It’ll be fine
“It’s fine,” I said. After all, we were going to help care for a bunch of rescued labs at the shelter where I work. Gregarious, good natured labs with their All American boy next door good looks are just so wholesome. Theirs is the image running along the coast in a J. Crew catalog, the quintessential “two kids, a dog and a white picket fence” version of ideal, the dog from this year’s Budweiser Superbowl commercial. I’m not going to fall for a lab. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the loveable and loyal lab. I just skew a little more Greaser and a little less Socials. (If you don’t know that reference you need to go read “The Outsiders” now.)
Give me the wayward and weary, the plucky underdog from the school of hard knocks, the last one chosen at gym class. Give me the unassuming, the unpretentious and the inconspicuous. Give me the gritty Queens melting pot of a bona fide, non-pedigreed, mixed breed mutt. Give me the scrappy survivor; ordinary on the outside, a deep and radiant gem on the inside. Give me the one that needs the most.
So this? “It’ll be fine,” I said.
But this is what I had forgotten to remember; in the end, it’s all about the need. It really is just about the need.
He Lit a Fire
The first time my eyes met his, Oscar lit a fire in my heart. He was scared, sick, curled tightly as he could and shaking. His eyes were deep pools of fear, trepidation, unbearable sadness, dejection, bewilderment and confusion. See, it’s all about the need. I loved him at hello.
We had work to do. It was the 4th of July holiday weekend. Dee Dee and I volunteered to help clean, feed and care for the remaining 15 of 49 dogs taken in from a cruelty investigation. The rest of the dogs had gone up for adoption. These were the ones most shut down. These were the ones still in need of further socialization and care.
I tried to focus my thoughts on one kennel and then the next. I tried not to be drawn in, captured, by the despondent yet handsome stranger in a kennel labeled Blue 10. Resistance proved futile, my superego (won’t power) overpowered by my id power (wants and desires). I made my way to his kennel time and again until finally the work was done.
Oscar had a cough that wracked and shook his too thin body and brought up any food he’d managed to swallow. It would take hold of him and cause him to wheeze and struggle to breathe. He was so tired he would barely lift his head. I sat down next to him and gently stroked his side. He flinched when my hand first made contact. The primate inside me wanted so badly to hug him and make all the bad things go away. Not possible…that hug would have been one of his worst things.
Instead I sat next to him that morning talking softly, gently scratching his ears and massaging his head. I whispered hopeful stories to this sad boy who seemed to feel so inconsequential and alone. I promised him better days ahead and a beautiful world filled with love created just for him. I really do know that dogs don’t speak English. I really do believe they comprehend the language of our hearts. So this is what I gave him until he fell asleep, his muzzle resting in my hand. The weight of his head in my hand could not match the weight of his sadness on my soul. I watched as he slept, his body ragged, his breathing rough and my worry rampant.
That night thoughts of Oscar raced through my mind on an endless loop. They haunted me, chased sleep away, ran circles in my mind. When my eyes closed they saw images of the little I knew of his previous life. I saw the mass of dogs running loose, the scrambling for not enough food tossed his way, the mud when it rained, the intolerable heat, the wicked cold. Still it was the only life he knew and then his world cracked in two and he fell into the crevasse of chaos and confusion that ensued. I felt his bewilderment and desolation, his turmoil and the trepidation that this might be all there is. “This is not your destiny boy”, I whisper to myself. I send a prayer out asking the universe to watch over Oscar and to provide him protection, healing and a chance to be born anew, to start over in this life.
In the morning I am afraid to return. I drag my feet. I don’t want to know if he has surrendered in the darkness of the night. As we draw close I am the one filled with no small amount of trepidation and fear. We walk in and I see my boy is still there. He is still weak and tired but he is still there. The medication is working, his breathing seems to come slightly easier today. He is grateful for a new pile of bedding to rest upon. Once again we wrap up and I sit with Oscar. Once again my heart beats stories of beautiful times to come and wills him to understand and to believe. This time as his head rests in my hand I think that this world shines brighter because Oscar is in it. I already love this boy an unreasonable and irrational amount.
The End..and The Beginning
As suddenly as my love affair started, it is stopped. A specially trained behavior modification and rehabilitation team was doing intensive work to try to socialize the remaining labs, to get them used to walking on a leash and meeting new people. When the weekend was over, I needed to stand back to let him connect and work with the training team. I wanted him to have every chance to progress and “graduate”. All good things needed to come from them and not me. It was a hard and heart rending realization but I knew it was true. My heart turned to lead and sunk landing solidly in my feet. But I would not be the reason he didn’t make progress or move forward. I loved him so much. Whatever the cost all I wanted was to know he was running through the fields of this big life smiling huge and madly happy.
The days turned to weeks and Oscar was never far from my mind. I stayed in the shadows, I waited and watched. The only thing that made it bearable is I knew Oscar had a life preserver. If he was drowning, if it seemed he was too lost and could not yet be found, if the demons of his fear held too tight a grip, I would be there. We would be there. I would not let Oscar’s uncertainty erase the light I knew burned so brightly inside him. I knew that if the time came, Safe Hands would catch Oscar and he would not fall.
Then one day…it happened. Dee Dee called me, “have you checked the Safe Hands’ email…they are looking for a rescue to take Oscar.” The world stood still for just a moment before starting to spiral madly like the tilt-a-whirl at the fair. The strongman swung his hammer down and lodged my heart in my throat. My thoughts skipped like a ping pong ball in a game of chance. I wanted so much for Oscar to have made the progress needed to begin his “happy ever after”. I was so sad to know he was still stuck in the maze of fear in his mind. I wanted so much to have his head in my hands again. I started the process of bringing Oscar into Safe Hands.
Beguiled and Bewitched
I went to visit Oscar again. He was curled in a ball in his kennel, “hey buddy”, I said as I entered. He curled tighter at first, then I knelt down, he sniffed my hand, the tail wagging began. Even weeks later, Oscar remembered me.
I had learned from his caretakers that Oscar had made some progress…but outside of his kennel, everything was too overwhelming, too scary. He froze, shut down completely, and would not move. I wanted to bring Oscar to my office to see how he would do there. For some reason that escapes me now I, in all earnestness, decided that I could probably get Oscar to walk with me on leash. Oh my naiveté! I carried him outside and set him down to coax him to walk. Oscar had other ideas. His ideas more involved trees or shrubs and finding out what they looked like from under side. There was a bit of distance between our thought processes.
It was a long way from where we were to where we needed to be – both figuratively and literally. I may have underestimated Oscar’s fear, or overestimated my persuasive abilities…but Oscar had no idea how determined his new friend could be or just how strong the sheer force of my will. I picked Oscar up, all 50 pounds, and started walking. We walked and walked. We stopped because one of us (the one actually walking) needed a break. I sat down with Oscar curled in my lap. We proceeded to repeat this process three or four times. Finally, finally we made it. In a door, up a flight of stairs and in another door I went, carrying Oscar all the while. Oh for a video of that excursion now!
Once in my office, I set Oscar down and knelt beside him. At first his tail tucked, his head was down, his body quivered.
But what happened next is the stuff of fairy tales. It was as if a lighthouse beam shone out; cutting through the fog and the haze and the darkness of the night. My office became the enchanted forest where the forces of good reign supreme. I saw Oscar with his fear set aside, stripped of chaos and confusion, defenses on furlough. I saw Oscar, the real Oscar, the essence of Oscar. I saw who Oscar once was and who he wanted to be.
Oscar found the dog bed. How does a dog who’s never had a bed always just know what they are? I don’t know how, but I do know they know. Oscar crawled into the bed, tail wagging and bashful. He found a toy and could not believe his good fortune. It was The Best Toy Ever. He was so happy to have it, so happy to play. He threw it in the air, caught it, chewed it a bit and sat holding it in his mouth.
I started to work and shortly thereafter had a surprise. Like a shy school boy with a crush on the blonde girl in pigtails, Oscar began to poke his cold, wet nose into my arm. “Want to play?” Why yes, Oscar, I do. I really do. “How about now, want to play some more?” Why yes, Oscar, I do. “And now…?” Yes again Oscar, yes again.
So there he was all tender of foot, wide eyed with wonder. He was engaging, amusing and amiable, gentle and genial. He was simple, silly, sensitive and endearing. There he was, beautiful and brilliant and somehow more perfect than seems possible in this world. There he was craving connection, just aching to be somebody to someone. There he was, aching to believe that maybe he was. Believe it boy, believe it.
Oscar needed a calm and patient foster home to help him learn the world could be an awesome place. I knew Safe Hands had phenomenal people that would help Oscar find his way. I am constantly and incredibly grateful to have such an amazing rescue family. The folks that make up Safe Hands are compassionate, courageous and kind, dedicated and devoted to helping animals in need with hearts wide open. I knew Oscar would have all these people behind him now.
I emailed Barb and Tom. I told them about Oscar and asked if they could help. Of course they could and of course they would. That’s who they are. This is what they do. I was in tears.
Bruised and Broken and Begin Again
Oscar’s spirit may have been bruised but his body had been badly broken. His bones had healed but in ways that left pain a constant in his days. The extent of the injuries was not yet known. The next few days were spent beginning to sort it out. When the orthopedic specialist requested time in foster with good nutrition and some exercise for a better evaluation I was only too happy to oblige. The shelter was very willing to continue trying to piece together the puzzle of Oscar. They had worked hard with him and very much wanted the best outcome possible for him. But I asked them to move forward with the transfer and let us continue his medical evaluation. It was time for Oscar to come “home” to his Safe Hands family. I very much wanted him in our care now.
The day arrives when Oscar will become a Safe Hands kid I’m pretty sure there is a cosmic rift in the universe. Time moves so slowly I’m sure it isn’t just standing still but is going backwards while I wait for the appointed hour to arrive. Finally it is time. Dee Dee drives to the shelter with me to pick Oscar up and bring him to his grand new foster home; a place we affectionately (and enviously!) call Gunderson Park.
We arrive and find Melissa to help us check Oscar out. We walk into the dog holding area and I move quickly to Oscar. He is so excited to see me at first but then sees I’m not alone. He is nervous and retreats. Melissa and Dee Dee move back and I go in attempting not let the pounding of my heart betray the calm I’m struggling hard to portray. Oscar looks up at me and then down again, almost bashful. His tail wags in a short and furious burst. He is happy to see me, happy to have a friend. I love this dog an unreasonable amount. It does not make any logical sense. I don’t care. “Come on now buddy,” I say, “let’s get outta here”. I pick up Oscar and carry him down the aisle and outside.
This moment is seared in my memory in brilliant Technicolor. This is a movie event moment for me. This is the moment the anthem plays, when “Eye of the Tiger” blares on the speakers. This is the moment when people walk out of the dust from the collapsed building. It’s all slow motion and the crowd cheers as we step outside and into the sunlight. Only there was no crowd and no cheering in real life, thankfully; that would have sent Oscar into the stratosphere. I preferred having him here.
In reality I set him into the back of my RAV4 and climb in with him. It is very quiet and very calm. He is nervous, trembling and panting. I rub his head, scratch his ears and now I really do wrap my arms around him. He pushes into me and I am beaming. I’m so incredibly elated to take him away, to start his path towards a new and better life. Words have not been invented that can adequately convey how I felt in that moment. Dee Dee got in the car and started driving to Oscar’s future. “It’s time to begin again buddy,” I whisper. We head off to Gunderson Park. It was time to turn Oscar’s world into something as beautiful as he is.