Grief, hope and the Utility dog

Last week started out wretched. “A friggin’ terrible week,” as a friend of mine put it, “and it’s only Monday.”

On Sunday, I read the news that a performer with Cirque de Soleil’s show in Las Vegas, a 31-year-old mother of two, had fallen 60 feet to her death. I did not know Sarah Guillot-Guyard, but up until not long ago I was an obsessed amateur aerialist — I even taught, for a while — which means I had teachers and students and still have friends who make their livings in the air. I took that loss, the first of its kind in Cirque’s 30-year-history, hard and personally. I was able to imagine too much: Her terror on the way down, the shock and grief of everyone who knew and loved her, her children in the aftermath.

On the same evening a New York Times news alert flashed on my screen: “Nineteen firefighters killed fighting Arizona wildfire.” I thought they’d got the number wrong — nineteen? I write about wildfires now and then, and read about them a lot, and because of Norman MacLean’s magnificent book Young Men and Fire I have a visceral understanding of how living creatures suffer when they don’t survive a fire. Thirteen Montana smokejumpers lost their lives in the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, a tragedy MacLean wrote about in somber detail. It is not a good way to die. 0226500616.01.LZZZZZZZIt is not a good way to leave behind wives and children and colleagues and a town full of friends. Many of them will go a long time before they can imagine a day when they don’t spend most of their time trying to understand what the people they loved went through in the final moments before they perished.

Then I spoke to my friend who was having the friggin’ terrible week. A friend of hers, an acquaintance of mine — someone I’d enjoyed talking to over the years as a source and a mentor — was missing in the Wyoming mountains. Randy Udall was due back from a solo backpacking trip on June 26. It was July 1, and the search teams that had been deployed to find him had turned up nothing. My friend held an image of him dragging himself to safety and, after devouring a grizzly bear, emerging from the wilderness with great stories for future generations. Instead, on July 3, Randy was found dead on the off-trail route he’d planned to follow in the Wind River Range. It seemed he’d had a heart attack or stroke. He was 61.

As it happens, July 3 is also the day my mother died, 30 years ago, after an eight-month battle with colon cancer that had spread to her liver. She was roughly at the age I am now, and just a year older than my father, who had died suddenly of a heart attack just 18 months before. It’s wrong to say that the anniversary of her death made the week worse, as I carry the unsettled grief of her passing and the circumstances that surrounded it with me always. But 30 years is a long time; it disturbs me to know that a wound so old can still feel so fresh.

It consoles me, too. As long as that wound stays open I won’t have lost her completely.

I’m not trivializing any ofMom and charm this by including it in my dog stories, because dogs aren’t trivial to me. In a dark patch a couple of years ago I took to joking that dogs are keeping me alive. It was really only half a joke, and one my mother would have understood. There were always dogs — her dog, neighbors’ dogs, the abandoned puppies she was always finding and nursing to health and tearfully adopting out to happy homes. But there was one dog in particular, a silver miniature poodle named Charm, that had her heart. She had bought that dog when I was seven, over my protests — this was supposed to be my dog, and I was hell bent on a cairn terrier. But mom needed a dog for herself. Their bond ran thick and deep, as the pictures I have of her playing the piano while the dog crooned in her lap still attest.

My mother was an obstinately cheerful person, emotionally strong as a soldier, but still I think that dog was what kept her above the line throughout everything — abuse and divorce and loss and disappointment; her own mounting griefs, her own bad weeks that started on Monday.

Charm died at 16, just three months before my mom did. Her decline after that was precipitous.


Thomas Super Face-ErnieIt was in this raw frame of my mind that I arrived at the Ventura Fairgrounds on Friday morning to take another stab at Utility A with Thomas. Dogs don’t allow you to brood while you work with them — I mean, you can brood, and they will sit nearby and watch you, but you cannot brood and have the clarity to issue commands or engage in a meaningful game of tug. If you are distracted, the dogs will busy themselves with other things. You will blame them, as I did Friday morning when Thomas launched a screaming attack on a perfectly calm Bernese Mountain dog a half-hour before we were due in the ring. Ten minutes later when he went after a husky, I thought maybe the crowd was getting to him; Ventura Summerfest is a busy, stinky, nerve-wracking show. I think I understand now that the crowd was getting to me.

I thought about scratching from the trial. I made a bid to get his focus with the Ward Falkner crocheted toy he inexplicably goes nuts for. He ignored me. Nor would he poop. I could just see my dog, defecating on his scent articles and then speeding out of the ring to take out one of the breed-ring bulldogs parading through the area. Onlookers would be horrified; I would be humiliated, maybe even banned from the sport. The week would have come to its natural and expected conclusion, and finished as it had started.

Instead, swayed by the thought of just throwing away that $32 entry fee — these things add up — I ran into the ring with my stressed and constipated little dog, struggling to plaster on a game face and pretend all was fine. I fumbled at the very start: My hand signal to heel was like some nervous spasm, like I was shaking something icky off my hand. Thomas evidently didn’t think so; he trotted out beside me just fine. We took a left turn and launched into the fast part of the pattern without any trouble at all. My stuttering footwork on the halt made him miss a sit, but when I gave him the signal to stand he stood. When I walked away and turned to face him, he had stayed.

On the judge’s signal I raised my right hand high. He dropped. Then I scooped my left hand up. He up-sat. I tapped my collarbone, and he came in at a bouncy gallop. He finished with unusual precision.

I was honestly, and elatedly, shocked. Despite my gloom and worry and overall feeling that I did not even deserve to be here while walruses drown the Arctic and Egypt reels and the police in Hawthorne had shot a man’s dog, Thomas was focused and energetic and totally on my side.

He considered visiting the judge before working his articles — a chronic issue —but thought better of it, and, with a wag and a snort, went to work and did it well. He retrieved glove #2 without hesitation and landed in a lovely front. He kept his feet planted on his stand for exam. His first go-out was straight, and he took the bar as directed.

His second go-out, however, had a little curve in it. When I shouted for him to sit, he landed a couple of feet to the left of the ring’s center.

Luckily, that put him closer to the high jump. And he took it.

Thomas blew past front on his return, but it didn’t matter much. The judge said “exercise finished.” Then she reached out her hand to shake mine.

This particular judge, Pauline Andrus, has one of those open, kind faces that seems to spend a lot of time smiling. She has a soft voice and a gentle demeanor, and the image I now have of her saying “Congratulations, you’ve qualified,” has a dreaminess to it, like it happened in slow motion, with music playing and flowers blooming and people cheering.

Thomas 1st UD legActually, people were cheering. One of my friends told me later that the cheering got so loud that people in the other rings had to stop and look at what was happening in ours. Utility A people cheer for each other, because when you fail for two years at the same sport in the same venue you get to know a lot of people who over time become your friends and your teachers and your training partners, and they want to see you succeed. They also cheer because every little success after many rounds of failure reminds us all that success is not impossible.

I think a lot about what this means. I’m not sure whether training dogs makes us better people, or more hopeful people, but   sometimes working with a dog is simply relief. Getting a qualifying leg in Utility with my little big-souled varmint hunter means nothing in any grand scheme, but still transformed my week from dismal one into a one with a little glimmer of bright when I most needed and least expected it. It gave me hope.

“It is a beautiful world we livein,” my friend wrote at the end of the week, “the way all our lives mix and mash together, tear apart, become other things, other years, other places.” Indeed.

Ernie Slone of the local Cairn Terrier Club took that amazing photo of Thomas’s face; Tawn Sinclair took the one of our Utility A win. I think I might be responsible for that picture of my mom.

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