August 27, 2002

The Long Way Home

I am almost serious when I tell folks that I would have rather left one of my children behind than my dog. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do and I will never, ever forget it. Telling the story will help me remember our first family dog, Zachary, and his incredible journey home. But before that, I'll have to put the tale in the context of another story, our Finding our Place on Goose Creek. Eventually, the long story will all get tied up in one bundle together, like a picnic lunch in a wicker basket, covered in a gingham table cloth. Or something like that.

In a year of tough decisions, I had chosen to leave a very comfortable career teaching biology at a southwest Virginia community college, and do something else; anything else. As fate would have it, in one week in the spring of 1986, after having no choices for what seemed like forever, now there were two.

I had recently interviewed for a teaching position at Gainesville College (now University) in Georgia, north of Atlanta. At the same time, I had taken a tremendous and audacious leap of self-conceit by applying for acceptance to a Physical Therapy masters program. Not many programs, just one: University of Alabama at Birmingham, back in my home town. All my eggs were in one basket, and especially back then, many applied and few were accepted into a PT graduate program. I was waiting to hear if, by some miracle, I had been accepted.

On Wednesday, I got a call saying that I had been offered the teaching job. I was shocked! It would mean teaching at a larger institution, with a different set of roads, trails, and people...a new start, in a way. But in another way, this would be just another teaching job. I would be digging the same hole deeper, really. I was pretty sure that doing the same thing in a different place was enough of a change and we would probably be moving to Georgia. I told them I would let them know my answer in 48 hours.

On Thursday, I came from teaching a class and there was a note taped to my door. "Please call Marilyn Gossman". It took me a while to figure out who that was. When I saw the Alabama area code, it dawned on me that this was the Director of the PT Masters Program at UAB in Birmingham. I had been accepted to the program. New town, new friends, tremendous challenge, and a whole new hat to wear...this would be digging for treasure in a new hole. I knew immediately that it was what I ought to do. The decision would change everything, for all my family, for the rest of our lives.

The following week after the decision had been made, we began to sort through all of the giant steps it would take to make this transition in our lives: find a house in Birmingham, find work for Ann, schools for the kids. Sell the farm and sell or give away our country tools...wouldn't be needing a tiller in Birmingham. And...oh my gosh: what would we do with Zachary, our best friend Black Lab, our country dog for 6 years? The choice was between keeping him tied up or penned like a prisoner in our new suburban life, or finding someone near our country home where there would be kids and wide open spaces for him to roam, the freedom of the life he had always known. We began to ask around for a good family to adopt Zachary, and soon found them.

Zach's new family were strangers to us, friends of friends, and lived all the way across the county beyond Fort Chiswell. I called and got directions, and loaded ol' Zach into the cab of the truck. He was not a comfortable traveler, because the only place he ever road in the truck was to the vet, about three miles away. He trembled all the way across the county, while I pretended that I had convinced myself that I felt nothing. Just a dog. This was a business transaction, the right thing to do.

I made our introductions quickly to the new family, who briefly explained the layout of their farm and why this was a good place for a dog to live. I hurried back to the truck and retreated down their gravel drive like a man leaving the scene of a hit-and-run. I looked in the rear-view mirror to see Zachary sitting on the front porch, with children's arms around his neck, wagging his tail and watching me drive away. I rarely cry but I cried then, all the way back to the home that was ours no longer.

The next year was as hard on all of us as we had expected. I became what the kids called "the man downstairs", since they rarely saw me that I was not down there studying. It was much harder than I had imagined to be the student I needed to be, plus husband, father, home owner, son. The year was a barely tolerable blur. Somehow, we made it to the end of our second summer in Birmingham. The day before classes started, some thirteen months after leaving our country home, the phone rang. Ann took the call, and an odd expression took shape on her face as we watched the conversation. It was the people that had bought our farm back in Virginia. They told her "There's a strange dog showed up here a couple days ago. He's a big black dog, and he stays under the porch here. He's right thin and his paws don't look so good. He's okay, but he just seems sort of lost and confused". The neighbors down the road say they think he's your old dog.

Could it be? We called the neighbors down the road. "Yep, that's Zachary all right. He jumped out from behind the boxwoods when we rode the horses up the road today, just like he always did. It's him for sure". We were stunned, overjoyed, but confused and uncertain what to do.

"It's Zachary and he found his way home and he's looking for us and Fred, you have to go get him", Ann said through tears of joy and grief and the shock of our dog born again. I knew she was right, we had to go. But bringing Zachary here to Birmingham made no more sense now that it would have a year earlier. Even so, the next day, driven by forces well beyond reason, my daughter and I drove 10 hours to southwest Virginia to see if it was really our pup. And it was. Less of him than we left, and a bit confused when he first saw us. But he responded to all of the commands he used to obey, just like we had never been apart. He sure was bedraggled, and had some white hair among the black, prematurely old at six puppy years.

Of course we have yearned for this to be a world where dogs could talk. We have never stopped wondering how he made it 13 miles as the crow flies, across a mountain, a very busy interstate, and many, many busy roads through unfamiliar territory, to home. And then, when he finally arrived, we weren't there. What must he have thought and felt!

It was evident from the way he looked, his travels had taken him months. And yet he had persisted, driven by the need to find his pack, his tribe, his huggers and feeders and stick-throwers and ear scratchers; his family, not the substitute family of strangers that did these things and called him by his name, and it was not the same. To leave and find home must have been a driving need in his doggie mind from that first week in his adopted home, after waiting and waiting, then knowing I was not coming back for him and he would have to make the trip on his own. But of course, we would never know his thoughts and his experiences. All we knew was that Zachary was going to be part of our lives again, for better or for worse. And so, the next day, we sedated him, hauled his 100 pounds into the back of the Subaru, and took him to his new home in suburbia.

And so Zachary's life after his long trip home was anticlimax. Mostly. The story is not quite over. The old boy had fit in fine in the country, where he could roam the fields and woods at will, he spent the nights in the shed on a thick bed of straw, and if he barked, the closest neighbors was far enough not to be bothered by it. Life in suburbia was going to be different. Very different. What to do with him there in town we would have to put together as we went along. We really weren't prepared for this. For the time being, during the first week back with us, he would stay in the garage during the day when we were away at work and schools.

Friday of Zach's first week back, I drove up to the garage door after a long, long day, and hit the remote control to raise the door, so looking forward to the relative peace of a weekend. And before me, as the doors went up, the curtains were drawn on a disaster scene: the entire two car garage was covered with dust and splinters and yellow fiberglass insulation. There was a huge hole in the sheetrock wall that separated the garage from the house. Had there been a gas explosion? Were the kids alright?

I rushed up the front steps in a panic. The whole family greeted me at the door, anticipating my reaction to the explosion downstairs. They all spoke excitedly at once, and they were defending the dog. "It's not his fault. He didn't mean to!" What were they saying?

That day, there had been a thunderstorm. Zach never did like storms. Back in the country, he could get under the house, or in his shed, and seemed to weather them just fine. But a fierce storm when he was in a strange, unfamiliar place made him go berserk. When the kids got home from school, they found him in the closet under the stairs. He was covered with sheetrock dust and insulation, having eaten his way through the wall to get into the house. Holy Smokin'Cow!

A week later, he began limping. Something to do with his demolition work on the house? We never knew. What we did find out was that he had a torn ACL tendon in his knee, and to make a long story short, we ended up paying an astronomical amount to repair the painful knee, to avoid having to put him to sleep. We could hardly consider that, after all he, and we, had been through. So, it was an interesting period of puppy enculturation to life in the big city. It was not easy. We had made the right decision to leave him behind. But then Zachary had made his own decision, and of course, a dog's decision is always final.

Zach stayed with us through two more moves in North Carolina. Finally, at age 12, he was elderly, in dog years. He had become decrepit and uncomfortable and incontinent. He was not going to be with us much longer, and each day was a misery for him. We made the decision to send him out of this world painlessly. It was a tough thing to do. But I think, looking back, that euthanasia was an easier decision than to leave our good friend with strangers, thinking he would never see us again, and now knowing he would never rest until he found us.

Posted by fred1st at August 27, 2002 06:16 PM

What a wonderful story, and what a wonderful dog :) I'm glad you had the extra years with him :)

Posted by: Shelagh at August 29, 2002 04:58 PM

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