While the media bombards with rending images, mind-numbing statistics, and dire predictions of a storm a thousand miles away, my world is defined by an inescapable dichotomy: yesterday my dog Trooper was alive, today he is not. The reality of loss hits hardest in the naked night: once wakened, I can find nothing to distract me from my pain.
Trooper never slept with us in bed until a few weeks ago, when perhaps his own demons of pain from the cancer in his lungs would wake him in the night and he'd seek the most secure mooring he could find: between his two sleeping human companions. We -- unfortunately -- could do nothing to alleviate the pain of his night, but he seemed to take comfort from our closeness: his sleep between us was still, sound, and without tremors or ticks or nervousness. He's climb up every night around two and I'd spend the next four hours contorting my body around his inert, placid warmth: although cancer had robbed him of over a quarter of his body weight, his frame was still that of a hundred pound dog. During those four hours I'd concentrate on his breathing -- seldom labored, often so quiet I'd lay my hand on his bony ribs to verify that his chest was actually moving -- and marvel that he could be strong enough to survive another day in his emaciated condition.
But he never seemed to be in outright pain, never seemed upset or worried or tired or sad. He was the same old Trooper, his eyes glistening as he begged for another toss of the dummy, another chance to retrieve. The only time those eyes would cloud was when he was offered a morsel of food.
In the night, I wake as usual at two, awaiting Trooper's paws on the edge of the bed. And then I remember, and I uncurl myself and in the stark moonlight I grope to the back room. The puppy Rainy, sleeping sprawled on the couch, raises his head when I turn on the overhead light. He is still too young to manifest a personality, a tabla raza, defined more by what he is not than by what he is. He is not Trooper.
But his fur is very soft and fine, and he rests his head on my lap, and his chest expands and contracts with each breath, lungs that are healthy and intact and unobstructed. I take up my book -- chosen less for interest than because its content seemed bland and unchallenging -- and try to read, but what seemed poetic and insightful by daylight the moon exposes as clichéd and trivial. I get through one unsatisfying chapter and crawl back to bed, where I racket my knees into my chest and wrap my arms around my legs like a pre-Columbian corpse. I tighten myself against the sobs.
In the morning, I resolve to hike Trooper's favorite trail, a six mile loop past two wilderness lakes. We last hiked that trail together in early autumn: a crisp afternoon of blue skies and golden birch leaves, red mountain ash berries and sugar maples just oliving. Otter the dog, Trooper's best friend and companion for all of the eleven plus years of his life, always preferred the mountains of the west: I was so happy this summer that she was able to travel to Montana one last time, to die in the place that she loved the most.
Trooper, however, was the consummate water dog. He liked mountains and trees and rocks, but he loved the water. Just Saturday -- two days before he died -- he begged me during our walk on the beach for a few tosses in the lake. The air temperature was below freezing, his ribs wash boarded without an ounce of fat to protect him from the cold, but I didn't have the heart to deny him. I threw again and again and he braved the two foot waves and swam after the stick every time, as strong as if his huge chest housed working lungs instead of a heart-displacing tumor.
On the trail to Bear Lake, I hike. The trees are completely bare but the blue of the sky behind them can almost convince that winter will not come. I breathe deep, throw myself into the rhythm of walking, try to drain myself of all thoughts, try to experience every sight, every sound, every scent completely. I try to be Trooper.
It works until I stop. The reason that Troop liked this trail so much is that the midway point rests squarely on the inviting shore of Bear Lake. We would sit surrounded by the bleached roots of a long-dead cedar tree, sharing an apple and a few granola bars, and after we'd finished lunch I would toss a stick in the water a few times for Troop to retrieve. Today as I root through my pack for the granola bars, I know that I have no one to share them with.
Otter and Trooper: for eleven years those two big black dogs were my constant companions, accompanying me virtually everywhere, every day. They ran with me, hiked with me, they climbed mountains and swam rivers and rode across the country with me. Their personalities were different: Otter aloof, self-conscious, athletic; Trooper exuberant, unrestrained physically and emotionally, full of love and mischief and personality: a permanent puppy.
In the space of four months, I have lost them both.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement in the water along the lake shore to my left. I turn my head in time to spy something gray -- a mammal -- dive under the surface of the water. I watch the area where the creature disappeared, hoping for another glance, for a positive identification. It probably wasn't a beaver, perhaps a muskrat? I glance at the half-eaten apple in my hand, my appetite gone. Trooper would have helped me finish it.
And then I hear a sound: a soft, barely audible "huff." The sound comes from directly in front of me: out a few feet on the lake. I jerk my head forward and meet a pair of brown eyes, a whiskered face, a mouth holding a finger-sized fish that curves down from each lip. Barely fifteen feet from where I sit: the face of an otter.
The otter's eyes lock with mine for maybe ten seconds: fearless, deep, it's impossible for me not to read compassion into those sun-washed brown sparkles, not to read peace and friendship and freedom and health -- and to see a soul or maybe two souls -- that will accompany me on the rest of this hike, and on every day, on every hike, for all of the rest of my life.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources