Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Love Story

In my naïveté, I had deluded myself into believing that to survive the great tragedies in my life it would only take the endurance to last the painfully slow process of an "emotional healing." Certainly, there would be the scars... always there to remind me of my pains... and, if I ever became careless enough, always there to be opened slightly. A renewal or rather, a reminder of the original pain.

This isn't true at all.

I find that great tragedy; loss; do not rip open gaping ragged edged wounds that slowly heal back up. No. Nothing at all like that. Instead I find that there is no "healing process" whatsoever. No such thing as "emotional scars." The wound persists. I think that all that will ever happen is that I will learn to avoid that particular spot in my soul. Find ways around the pain.

Often I find myself suddenly at the edge. Looming over the abyss trying not to fall inside again. Sometimes I can pull myself away. Sometimes not. There is some perverse pleasure, I admit, to sometimes falling in and succumbing to the pain, but for the most part it seems more of a relief to put distance between me and her.

It was a day in the later part of a New England summer when we first met. She was the boisterous orange/yellow pup in a tiny cage of the animal shelter's. Her reaction to us (although in retrospect, probably to all who passed her) was that of a joyous reunion between close friends tragically separated years before, never truly expecting to meet again. We could not resist. The drive home was an adventure. She squirmed and fidgeted all through the car. From under the gas peddle to the back seat, to Cindy's lap to the back seat again and then to my lap! We laughed, sometimes nervously, as we contemplated the potential of this four-legged dynamo.

The puppy was supposed to be for my father. My mother, though, simply stated that either the dog goes or she does. To my father's credit, the ultimate decision involved my taking her (the dog, not my mother) to college with me. There, Elizabeth Freedom (as she was eventually named) squirmed her way into my heart as well as numerous garbage pails and other troublesome spots.

Very briefly, Elizabeth began her dog's life with me and my undergraduate years at Plymouth State College (now university). She would ride with me in my navy blue 1975 Ford Maverick (no seatbelts) from Plaistow New Hampshire to visit my someday-to-be wife in Portsmouth. With each trip Elizabeth made it about two miles further before vomiting. Finally, she was able to hold her biscuits for entire car trips and going "bye-bye" became one of the phrases most certain to wag her tail and excite her sparkling eyes.

When home in Plaistow, we would walk in the trails behind my parents' house. With Elizabeth along it sometimes became a surrealistic experience. She would race ahead of us along the pathway until we'd lose sight of her. After a brief while she would shoot across the path in front of us left-to-right. Moments later she'd be passing us on the trail again to race ahead, while in a very short interval after that, she'd pass us again and race ahead as if she'd just lapped us on a race track or was an identical pup chasing her twin up the trail. We never could tell from which direction she'd appear!

After a while, I graduated from college, worked for a year and then married and moved to Kansas for graduate study. Of course Elizabeth came with us. She shared the passenger seat (built only for one I might add) of a Ryder truck one-way rental. The trip was memorable for us all.

I was six years at Kansas. We lived in three different apartments while there. Elizabeth tolerated each move with the easy-going good natured fatalism of a true companion. Wherever her "mom" and "dad" were (or maybe just her food bowl) was home to Elizabeth. And that was ok.

The University of Kansas campus included quite a large park filled with green grass and hills for rolling, trees, water, and most importantly, squirrels. As soon as the door of the car was opened the golden streak flamed into the woods. Elizabeth was like a locomotive charging from tree to tree with the unwavering determination of a guided missile. Many a squirrel no doubt traded red for grey coats because of Elizabeth. When she tired of the chase (that is, when all the squirrels were safely back in their trees), Elizabeth would nose-dive into a plush pile of green grass and squirm onto her back and kick her legs skyward. A sort of "Snoopy-dance" we called it. Her best trick was to find a slight hill and surf down it like an upside-down wiggling dog-torpedo.

Elizabeth was not fond of water. I've wondered why that might be from the day it first became obvious. Did someone try to drown her as an unwanted pup? The best we could get was a little wading until water touched her belly. Then it would be a few licks and maybe, if it was a warm day, a brief rest on the mud perhaps a tail's length from the shoreline into the water.

The six years ended and we moved a half-day closer to New England, Elizabeth's birthplace. This meant we had made it as far East from Kansas as St. Louis. I spent a mere four years there as a post-doc at Washington University. St. Louis was not as dog-friendly as Lawrence, Kansas. The closest running grounds never really compared with the University of Kansas campus nor were the squirrels as friendly or abundant. Our apartment was on the second floor of a converted house which meant quite a number of stairs to climb. This became more and more problematic for Elizabeth given her attraction to food and food-like things as well as her advancing years (she was nearly 13 years old when we finished up in St. Louis).

For the most part, Elizabeth had retired her serious squirrel chasing legs for a more stealthy approach to squirrel hunting. And, truth be known, squirrel hunting wasn't nearly as rewarding anymore as gum or tid-bit hunting. We did manage a few trips to a distant park where we would occasionally mosey along a trail. But it was clear that Elizabeth would never again amaze us with her limitless racing energy.

I finally took a "real" job in Mississippi and moved there June of 1996. For the first time in our lives we lived in a house by ourselves. No more apartments, and best of all for Elizabeth, only four steps to get inside! We stayed in this house for just over one year. This would be Elizabeth's last move. Her last home.

We traveled north during the Winter months of 1997. Cindy's father was quite ill and it seemed that he was declining fast. Elizabeth weathered this trip as any other. With calm interest and a keen eye for snacks. Once in New Hampshire, she stayed with my parents who naturally adored her. My father would kick me out of his chair, but if Elizabeth were in it, he'd hook a fanny-cheek on the edge of the cushion and share rather than disturb her highness. After a great deal of sadness, our reasons for coming to New Hampshire were laid to rest. We drove back to Mississippi and Elizabeth would never be close to her place of birth again.

She lasted until August of 1997. We made a number of tearful trips to the veterinarian's office and were given an assortment of pills. It was clear now that Elizabeth was not in very good shape. Congestive heart failure imminent, she still wagged her tail and seemed to smile pleasantly at us whenever we'd walk into the room. Her looks were always expectant, "Are we going 'bye-bye'?" or "Is it time to eat/play/cuddle?" I honestly don't think that in her heart she understood that she was old and failing. Maybe she lived each day with the expectation that whatever her ills, they would eventually pass and she'd once again run like a rabbit through the woods behind our house.

We've since bought two houses. Elizabeth would truly have loved our first house. Not even a single step to get inside. Plenty of cool spots to lie down. Sun spots to warm her belly in every room. And, a fireplace. She never knew a fireplace. I sometimes look wistfully at the flames and imagine how well she would have looked stretched in front of its warmth. I miss her. I always will.

My good girl has been gone now for as long as she'd lived. While it pains me even to write these few words, I hope that maybe when Elizabeth died beneath my caresses fourteen years ago today, somehow all that she was and knew of us passed back to that fidgety pup in that small cage so few years ago. Perhaps that was why she was so happy to see us. Perhaps she knew us already. Maybe we were the long lost friends she longed to see again. Her happiness was that she could do it all again.