My husband is coming to terms with the situation. I can see it in the beam of his flashlight, a half-hearted movement of light that was so purposeful in the beginning. I can hear it in his voice. He’s losing hope.
It’s the middle of the night, and our old dog is lost in the woods.
Ink Spot is fourteen-and-a-half years old. She doesn’t hear or see well, and arthritis has taken its toll on her hind legs. She’s apt to topple over, mid-squat. The noise she makes is more like a moose than a bark. My husband tried to reassure me when we first missed her, pointing out that Ink Spot is too crippled to go far, but that was two hours ago.
Our house is on top of a hill at the end of a steep, winding driveway, a quarter of a mile long. We have four acres of land, most of it wooded. From one end of our property to the other, we have searched along the edge of the woods. We make another pass. Knowing that about all Ink Spot can see is light and movement, we shine our flashlights into the black underbrush, thick with saw briars. We whistle, on the chance that she’ll hear the high pitch. No sign of Ink Spot.
“She’ll probably be here in the morning,” my husband says. He reminds me that it’s a warm night. “I think she’ll just lie down and go to sleep somewhere. She’ll be fine until daylight,” he says, but the words ring hollow.
Ink Spot, sister to Mud Pie, who died last year, is a black-and-white English Springer Spaniel. Mud Pie was brown-and-white. Springers have eyes that will break your heart, that say, “Will you throw the ball? Scratch behind my ears? Stroke my back?” It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t. Those expressive eyes keep looking up at you the same way. “Do you have to stop now?” or “Won’t you please reconsider?”
Ink Spot and Mud Pie belonged to my daughters. I never wanted dogs. My husband believed the girls would learn responsibility via caring for pets. “Pets die,” I argued. That’s what I remember about growing up with dogs and cats. It’s too heart-wrenching.
“Kids have to learn to deal with death,” was my husband’s philosophy.
I held out until the girls were seven and nine. A friend’s Springer had puppies. My husband started in again. I said I’d take a look. He knew that once I cuddled a Spring puppy, it was all over. I didn’t even argue when he said two.
Our daughters are grown up now. One is in college. One is a college graduate with a real job and another dog. They mourned when Mud Pie died, but I mourned longer. Mud Pie had a fast-growing tumor, and he didn’t make it through surgery. Overnight, Ink Spot turned into an old dog, grieving in her own doggie way. The girls do sometimes ask about her when they call. But you can guess who feeds her, takes her to the vet, arranges for boarding, administers her meds, makes sure she goes out every few hours, and--this is really the hardest part--worries about her, worries that each illness is her last.
Ink Spot wouldn’t stay outside after Mud Pie died. The dog that had chased a ball deep into the woods was suddenly terrified to venture farther than the rhododendron bush at the edge of the patio. We have speculated that she’s afraid she’ll just disappear like Mud Pie. In her doggie-mind, she couldn’t know why Mud Pie was there one day and then gone. Ink Spot has her own little room now, with a big pillow and blankets, carpet on the floor, central air and heat, and air freshener to sweeten her environment. Is this a dog’s life? She is, after all, over a hundred in human years. Considering her advanced age and health problems, we have tried to be accommodating.
I have tried to be a good caregiver.
Ink Spot disappeared at about ten o’clock. My husband and I had decided to watch a movie. I saw to Ink Spot’s bedtime regimen, which meant I gave her four pills, filled her water bowl, and let her outside for a nature break. We had watched more than an hour of the movie when suddenly the hairs prickled at the back of my neck. I remembered Ink Spot.
She was not at the sliding glass door. She was not at the kitchen door. Ink Spot’s routine is this: Stumble to the edge of the patio, take care of business, head to one door or the other with remarkable speed for an old crippled dog, and make her moose call, alerting us that she’s ready to come back in, and hurry.
We hadn’t heard her. She was nowhere in sight. This departure from routine was not a good sign. I looked out into the thick, dark woods and know that so much time had elapsed, there was only one explanation.
Now it’s one a.m. We push deeper into the underbrush. I keep trying to whistle through lips that are dry with fear. My husband’s protests, a warning about snakes, register just marginally. Ink Spot and Mud Pie both tangled with copperheads in their heyday and won. No way Ink Spot could survive a snake bite now. I am not worried about myself.
This goes on for another half hour, until there seems to be nowhere else to look. I am not dressed for the woods, in my nightgown and tennis shoes. I have briar scratches on my legs and stick tights in my hair. But my thoughts are with Ink Spot, the likelihood that she be caught in the saw briars and starve, or that a bobcat will get her. “I don’t want Ink Spot to die like that,” I say, choking on the words.
“Maybe that’s how she wants it,” my husband says, taking yet another approach with me, reminding me of the voice he would use with the girls: This is a hard lesson, but . . . “We’ve done all we can do tonight,” he says. He lets me cry a little before we go inside. We leave all the lights on, just in case.
It’s not a good time in my life to lose my dog. Midlife is too full of loss. My youth has slipped away and my children are gone from my nest. But the worst is that too many people who are close to me are old or sick. In the family structure in which I was raised, I was the baby, the pampered one. Now I’m the only healthy one. It feels like I’m propping up a house of cards. The question is not whether it will collapse, but how soon?
I think about this as the night ticks away toward dawn. In the days when Ink Spot and Mud Pie were plump puppies with oversized feet, and the girls dressed them in doll clothes and pushed them around in doll strollers, I didn’t need a dog. I had everything. Now I can see that an old dog is a good thing. Not a cute, energetic puppy, God forbid. An old dog. I feel sorry and ashamed that I haven’t known this before. I am not just Ink Spot’s caregiver. We are old friends. She has never found a single fault with me. And no one, nowadays, is so glad to see me.
I’m up at first light, in the woods before sunrise. This time I’m dressed in hiking boots, jeans, and a long-sleeved shirt. It’s cool yet, and the woods are quiet except for the occasional chatter of birds. I’m hoping that I can hear a movement--or better still, a strange bellow--that will lead me to my dog. All I hear is the crunch of my footsteps on sticks and layers of dead leaves. I cover the same ground that I did last night, and more. The sun comes up. I am sweating now, but I need my shirt for protection from the briars.
Ink Spot has to be somewhere in these woods. I am determined: I won’t leave her to die here.
The only woods I have not searched are along the driveway. It seems impossible that an old dog could negotiate the steep hill, but I’m running out of options. In my car, I make my way down the driveway, slowly, slowly, checking the ditches on the side. At street level, I turn around and start to check the other side.
And then, a few yards up the driveway, I see her. She’s in the ravine at the bottom of a steep slope. First, I see her markings, the black and white of her back, and then I make out that she’s curled up, her head tucked under her paws. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead. The couple of minutes it takes me to get to her seem to stretch forever. I call out to her, but of course she doesn’t hear me. I half-slide down to the ravine to reach her, touch her with anxious fingers. She raises her head and looks at me with those soulful eyes.
“Ink Spot,” I say, “we’re going home.”
I know she can’t hear me, but she understands. She begins to tremble. She’s dirty but appears unharmed. There’s no blood. I don’t make her stand up, but she wants to, which is a good sign nothing is broken. I lift her like a baby and somehow make it back up the steep side of the ravine with my forty-five-pound burden. No, my forty-five-pound gift.
Back in her room, Ink Spot seems unconcerned that I’ve been frantic about her. She turns up her nose at the dog food I offer her. I go to the refrigerator and bring out some leftover barbecue. This is better, she lets me know. She curls up on her pillow. In no time she’s snoring.
I wake up my husband to tell him the good news. He’s as amazed by Ink Spot’s journey as I am. “How’d she get to the bottom of the hill?” he wants to know. Ink Spot has not shared that information with me. My explanation is that she became disoriented, and once she found herself on the driveway, she followed it nearly to the end. She slid off at the best possible point. Farther up, she would’ve had a long way to tumble.
But how did she do it? She’s an old, crippled dog. I go back to her and kneel beside her. “You still have a lot of spunk,” I say. She opens her eyes. “I’m not ready to lose you,” I tell her.
I lie against her neck. I bury my face in her thick, soft coat and breathe in the dog smell of her that bears no clue of the adventure she’s had. She’s perfectly still as I scratch behind her ears, stroke her side. Nothing is quite like this companionable silence with my old dog.
She raises her head when I start to go. She looks at me with cloudy eyes. Stay with me a while, they say.
And I do.