Lost and Found

Bleary-eyed and stiff, I stood up from my computer and stretched before reaching down to hit the print button. As I waited for the last page of my “possible fits” from Petfinder.com, I thought, This is not the best way to be looking for a dog. Shuffling my feet through the haphazardly strewn pages of dog photos that littered the floor, I made my way across the study to pour myself another glass of iced tea. “I should have known better,” I muttered.

Involuntarily, I flashed to the moment two days before, when the “New Student” packet had arrived in the mail—two weeks earlier than I’d been told to expect it. What were the odds that my nine-year-old daughter, Clair, would decide to get the mail? She never had before. We’d planned on breaking the news the following week. We hadn’t had a chance to prepare her. I shook myself out of the memory. It wasn’t something I cared to relive.

It was a hot July day. I rubbed the cool glass across my forehead and trudged back to my desk. I so badly wanted to tell my daughter that I had happy news that would help outweigh the bad. But I knew I had to wait. I grabbed the stack of papers from the printer, and started tossing the on-second-thought-no’s over my shoulder. Nell, my five-year-old Border Collie, sought refuge under my desk.

The pragmatic side of me continued its one-sided conversation. What’s the big deal? Kids have to change schools all the time. She’ll get over it. But the part of me that had spent the last few years getting Clair back on her feet couldn’t be so sanguine. Those were years I didn’t want to retrace.

I recalled how the unraveling had begun for her a few years earlier with her grandfather’s death. It was the first boulder in the landslide. Before the dust settled, there’d be seven more sudden family deaths in rapid succession. None of which she’d been present for.

I remembered the day when it’d all come crashing down. Clair had started having crippling anxiety attacks. I’d gotten a call from her kindergarten teacher because Clair was caught in the throes of a really bad one. As I carried her out of school that day, she pleaded to be allowed not to go to school anymore. When I told her I wouldn’t make her go back, she buried her face in my neck and sobbed. Through her tears, she was finally able to reveal the source of her anxiety. She’d been afraid, she said, that if she couldn’t keep an eye on me, I might unexpectedly “fly up to heaven” too. Now, she said, she’d be able to keep me safe. We spent a quiet winter and spring together.

The following fall, I’d looked for a small private school that would allow me to be unusually active. Clair had positively bloomed in this sheltered, loving environment.

It was the right choice then, I thought.

“And this is the right choice now,” I said out loud, as though somehow the act of speaking the words would help dispel my worries.

I knew my daughter was ready to move on to the bigger public school. More to the point, she needed to move on. And, I knew, she didn’t see it that way at all. I also knew that giving Clair her own furry friend to hug onto in the midst of troubles would be a help.

I flipped through the last of the photos and was caught short by the sight of a very unclassic looking Border Collie staring back at me. I thought, Where did this one come from? I don’t remember printing this out. I gathered up all the photos with bios, tapped them on my desk to straighten them out and put them aside to deal with later. Suddenly feeling completely exhausted, I laid my head down on my arms, thinking I’d just close my eyes for a minute.

I quickly fell into that no man’s land of waking/sleeping, where a scene began to play:

 He sat alone with his back to me, staring off into the distance. Looking at nothing in particular, so far as I could tell. Still, his body language suggested a longing—as though he was waiting for someone to arrive. He sat cautiously hopeful, expectant even, and yet there was an ever-so-slight sagging of his being. As though the time was growing late, and perhaps the appointment had been missed.

I walked across the field and up the hill to where he sat, hoping to get a glimpse of what he was seeing. He didn’t turn to look at me. He seemed fixed on his vision—a vision only he could behold. Was he staring into the past or into the future? I had no way of knowing.

Just as he started to look over at me, I woke up.

What was it about this dreamlike scene of a ten-month-old dog named Tucker, sitting with his back to the world, staring off into the distance that held me captive? Was I identifying with him? Was he really just a metaphor for how I felt about my own life—constantly scanning the horizons of both past and future, looking back to avoid more danger, looking forward in the hopes that my life would come and find me?

The last several years had been so full of loss and change that I’d found myself pulling in and shutting down in an effort to make myself as small a target as possible.

I riffled through the photos again until I found his picture. Reading the short bio and studying the image of this little white dog with a few black patches and comical Flying Nun ears, I was struck by how he had survived his own nightmare. He’d nearly died of starvation as a stray. Yet there he was, seeming to gaze out at the horizon with hope and expectancy.

This quality of staying open and searching in the face of adversity stirred something in me. Something that told me it was time to stop looking back. Time to stop mourning. Time to get up and get going again.

While I didn’t think this was the dog my daughter would choose—he wasn’t her type—I knew that Tucker and I had an appointment to keep. Maybe I’d figure out some answers then. Maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe it didn’t matter. Because the image itself had already managed to flip a switch in my brain.

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I finished reviewing and sorting the rest of the dogs until I had ten. While this was to be a dog Clair got to pick, so she’d know that it was really hers, I had to narrow down the selection of dogs from which she could choose. I couldn’t risk the heart-ache of having her fall in love with a dog that wouldn’t fit our family situation.

For my husband Matt’s sake, it would have to be a dog that wouldn’t add to the frenzy quotient of our household. No manic zooming or obsessive barking. For Nell’s sake, it would have to be a dog that she would accept into our home without conflict.

Last but not least, there was me.

Ah yes, me. Was there any dog that would really work for me now? I didn’t think so. I didn’t think I was ever going to get over the recent loss of my beloved dog, Beau. I was far from ready to have another dog come into our lives. It was too soon. It would dredge up too much.

I’d loved Beau, my little rescue mix, with all my being and I’d tried to move mountains to save him. The after-shocks of having to put him down from an aggression disorder still rattled me. If it weren’t for trying to find a way to help my daughter adjust to the upcoming switch of schools, I wouldn’t be looking to go back to the well for a good long time. And definitely not to the rescue well.

But there I was, looking. Looking hard.

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I sent emails asking for more information. As I read through the responses, I immediately crossed off three dogs. The next day, I visited with two Lab mixes who weren’t going to work. The rest of the dogs, including Tucker, were at a Border Collie rescue facility a few hours away. I contacted Ann, the owner, to arrange for a visit.

While I knew from that dream about Tucker that I needed to meet him, I didn’t list him as one of the dogs I wanted to see. What was I going to say? That this dog, who I’d only seen in a photo, seemed to be sending me some kind of message? That I was hoping to find out why?

That sounded pretty far out there, even to me.

Better to keep the riddle of Tucker to myself, I decided. Instead, I’d try to find a way to “accidentally” run into him there.

Reading through Ann’s descriptions of each of the dogs, I actually felt a little excited. These were dogs with the exact traits I knew Clair would want—happy, friendly, smart, athletic without the over-the-top energy of many of the purebreds, and (for the sake of her friends) no natural herding ability. Plus, Ann had all her rescues pretty well house-trained and set up with at least a few commands before she’d even put them up for adoption.

The prospect of getting an already mostly housetrained dog was not insignificant. I made an appointment to meet Ann, and, I hoped, a piece of Clair’s future.

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I rang the bell on the gate that gave entrance to the farm. While Nell and I waited for Ann to arrive, I had a chance to survey the place. Well-tended barns sat nestled amid fenced fields. Sheep were grazing peacefully off to my left, and several Border Collies were purposefully trotting to and fro, patrolling and playing. My first impression was that of a little doggy Brigadoon. Even though the day was overcast with occasional sprinkles, the farm seemed to emanate a kind of nascent light. Before I had a chance to contemplate its origin, Ann came walking up to greet us. Because we’d emailed several times, we only needed a quick hello to get underway. Ann led us into a large enclosed field and walked off to get the first dog we’d discussed.

Decker was a muscular boy with a naturally bobbed tail. When he came over, Nell immediately faced away from him and looked up at me, as if to ask, What are we doing here? Can we go home now? Decker decided he didn’t have much use for Nell after she curled a lip at him.

A variation on that theme played out with the next several dogs: one dog was more interested in toys than in me or Nell, another was only mildly interested in Nell and she him, another was interested in me but not Nell, and still another Nell was interested in but he wasn’t in her. At the end of these introductions, there’d been no definitive matches.

Ann asked if there had been any other dogs that had interested me. I thought about Tucker but, already feeling emotionally drained from not having any of these dogs click, I’d changed my mind and decided I could live without finding out more about him. Ann said she’d be happy to get back in touch when any new dogs came in that matched our needs.

But as we were walking toward the gate to leave, Tucker’s face popped so strongly into my mind that it pushed all my other thoughts right out of my head. I couldn’t shake that scene of him so intently staring off into the distance. What was this connection I seemed to have with this dog? Where was this scene coming from? Was Tucker trying to convey something to me? No matter how strange that might have sounded, it felt undeniably true in my bones. I needed to know if, in meeting him, I’d be able to figure out what the heck was going on. I turned to Ann and said that I remembered there was another dog I was interested in. I asked if she’d bring out Tucker.

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Whatever light there was on this gray day seemed to catch the tips of Tucker’s silky fine white coat, which created a shimmering halo effect around him. He possessed such a quality of weightlessness that it seemed he fluttered over to us on a cushion of air. He trotted right up to Nell and offered a little hop of enthusiasm before scooting over to me for pets. He had an incredibly light touch, light as air.

Tucker looked deeply at my face, scanning, as if to ask, Are you the one?

I broke his gaze by lowering his paws gently back to the ground. “Hey, Tucker boy. You’re quite a little charmer, aren’t you?” I stroked his head.

He turned his attention back to Nell, trying to get her to play. Tucker pawed her, raced away, and then back. She didn’t give him the time of day. Finally he yipped at her, as if to say, Will you please just get over yourself and play with me?!

Nell rushed him and they dashed around for a few seconds before stalling out. I sat on the grass and Tucker snuggled up against me like I was his and this was where he belonged. Nell came over and settled on my other side.

Ann looked down at our little threesome and asked, “So what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that Tucker is a sweetheart….”

“Nell seems to like him the best,” Ann added. “What do you think?”

So many thoughts were racing through my head. Meeting him hadn’t solved the mystery. While there was a surprisingly sweet gentleness to him, I’d never considered him a possibility. And what was going on with Nell? Did she or didn’t she like him?

Ann, seeing that I was lost in my own thoughts, asked, “So, Meg, what do you think about bringing your daughter to meet him?”

Ann’s question startled me back to the present.

“Actually, I think I need to think about it a little more,” I answered, still petting Tucker. Then wistfully, I added, “It would be great if you’d let me know of any other dogs in the meantime.”

“Of course,” Ann said.

On the drive home, I felt a pang of loneliness—not a feeling I was accustomed to with Nell by my side. Was I caught in feeling Tucker’s loneliness? And why did that image of Tucker looking off into the distance keep appearing to me? What did it mean?

The only thing I knew for sure was that, no matter what connection Tucker was trying to make with me, Clair was going to do the choosing.

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The first moment Matt got me alone, he asked what happened. We sequestered ourselves in the study and I told him about the various dogs. Three of them were definitely out, I told him. That left maybe one possibility—if I didn’t count Tucker.

Matt, seeing me lost in troubled thought, knew me well enough to ask, “So what aren’t you telling me?”

“Oh, I don’t know…” I sighed.

“Have you been dreaming about one of the dogs?” Matt asked.

I swiveled my chair around and put my feet up on my desk to avoid looking into his steady blue eyes, which always held the power to make me spill the beans. “Not exactly.”

Over the years, Matt had gotten used to the fact that it wasn’t unusual for me to have dreams that, often enough, wound up dropping into reality.

Preferring to avoid the weirdness of it all, I just said, “There was another dog there…” My voice trailed off.

“And…?” he asked.

“I don’t really know,” I said. “There’s just something about him. I think whoever gets him is going to be very lucky.”

“Are you sure Clair won’t like him?”

“One way to find out.”

I went to the website and called Clair upstairs. Not ready to let her in on our plans until I’d narrowed down a few more dogs, I told her I was looking for a dog for a friend and wanted her input. As I was often asked by friends to do this, no red flags were raised. I clicked from photo to photo. She stood attentively next to my chair, braiding and rebraiding her long blond hair. As I expected, the dogs she picked were all classically pretty.

“What do you think of this one?” I asked, bringing up Tucker’s picture.

Clair threw her gangly legs over my lap and sat down for a better look. “He’s kind of funny looking.” She turned back to look at me, “Do you think Emily (the friend I was supposedly looking for) would want a white dog?”

Later that night, I emailed Ann about the dogs Clair had liked and resigned myself to another long drive.

The next day, Nell, Ann, and I went through the same process. I came away with three more dogs with whom Nell did better than just tolerate.

As Ann went to put the last dog back, I asked if we could try Tucker again. She smiled and walked off to get him.

Tucker greeted us like long lost pals. Nell softened to him much more this time, and even let him lick her face. While they didn’t really play much together, they walked side-by-side following me around the field.

Later, on the way home, I felt that same twinge of loneliness again. I kept my hand buried in Nell’s fur for the ride home.

Again, Matt quizzed me. Again, I reported what happened. I thought we had enough dogs now that Nell would accept so Clair would have a good selection from which to pick. We agreed it was time to tell her we were getting her a dog.

I’m sure the neighbors heard Clair’s screech of joy all the way down to the end of the road.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t feeling quite as ecstatic about the looming reality of another dog. In fact, if I could have identified the feeling, which I wouldn’t let myself, I was feeling anxious and afraid.

Matt, thinking my subdued mood was over the likelihood of Tucker slipping away, offered a generous solution, “Even if Clair doesn’t pick Tucker, if you feel that strongly about him, you could just get him for yourself.”

“I love you madly for offering,” I said. “And I really, really don’t want another dog—Nell gives me everything I need. Any of the dogs we’ll be looking at will work fine here. If Clair doesn’t pick Tucker, somebody else will give him a good home.”

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That night I had another dream about Tucker. He was sitting in his now-familiar pose: back toward me, up on a hill, staring off into the distance. This time when I walked across the field and up the hill to where he was sitting, he looked up at me and then back to his vision. I looked out and this time I could see what he was looking at. There was a father and mother, and two young girls, living together in a house. I looked down at Tucker.

“So, little guy, this was your family, huh?”

He just looked up at me and then back to the family. This was his longing—he wanted to go home. To his home. He could see them as clearly as I could see him, but he didn’t know how to get back to them.

I finally understood. He thought I could help.

“Tucker,” I said, kneeling down next to him, with his little body leaning into mine, “they’re not going to come for you.”

He looked up at me with those soulful eyes.

“But I know somebody wonderful will,” I said. “Somebody will see how special you are. It’s only a matter of time.” I hugged him close and kissed his head. “You just hang on, okay my boy? You just hang on.”

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Once again, it was a cloudy day with intermittent showers.  But my Little Miss Sunshine was in the back seat pumping out enough wattage to light up the entire Eastern Seaboard. Clair chattered nearly nonstop all the way to the farm. She talked about where her new dog was going to sleep, and how she was going to train him, and all the adventures they were going to have together. It made the time fly. Nell decided the way to make the time fly was to lay down and go to sleep.

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Max was the first dog Ann brought out. Clair knelt and clapped for him to come. He cautiously investigated, but pulled away when Clair tried to pet him.

Next came Bailey. Clair reached out her hand a little too quickly and he snapped at the air in surprise. Clair jerked her hand back and looked crushed. She tried to hold back tears of embarrassment and hurt.

Ann brought out two more dogs. They were sweet but reserved. There was no chemistry. I could see that Clair had still not recovered from Bailey. She was reluctant to try to connect again.

Nell just sat by me through the whole parade, without so much as a flicker of interest.

We’d exhausted the list of dogs Clair had picked out.

That’s when Matt asked, “Can we see Tucker?”

When Ann let Tucker loose in the field, he took one look at us and his whole body started wagging toward us. He came over to me for a quick lick and then promptly went over to Clair. She hesitantly reached out to pet him. He gently jumped up to lick her. Her face broke into a wide grin. She cautiously reached an arm around him and he snuggled right in. Then she, Nell, and Tucker went off for a game of fetch.

I walked over to them. “What do you think, honey?” I asked. “Do you want any of them?”

“What do you think, Mama?” She asked back, kneeling down and hugging onto Tucker again.

“Do you like Tucker?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. Her voice was a little shaky.

Matt walked over to us. “He sure likes you. I think he’s your dog.”

Clair looked up at me and said, “I think he is too.” She smiled and hugged onto Tucker again. Her eyes welled up with tears. Tears of joy and relief. Clair had found her dog. And Tucker had found his way to a new home.

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Clair hopped into the car first. Then Matt got Nell in and turned to take Tucker’s leash. He said, “I knew as soon as I saw Tucker there was no way he was going to let us leave without him.”

“For a while there, I thought we’d be going home empty-handed,” I said. “I have to admit, having Clair pick him is a relief.”

This relief was simple and complex.  I could stop looking for dogs, but more than that, I could stop worrying about Tucker. I thought about what it must have taken for him to send out his SOS, how desperate he must have been to be found, and how much he must have wanted to be part of a family again. I didn’t know how he’d managed to send his message, or why I was the one to receive it, but I was feeling profoundly glad about the way it worked out.

I looked back over the farm one last time. I noticed that funny kind of light I’d seen the first day I’d visited. This time, I was able to put my finger on what the light was. It was the light of hope—this was a place that was filled with hope. Every dog here could realistically hope to find someone to love and care for it for the rest of its natural life. And all who came looking for a dog to love could reasonably hope to find that special one who would enrich their lives with love and laughter.

I looked at Clair and Tucker in the backseat, already snuggled in together. Both of their faces were radiant with the light of this hope fulfilled.