Friday, January 18, 2013

Lost and Found - Heartache, Hope, and a Little Dog

When my daughter was born, I darkly mused that that our dog, Ellie, would be the thing that would teach my daughter about death. The pup recently turned four and the baby three months, so assuming that Ellie lived an average life, Lucy should be well into grade school before we were faced with saying goodbye to our dog.

I wasn't thinking of any of this when I let Ellie out into the backyard last night. As she nuzzled the bells that hung from our back door handle, I sighed at her impeccable timing, as I was in the middle of about three projects. Fearing the wrath of her bladder, I dropped my work and ushered her out the door and into the yard. Then back to the trash liner, the dishes, and dinner. Then Annie asked if I wanted to take in another episode of our latest TV series obsession, and I gregariously agreed.

Forty minutes later, I realized that I hadn't heard that familiar bay of my impatient pooch, asking to be let back in. I wandered back to the kitchen, thinking perhaps my wife had let her in without my knowledge. I glanced in the bedroom, then in Lucy's room. I doubled back to see if she was lounging at my wife's feet, snuggled under the covers. Then I went to the back yard.

I called for her, then gave a whistle. I waited in expectant silence, reticent to venture onto the frigid pavement in my dress socks and t-shirt. I called again, this time leaning out the door to peer around the corner of the house. No sign of the basset. As my anxiety was rising, I trod tediously across the frozen lawn, the grass crunching under my socked feet. I looked under, behind, and through every obstacle, but Ellie was no where to be found. The gates were both closed and latched, but the animal was not to be found.

"Have you seen Ellie?" I tried to remain calm as I asked Annie if she'd noticed the lack of dog in our home over the last hour or so. She stared blankly for a moment, not sure how to respond to such a foreign question. Then she sprung from where she'd been playing with our baby, frenetically yet rigidly looking throughout our home for the dog. We both went outside, the sinking realization of loss growing as we checked every possible nook and alcove around our house. Ellie was nowhere.

Back inside I tried to keep Annie calm as I dressed and prepared to look for the dog. I tried to remember what time I'd last seen her, poorly calculating the distance her stumpy legs might be able to travel in - how long had it been - an hour maybe? I called my upstairs neighbor to see if he had seen anything, and he had! Not long before, he took his trash to the bins and noticed that the front gate had swung loose from its latch. Not thinking much of it, he secured it before coming back inside. But no sign of Ellie. So now we knew the path she took, but nothing more.

Adam graciously offered to help search and we both began our search - I on foot and he on his bike. After a few blocks of futility, I called my wife. She answered in a sorrow-induced congestion and shortness of breath indicative of someone who had been crying.

"Did you find her?" She didn't even give me a chance for formality.

"Not yet. I was just thinking we should try to call around to the local vets and animal control."

"I've already posted to EveryBlock, and Facebook." At least she was being proactive in her grief.

"It'll be OK. I'm sure someone has found her, took her home, and is probably feeding her cookies. We'll find her." I wasn't convincing myself, let alone my distraught wife.

Trying to apply logic to the tracking of a hound dog is infinitely maddening. I stood breathing puffs of steam into the cold night sky, looking back and forth down my quiet street. Without any impetus beyond needing to start somewhere, I headed for the park that lay a few blocks away.

"Ellie loves people and other dogs. There are always tons of people walking their dogs in Portage Park. Maybe she's following someone around, or someone at least saw her." My brain raced with arbitrary justification for my course.

As I walked briskly through the quiet night, my eyes darted into bushes, peering desperately into back yards and between parked cars. I called out for my pooch with muted breath, nervous to disrupt the folks who had just become my neighbors a few months prior. I approached a man exiting his car with tedium, careful to not startle or unsettle him.

"Excuse me sir, I hate to bother you - have you seen a basset hound running around here? black, white, brown, really friendly?" He had not. "If you see her, we live down the street - we're the ones with the multi-colored Christmas lights on our house."  It's true, I had still not taken down our Christmas lights. Now these lights would serve as an amalgamation of an animal amber alert and a Motel 6 mantra, offering a reference to anyone who I talk to, in the hopes that they find our dog.

In the park, the flood lights of the pool and the football field cast stark shadows from the trees and benches. I scanned with feverish hope. A movement would catch my eye and I'd snap to focus on a rabbit, darting through the tennis courts. I heard the sound of playing acrooss the park, so I jogged over to see who might be the source. Three kids, maybe ten or twelve, were jumping on a large patch of ice, trying to crack the glazed surface. Not wanting to appear creepy, I called out my inquiry. They had seen nothing.

Having exhausted the parks topography, I started back in the direction of my house, taking another street to widen my search. I met an older man walking three dogs. I explained the situation and, though he had not seen Ellie, he recommended calling the 16th district Police Station and submitting a report. Then he wished me luck.

I called the police, then checked in with Adam. Moments later he was riding up behind me and we recapped our progress. Neither of us had anything to report.

We split again, and I was revisited by that feeling of utter hopelessness. The anxiety that is associated with this "needle in a haystack" scenario was overwhelming, and I didn't know where to start. As I walked I began looking up animal hospitals, vet clinics, and the city's animal control office. I left message after message, trying to hide the desperation in my voice. The calls assuaged my growing fears for a moment, but then I was back to the inescapable realization that I had absolutely no idea where to go next.

I'd come to an intersection and without rhyme or reason, turn left. I'd march through the alley then, as arbitrary as the last move, spin to the right and continue my labrynth-esque route through the neighborhood. Searching, praying, scolding, and calling out in an endless cycle of self-admonishment and determined focus. I stopped a women walking a pitbull, who upon hearing my plight told me that she'd just met my wife a little while before.

"Oh, really? Where was she?" I though Annie was watching our daughter, Lucy.

"She's driving around, calling for her. I saw her just a couple blocks away. I'm going to walk for a little while longer, so if I see her, I'll bring her to you." I was surprised and gracious for the added member of the search party.

A few block up, I paused at an alleyway to let a car pass. The driver beckoned me on, and as I passed, he leaned out his window.

"Did you find her?" The question threw me. I turned to find the man from the park. He'd traded his three dogs for a Volvo. "I've been driving around the alleys looking for her. Lot's of smells in peoples garages and trash cans. I ran into two oriental girls, and they're looking too." Though I disapproved of the political incorrectness, I was grateful for the altruism. We parted ways as he continued into the adjacent alley.

I passed a parked car that had exhaust steadily puffing from it's tailpipe. Two people sat inside and I thought they may have seen the dog pass by. As I approached the vehicle, I heard muffled voices and saw their expressions, furrowed brows over pursed lips. I veered off, not wanting to interrupt someone else's crisis with my own, and continued my trek. As I reached a corner, I heard a bark. Not the countless yips I'd heard from lap dogs or the incessant clanging of the Labradors and retrievers in our neighborhood. This was the unmistakable bay of my basset hound, and it came from behind me. I turned and darted back half a block, on my toes the entire way to minimize the sound of my own feet against the cold concrete. I skidded to a stop, just past the arguing couple, and listened with abated breath. Silence, save the hum of the car behind me.

But that bark! That had to be her. The sound came from the direction of our house, and given the few blocks north that I was as well as the faintness of the bay, it was possible that she was already home. I raced to the corner and began threading my way back through the streets and alleys. I rounded the corner of our garage, visualizing our wayfaring dog sitting at our back door with annoyed impatience. But as I entered the yard, it was clear that no dog was there.

We scoured the neighborhood for over four hours, but ended the night minus one basset hound. It was after midnight, we both had to work the next day, and it was obvious that our search was fruitless. In the hope that she might wander back, we moved Ellie's bed onto the front porch, and left water beside it. I hung old t-shirts on the fence posts, hoping the familiar smell of our body odor might guide her home. Then we went to bed.

I woke several times in the night, out of the need to change diapers and the concern for my dog. Each time I awoke, I checked the doors. My white undershirts hung limp in the moonlight, like old flags, too tired to fly. The water bowl was covered in a thin sheet of ice. There was no dog to be found.

In the morning, I rose early, dressed, and hurried to print flyers. I made up a simple sign and had one hundred fifty copies made, then went about my morning work. not thirty minutes later, I received a phone call from a number I didn't recognize.

"Hello, this is Chris."

"Hi Chris, this is the Portage Park Animal Hospital. We have your dog." My legs went weak beneath me.

"Is she OK? When did you get her, where did you find her?" A cacophany of questions spewed from my mouth, barring the woman on the other line from answering. I was reassured that she was just fine. I couldn't stop smiling as I got the pertinent information and called Annie. She'd just left the house, so she turned around to retrieved our lost pup.

On the way home from work, I stopped by the animal hospital to thank the folks who inadvertantly boarded our dog for the night. It turns out that, not a half hour before we realized she was gone, a neighbor of ours, across the street, happened upon our dog, sitting in the grass, a few houses down from our own. She said that the dog was just sitting there, looking rather bored. When she came upon her, Ellie rolled over and demanded a tummy rub. Unsure of what else to do, the neighbor took her home and called the vet. Ellie went for a night in their office, and no one was any the wiser.

This whole ordeal, while traumatic in many ways, taught me a few valuable lessons. It taught me the importance of good of neighbors and compassionate souls. It taught me to not put off replacing the gates on our yard until next spring. It taught me that the connection to a pet, though surely not as great as a connection to a child, is so profoundly deep, and that losing that connection, especially in such an abrupt manner, is a heartwrenching ordeal. Despite her daffy tendencies, Ellie is a great dog, and one that I hope will be long friends with my daughter, just as she has been with my wife and I.

When that day comes when we do have to say goodbye to her for real, I hope it comes after years of joy and memories, and won't be as difficult as that cold night back in January 2013.


1 comment:

  1. We lost a dog to cancer about 4 years back, and it was the first moment of actual loss I had had in my life. His name was Hannibal, he was a collie, and my family had him for ten years. For about a week, or more, he had become lethargic, and would not eat. My parents took him to the vet, and when I got home that day, I strolled in with a bounce in my step and asked, "So what did the vet say?"

    My father, a very humorous man by nature, known for a deadpan wit, and an affinity for puns, responded, "He said it was cancer."

    Thinking it was a joke, I laughed. He shook his head, and my mother started crying. The reality sunk in with me, and I sat down. It wasn't until I saw Hannibal entered the room that gloom had settled in, and I too began to weep uncontrollably. We put him to sleep less than three weeks later, because the cancer took hold so fast, and was so aggressive. I miss Hannibal all the time, and think about when he was a puppy, how he would attack the cuffs of my jeans.

    People may often take their pets for granted, and not think about how much they mean in our lives, but they are an integral part of our families.