[Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to Monica Joan.]
Very early this morning I said goodbye to the best running partner I have ever had.
She motivated me every single day, getting me out the door on days I might not have turned the knob on my own and providing company in any and all conditions. Though much faster and fitter than me, she always managed to get in the work she needed without ever discouraging my more pedestrian efforts, allowing me to chip away at my own pace and in pursuit of my own goals. If she got too far out ahead of me, which she often did, she either waited for me to catch up or, more frequently, backtracked until she was certain that I was still on course and moving forward, no matter how sluggishly.
Not once did she try to talk me out of whatever trail or adventure I had chosen, happy just to tag along and fully explore wherever in the world it was we were.
To refer to Mamie (a/k/a Sugar Pie) solely as my running partner would be selling her woefully short. Except perhaps in the vaguest sense, she didn’t actually understand one single word ever offered her direction and while arrogantly certain that I could interpret her body language and decipher her repertoire of whines, whimpers, and woofs, there’s no absolute accounting for how she felt about anything. She would leap up on my eldest daughter Lily’s bed each morning to kiss her awake and patiently endure the ‘playing house’ coddling of my youngest child, Piper Bea. Though Mamie was up for 10 to 20 miles, sometimes more, at any given moment and poised expectantly as I moved about the house after work each weekday for any sign that a run was on the agenda, she could also lounge with the best of them, snuggling dutifully at my wife Lindsay’s side while she silently studied for hours in pursuit of her nursing degree.
And now she’s gone.
Purposely carving out time around my wife’s work and school schedules and intent on thieving as little waking time as possible from my family, I do the bulk of my running at night or in the earliest hours of the morning. Last evening, like so many others, began with a drive from our semi-rural Pennsylvania home to one of the hidden forested escapes situated within 20 to 60 minutes reach by car. We headed for the surprisingly wild St. Anthony’s Wilderness precisely because of its rugged terrain, steep inclines, and seeming remove from civilization. We were joined at the trail head by two friends, Jesse and Brian, each of whom knew Mamie well and enjoyed her company as much as I did.
No more than an hour and a half into our wet and windy run, we’d put behind us one 700-foot climb, a 900-foot swampy descent, a cold crotch-deep creek crossing that required me to carry a wary Mamie across in my arms, and we were well into a thee-mile long, 1,200-foot climb and a discussion of the rattlesnakes that frequented the service road we were on when the sun was up.
A flurry of movement occurred just ahead of the focus of our headlight beams and it took a few moments to determine that Mamie was locked in a scuffle with something, though at first we weren’t sure what, our first guesses being either a skunk or a possum. It was in fact a porcupine and despite obviously already having a snout full of quills, Mamie refused to disengage and if anything doubled efforts to subdue her combatant.
We cried out, practically begged, for her to stop but she was lost to instinct and deaf to our calls. My recollection of those few seconds is utterly fragmented and while I’m told I finally scaled the bank and yanked Mamie away by the collar, I don’t have a true memory of that happening. I do have a fleeting image of pulling a few quills from the right hand with which I would have grabbed her and a number of small wounds today verify their placement.
Once finally disconnected from her prey, Sugar Pie became terrifyingly distraught and began thrashing about in an effort to extract the quills. It took quite a bit of effort to pin her down and begin trying to calm her through touch and gentle verbal reassurances, made exceedingly more difficult by the fear and anxiety that was certainly impacting my ability to speak. Flashbacks to a fleeting encounter Mamie had with a porcupine back in the fall made it immediately evident that the damage and sheer number of quills this time were far more extensive.
As hopeless an endeavor as it seemed, I began breaking the hollow quills in half to make them easier to remove. ‘Easier’ is a relative term and the fishhook-like barbs of porcupine quills are built to stay put, if anything drill deeper, not to be removed. While Brian, Jesse, and I tried to assess the situation and rationalize our next steps, I continued plucking and while the pile of removed quills grew it was impossible to see any obvious sign of advancement.
We were nearly six miles of hard effort from our cars with a dog already showing signs of shock and in no physical condition to be moved. We were a mile and a half to two miles from the nearest houses, resided in by people who quite purposely lived at the end of many miles of unmaintained forested roads that themselves led away from fairly remote paved roads. It was approaching midnight and we had no reason to expect a warm reception at any door upon which we hammered in our current bedraggled state. Just our presence in the woods in the middle of the night wearing short shorts, filmy wind jackets, and unkempt beards were cause enough for distrust and questioned intentions. Face it, ultrarunners at least when ‘in uniform’ only look normal to other ultrarunners. Throw in the weather and an American Bulldog in distress and we stood little chance of having doors opened in our favor.
On a positive note, we were far enough up the mountain to obtain a cell signal and were able to place a 911 call in hopes of reaching the Pennsylvania State Game Commission, a local fire station, or any outlet that might be able and/or willing to do anything on our behalf. The gate at the bottom of the road was padlocked shut with purposeful, effective barricades on either side to bar vehicular access without vandalizing the lock or getting through to the party in possession of the appropriate key.
The voice on the end of the line left us with mild hopes of aid but with Mamie’s level of distress fluctuating and with concern growing, at least on my part, that my ability to ease her back down into a prone position after her periodic pawing fits might be short-lived, Jesse decided it best to try the door-knocking route too even if it was likely to prove unfruitful.
Off he raced into the darkness while I kept at my work and Brian quietly offered his support and manned the phone. There came a point at which the remaining quills were offering too great a resistance to be removed without sending Sugar Pie into near hysterics, her breathing became slightly more labored, and her eyes showed dwindling sign of her presence behind their pupils. The rain increased and while we were dressed fine for 20 miles of movement, we were poorly prepared to stand in place and endure the elements.
I found a way to gather Mamie in my arms with as little pressure as possible against the remaining quills and began staggering down the ridge. Progress was painfully slow as I tried to manage her wounded 60-pound frame as gently as I could while countering her reactive attempts to swipe at the quills. Several times I needed to re-position her or take a moment to catch the breath I was failing to draw in the midst of my near panic.
We had made it most of the way down the mountain when a set of headlights signaled the unexpected approach of two trucks and a four wheeler hauling a trailer. They, whoever they were, had come for us and I could barely believe it. Jesse, miraculously, had been welcomed into a nearby home and the family that lived there immediately offered whatever help they could in getting us wherever it was we needed to get.
The rescuing entourage delivered us to the base of the mountain and almost immediately I was in the back of these kind strangers’ vehicle en route to a 24-hour emergency pet hospital where the medical staff awaited Mamie’s arrival. It took 20 to 30 minutes of speed-limit-be-damned driving to get there, but we got there.
We’d done it. We’d saved her and I could barely believe it.
Any of it, frankly.
Mamie was taken from my arms and whisked into the bowels of the building. I looked around the room at the stunned faces trying to make sense of my appearance and reconstruct whatever bizarre tale had led to my standing there in front of their wide-eyed gazes.
Offering not one single word of explanation, I slumped into a chair and fell into the deep oblivion of my own racing thoughts. In my head, I was already writing. Though poorly, it is what I do in an admittedly usually vain attempt to make sense of the world. I wasn’t making much progress on the making-sense front this time either but at least I had a task to focus on instead of the shivering, worrying, and what would have likely been embarrassment had I had the time to dwell on how I must have looked to the other bystanders.
Meanwhile Brian and Jesse were being shuttled back to our cars and Brian would soon be on his way to me with the wallet that would be necessary for medical treatment to begin, a thought that hadn’t fully occurred to me until I had settled in the veterinarian’s waiting room chair.
Whether out of kindness or necessity, the staff had actually administered sedatives to Mamie ahead of any financial questions being raised so at least her pain had been lessened while initial assessments were made.
At some point a technician emerged to wave initial-cost quotes with the preface that these were only preliminary calculations and could end up being much higher. I didn’t care about the costs but knew that the word ‘preliminary’ was also clue that there hadn’t yet been a full tallying of Mamie’s injuries or the severity of her condition.
I would soon have my answer.
Painstakingly, the veterinarian attending to Sugar Pie informed me that the dog’s right eye was not salvageable and the health of the left eye was also very much in question. More disconcerting was the fact that the vet couldn’t determine how far down into the dog’s throat quills were lodged and she couldn’t even be certain that she would be able to effectively intubate, enabling Mamie to breathe while under anesthesia for what she speculated would be just the first of several surgeries. A temporary tracheotomy was a possibility but the vet seemed unsure of whether that procedure might not just reveal a wall of quills rather than a clear breathing passage. Without saying that recovery was impossible, the doctor was succeeding in conveying that it was unlikely and did make it clear that a recovery that allowed Mamie to return to the active lifestyle to which she was accustomed was simply not a real possibility.
We hadn’t done it. We hadn’t saved her and I could barely believe it.
Any of it.
My heart, a heart that had shown signs of surfacing when we got down off of the mountain and made it to the hospital, sank. I telephoned Lindsay, rousing her from sleep, and found the level-headed nurse-to-be a strong, supportive voice in guiding me toward the only realistic, humane decision I could make. That sinking heart settled fully to a floor of despair, knowing that with that decision made my wife would be free to drop the nurse act and give in to the grief I knew was imminent.
Brian arrived at the medical facility, hopeful as I had first been, but I quickly brought him up to speed. Together we somberly made our way back to the operating room, pushing open the glass door that confirmed Mamie’s top-of-the-priority-list status.
Except for the persistent barking of a caged dachshund and the faint beeping of monitors, the room was silent. Mamie sprawled on a table at the far end of the room, propped as comfortably as possible. She was heavily sedated but her left eye did flicker and follow me as I knelt in front of her and offered barely whispered words of encouragement. Despite the large number of quills still occupying her cheeks, snout, and nose, she looked more at peace than at any time within the last couple of hours.
Her paws, so busy earlier trying to relieve her pain and confusion, were at rest. I understood that this was an illusory reprieve, one achieved only through medication, but it still gave me some minimal relief. I patted her rump, put my other hand on her shoulder, and pressed my cheek to hers. I breathlessly thanked her for being such a good girl, such a wonderful friend, and companion. She would be gone soon and there wasn’t a damned thing I could possibly do about it. There was no comfort I could give beyond what the medicine had already bestowed but I offered it anyway.
My eyes caught sight of the catheter and syringe already in place to usher her fully from the pain.
For some reason that visual was the prompting that really drove home the fact of needing to break the awful news to a five year old and her seven-year-old big sister in just a few hours, demolishing their Sunday fun day nearly before it began. While that realization almost expelled the very breath from my lungs it also strengthened my resolve that just as my children deserved the truth, the full story of what had befallen their beloved pet, I also owed Sugar Pie a passing from and beyond the terrible discomfort and suffering that awaited should she be allowed to emerge from her current sedated state.
Minutes later, I watched the last brightness drain from my dear friend’s eye and felt her body stop its straining against gravity.
Running wasn’t going to be the same, as if that mattered much in the proverbial grand scheme. Life wasn’t going to be the same and for some time, no doubt, smiles in my home were going to be fewer and forced as we tried to figure out what to do with the empty place on our couch, in the backseat of our car, and within our diminished hearts.
It has been said many times that sports (and running is the obvious sport of choice for those of us frequenting this venue) are a microcosm of life. In good times, that may be a defensible position but held up side by side with death, directly with a real-life ending, they are just games. Just running. Not to say that running isn’t a beautiful act. It is. There is absolute beauty in its being a pure expression, evidence of an appreciation of life, of movement. And movement is in and of itself life, isn’t it? To live is to move and to move is to live. Listen to your instincts and movement, the dance of life, will occur involuntarily.
I am going to miss immensely dancing with Mamie, already do, but I sure am glad I got the chance to be her partner for a time. Moving along through life with her, unfettered for those hours on the trail by the noise and stressful persecution of calendars, bills, deadlines, oblivious to all but the instinct of movement, was a blessing I am proud not to have taken for granted.
Having told almost no one of what had transpired, I still received a number of heartfelt well wishes and hopeful inquiries soon after I had returned home and the sun came up, including a phone call from Ken and Kristi, the strangers-turned-friends who had followed their own instincts in coming to the rescue of three uninvited wanderers in the night.
Out of loss and heartache spring reminders of the connections we’re able to make when we let down our guards, trust our senses, and allow community to extend beyond its standard cautious perimeter.
I felt pretty callous documenting all that went on yesterday and remain conflicted about sharing it here, but it’s the very same archiving and sharing that I’ve been doing since Sugar Pie walked into our world and because of it I have something tangible to revisit now that there isn’t any new documenting to be done.
Take note in your own way of the gift that is life, that is movement. You certainly don’t need to write it down or take its photograph, though you should if that is the way that you’re most likely to celebrate it properly and acknowledge it for the privilege that it is.
Move, while you can, however you chose to.
Roll around on the floor and laugh… hard.
Because you can.