I would unclip him at any moment, let him run free through the trees to follow Bear into the thickness of new growth on the tract of land behind our forest.

We stood in the clearing for a moment, me trying to listen, Murdoch sniffing the air. “Bear!” I called again, but with less enthusiasm, knowing if she had planned on listening she would have done so by then.

So Murdoch and I picked our way awkwardly along the overgrown trail that runs between our forest and the one behind, jostling for position amongst the weeds and saplings growing suddenly to jungle-like proportions. We finished our standard loop, the one we usually do with Bear, and headed back into the cooler shade of our woods.

We played stick for a while in the hopes Bear would show up at the sound of snapping, splintering wood and thundering paws, but she didn’t come.

It wasn’t until after we’d returned to the house for a drink of water and then retraced our steps along the trail that we finally found her emerging from the greenery through which I’d watched her disappear as though she’d been there the whole time, except she was panting and smiling and covered in pine needles.

“Where were you Beary?” I asked, relief chasing away my mounting worry and frustration. She glanced at me with an expression of mission accomplished and swayed past us with a relaxed wag of her tail. Murds and I followed her back towards the house both asking her in our own way what she’d done and where she’d gone, me saying, “That was kind of rude Bear.” And Murds, I’m sure, telling her to next time “wait for me!”

Monday, June 11, 2012

The band plays on

Wind whipped and rolled past the open car windows in thunderous waves as we sped along the highway, just the three of us, like old times.

Bear sat in the back behind me, her head shoved between the headrest of the front passenger seat and the doorframe to catch the eddies of smells swirling in at the window. Because it is a two-door car she does not get her very own window but has to share with either Morgan or me. It is how we traveled halfway across Canada and back again, three times; although on those trips Bear had to share the back seat with packs and dry bags and sacks of food.

Today we are just heading a short distance west along the trans-Canada highway for ice cream. It is almost a week since we found out about Bear’s two kinds of cancer and we are still in a bit of a bubble. Separate bubbles actually, just kind of rolling along and bouncing off of things, discussing it all matter-of-factly with friends and family and with each other too.

“It’s almost worse knowing,” says Morgan as we drive across the bridge of the Kaministiqua River, swollen to twice its width after days of rain. I don’t say anything right away but look out the window at the trees, deep green and lush beneath a brilliant blue sky, marching along the road as we drive up out of the valley.

I try to imagine not knowing, about one day just losing her, or about always wondering about her lumps and the raspy panting and the seizures but still being able to convince ourselves that she’s really fine. And then I think about how, in knowing, there is a looming emptiness descending a little more each day.

“I guess so,” I finally say. “Because now we’re just sad all the time.”

We fly along the road past some farm land, more forest, a tree farm, and as the car zips around a gentle curve in the road, bathed in the golden light of an early-evening sun, I look over my shoulder to see Bear stretching out in the back seat and I want to talk about the thing we’ve both had on our minds.

“It’s so weird,” I say over the sound of the wind. “I was thinking the other day, and this is way over dramatic, because I know Bear is not our child and it is a completely different thing, but I feel like I get why sometimes couples break up after they lose a child.”

The feeling hit me like a great black wave a few days earlier when I walked up the sun-drenched trail with Murdoch. It was a perfect day except for that heavy shadow wrapped around my heart and as I thought about life without Bear I felt a great emptiness. The world dropped out from under me for a moment and I really didn’t know what to do because for the last nine years everything about my life has been so completely entwined with Bear, without her how can anything stay the same?

As I say it out loud I think it must sound ignorant because neither of us are parents and how could we know what it’s like, but then Morgan says, “Yeah.” And I know he gets what I am saying.

Morgan and I have never known each other without Bear. She defined us. It has always been the three of us, ever since that day at the pond nine years ago when Bear made sure we understood that she wanted us all to be together, all the time. And then she became our glue, our anchor in a world that has always pulled us in different directions.

“You know what it’s like?” Morgan says. “It’s like a band breaking up.”

And that’s it, that’s it exactly. “Yes,” I say emphatically.

“You know, separately they’re still great musicians,” he continues, “and they go on and do other things but it’s never the same. There’s always something missing after the break up, it can never be like the way it was when it was The Band.”

“Yes,” I say again. And I picture the three of us as a band and Bear leaving and Morgan and I kind of flailing around still trying to be a band but not making such a great job of it because Bear was the star of the show. It’s all sort of silly and funny because none of us are musically inclined.

So we kind of laugh about it and drive west for ice cream and know that there is a sharp turn ahead and we have no idea what’s around that corner, except that some day everything will be split up as ‘the time of Bear’ and ‘the time after Bear’. And that is heartbreaking.

Monday, June 4, 2012

So, it’s cancer

After the rains everything is lush and glowing. The undergrowth in our forest suddenly tumbles unhindered towards the house, spilling over from the edge of the trees, every shade of green imaginable.

I step down from the wooden chair, with its fine-bones and peeling white paint, onto the old laundry platform that balances precariously on a couple of rocks and some roughly cut wood planks. The laundry tub is empty at my feet and I sit for a moment on the chair and watch Bear. She has emerged from the woods and lies casually at the edge of the trail that winds away amongst the trees.

Her fur, a deep velvet black, is striking against the vibrant green; she is the colour of darkest midnight beneath the diffuse light of a brightly overcast sky. It is quiet except for a gentle breeze, warm and fresh, that stirs the leafy undergrowth and washes through the canopy. I watch as she lifts her nose to sniff at the air, her silky ears falling back from her perfect Lab face as she watches the world go by. There is utter contentment in that motion. I want to freeze this picture in my head.

Murdoch appears beside me, his line rattling against the wooden planks of the deck. He puts his front feet up on the platform and rests his head in my lap.

“Look at that baby,” I say to him as I ruffle the fur around his ears. “I need to get my camera.”

I try to move quietly, to leave and return unnoticed, but as I glance out the window from the kitchen with my hand on the camera Bear is already on her feet and meandering back to the house. I meet her at the door. “Beary, I was just coming to take your picture,” I say. Her tail sways and she tosses me a glance as she enters the house, “you already have a million pictures of me.”

That’s true. But I want a million more.

Morgan and I sat at the kitchen table just the morning before staring shiny-eyed at the words scrawled on the back of an envelope after the phone call; mast cell carcinoma, thyroid cancer, fairly aggressive, keep her comfortable.

The news wasn’t a total surprise. We expected there was something bad going on after she’d had those seizures, but there was also the raspyness in her throat when she panted heavily and a couple of suspect lumps on her body that seemed different from the various cysts attributed to being an eleven-year-old Lab. Even though we had talked about the possibility of cancer it was deflating to finally know for sure.

We sat numbly for a while with the news weighted heavily between us. And we watched Bear, lying on her bed, looking healthy and strong. She stared back at us with her beautiful brown eyes, that inquisitive wrinkle on her forehead, and stomped her foot impatiently in the direction of a half-peeled tennis ball that sat just out of reach. “If you guys are just going to sit there and stare at me you should really throw my ball.”

I went through the motions of that day as if I were underwater, removed somehow from the real world. That night we watched Bear through this new filter and questioned everything.

“Why is she so tired?”

“Why is she panting so much right now?”

“Do you think her eyes look different?”

Somehow we expected things to change overnight, for her to become frail, sad, now that we knew. But she awoke with her usual energy, her voracious appetite, the need to play ball after breakfast. And when I wandered up the trail into our woods to plant some two-year-old blue spruce seedlings, Bear skipped ahead proudly twirling a stick in her mouth. Later she wallowed in ditch water, green with duckweed, when I had to go across the road in search of a delinquent Murdoch.

I sit with Bear now on her bed in the kitchen, run my hands over her soft, shiny fur. I hug her and kiss her graying face and try not to think about life without her, try not to feel how tangible time has become, how it has tipped us up and we are sliding down a wet grassy slope with nothing to stop our descent.

What I do think about is how lucky we have been to share our lives with Bear, how lucky we are that this perfect dog should be ours. And I think about those million pictures I have of Bear traveling with us half way across Canada and back again, of swimming in each of the five great lakes, of canoeing on Lake Superior and countless rivers, of accidentally shooting rapids, of chasing sticks and gorging on peanut butter, of sandy beaches and rocky shores and of Bear wandering freely in our forest, lying contentedly in the shade beneath the trees watching the world go by.