19 November 2018

The thing about luck.

You can get this coyote face on a t-shirt, and 100% of the proceeds from it go to help displaced humans and their animals from the Camp Fire. Coyote shirt.

You might already know this story. But I'm writing about it for an upcoming Clean Run article, so test driving a different version here. It's kind of a Thanksgiving-ish too, but with red fiery bloody coyote eyes. Also, Gustavo has sent away all his left over hospital monies to sick dogs and fire victim animals so I thought I'd make a coyote shirt and if you buy it the money goes to help more fire victims. OK.


A great way to go through life is basically lucky. Ordinary life rolls along, maybe you’re not doing so great, but really, you’re not doing so bad. If you have a dog and can do agility, even if some things are down in the dumps, probably you’re doing ok, things could be a lot worse.

Lucky is you have warm blankets on a bed in a genuine house with walls, and cans of beans in the cupboard. The cupboard may be tiny, and there may be a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy of a mouse scurrying around in there sometimes, but it’s there. Lucky is, you have a dog! You go to work and you can pay for oil changes on a car that drives and buy a braided fleece leash in four bright colors, now that’s a lucky life. Look forward to traveling to a trial in the sunshine, a few days in a modest motel where you can cover up the germy bed clothes with one of your own warm blankets, and the chance to run with your dog on tricky courses and maybe win it all, or at least go down trying.

Lucky is, lucky til you’re not. That's a thing about luck, it changes. That’s the day, you go to retrieve your dog from her crate at agility, and your dog looks dead. You drag her out, try to stand her up and she’s not there, her warm fur collapses, folds to the ground like a floppy stuffed donkey and her bulk rolls down the hill. Right through the pokey oak leaves and giant biting ants. That ever happened to you? I hope not.

When it happened to me I quick shoved the flop back in the car and drove as fast as I could to the emergency dog hospital. I’ve been there before, knew exactly how to get there. Don’t die don’t die don’t die don’t die don’t die. That was the only song I could sing, had to turn off the radio because there just wasn’t a soundtrack for ambulance rushing a dying dog anywhere in the air waves, no matter what channel I twisted the dial to. Not Elvis Costello, forget the Cure, just my own soundtrack that would keep my dog alive.

That was a long 29 minutes not hitting anyone, staying on the road, make sure nobody else was going to die. When I swung into the car park, I quick opened the hatch, lugged out a body, which still felt warm and vaguely breathing, and ran into the waiting room. I was that person, running in the door with a lifeless dog carcass screaming, “Please save my dog please save my dog.”

Spoiler alert, this story has a happy ending, if you’re one of those people that sniffs out the ending in case it’s one of those weepies where the dog dies, so you can slam that page shut and never open it again.

There were dog nurses, dog doctors, a dog neurologist. A dog receptionist who handed out kleenex at the counter. In the end, nobody knew what happened to my dog, maybe a stroke, maybe a seizure, maybe an embolism, something bad happened in her brain. There were a lot of maybes and zero for sures. After she could walk again and they sprung her from the hospital, she walked OK but for dragging her right back leg, and I had to keep her quiet except for tiny little walks three houses up to the corner from my house. Four houses if you count the duplex as two. We walked like ancient grandma garden snails, all of us dragging all our toes to walk slow enough. Down to the corner we shuffled, Banksy’s right hind dragging every step. We’d hang out there on the corner, letting her sniff the breeze, and then slowly drag back home.

I figured no more agility ever. The specialists all shrugged and said, we’ll have to wait and see. That was fine. I was happy my dog was alive. Banksy might be a crazy eyed weirdo, but she’s the crazy eyed weirdo love of my life and how lucky was that, that I didn’t lose her?

Slowly the toe drag got better, and then I hoped, ok, maybe agility someday. I’m really lucky. Life, it could go on, maybe some agility could happen, somewhere in the future. Just taking a walk faster than a snail was exciting. A couple months later, we ventured back to the woods. She had built up to where she could walk on her own, just a quick loop, maybe a mile off the leash, trying to build back some strength and see if that toe could stop scuffing. All of us, elderly Otterpop on her leash, Gustavo with ants in his pants from the whole snail business, ready for an easy stretch of forest closet to my house.

We all huffed up the hill, none of us in any kind of shape to speak of. It was early, I had to be at work, the light was dim, we were in one of the darkest hollows, on our way up to the sun. On our right we all together spied a pointy coyote face peering out of the dry, tangly brush, two cold eyes fixed on us. Everyone growls, except Otterpop, she doesn’t know much these days, tottering along on her little rope by my feet. The coyote didn’t move a muscle, fixed hard glare on us trespassers through his grove. Usually when this happens, I gather up the littles, and throw a branch yelling kung fu sounds, a sure way to run off most coyotes. None of my dogs like them, they have a very smart fear, they stay near and wait til it's moved on, then we all go about our lives

Well, not this time. Gustavo and Banksy were a bit ahead, so I whisked them forward, “Just go go go you guys.” We’d get up to the clearing and be out of the coyote’s way and on with our walk. Everybody shares in the forest. I sent them ahead, around a bend in the path shrouded by a redwoods, vast trees that obscure the views with their majesty. They’re scenic, historic, and cache carbon in their fibers. But in this case, they hid what was waiting up ahead.

A second coyote. As the dogs reached Number Two, Coyote Number One came screaming out of the brush, rushing behind Otterpop and me with a whoosh, flying past us towards Banksy and Gustavo. Ambush. I started screaming, and Banksy came back running, with no Gustavo. I could see up ahead two coyotes darting into the manzanita thicket. And still no Gustavo.

Gustavo weighs in at 12 lbs on his most substantial day. Coyotes are bigger, heavier, and run a lot faster. The only place he could have been at that moment was in one of their mouths.

So I did what anybody would have done. Screaming at the top of my lungs, I grabbed up Otterpop, and dove into a thorny thicket, strands of manzanita and deadwood, poison oak and berry brambles. I fought my way in with with a very freaked out Banksy following close behind, thrashing through branches and vines, with a sharp stick as my only weapon. I screamed out for Gooey, and each time was answered only by a shrieking coyote call.

Over and over, “GOOEY!”,only to be answered with a shrill string of yips instead.

There was a long search, and the realization sinking like a weight, that a little dog couldn't live through being taken by coyotes. We searched half heartedly for a day and a night, mostly hoping to find a shred of fur, a collar, a bone. Shrouded in a fog, my brain only working half speed, wandering through the woods, calling the name of his ghost. This made a slightly draggy toe on a live dog seem like a distant, tiny memory, who cared if her toe dragged, at least she was alive. Gustavo, the sweetest joy of a dog, wasn’t. Taken horrifically by the woods he dashed through every single day.

Those were some darkest hours. All the luck drained out and burned. The unluckiest.

Shambling along at work two days after he was taken, I extracted a voice mail out of my phone, cel phones hate our mountains. A scratchy message from a teacher at a tiny mountain school on the edge of the forest. All I could get from it were the words, We Have Gustavo. I’ve never felt like that before, like someone pumped goodness through ever single one of my veins, goodness and luck and life. I sped across the windy grade to the school, where his lifeless little body lay on blanket in a corner by a filing cabinet. The eight graders had found him under the deck on the edge of the woods, where a steep path comes up from the creek.

Don’t die don’t die don’t die. Another one of those drives, down to town, down the freeway, and back to the hospital.

Dog doctors, specialists, ivs, pills, liquids, shots and eyedrops, everything all over again and more. He was covered with puncture wounds, and most of his ribs were broken. Everything inside bruised and some things smashed and torn, but eventually unfolding that nothing smashed was life threatening, nothing vital was pierced. I made the first doctor to see him cry, telling him what happened. I guess that my screaming Death-to-Coyotes rampage had freaked them out enough to let him go and he somehow he got his broken little body across the forest, down the hill, over the creek and up the hill to where the school was on the far side of the woods.

Another dog home from the hospital, another long, slow rehab, which were maybe some of the happiest days of my life. Another realization, this time even grander, that I had a miracle on my hands.

When you have two dogs almost die one right after the other, agility looks a lot smaller. Instead of looking at it head on, you’re stepping back and seeing it from a distant horizon, it’s fuzzier, it’s receding, vaseline on the lens. You might miss it and wave at it, but all of a sudden, it feels a lot less important.

Did I think I’d be able to return to agility with either dog? Nope.

Did I want to return to agility with either dog? Well, yeah. Although Gustavo, he’d be ok without it, he’s 12 years old and loves all the things the same. Sitting on my lap and eating pancakes and trying to kill gophers and splashing around in the creek and teeters. Shredding up paper towels, doing a tunnel, playing with a poodle at the park. Equal.

But, Banksy. She had just turned four years old and I felt like we were about to step up to what would be her very best year, not step down to the the ending place of never again. Agility over rides most everything for her, she’s one of those dogs who really has the bug, I think she might be my agility dog of my lifetime. She loves hiking and the beach and running at the park, but show her an agility field, that’s what lights her crazy eyes up.

I went to help out at a few trials during those months of maybes and rehabbing. That was pretty ok. People expressed condolences at the end of my agility career but were super happy I had two live dogs. I had so many generous friends and people to thank, hundreds of dog lovers had kicked in to pay all of Gooey’s vet bills. Life would go on, just a different kind of life.

There was still a maybe. I had a few starts and stops with Banksy. We started to train a bit, had some back sliding. She had another small seizure. Hurt a different foot. I had no doubt everything stemmed with that right hind and backed off again. My hopes were raised, then dashed low. I became obsessive, watching every step she took thru a microscope. Started training again. Then stopped. Then started again.

Really, though, every time I walked in my house after work, and had genuinely alive dogs jump up to greet me, I could only feel lucky. Right before my very eyes, my dogs weren't dead.

Five months later, I ran Banksy in a regional. I almost scratched, she was entered on a team, I almost called it all off when that right hind looked a little funny the week before. But she seemed ok, I still ran her. She won a couple classes, won a bronze medal in one of the finals. She wouldn’t climb up on the podium, it was pushed up against a white tent that made flapping sounds in the breeze, so she sat nearby while I climbed on the box and held up her prize for the photo. That’s so Banksy.

The weekend just before, I ran Gustavo around a jumpers course. He did it perfectly, like a blazing fast squirrel, with his signature move of an off course tunnel right at the ending. I’ve never been happier to see him turn away from me and find a tunnel then come running back for the finish. Both my dogs, presumed dead, now not just alive but alive and finding themselves beloved off course tunnels, that dashing in made my heart almost burst.

Truly a miracle. The fact that I can take my dogs to the park, and throw a ball, or go down to the beach and let them play in the waves, then bring them back home to my living room couch, even better. That’s the luck part, right there. Dogs sprawled across my living room furniture, sandy paws up on the couch, eyes look up at me and they leap up to jump all over me when I walk in. Luckiest person ever, miracle dogs.

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Amy Watson said...
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