New veins of grief. Or not new ones. Ones just revealing themselves.
Four three-hour drives in the last 48 hours between Greensboro and Charlottesville in the name of a cattle dog. But maybe more truthfully in the name of grief.
John’s been on a mission to complicate things with something that can fetch. “What about this guy?” reads his fifth email of the morning containing a link from petfinder.com, “He loves brisk walks and kids. He’s recovering from a scrotal infection and likes to dig but otherwise he’s perfect!”
I guess I’m not exactly dissuading him from his search. I’m in the market for something to hold and snuggle these days. Ellie, our old black mutt, is not a snuggler.
I love Route 29 as it climbs gently up Virginia. The uncrowded lanes and all the roadside family restaurants and sleepy service stations and the tiny towns of Hurt and Tightsqueeze. The aboveground pool dealers and pre-fab shed dealers and dump truck dealers. The sprawling ranch partially remodeled as a Monticello replica and all the crosses and the Dairy Queens.
That rolling stretch just south of Charlottesville where the median is lined with old trees just starting to turn colors this weekend—wow.
We drove up there to adopt Blue, the Australian Cattle Dog.
The boys wanted to give him a new name. From the backseat, for the whole ride: “Can we call him Maverick? Can we call him Vampy? Can we call him Sheriff? Can we call him Alberto? Can we call him Obsidian?”
The whole ride, Ellie panting like a madwoman in the way back.
I won’t tell every heartbreaking detail of this story, but Blue was a good boy and we adopted him.
I rode in the way back all the way home with him in my lap licking my face. I didn’t notice the three hours because I was very busy falling in love with his crazy black belly spots and what Freddy called his “boyish eyes” and his coy, smart face. He licked the boys’ ears from behind them and made them laugh. He obsessively watched every single person come out of a gas station and when it was finally John he started to whine and wiggle with excitement like he’d known him for years.
I couldn’t stop smiling at John when our eyes would meet in the rearview mirror. How about Pancho, he said somewhere near Lynchburg—and that seemed just right.
Pancho. You’re Pancho, I whispered to the dog. And you’re in our family.
Everyone was happy. Well, everyone except Ellie. She was having a quiet, protracted nervous breakdown on the floor behind the driver’s seat.
We still don’t know what went wrong exactly but what started out as the dogs seeming a little standoffish to each other when they first met in Charlottesville devolved into a full on mortal enmity after about 24 hours at home. They couldn’t be in a room together. Blue/Pancho would snap and bully. Ellie would quake and hide. We caught Ellie trying to dig out of her own backyard.
We spoke to a dog behaviorist on the second morning. “I can fix this,” she said, “but it won’t be easy. And in the end it may not be the right thing for either dog. If it were me, I’d take him back. There are lots of great rescue dogs in the world. You need to find the right one for everyone in your family.”
I won’t get into the details of the sadness of the boys, who had been conspiring about how to rig up a ramp so the dog could sleep in their top bunk, but after we broke the news, they took Blue/Pancho out in the yard and the three of them played basketball together for almost an hour—Freddy shooting baskets, Benny running around kicking leaves off the court, the dog leaping into the air to rebound the ball back to Freddy.
Blue and I left for Charlottesville on our own right after the boys headed off to school the next day. Ellie wouldn’t even come out from her bunker under the chair in the bedroom to pee.
We listened to NPR and Paul Simon the entire time because no one else was there to tell us not to. Blue loves “Under African Skies” but was exasperated by both the lack of clarity from the Dutch report on the Malaysian plane shot down last year over Ukraine and the murky pool of Democratic candidates on the eve of the first debate.
He sniffed the Virginia morning vigorously through the window crack then groaned a little and fell sound asleep with his head on my thigh and his body sprawling awkwardly over the gearbox and into the passenger seat.
The ride home: What is the opposite of a sleeping dog’s head in your lap while you drive?
That drive was the slowest of the four. I mostly thought about work and to-do lists. I felt overwhelmed and I cried a little. The next day I was due at Duke to meet my radiation oncologist and talk about the next phase of treatment so I also thought about tumors and cancer cells and what the hell the doctors say to you if they do all the things they know how to do and there is still cancer left.
And I thought: right now, this is grieving. My mom feels a million miles away and that distance is permanent and inexplicable and I’m really effing tired of feeling scared and losing things. I thought about why, one day when all my hair was falling out this time around, I was compelled to rewrite the last paragraph of Joyce’s “The Dead” by replacing snow with hair.
That was grief, I said to myself. It makes us dark and a little crazy.
By then, I was pulling back into Greensboro, and instead of going home I went straight to Target because buying poster board for Freddy’s social studies project about Panama was on my to do list. There, I promptly lost one more thing: my purse—with an unusually flush amount of cash stuffed in my wallet due to selling my dining room table on craigslist on a whim (dark and crazy I tell you)—left in the shopping cart in the parking lot.
I realized it halfway home and drove like a maniac back up Battleground. It wasn’t in the cart, still wedged in the return enclosure. I went back to my car—it definitely wasn’t there. I went into the store and must have stared wildly at the security guard because she immediately walked over to me and said sternly, “Mam, is there something we can help you with?”
They had it. Someone had just turned it in—an older woman who was in fact still standing there. I could tell by the look on her face she had clearly seen all the cash. “You’re very lucky it was me who found it,” she said slowly. “You could have just had a very bad day.”
As I was walking back to the car a text pinged in from inside my purse. John.
“Are you back yet? You have to check out this one. He’s smart and low key and gets along well with other dogs. Plus look at those ears!”
And there I was—because this is just what we do—sitting in the Target parking lot, door still open, clicking on the link.