A Feeling I’d Never Experienced

A Feeling I’d Never Experienced

Despite never having a dog of my own until manhood, I’m a lifelong dog lover.  Doris and I adopted my first dog, Brandy, three years after we wed. Brandy was a mixed breed one-year-old that we rescued from the local Humane Society.  She was a sweet dog, gentle with our babies and a spectacular Frisbee catcher who loved going airborne to pluck a disk out of the sky.

We loved Brandy for eight years before she passed away from a sudden debilitating disease.  It was a sad time for all of us.  I felt especially guilty that the poor dog spent so much of her days alone, waiting for one of us to come home from work or school.  It wasn’t fair to her. Like most dogs, she just craved attention but got too little from our family on-the-go.  I vowed not to get another dog until I could give it the time and attention it deserved.

As many who know me are aware, when Doris and I moved to Maine to start our early retirement, we got a miniature Australian Shepherd (a.k.a. American Shepherd) we named Charley.  He joined our lives at eight weeks old, nearly nine years ago. I craved to be a dog owner again and vowed this time I would do it right.  Charley has long been a full-fledged, card-carrying member of our family with almost all rights and privileges attendant thereto (except relieving himself indoors), and is similarly acknowledged by our daughter’s and son’s families.

Charley is my shadow and I’m his. Whenever possible, he goes where I go.  He has a disposition that, if emulated by most people, would make nuclear weapons and the United Nations obsolete.  He is bright, smiley, affectionate, playful, popular, obedient, patient and eager to like anyone he meets. He plays well with other dogs (he has a fascination with licking their ears for some reason) right up until they show an interest in his food bowl or try to be too friendly with me.

Charley is not just smart, he’s really smart. We were living on Orr’s Island in Harpswell, Maine when we brought Charley home from an upstate breeder in Litchfield.  Within less than a week, Charley (an eight week old ball of fur) knew to go to the front door to be let outside when he had to “go.” Our 400-foot driveway was a long and somewhat serpentine hill that ended in front of our house on Long Cove. For exercise (Charley’s, not mine) I would put a tennis ball into the socket of a “chucker” and throw the ball far up the driveway.  Charley would run up the hill, retrieve it, and bring it back to me so I could throw it for him again.  This lasted a few months before Charley changed the game.  One day, after running up the hill to retrieve the ball as usual, he started down the driveway but then stopped.  He looked down at me, tilted his head to one side, laid down on his stomach on the macadam, and rolled the ball down the hill to me. That was the way we played from then on. He figured it out all on his own and after a while had learned where to release the ball so that it didn’t fall off either side of the curves in the driveway.

When we moved from Maine to our present home, a condominium, we made sure we found one with a hill.

We never “crated” him – he’s always been welcome in our room on our bed any time.  Dog trainers (actually dog-owner trainers) ) were surprised at how quickly he learned and responded to commands. I easily trained him to come to me when I called him or whistled two specific notes.  Many folks in our neighborhood of more than 60 condominiums know and like Charley.

In early September 2019 we made our familiar hour-and-forty-five-minute trek to our daughter and son-in-law’s home to help care for three of our grandchildren (our son and daughter-in-law have #4) while ‘mom’ was away for three days.  Of course, Charley was with us.  Our eldest grandchild, four-year-old Maddy, had earlier explained to Hunni (Doris) and Pop (me) that while Charley lived with us, he was our dog, but when he was at their house Charley was their dog.

All went well.  I drove my daughter to the airport on Thursday evening and she returned safely late the following Sunday.  The kids were good all weekend and  Hunni and Pop were prepared to return home after breakfast on Monday. At 3:30 Monday morning, Charley woke Doris with the whimper he uses to let us know he’s got to “go.”  She forced her way from under the covers, turned on the light on Charley’s collar, flipped on the back yard light and opened the door for Charley to go relieve himself.

Our daughter’s back yard is fully fenced in and has three gates. I’d checked to make sure all three were closed when we arrived on Thursday, and found that one was ajar.  The fence is old and the latch on that particular gate doesn’t align well with the fence.  I force-straightened the gate so that the latch could close, gave it a shake to see if it held, and moved on when it did.

After five minutes Doris called for Charley to return, but he didn’t.  She asked me to try so I pulled on some warmer clothes and my sneakers, grabbed a flashlight and went outside to see why he didn’t answer Doris’s call.

He didn’t answer because he wasn’t there.

When I went to each of the gates to check the locks I found that the one I’d forced together had come apart, leaving just enough space for Charley to fit through.  I called for Charley and whistled the two tones from there, confident that he would come running back from wherever he was, as had happened almost always over the years.

This time, he didn’t come.

I felt panic rising from my heart when he didn’t answer my call.  I called louder as I walked beyond the fence and I started what turned out to be a two-day repetitive monologue asking God to help me find him. Aware that it was nearly 4:00 a.m. I tried to temper my calls of “Charley – Come” and started what must ultimately been hundreds of two-note whistles.

This wasn’t the first time Charley had disappeared, but it was the first time he had done it south of Maine.  When we lived in Maine we had three acres of woods of our own and access to trails along the shore that began about a hundred yards from the end of our driveway.  Charley and I used to walk those trails at least once a week.  He never strayed from me there, but on occasion he chased a deer or just followed a scent around into the woods.  Most times, when I bellowed “Charley, Come!” within a minute or two he’d come running to me full blast, with a big smile on his face and ears pinned back.

The few times he failed to come, I’d drive my pick-up within a radius of half mile of home calling for him.  In less than an hour I’d either find him or Doris would call me to say he’d come home.  Each time, though, I had to fight down the fear that I might never see him again.

And now, I was prowling the suburban streets near my daughter’s house in Warren, New Jersey, calling and whistling for Charley in the early morning dark, silently asking God to let me have him back.

I learned a fair amount about Social Media shortly after sunrise that Monday.  While I was illuminating front yards on both sides of the adjacent roads with my flashlight, Lauren had sent an all points bulletin about Charley on her neighborhood’s Facebook page. Later, cruising the roads in the early daylight, I saw a gathering of mothers and children waiting on a street corner for the school bus. As I slowed towards the intersection one of the mothers flagged me down to tell me that she saw the Facebook posting and that she had heard her neighbor’s dog barking early that morning.  She said this was a dog that normally didn’t bark.  I was impressed that this good lady knew about my lost dog and was deeply concerned about Charley.  I thanked her sincerely for the only tip I had so far.

Lauren also Messaged her cross street neighbors, including my tipster, to ask if I might  look in their back yards for Charley.  With 10 minutes all of them had responded ‘yes’ and wished us luck.  I spent an hour or so in those back yards but heard only the high pitched barking of the nice lady’s backyard neighbor’s little dog.

Meanwhile, Doris took up the vigil of waiting outside at Lauren’s to be there if and when Charley returned on his own.  After seeing our two granddaughters off to school, Lauren drove around the vicinity and suggested that I might want to go to the top of the steep mountainside that ended the backyards of the homes directly across the street.  She gave me the driving directions to the backside of the mountain (nothing like the Rockies, but steep nonetheless) to a forested area at its top.  When I zeroed out my car’s trip odometer I measured that the road into the woods was .8 of a mile.  I parked my car and walked about 2.5 miles traversing those woods.  By the time I returned to Lauren’s home I was worn out physically and emotionally. The day was approaching evening and the daylight that I’d hoped would reveal Charley was fading away.

Doris asked me to change places and let her drive around looking for him for a while.  I agreed, so she took the wheel and I took the vigil chair.  There I sat with a blanket wrapped around me like a cape, my arms crossed, head down, and eyes closed.  It was then, because I was alone, that I allowed myself to cry – deeper and painfully. There and then I resumed my monologue to God.  I pleaded through the tears with Him/Her to let me find Charley.

I’d long ago realized my vulnerability to the significant price of grief/pain I will pay if I survive Doris or, God forbid, any of my kids or grandkids.  It is the ultimately high cost of love.  After nearly nine years, I was beginning to feel the leading edge of pain from the present possibility of Charley’s loss – a loss compounded by the likelihood that we might never know how or why we lost him.

One might observe that I’d obviously lost my sensibilities and my priorities in caring for a dog this much. Those who ever had a dog are more likely to cut me some slack on that observation. If they knew Charley they’d probably understand even better. When my neighbors back home heard that we couldn’t find Charley, more than a few of them were moved to tears.  Our closest neighbor told me that her reaction was that it felt like she’d lost her brother.

I am one who believes we have/are immortal souls and love is a product of the mind, body, and soul.  I am convinced that the purpose of life is to carry and reinforce our souls.  The size and capabilities of souls many differ, but they are all immortal.  No one dies completely, not my parents, not my teachers or friends, not even the souls of my worst tormentors totally expire. I am convinced that Charley is also a soul because he is obviously capable of love.

It was in moments of dwindling hope that I might ever see Charley again that I was compelled to find the real reason he was gone.  What had I done to deserve this?  Somehow, I felt totally responsible for his disappearance. I ended that Monday trying to understand what I had to atone for.  I thought of one possible reason for God’s anger.  Despite knowing that God does not negotiate, I tried to strike up a deal with Him/Her over it.  Whether or not I could have Charley back, I vowed to banish that reason forever. I promised.  It was all I could think of to do beyond looking everywhere for him.

By nightfall I was drained, so I slept.

When I awoke on Tuesday I immediately checked the open garage and the back yard. My hope that he might have returned during the night was erased.

I knew that time was my enemy.  The longer Charley remained lost the less likely it became that we would find him.  Since failing to come home was against all of his characterized behavior, I could only think Charley was unable to come to us for some reason.  Had he been stolen?  Possibly, but who could have tried to take him at 3:30 in the morning? Had he been run over by a car or truck? Had he run down a deer and been kicked when it tried to defend itself?  This was a more plausible reason, but still not likely. Earlier in the year a bear was seen loping around my daughter’s neighborhood. The sightings were confirmed when the animal’s visits were caught on several home security cameras.  Had Charley fallen prey to some other animal in the woods?

With each click of the clock the situation became bleaker. My hope of finding him was dwindling as my despair was ramping up.  After another morning in the woods, this time armed with his squeaky toy, I returned to Lauren’s house having had no luck. In the privacy of the basement bedroom Doris and I used, I lied down and prayed to God to keep Charley safe.  Then I berated myself for wasting what time I had left to find him before returning home to Connecticut.  The idea of leaving without Charley was horrible, so I got out of bed and grabbed by car keys and the squeaky toy to continue my search.

Tim and Lauren’s home is on a dead end road. A 20-foot wide deer run separates the end of the street from the back yards of new houses under construction on another street. The deer run is perpendicular to the dead end of the street. I hadn’t yet ventured up that steep slope so I climbed half way up the hill and called for Charley while squeezing the toy for a half-hour, all to no avail.  By this time my mind and soul were just numb.  I had spent two days with the ugly notion that I might never see Charley again. Doris, Lauren and I had covered almost all of the territory where he might have been if he was not dead or dognapped.

As I drove my car back to the house, I noticed the neighbors’ houses and back yards where I had begun my search. At that moment a small hopeful feeling broke through the numbness and whispered that I should look there again.  This was the area described by the young woman who said her back yard neighbor’s dog had been barking in the early morning hours of Monday.  Her’s was the only lead I had, so I parked the car, picked up the squeaky toy and walked to the area I had traversed on Monday morning.

The back yards of the home of the barking dog and of my tipster faced one another, because the front of each house faced one of two parallel streets.  The yards were separated by a swathe of unattended foliage covering about 50 feet between the back yards of both houses. That area was a jumble of thick, waist-high vegetation.   When I waded into it I literally could not see my feet as they plodded through the territory.  All the while I continued calling for Charley and squeezing his toy after each call.

And then I heard his bark.

I squeezed the toy rapidly and told Charley to keep barking, which he did.  My adrenaline pumped the squeeze toy as I slogged in the direction of his wonderful barks. Soon I came upon a structure hiding in the sea of foliage.  It was an old, eight-feet square, seven-foot deep dry well, constructed of cement blocks.

I looked over the rim and saw Charley on its dirt floor, running in circles, yelping for all he was worth, and reaching up with his front paws as high as they could go to try to reach me!

Never before in my life had I encountered a moment when my psyche immediately sling-shot from deep despair to magnificent elation in the blink of an eye.  I cried tears of joy while laughing hysterically at the same time.  I shouted to the world and skies,“I found him! Dear God, I found him. I can’t believe it, I found Charley” It felt almost as though Charley had returned from the dead.

All this time he had been less than 300 yards from Lauren’s house.  I sat on the edge of the well and called her on my cell phone. “I found him!”

I told her exactly where we were and asked her to tell Doris and to bring a small ladder so we could get Charley out of that hole in the ground.  When I ended the call, I jumped into the well to pet him and hold him and share in our excitement of his having been found.  Charley was thirsty and hungry (in that order) but otherwise unscathed from his ordeal.  When I scaled the step-stool ladder and lifted him to Lauren, Charley was yelping and licking her face.  When he saw Doris coming across the yard he sprinted to her with a similar greeting.

Doris had brought one of our three grandkids with her. When two-year-old Goldy saw Charley running at top speed to get to them, she said, “Hunni (Doris) look! Charley loves me!”

She was right.

Epilogue

Since then:

I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I found my shadow again.  My gratitude is not limited only to the Heavens; it involves much more somehow. That moment of going from despair to joy was a gift that nudged my cynicism further away from my core, my soul.  Being so near to hopelessness and then having my most urgent supplication granted is an event beyond description.  The townspeople who were so wonderfully aware that Charley was missing and actively looked for him as they went for a run, or to the store and the like, gave me comfort and hope and reminded me what a real community can do.  Charley and our family are fully recovered from our ordeal.

And I do thank God everyday for life, love, family, friends, and Charley.