Friday, December 3, 2010

The Changing Seasons (a short [dog] story)

Dedicated to BROWNIE.

She felt the first cold lick and thought she was just dreaming. Bel woke with a start and saw a pair of big, brown eyes looking back at her. Brown fur glistened in the sun as woman and dog studied each other. He looked like a beagle but had that long body and short legs of a dachshund .

"Hey, doggie, where did you come from?"

Bel looked around the lawn cemetery for the dog's owner. There was no other living human in sight. The green lawn was dotted with bronze and granite headstones but there was no other car in the sections around her . Maybe he's the caretaker's dog.

Bel was a regular visitor to the cemetery ever since her husband Mike died after a long, drawn-out battle with bone cancer. Towards the end of his life, Mike tried to prepare Bel by pushing her back to the social scene and got her to promise that she will go on with her life.

That was 3 years ago, and Bel was still mourning. Her sadness was so profound that she just went with the motions of living to allay her parents' worries; still able to do her job as a nurse in the local hospital, but the joy had disappeared in her life.

On Saturday mornings, she had tried to schedule shopping and other errands but always found herself driving the 15 minutes to the cemetery. She usually spent one hour at Mike's gravesite, with her portable chair and the latest book by her favorite authors. When Mike was still living, they used to spend Saturday mornings just lounging in the den with their respective books. Mike's grave was lovingly tended with impatiens and chrysanthemums planted on the base of the headstone.

The dog claimed her attention when he rubbed against her hand. The dog immediately nuzzled against her knee, then offered his belly for the obligatory rub.

Bel studied the dog again. His lips were curved as if in a smile and his eyes appeared to twinkle as if he found her stare amusing.

"What's your name? Who's your owner?" Not really expecting an answer, Bel was surprised when the dog padded over to the next grave and sat in front of the marker of a woman named Barbara. Bel often wondered about Barbara's visitor. They've never met but there were always fresh roses on the grave. Glancing at the marker, Bel realized that Barbara was only thirty years old when she died.

The dog barked softly and started walking away from the graves. Thinking that he was finding his way back to the caretaker's office, Bel waved goodbye at the dog then turned to say her own goodbye to Mike.

Another bark made her turn around. The dog seemed to be waiting for her. As she walked towards him, the dog started to wag his tail happily. As Bel bent down to scratch the dog's ears, he just leapt into her arms and started licking her face.

It was a gray, dreary, and chilly late October morning when she arrived at 10 o'clock in the morning. In just one hour, it had become much warmer, and the bright sun reigned bright in the cloudless sky. Bel breathed in the crisp air as she stood in an almost postcard-perfect autumn day.

Although the grave markers around her should have created an eerie and incongruous sight against a backdrop of red and gold leaves from the maple and dogwood trees, they had somehow created an ethereal but peaceful display of life's reality. Death surrounded her but the beauty of living still manifested itself in the vibrant colors of the fall foliage. The changing seasons reaffirmed life in the midst of sadness; after the fall comes winter, spring, summer, then fall again. Life goes on.

The panorama before her brought a sense of peace and happiness. The beauty of the autumn colors transformed her. Just as these feelings washed over Bel, she felt her depression lifting away as the tears flowed freely down her cheeks. The tears were not of sadness, but allowed her the catharsis for the grief that had trapped her for three years. As she looked into the dog's eyes, she remembered Mike's insistence for her to find a new love. She had nodded her agreement to placate her dying husband, but in her heart, she felt her emotions draining from her heart. She had thought then, "How can I love another one man when I have given you all my love?"

The dog snuggled closer to Bel. As she felt the dog's warm fur tickling her nose, Bel started to giggle uncontrollably. The unfamiliar sound of laughter bubbled out of her until she fell back on the green grass. The dog was running around in circles, his tail wagging in sync with Bel's laughter. She had not felt as light-hearted and as carefree for many years now.

Bel crouched in front of Mike's marker. Mike had always been the optimist; and he would not have approved of the cloak of sadness that Bel had wrapped herself after his death. At that moment, she realized that she needed to move on. She had finally freed herself. She realized that there was no guilt in finding joy in unexpected places.

In the caretaker's office, the receptionists did not have any idea who the dog belonged to. Bel was the first visitor to the cemetery that day, and the residential and business areas were much farther away. When Bel suggested that she wanted to leave the dog in the office just in case the owner comes back, both ladies reluctantly refused because they were leaving for a party after their shift.

Bel was forced to keep the dog with her, but left a brief note in the caretaker's office. She didn't write a description of the dog, just her office number.

In the car, the dog dutifully sat on the front passenger side. Driving back to her house, Bel kept a running commentary of the stores they passed. The dog did not bark throughout the ride, but looked at her with the same strange expression that she could only interpret as a smile.

"Doggie, you need a name. Just can't keep you calling Doggie until your owner shows up. How about... uhmm... Brownie?" Bel chuckled at the unimaginative name.

Brownie showed his approval by barking twice and moved his head up and down.

The days passed without any word from Brownie's owner. Bel had been in telephone contact with the receptionists from the cemetery office. There were no inquiries about a lost dog. Bel even left a note in the local ASPCA.

Brownie settled happily in their routine. During her work days, Bel dropped the dog at her parents' home for the day. Coming home had become the highlight of her day as Brownie welcomed her with unabashed joy. Ignoring the treats she had given him, Brownie's attention was focused on his "temporary" master regaling Bel with his frantic runs around the house. After drifting aimlessly through life in the past 3 years, Bel finally had someone who needed her. As the bond forged between her and Brownie, she dreaded finding the dog's owner.

Winter 2009

The new Bel had weaned herself from visiting the cemetery frequently. It was a month later that Bel visited Mike's grave with Brownie. It was only late November but the ground was covered in fresh snow. The bare trees and the snow icicles hanging from the branches created a magical scene straight out of a Currier and Ives winter scene.

Bel brushed the snow from Mike's marker, and somehow, ended up brushing the snow on the next grave, Barbara's. Her flowers from a month before were buried by 3 inches of snow. After a few minutes, Bel decided to leave, but noticed that Brownie was circling around her as if he still wanted to play.

She slipped on the snow and fell on her back facing the bright blue sky. Brownie sat on her chest, with his now-familiar expectant face. His tail thumped heavily on her sides; clearly, he wanted to play. Feeling playful and unusually happy, Bel spread her arms on the fluffy, powdery snow and created her Snow Angel. Brownie jumped around her as Bel abandoned all inhibitions and relived her childhood memories.

Life is beautiful. No worries, no grief. Just happiness at finding hope again.

She dreamt that she was in the middle of winter wonderland; her dog was frolicking on the snow as she continued to play Snow Angel. Bundled up in heavy winter clothes complete with scarf, gloves and hat, Bel was completely comfortable. The disturbed snow flew around her and she stuck her tongue out to taste the snowflakes. Brownie resumed his position on her chest and watched Bel curiously . Then at the sound of an approaching car Brownie stirred and barked excitedly.

Mortified, Bel sat up suddenly. Her words of caution died on her lips when Brownie bolted straight into the arms of a man.

"Max, where have you been? I've been looking all over for you! I miss you."

Bel sat transfixed in her spot. Brownie is really Max? And his owner is here to claim my baby? Am I going to lose Brownie?

The man was tall, with a kind and handsome face. He stared curiously at Bel before he came to her and offered his hand.

"My name is Jack. The receptionists in the office told me that you found my dog. I never thought to look for him here because we live one town away." Jack hugged Brownie/Max, ruffling the dog's fur with undeniable affection.

When the wind picked up, Bel's beret fell off her head and her hair flew wildly around her face. Not normally self-conscious, Bel felt embarrassed at the picture she presented, with her red cheeks and nose and snow all over her. She tried to get up from her sitting position, but kept on slipping down. She finally accepted a helping hand from the amused Jack.

Jack deposited his bouquet of flowers on Barbara's grave. "My wife. Max's original owner." Surprised, Bel looked at the dog, but he seemed more interested in chewing the fringes on her beret.

Bel relayed the story of finding "Brownie" and how the dog had changed her life. The question of how the dog ended up miles away from home and at Barbara's grave remained unanswered. Brownie (or Max) was happily ensconced in Jack's arms while Bel spoke. Her voice broke a little at the end. The dog moved over to Bel's lap; he must have sensed her growing agitation about their forthcoming separation.

Jack looked at Bel for a minute, then he smiled, "I guess we should discuss joint custody arrangements."

PS. Our own Brownie had been a delight and a treasure since he came into our lives, but now, we mourn his passing. We miss him so much. 9/8/2012

Part 2: