Loss and a Little Dog

liloo1My father is fond of telling the tale of how Liloo once caused a stampede. It was about 15 years ago when Liloo was still a pup. I can’t remember why, but at the time we were running two bulls with the herd. Liloo happened upon the bulls in a field next to the red barn and began circling them and barking loudly. At first the bulls just stared blankly at her. Gradually they became agitated and charged her, trying their best to stomp her under hoof. There was little I could do other than yell at Liloo as I watched events unfold. She paid me no mind as she weaved figure eights in and around the bulls, all the while barking. Eventually the bulls became spooked by her tenacity and began to run. They ran about a hundred yards down to the creek and then up a steep embankment on the other side. Liloo was snapping at their heels the whole way. They rejoined the herd on the far side of the creek and it was at this point that the stampede began. If I recall correctly, it was only about 15 to 20 head of cattle, but that is more than enough for a potentially dangerous situation. I continued to yell in vain as Liloo chased the herd into the hills beyond. She was little more than a small black dot when she disappeared over the event horizon. I stood there waiting for a good 5 minutes before that dot reappeared, winding its way back down the hills, down the embankment, across the creek, and back to my feet. I still remember the jubilant and slightly crazed glint in her eyes, and the way her tongue hung from the side of her mouth.

“The best deal humans ever struck was when someone decided to pitch some food to that one wolf brave enough to come close to the glow of the campfire.
-John Swearingen

Nowadays I make the long drive back to Texas from Canada at least twice a year with my two little dogs in tow. Liloo grew up in Texas so this is home for her. This Christmas was supposed to be like any other. My family would convene at the family farm at the top of the Texas Hill Country. My parents and I arrived with Liloo and Clara just after sunset on December 23rd. We ate some dinner with my brother and his family and then I let the dogs out for a quick run in the gated back yard. It was a chilly 37 degrees outside with a strong wind. Clara, my two-year-old Pomeranian, is well-equipped for the low temperature. Nevertheless, she seems to prefer the great indoors to the outside world. Liloo, on the other hand, has short fur and is no fan of cold weather. Liloo is going on 16 years old and has cataract in both eyes and very little hearing left. No matter. Those things won’t stop a bold little MinPin. I thought little of it when she ran out the gate and into the darkness beyond. Surely the cold would bring her back in short order. I decided it would be better to wait her out in the warmth of the house so I went back inside with Clara. I checked the back door occasionally to see if Liloo wanted back in. As the minutes ticked by I became increasingly concerned. It was dark and cold, and there was a bluff about 50 yards from the gate with a sheer drop of some 6 meters into the cold water of the Paluxy Creek below. I went to the top of the cliff but could not see any sign of Liloo in the darkness. Eventually my entire family set out in all directions with flashlights and began to search. I kept thinking I would stumble upon Liloo in the dark sniffing at a bush or some other spot on the ground. Or I would return to the farmhouse to find her standing impatiently at the back door, ready to go inside and bask in the warmth of the gas heater. I would pick her up, have some choice words for her, and pat her roughly on the head. But as the minutes threatened to turn into hours I became increasingly desperate. I decided to use our all-terrain vehicle to broaden the search. I drove everywhere I could think of, scanning the pasture with a flashlight. I filled with dread as the increasingly cold wind pushed me back to the farmhouse. I got into our suburban and drove all the way out onto the main road to look for her. Could she have come this far? Nothing.

Sometime around midnight I made a last ditch effort to find Liloo. It occurred to me that there was one area I had not thoroughly searched. I set out along a narrow patch of pasture in between the hundred acre field and a thicket of cedar and mesquite. I was increasingly convinced that Liloo must have come this direction. There was no sign of her anywhere else. My heart sank as the signal cry of a coyote suddenly pierced the night from somewhere in the dark expanse ahead of me. It is common enough in these parts for a lone coyote to make off with a pet dog or cat. Now I listened in horror as other coyotes returned the call and converged on that undisclosed location. I felt helpless as I tried to quicken my pace through the bramble. But it was all happening too fast. Their cries escalated into a feverish pitch and I knew the coyotes were descending upon their prey. There, in between the barks, yips, and growls, I could hear something different. Something defiant. Something fighting back. I stood there in the dark listening as my Liloo was torn apart in the distance. The cries suddenly went silent. I yelled her name as loud as I could. One last time. I knew she would not hear me. Too deaf. Too old. Too gone. But I wanted her to know that I had tried. I had tried hard. I wanted her to know that she was not alone out here in the dark, at the cold bitter end. After some time I stumbled numbly back through the dark to the farmhouse. I said nothing to my family of what had transpired. I texted Kylie around 12:30am that Liloo was dead. Don’t call. I can’t talk. That night I lay sleepless in bed, replaying those sounds in my head. I listened to the wind outside, and waited for the dawn.

Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one, is a life diminished.
-Dean Koontz

With the sun’s first light I pulled on some boots and walked back out into the pasture. The wind had died down but it was still cold. I walked first over to the bluff and peered down into the cold water below. I honestly wanted to find Liloo’s lifeless body floating in the creek. Maybe my ears had been playing tricks on me the night before. Better that she may have drowned than met that other fate. I looked down. The water ran cold and quiet. Nothing. Next I made my way across the hundred acre field. As I walked the mud poured over the top of my feet. Each step was exhausting. I began to cry like a small child. I spoke to Liloo and asked her to forgive me. I spoke to the dead and asked them to help me. I lost my mind in that field. Each step brought me closer to that narrow strip of pasture from the night before.

It’s a grim business looking for your dog’s bones in the morning dew. The narrow strip of pasture was a veritable killing zone. The bones of feral hogs and other animals littered the ground. These were hunting grounds. I felt sick to my stomach as I scanned the many remains for anything that looked familiar. Still, nothing. I searched some 400 acres that morning. I thought I might find Liloo’s collar. I wanted that for some reason. And when I turned up no evidence of her I realized that the coyotes had taken her body up into the hills before consuming her. As I walked the length of a dry creek bed back in the direction of the house, I felt incredibly alone. I cursed this place. This farm. There was nothing here but death. I heard the quiet drone of the ATV and I looked up to see my brother, with his dog riding stoically in the passenger seat, continuing to search for Liloo’s remains. I suddenly felt less alone in my sadness. Here was my brother silently searching for my lost little dog on a cold Christmas Eve morning. I have never loved him so much as I did in that singular moment.

I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me, they are the role model for being alive.
-Gilda Radner

Exhausted, I made my way back to the farmhouse. Given the circumstances, my family was perfect. Simple heartfelt condolences. I found myself anticipating the arrival of my cousin Carole. She was a dog lover and it would help to cry on her shoulder. I decided I would call some close friends and break the news to them. I would call Kylie first. She loved Liloo a great deal and this has always meant a lot to me. As I picked up my phone a painful mockery stared up at me from the screen. Lakeview Animal Hospital in Toronto had called. They had been reminding me for weeks to schedule an appointment for Liloo’s vaccinations. No need for that now, some ugly yet familiar voice said. Then it occurred to me—this was morning on Christmas Eve. What veterinary office makes calls about appointments on Christmas Eve? I hurriedly checked my voicemail. Liloo was alive.

I had lost my mind out there in that muddy field. My reaction to the circumstances was out of proportion somehow. Sure it hurts to lose a dog, but I’ve been through that several times before. I have faced death and loss in its many guises repeatedly over the years. This was something different. And it’s taken me a while to piece together what happened. Liloo has been my only constant over the last decade and a half. In that time she taught me something very profound about myself. For most of my life I have been paradoxically attached to the idea of abandonment. It’s a realization that I started to work out in a conversation with Angel some weeks ago. She spoke of how each of us has our own narrative. Abandonment is my story. And it has been my story right from the beginning. As a child it was cemented into my psyche with the loss of my sister. And I have been busy repeating that story ever since. It’s easy to see patterns in other people. She is an alcoholic in denial. He is no good at managing his finances. She partners with emotionally abusive people. It’s an altogether different thing to discern the patterns in your own life. And even if you do manage some degree of self-awareness, you are still faced with a choice. You can either escape from self-awareness or you can confront your self-discrepancies by changing your behavior. I have been working diligently to identify my own unhealthy patterns for years now. Yet this one was too awful to admit. I surround myself with emotionally unavailable people. I enter into relationships with those individuals who are most likely to abandon me. In fact, I encourage betrayal. Nurture it. Why? Because as painful as it is, it’s my story. It’s familiar. I am attached to abandonment. But I am also the one telling the story. I am in control. And recently I have finally begun to tire of this story. I never considered myself an angry or jealous person and I never gave much thought about all the adultery and betrayal I have experienced. I thought my lack of indignation was the product of some elevated state of compassion. I never took the time to consider the ways in which my own behavior contributed to it. Now I understand that my lack of outrage was because on some level I expected it. I even deserved it.  It was my story after all. This has been a slow and painful realization for me and it took a traumatic event to shake the cobwebs from my mind. I now realize that I am authoring a very different kind of story. And in doing so I have begun to understand the difference.

The beauty of dogs is that they show us our own potential. They remind us of our own capacity for love and compassion through a sort of preemptive reciprocity. It is abundantly clear when we fail to match their unconditional love. Liloo and Clara are my only companions on this journey. They are all I need in this moment. They will show me my way home.”
-Brett Caraway

I know we all love our dogs. But for each of us that love grows from a distinct set of experiences. Liloo has given me her unconditional love and loyalty through good times and bad. She helped me through a divorce and a lonely move to Canada. I also now understand that Liloo and Clara are not my only companions on this journey. My family has been there all along. So have my friends. It’s not that I have been oblivious to them. I know well that their love and devotion got me through my darkest days. It’s more like I see them in a new way, unobstructed by the old narrative of inevitable abandonment. I have a newfound appreciation for the inventiveness and creativity of my fellow travelers. I’m not always comfortable with this new narrative. Today I find myself in a relationship with a very different kind of person. A total break with previous patterns. I am not even sure how I got here but I am thankful that I did. Admittedly, the devotion, love, support, and nurturing I receive from Kylie has caused me anxiety at times. This is unfamiliar territory for me. But that’s okay. After all, she and I are coauthoring a wholly different kind of story together.

liloo2I open the door and walk inside. It’s warm in here. February in Toronto is far colder than any pasture in Texas. Liloo gets up from her bed, stretches, and slowly ambles over to where I am taking off my shoes. She closes her eyes and pushes her head lovingly into my leg, her little nub of a tail wagging. I too close my eyes and for an instant I am transported back to a lazy sunny afternoon swimming in the Blue Hole with Liloo and Misket. For me, this moment, past and present, is a gift of astonishing proportions. I have known for a while now that there are fewer days ahead with Liloo than there are behind. I also know that she deserves a far better death than out there in the cold darkness, alone and scared. It wasn’t just any old dog that showed up on a cold night at the doorstep of a house some two miles away from the Caraway farm. That was my little dog. And she made it through a maze of cedar and mesquite, barbed wire, near-freezing wind, and coyotes—with practically no sight or hearing at her disposal. Somehow she found her way to a family with enough love in their hearts to take her in at two in the morning. It’s the best Christmas present I think I can ever receive. I will remember the kindness and love of others each and every day I have left with Liloo. I don’t know how many adventures she has left. All I know is it’s up to me to show Liloo the way home. She did it for me all those years. And when Liloo lies down for the last time she will be in the company of those who love her the most. She will be home. She will be with me.

8 thoughts on “Loss and a Little Dog

  1. John (Poppy) and I read your story and it touched us emotionally. John identifies with your feeilings since his dogs are so important to him. I’m sure Kylie has told you we are in the process of comforting our “Hana” who is John’s guardian angel in her last days.

    I am so glad you found Liloo. We were with Kylie and hugged her when she cryed for you that day. Sounds like it is a sign that the future will be wonderful for you and we send our love.

    Gigi

  2. Oh Brett… This story just tore my heart out – and then mended it back together… Thank god Liloo survived that night, and taught you such a powerful lesson. These canine companions are our teachers. I learned so, so much from Thelonious, before he passed at 16. I learned so much from him, even in death as well. And he too survived being lost out on a cold New Year’s Eve night, totally blind, in coyote and cactus-packed territory out on my own patch of family land in Texas. Amazing creatures are they – and amazing friends. I love you, and I love Liloo. I will never forget the journey the three of us made together! This Christmas miracle story is much, much better than those old sad ones we’re so used to running… Let’s make some different stories for ourselves this year, yes?

    ever,
    Angel

    • I love you too Angel. I am really glad I got to dote on Thelonious every now and again. He was such a great dog. And our meandering trip through the South will always be a highlight of my life. And yes to some new stories!

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