A face in the public domain
By late afternoon we're stuck in a stupor. My daughter's swiping her phone. My husband's pecking a keyboard. I'm leafing through a cookbook I've leafed through many times before. Then someone knocks at the door.
"Someone's here," says Rachel.
We're in Wyoming. Our log cabin sits among others at the base of the Teton Mountains. Jackson Hole is everything our hometown of Miami isn't. Cool mornings. A rippling stream. Even in summer, it smells like Christmas.
I peek out the window. In this neck of the woods, people give each other space. The woman slowly backs up a few feet. I have no idea who this person is. Other than a once-a-year meeting, we rarely bump into our neighbors. Squinting, I stare a little harder. The woman seems around 40, about the same age as my daughter.
Rachel steps with me onto the porch.
"Can I help you?" I throw out for starters.
Like most people out west, she looks cloned. Blonde. Tanned. Ridiculously fit. Only this lady's a mess. Her long hair is mussed and tangled. Half the forest seems Velcro-ed to her jeans.
"I'm renting the house up the hill," she says. "Just got here this morning."
Another refugee from California, I figure. Ever since the virus reared its head, the valley is full of them.
"I lost my dog," she says. "A Chihuahua. Happy's fifteen. She's practically blind. Doesn't hear too well, either."
Rachel and I look at each other. My daughter's on the autism spectrum. Like most people, her routine has been upended by the pandemic. Before life came to a standstill, she worked at a library. She brought her therapy dog to hospitals, schools, and nursing homes during her spare time. But for the last year and a half, she's been holed up at home and glued to her devices. Sleeping. Swiping. Sleeping. Swiping.
"You lost your dog?" says Rachel.
Her arms are limp, her eyes unfocused. She's still computing what the woman said, the words tumbling on the spin cycle.
"She was in the front yard," says the woman. "Then my phone rang. For one freaking second, I looked at my phone."
It's easy to picture. There are no manicured lawns in my community. We're deep in the forest, each house surrounded by thigh-high scrub.
The woman's sneaker is digging as she talks. Pretty soon she's going to hit China. "I can't believe that Happy wandered off. I mean we just got here. Where could she be?"
I hold up a one minute finger. Then I hurry once more inside. Instantly, a rush of cool air hits me. There's no need for air-conditioning in Wyoming. We don't bother with shutters and blinds. Instead, we're curtained by nature's canopy. Evergreens and aspens. Firs and cottonwoods. It's like living within a pocket—dark and dank and safe.
I scurry around the kitchen for a paper and pencil, then inch the door open once more. It's nearly 4:00, and I'm slammed by the sun. Outside, the light's so bright, my driveway sparkles, and the woman's a white blur.
The blur speaks. "Thanks for your help," she says.
She's about to leave. She needs to go! But first I write down her cell phone number and then lie: "Don't worry. I'm sure your dog will be fine."
The woman shrugs her shoulders. Then turning, she walks through the scrub straight up the hill.
Speechless, my daughter and I watch while the woman disappears. Soon she's absorbed by trees, her footsteps quiet, the branches still.
Rachel is the first to speak. "Happy is in big trouble, Mom."
At night, the temperature here swings down into the 40s. If hypothermia doesn't kill that dog, the coyotes surely will.
Was it only three months ago? We thought our siege was finally coming to an end. To celebrate our new vaccine status, we reunited with relatives. My son, his wife, and our two grandsons flew down to Florida from Maryland. Our niece and her three daughters came to visit. After all the company left, we were exhausted. We were both sad and glad to say goodbye.
Then Rachel's ten-year-old Labrador retriever got sick. We knew Molly was getting on in years. Who doesn't feel the push and pull of time? She had trouble getting up and going. She could barely negotiate the stairs.
Then one night, she circled the kitchen with her haunches high and peed red all over the floor.
One vet appointment followed another. Adding to the stress was Covid protocol. Instead of staying with Molly—comforting her, assuring her, rubbing her butt until she calmed—we were forced to drop her off curbside. It was like dumping the laundry at the dry cleaner's. See ya later! Here you go! Meanwhile Molly would shiver and shake, pull on the leash, and plead. Whatever you do, don't leave me! Whatever you do, don't go!
It took a month to get the diagnosis. I was in my car in front of the vet's office when I got the call. The vet was standing by the receptionist, waving at me through the window. Meanwhile Molly was in the back seat. I could tell she was uncomfortable by the burrowing. She was digging with her paws into the leather, trying to find the right spot.
"I've got good news and bad news," said the vet.
The doctor was younger than my daughter. After Googling her bona fides, I had her boxed and labeled. A med school in the Caribbean. Probably up to her neck in debt.
"The cancer's in her kidney," said the vet. "But you can live with one kidney. No problema."
I held my cell phone away from my ear. It felt safer that way, like I was ordering takeout. You need plastic utensils? A few napkins? How 'bout a drink?
"Now that lesion on her stomach is another story. We'll have to cut around it and clean the margins. Then after we stage the tumor, we make a treatment plan."
I glanced in the rearview mirror. Molly was still burrowing. "Treatment plan?" I stuttered.
"Chemo. Radiation. With aggressive treatment, we can buy the dog another year. Maybe two."
I was weeping now. My shoulders were shaking. A flash flood had swept my face.
"But won't it be painful? Uncomfortable? The surgery? The infusions? The side effects?" In the background, I heard barking and mewling of unspeakable sorrow. The vet had to shout into her phone.
"Think of it this way," she said. "Your dog's only ten, right? If we're lucky, we can extend her lifetime by 15, 20 percent. You do nothing, and she's dead in months."
I glanced again into the rearview mirror. Molly was curled in a ball, sleeping. The pain meds had finally kicked in.
The heat of summer has bleached Wyoming dry. I wait an hour for the sun to drop and the air to cool. Tossing aside second thoughts, I pull on my hiking boots, spray on the bug spray, grab my hat with the broad brim. Then I tell my husband and daughter I'm going for a walk.
But once outside, I'm stumped. I glance up the hill the much younger lady just descended and realize my bad leg will only take me so far.
As soon as the pandemic's over, I'm trading in my chassis and having the parts repossessed. A knee replacement. Hearing aids. The Covid crisis has aged me in dog years. I try to take care of myself. I've lost weight and boosted my exercise. But you can't turn back time. I've got more lumps and bumps than poor old Molly.
This year my bloodwork was off. But my doctor is even more afraid of the virus than I am. A year into the pandemic, and she's still Zooming on screens.
"Your TSH is low," she said. "That means your thyroid's over-performing."
The rest of her speech was a blur. Something about adjusting my medication and getting retested. Then she spent at least ten minutes of Medicare's money adjusting the camera. I saw an ear, a nostril, a Jackson Pollock poster on a wall.
"I need to examine your neck," she said. "Lean into the screen, will you? There you go. Look left. Right. Left."
I have dinner to cook and a salad to toss. But just the thought of that little Chihuahua makes me nuts. Instead, I go back inside, retrieve my husband and daughter, and drag both them to the front yard.
"Here's the plan. You head up the hill," I tell my husband. "I'll take the straightaway. Rachel, you check that grassy area near the stream."
Michael, as always, looks at me like I'm crazy.
This summer my husband has turned seventy. For decades, he has saved and planned for this moment in our lives. He'd spend less time working and more time playing. His bucket list is long. Fishing in Patagonia. Hiking New Zealand. Cruising the Arctic Circle. The January before Covid hit, he heli-skied the Bugaboos.
He's the yin to my yang. Foolish. Fearless. Indomitable. But now the world is topsy- turvy, and his timetable's off. Who knows when normal travel will resume? We seniors have a small window. We need to outrace our dreams.
He glances up the hill. "Really?" he says. "Really?"
Elbows akimbo, he gives me another look. The look that says there are a million things he'd rather be doing.
Now it's my turn to assess the hill. It's a big hill. A nasty hill filled with downed trees and gopher holes. Pretend it's Everest, I want to tell him. Or Machu Picchu. It's Uluru in November. It's Masada in the spring.
Meanwhile Rachel's already crashing her way through the brush. No matter what obstacles lie in her way, she always finds her own path. She couldn't bear Molly's suffering. And while I was paralyzed with indecision, she didn't hesitate. A friend of a friend found a kindly vet who came to our home. Holding her paw and massaging her flank, Rachel whispered to Molly while he put her down.
Afterwards, the man lifted Molly in his arms and carried her away. We waited. We watched. It felt like God had taken a spoon and scooped out our hearts. Finally, Rachel turned to me bleary-eyed. "I'll never get another dog," she said. "I will never ever go through this again."
Step by step, my husband starts climbing. In the distance, Rachel's heading for the stream. Hidden in the tall weeds, the stream's barely visible. Still, I know it's there.
Years ago, before my hearing worsened, I could listen to it for hours. Now I can only imagine its sound. Rain falling on leaves. The swoosh of a high dive. The splash of a baby's hand. The loveliness, the languidness of water.
This year I'm told that the stream is particularly quiet. The reasons are too painful to parse. Climate change. A regional drought. A valley bursting with people fleeing a pandemic. No matter the season, we could always count on that stream. But its fate, like ours, is often determined by forces beyond its control.
Back to the road. Like a dutiful soldier, I begin my march. Left. Right. Left. I see a smattering of cabins, hear the chattering of magpies, see the haze of a distant fire haloing the mountain tops. It's a long road, a road so long I can barely see the end.
"Happy! Happy!" I cry.
Then I stomp my feet and clap my hands, hoping somewhere someone hears.