It was mid-morning when the nurse rushed into the waiting room. It was a scary moment for my wife and I. Had something gone wrong? The look on her face wasn’t one of regret… it was more a sense of urgency.
“He’s in Recovery”, she said. “But he’s coming off anesthesia and he’s kinda hard to control. He’s pulled out all of his I.V.s. Normally we don’t allow parents in the recovery area, but can you come help calm him down?”
In an instant we were to our feet… marching (if not running) behind the nurse. As we rounded the corner, we saw our son. Borderline hysterical, he was waving his arms around while tears were flowing in a torrential downpour. He wasn’t new to this. This wasn’t his first surgery and most certainly wouldn’t be his last. This one was bad though. Hundreds of stitches were in his mouth. The pain must have been intense.
One nurse turned to me and said, “He’s strong!”
“I know”, I responded.
“No”, she fired back. “Some nurses tell parents their kid is strong… but this baby is STRONG.”
I bent over the recovery bed along with his mother. Nothing we were saying or doing seemed to calm him down. How could this be? Was the pain so intense that we couldn’t take it away? Telling him that we were “here” and that it’s “okay” wasn’t working.
“We’ve got to get these tubes back in him” one nurse said.
And then, as though divine intervention had occurred, a thought entered my mind. I looked into my son’s eyes and said, “Hey Buddy… remember when we talked about getting a dog?”
I broke through somehow. He stopped screaming and made eye contact with me. I had to keep going with this approach. It was the only glimpse of hope at the moment.
“So… I was thinking… how would you like to get a dog on the way home from the hospital?”
Another breakthrough! He responded by nodding his head up and down, but then went back to crying. Who could blame him? His entire mouth had just been re-built. Stitches were in the roof of his mouth and inside his gums, lips and nostrils.
“Well listen… if you calm down and let these nurses do what they need to, I promise you we will get a dog before you make it home from the hospital… okay?”
He calmed down again. He nodded. Hell… I would have financed a Porsche at this stage if he had asked for one. I was hurting. His mom was too. The nurses resumed their duties. He stayed calm. I knew what I had to do. I made a promise and I damn well intended to keep it.
My wife and I had become old pros with our stays at Children’s Hospital. After a full day and night, it was time for us to shower. This usually meant one of us stayed with our son while the other drove home to shower and change clothes. Then we would switch places while the other drove home to clean-up. This time was slightly different. I had a plan. I had a stop to make.
In the weeks leading up his surgery, my son and I had numerous discussions about dogs. What kind of dog he wanted? Male or female? Puppy or mature? Of course, the only thing he had mentioned was he wanted a “boy dog”. My mom had even bought a book on dogs and given it to my son. I had my work cut out for me. I practically jogged to the parking deck, hopped in my Ford Bronco and headed for the Jefferson County Humane Society. I was about to meet the Spirit Dog… at least for the first time.
The kennel area smelled just as I might have expected. The noise was much louder than anticipated as the collaboration of barks echoed across the concrete floor and walls.
“I’d like to look for a dog, for my family… for my son”, I had said. And apparently being short staffed, they opened the door and allowed me to roam the vast cages and kennels which consisted of dozens or perhaps more than a hundred different dogs. Most were rowdy. Practically all of them were yelping and barking. Some seemed downright agitated and aggressive. As I rounded one aisle and started down another… I saw a young male Labrador Mix. He was barking loudly. He was playful. He was definitely rowdy. Immediately visions of chewed shoes and ripped carpet entered my mind. Still… he was a good-looking dog… and of course, most importantly… he was a “boy dog”. I made a mental note and moved on.
By the time I had traversed two full aisles and studied dozens of canines, I stepped in front of a quiet space. Before me laid an old soul. She was a long-haired Chow and Golden Retriever mix. Her fur was matted, and to be quite honest… she looked rough. She wasn’t jumping up and down and she never made a sound. Even with her shy and lonely behavior, she was speaking to me. I heard her.
I walked to the desk area and told them I’d like to see one particular dog. They handed me a leash and pointed to a courtyard area where I could retreat to a more suitable area.
Some moments are beyond words. This was one of those moments. With eye contact and with gentle mannerisms, this dog had told me everything I needed to know. I knelt down and whispered yet another promise… my second promise in less than 24 hours. I then walked her back to her kennel. The card on the chain-link fence read, “Sandy”.
The following day, I loaded the car in advance and pulled up to the curb. My wife was just inside the door with a nurse and our son.
By the time we were pulling out of the hospital, my wife had turned to me, “Are you sure this is a good idea? We really need to get him home.”
“Of course, it’s a good idea… I’ve narrowed it down to 2 dogs… this won’t take long” as I pointed the Bronco toward the Humane Society.
We made our way into the building. Our son felt almost embarrassed by the gauze and bandages still on his nose and mouth. I took him by the hand. He was only five years old.
“Now listen, I’ve picked out the two best dogs in here… one is a boy dog and the other is a girl dog… okay?” Unable to talk, He nodded in return.
We walked toward the Spirit Dog. She stood up. She walked to the gate and I opened it. I put the leash around her and we walked to the courtyard. My wife joined us there. This dog seemed genuinely concerned about the pain that this strange child was enduring. The connection had begun.
Feeling anxious to get our son home, I said to him, “Let’s leave Sandy here with your mom and you and I can go look at the boy dog”.
He was a fine dog, but he was hyper. After a few anxious jumps and pawing at my son. I quickly returned him to his cage so that we could look at him through the fence. As I knelt down, I could see Spirit Dog, bonding with my wife in the courtyard. She was sitting on a bench and Sandy was licking her face. Spirit Dog was smarter than I anticipated. She had just won over the one person that needed won over.
There are few images in my mind that are as powerful as the ones embedded from our arrival home. Our son was so proud of his Spirit Dog, that he insisted on walking her down the street. There was blood still oozing from the bandages on his nose and there was gauze still packed in his mouth. Yet despite this, he wanted to walk his dog and maybe even show her off to his friends in the neighborhood. These images stay with me.
I asked him, “What would you like to name her?”
He responded through the gauze in his mouth, “I don’t wanna change her name… It might make her sad.”
How can I describe the next 15 years? This animal was part of our family. From scaring off an attempted home invasion (yes… she really did this) to blocking a toddler from falling into an open hot oven door… Sandy was there. When neighbors had growing puppies that wandered off, Sandy could be depended upon to go find them… bringing them back by the scruff of their neck. She was indeed a Spirit Dog. She outlived many friends and relatives. She was there to help us grieve. Always with the same loyalty and gratitude she had shown us on that day in 2001. She helped raise two strong boys… ever so protective of them. She even outlived our marriage.
That was always the hardest part for me personally. That this dog had to endure the break-up and trials of our family in 2015. By this time, she was old and arthritis had set in. But that gleam in her eyes was still there. That genuine gleam. It never left.
On a spring day in April of 2016, my divorce long since final by almost a year… our family was once again all together. Through many tearful conversations over the previous years, we had all agreed that when the time came to send Spirit Dog on her way, we would do it as a family.
I had researched and found a veterinarian who made house calls. The call was made. A juicy ribeye was grilled and hand fed to our feeble girl. One last ride in the back of a truck… with her brothers by her side and the wind in her hair. Spirit Dog was about to be free.
With all of our hands on her… and tears streaming from our eyes… the shot was injected into her vein. My heart sank. I was overwhelmed. I am a grown man and I cannot recall such an overwhelming feeling of sadness, regret and guilt. How could I have done this? Scenarios bounced throughout my head. Did I do this too soon? Did I wait too long? Does she understand? I cried.
I live alone now. In Sandy’s last home. It’s a magnificent place. A unique piece of property nestled in the backwoods of Chilton County. A beautiful creek runs the property. History tells us this was Creek Indian territory. We’ve found the quartz arrowheads to prove it. It’s been a year and a half since Spirit Dog left us.
One evening not long before Thanksgiving, I ran across an article on Indian Trail Marker Trees. A unique method in which American Indians would bend a sapling with straps and point toward important landmarks, trails or sources of food and water. The images of the trees… part nature, part man-made… are truly astonishing. They strongly resembled a tree on the north section of my 41 acres. I set off to investigate.
I researched more and reached out to a man who founded an organization called the “Mountain Stewards”. The marker tree on my property was somewhat unique. The oak had a thick trunk that curved toward the West, almost appearing to be a dolphin jumping high out of the water. Growing from the “dolphin’s” back are two separate “trees” growing toward the sky, maybe 60’ tall. I photographed it, took video and measurements. I was also asked to give the GPS coordinates. I was quite shocked when the gentleman emailed me back.
“Your tree isn’t a trail marker, it’s a grave marker. Go back and look for a second stone underneath the tree. There should be at least two stones representing graves under that tree.” I went back. There was second stone. This is an Indian Burial site.
Most people might find it slightly unnerving to live in the middle of the wilderness amongst a burial site. I have embraced it. Surely, they won’t mind me here. After all, no one could possibly respect or treasure this property more than me. I seldom pass a piece of paper or bottles that wash up from the creek without picking it up to add to my trash. It’s a mutual kind of understanding I feel. And part of me feels they are grateful that their legacy, heritage and graves have been recognized and respected. Then shortly after discovering the history behind the tree, and exactly one week before Thanksgiving, I was about to meet Spirit Dog for the second time.
So, as I said, I’m a grown man. But I’m not too proud to admit that on occasion, I pass the time with a video game or two. Sure, I can pawn it off as “I own the gaming system for my sons to use”, but the truth is… it passes time in the fall and winter wilderness. Often, I prefer to lay head first on the floor… punching away at controller buttons… sometimes yelling… sometimes even cussing. The side porch door only feet from my gaming spot is 80% glass, allowing sunlight and nature to shine through. On this particular day however, as I was laying on the floor distracted, something else was about to shine through.
Literally at the door, with his nose so close to door that it fogged the glass with every breath, stood a tired, frightened and wounded animal. I was startled. I jumped to my feet and walked the mere 2 steps to the door and opened it. He walked in. He sniffed me. He laid down. He wanted to sleep. I was in awe. I walked to the mud room and fixed a bowl of water. He came… he drank. He went back to sleep. He left spots of blood on the carpet. I didn’t mind.
A few phone calls and texted photos to neighbors and lengthy searches on lost pet sites yielded nothing. This creature literally appeared out of nowhere. My home is located deep in the woods. My mailbox is almost a mile from my doorstep. My neighbors have very protective hounds. No one had seen this dog before. No one recognized him. It’s almost as though he wandered up from the north end of my property… out of thin air. There was something about his eyes. Something so familiar.
If this dog was going to receive any care at all, it looked as though it was up to me to provide it. The trust was immediate. He jumped into my Jeep… and sat down. I took him to a vet about 45 minutes away. He got the usual vaccines and shots… had some intestinal parasites… but overall was in good strong health. Was I surprised when they estimated his age at a year and a half? No… I wasn’t.
A month has gone by now. A strong bond was formed the first day, but has increasingly gotten stronger. He has spent time with both of my sons. As though to confirm I’m not completely insane… they have been vocal about the uncanny resemblances in the eyes and dead ringer personality to Sandy. In light of recent discoveries about my property, I have named him appropriately… Chief. I mostly call him “Chiefy”.
I had inherited a cat upon moving here. Lily Cat bonded with Sandy. And although Lily has been around numerous dogs, she’s never warmed up to one since. That is… until now. Lily Cat bonded with Chief almost immediately.
Could reincarnation be real? I have never been a believer personally. Although, if Sandy were to come back as another dog, might she have sensed my son originally wanted a boy dog?
Could there actually be magic in this property? Is this indeed some divine intervention from the heavens? Sometimes things just happen at the right time and they can’t be explained.
This was a very lonely time in my life. It would be an understatement to say that I needed a good friend. My kids are grown… and I found myself recently out of a relationship and three years past divorce. A good friend was precisely what I needed. And yes, I missed Sandy. The home wasn’t the same without her. But the pain I felt losing her seemed to keep me from adopting another dog.
Maybe it’s just dumb luck, or karma finally showing some kindness… or maybe, Spirit Dog found a way to reconnect. Maybe it’s all just a coincidence.
These are questions that I don’t have the answers to. Who might have the answers? Maybe Chief does… but he’s not talking. He’s at my feet now… as I write this and I just reached down to pet the back of his neck. As I do this, I notice the patch on the back of his neck… almost perfectly in the shape a quartz arrowhead.
Written on 12/15/17 by me, Jason Abraham.
On 01/24/18, the mother of our children and my partner for more than 20 years… passed away unexpectedly. As you might expect, Chiefy has been a comfort to our family. The boys told me she enjoyed reading this. I’m glad
In memory of Katherine Acton Abraham