“In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” — Dogen Zenji, ancient Zen master
This is a story about a confluence of events that I could not have envisioned beforehand, the unpredictable kind that sometimes occur in life. It concerns two pit bulls, a book about dying, and a friend lost for forty-two years.
The story really begins back in June of 1970, before I met the two dogs, before I read the book, and before the friend was lost. The place was Saxtons River, Vermont, the training site of Peace Corps Group 39, scheduled to depart for the Philippines that September. It was there I met several people who were to become my friends — Greg, Steve, Max, Judy, and Linda — our relationship born of the communal spirit of the intense training as well as shared interests and that indefinable element that makes connections occur between certain people and not others.
Once arriving in the Philippines, we headed off to our assignments scattered amongst the far-flung archipelago. Greg, Max, and I took up residence in different towns in the same province in southern Luzon and ended up working together for part of our two-year tour. After some initial scrambling, Judy and Linda wound up in Davao City on the southern coast of Mindanao, about as far as one could be from where the rest of us were located. Steve found himself in an isolated area and in a job that never quite defined itself. An artist, he became unhappy with this situation and stayed only a brief time. He returned home, reportedly joined the Coast Guard, never to be heard from again.
We were all involved in teacher-training programs which often resulted in a high degree of frustration. Linda became especially disenchanted, and in the spring of 1971 returned to the states to pursue a degree in nursing. All of us continued communicating through the writing of letters (this was the 70’s, after all). Greg and I even managed to get together every so often after our homecoming.
However, in February of 1974, I received the last letter from Linda. It became the last letter because of my failure to write back, thus letting go of the remaining thread of connection to a friend, something I unfortunately have done several other times in the past.
Then in April of 1982, one of those strange late season snow storms struck. I took the opportunity to undertake one of my many (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to clean out — or at least organize — my incredibly cluttered basement. In sorting through the piles of stuff, I came across that 1974 letter. Despite the passage of time, I decided to write a return letter. It came back stamped Address Unknown. I assumed that was it.
However, in 2003, after seeing a documentary about a guy who wanted to find buddies from his old neighborhood by searching on the internet, it struck me that I could do the same. Having only recently been introduced to the online world, a sincere but clumsy search ensued. I found what I thought to be a likely address and sent my last attempt at reconnection. No answer. I thought I had hit a dead end.
Fast forward to May 2016, a typical late spring day with nothing special on the agenda. My wife sorted through the mail that afternoon and said, “Here. This is for you.” When I saw the return address, I was stunned. Could this possibly be?
I opened the envelope, and indeed it was a letter from Linda. In it she said she had been cleaning her desk and came across my letter of 2003. She didn’t remember if she had ever answered it but figured she would respond now, saying that compared to my lapse of twenty-nine years between her last letter to mine that she was being quite prompt at only thirteen. We agreed to write a bit more regularly than that, modernizing to the more timely email mode.
The book, Where River Turns to Sky, arrived unexpectedly in the mail a few weeks later, a novel about aging and loneliness and the struggle with the end years and ultimate death. When described that way, most people say “Why on earth would you want to read that?!” Well, two reasons. One, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about these subjects for a while now. Two, because whenever Linda, a true bibliophile, had recommended a book in the past, she was always on the money. So read it I did.
In the story, two old men, George and Ralph, had been left alone after the deaths of their wives. But they had each other, at least until a stroke devastated Ralph. Relatives put him in a nursing home where he lay unresponsive, and his good friend George was the only one to come to visit him. He did so religiously, sitting by the bedside and talking to his friend, feeling that Ralph was still inside there somewhere listening. George made a promise to Ralph that he would not let him die alone.
One day George went on a short fishing trip, one he took many times with Ralph, though not quite the same now. When he returned to visit Ralph, he found his room empty. He had died. Alone.
George exploded in grief and anger at himself for breaking his promise to his friend. He swore he would never let anyone else die alone in the bleak, uncaring environment of the nursing home. He proceeded to buy a big red house in the middle of town and by hook or by crook get as many residents out the of Home and into a real home where a community of support and actual caring could be theirs in what time they had remaining in this life.
Amongst the residents was Rose, a spiritual being who spoke of death being something not to be feared but rather as a natural part of the circle of life. And inevitably, death came to some residents including both Rose and George, but not before they lived together sharing joyful moments and exasperating ones — the stuff of real life. It brought tears to my eyes, something no book had done in quite a while.
During the time I was reading Where River Turns to Sky, I met Chloe. As I turned the corner at the end of my block on the way home from my morning walk one day, I heard a voice calling me.
“Yoo hoo! Excuse me! Can you help me?”
The voice came from a woman to whom I waved hello in passing from time to time. She stood outside her open garage door, a dog lying near her in the entrance.
“I’ve locked myself out of my house! Do you know how to pick a lock?”
I informed her that skill was unknown to me as I approached to assess the situation further. The dog, a light brown pit bull, slowly rose and limped over to greet me with a nuzzle of my leg.
“This is Chloe,” said the woman. “Say hello to the nice man, Chloe.”
I extended my hand since Chloe was clearly both docile and friendly. I scratched behind her ears and she nuzzled me again, asking for more. I noticed Chloe’s haunch had been shaved and bore a large scar.
The woman introduced herself and indicated that she didn’t know what to do because she had to go to work soon. I suggested that she walk with me to my house down the block where she could call a locksmith.
As we walked, Chloe limping beside us, she told me about herself. Rose happened to be from the Philippines, something I had already surmised from her accent, and she was a nurse at a local hospital. She had taken Chloe in from a Newark shelter to foster during her convalescence. Poor Chloe had been abused and abandoned and then hit by a car, hence the scar. In spite of her terrible previous life, she was the sweetest dog. Rose thought she would most likely adopt Chloe.
After I got my phone and a locksmith’s number, Rose paused then excitedly exclaimed, “Wait! I just remembered something! My niece has a key, and she works nearby.”
I offered to drive her there to pick up the key, so Chloe clambered into the back seat, and we all drove together to retrieve the key. I dropped Rose and Chloe off, and she thanked me profusely.
“Be sure to come back and visit us any time!” she called as I pulled away.
The next day we heard a knock on the door. There stood Rose, a thank you cake in one hand and Chloe’s leash in the other. We invited them in, and Chloe greeted us warmly and then explored the entire house, plopping herself down by the front door when finished. From that day forward, each time Rose walks her, Chloe pulls Rose up our front walk looking for another visit. Whenever we see her on the block, she greets all with great warmth, including a new neighbor with a little boy in a stroller whom Chloe proceeded to “kiss” much to the little guy’s delight. I have yet to hear Chloe bark or growl.
A few days after finishing Where River Turns to Sky, a phone call came from my niece. Emma is a sensitive young woman with a tender spot in her heart for animals, especially dogs. There have been a succession of beloved dogs in her house, the current ones being Rocky the Schnauzer and Max the Morkie. She volunteers at an animal shelter, and this was the topic of her tearful call.
She had just encountered the sweetest dog she had ever met there, a pit bull named Bruno. Of course the image of my new friend Chloe came to mind. She told us that Bruno had a heart condition and had only two months to live. He had spent years in shelters and deserved to know a loving home in the short time he had left in this world. She wanted to take him, but her living situation precluded that. She thought we could provide that final home for him.
I had my doubts. Bruno was a large pit bull. We had Pop, a rather frail 95-year-old, living with us in our small house. But I too share her feelings about animals, and having just read the book Linda had sent left me particularly vulnerable. Could I let this poor creature die alone? I agreed to go meet Bruno myself.
I brought Pop and my wife along for they too must be in on the decision. When we arrived at the shelter, though, I figured I’d see Bruno first to make some kind of initial assessment before bringing Bernadette and Pop in. While they waited in the reception area, I headed off to the “meet and greet” room.
The handler came in to ask me a few questions and then picked up all the doggie toys from the floor and placed them on a high shelf, which struck me as a bit odd. I had bought some treats for Bruno, so I followed his lead and placed the bag with the toys. A few minutes later, the handler returned with Bruno, who was straining at his leash and pulling the handler, a rather burly gent, behind him. My first thought was that he was aptly named. Bruno came in and sniffed around the room, pretty much ignoring me. I had imagined a greeting like Chloe’s, but Bruno had a much different presence.
I asked the handler if I could give Bruno a treat, hoping that would break the ice. With a raised eyebrow, he said, “You’d better let me do it.” He took one from the bag and held it out. Bruno lunged for his hand, the handler tossing the snack into Bruno’s mouth as he quickly withdrew.
“He has an issue with food possessiveness. That and toys. You need to be careful with both.”
Not exactly the kind of information I was looking for. He continued, telling me that Bruno also had pulling issues (an image flashing in my mind of my diminutive wife trying to walk him and then another of Bruno bowling over Pop on his way to the food bowl). I asked how he was with other animals.
“Well, he hates cats.”
I envisioned our friendly ferals who come up on our deck to visit and Bruno smashing through the glass door to get at them.
“He also is not so good with certain dogs. Or young children.”
I pictured my walks through the neighborhood when I care for Rocky with all the local kids who run up to pet him and all the other small dogs we run across who sniff their greetings to each other. I shuddered at the idea of doing so with Bruno.
Finally I asked about his medical condition and what could be expected as his time drew near.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” the handler said with a quizzical look.
I repeated what Emma had told me about his two months left to live.
“No, not at all. He does have a 5th degree heart murmur, but there is no immediate danger. As a matter of fact, he’s pretty healthy. He could live another ten years.”
I thanked him for his time and told him that I didn’t think Bruno was right for our situation. On my way out, I wondered about the huge miscommunication that obviously had occurred with Emma. I relayed what I had learned to Bernadette and Pop on the drive home. I heard a decidedly loud sigh of relief coming from the back seat of the car.
How does the story end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.
It looks like Chloe will enjoy a life together with Rose and more than occasional visits to my house for good measure. Bruno awaits someone who can provide the kind of home that suits them both. In the meanwhile he’ll be cared for at the shelter with Emma, I’m sure, giving him an extra dose of TLC whenever she can.
I’ve started another book sent to me by Linda, A Tale for the Time Being, one which contemplates life and death, the nature of being, and the fate of inextricably bound people. I believe there will be many more welcome recommendations to come.
And my long-lost friend is now lost no more.
Two old letters found, two old letters answered years apart. Two dogs abandoned to shelters; one finds a loving home, one does not, my path crossing with both. Just the right book arrives at just the right time for just the right reader.
To what can this be attributed? Serendipity? Fate? I do not know. But I do know how to be thankful for good fortune, and I remain mindful of these simple events and their strange connectivity so often present in the world.