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Have you ever fallen in love with a tree?

Have you ever fallen in love with a tree? I mean felt real affection for one? Before I saw Mr. Pine, I would have shrugged and said sure. In general, I care about all trees. On several occasions, I’ve even been called a tree hugger. But after I met Mr. Pine, I realized I’ve never really been in love with one before he came into my life.

I met him fifteen years ago on the first day we moved to Robertson County, Tennessee. It was love at first sight. Mr. Pine was a majestic spruce, 70-feet tall, 20-feet wide. He lived five yards from our front door. In his prime, when dark green needles and pinecones filled his limbs, he could have modeled Christmas swag in Rockefeller Center or on the White House lawn.

During our first year in the country, my mother-in-law, a real estate agent, had warned we should cut him down because one day he’d crash through our roof. She still tells the story of how horrified we had acted at her suggestion. We had naively answered that Mr. Pine was here long before we arrived, and he would be here long after we left.

Over the years, my feelings for Mr. Pine grew until they reached relationship status, the kind validated with highs and lows. It wasn’t always an easy one. For one thing, he was a prankster who dropped pinecones like water bombs, as though trying to hit us. He could also be a slob. He shed needles all over the deck, walkway, and front porch. The needles got caught in the dogs’ fur or wind, and they spread all over the house. Sometimes, they ended up in our bed.

But his unconditional friendship made up for all his flaws a hundred times over. He was a loyal neighbor who stood his ground through snow, ice, wind, and some wicked southern thunderstorms. He provided privacy for naked sunbathing, shade when we got too hot. Without fail, every single day, he stretched his limbs outside our picture window, coloring every morning in his deep green hue.

Mr. Pine also meant a lot to our neighbors. Goldfinches, cardinals, bluebirds, robins, wrens, and hummingbirds used him as a stop between flights. Countless squirrels and chipmunks found refuge in his branches from our posse of black cats. Once, we had even found a chicken hiding between low-hanging limbs. For fifteen years, he gave more than he ever wanted or needed to everybody he met.

Then, last summer I noticed Mr. Pine’s needles were thinning. I told myself it was the brutal heat. Who could possibly thrive when the heat index topped 100 degrees with 90-percent humidity? Fall came, then winter and still nothing bloomed. By the first week of March, some of his branches were completely bare. I couldn’t deny it any longer. Something was wrong with Mr. Pine.

The tree doctor was muscular, in his thirties, wore a crew cut and sleeveless shirt. Military tattoos covered his biceps and forearms. One read omertà in big black letters. Omertà is Italian slang for a code of silence and loyalty. (I only know this because of my obsession with the Sopranos.) I’m assuming the tree doctor’s tattoo had something to do with his military background because he didn’t sound like a Mafioso. He sounded like a country boy. The first thing he said was, “That thing ain’t nothing but a wind sail.”

I felt like someone had insulted one of our dogs. That thing? A wind sail?! I explained we loved that tree, and if we could do anything to save him, we would.

The tree doctor cocked his head and chuckled, probably thinking, “great, one of those damn tree huggers.” He repeated my mother-in-law’s warning from over a decade ago. If Mr. Pine didn’t come down, he’d crush our roof. Only now, Mr. Pine was sick. He was rotting from the inside out. It was just a matter of time.

I wasn’t at home when they cut him down. I couldn’t watch. Instead, I drove to a gas station parking lot, listened to a podcast about Dolly Parton, and cried. I told myself I was crying because Dolly’s story is so moving, but I knew it was because of Mr. Pine.

Mr. Pine has been gone for twenty-four hours. A stump is all that remains, and its sharp, clean evergreen scent is so strong it fills the living room.  Now, the view outside our picture window is completely unfamiliar and not nearly as beautiful. I’m going to miss him for a long, long time. Mr. Pine taught me what it means to be in love with a tree.

The Quiet Victims of Nashville’s Tornadoes

A strange screaming came from the woods thirty-six hours after tornadoes leveled parts of East Nashville. The tornadoes touched down twenty-plus miles from our house, and local creeks had flooded but nothing more serious. The cries weren’t human, yet we never heard anything like them before.

Mason walked behind our house to investigate and saw our neighbor’s two dogs attacking a deer.  Mason immediately knew the deer was hurt, so hurt he couldn’t or wouldn’t move. His leg looked broken. The animal didn’t have spots but he was too small to be an adult. Mason shooed away the dogs, and they instantly obeyed. The dogs are giant beasts but mostly well behaved and harmless. That hurt deer must have triggered something wild in them, because they had ganged up on him.

The deer stopped screaming as soon as the dogs disappeared. If two domesticated mutts were beating up that defenseless animal, what would happen when the coyotes got to him? And a lot of coyotes live around us. We hear their Wildling-like calls almost daily.

We tried calling Walden’s Puddle, a badass wildlife rehabilitation center outside of Nashville. They had helped us in the past with a fawn and a baby falcon. I got a busy signal. I tried calling every fifteen minutes for the next three hours, but those tornadoes displaced uncountable animals, both domestic and wild. They must have been overwhelmed, and no one ever answered.

As the sun hovered over the tree line, we reluctantly agreed to call the local wildlife commission. We couldn’t let that little guy suffer any more than he had. And a pack of coyotes tearing him apart would be akin to medieval torture.

The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission sent their game warden.The warden said even if a natural disaster hadn’t overwhelmed Walden’s Puddle, they wouldn’t be able to save the deer. He said a car must have hit him. I don’t know if he was trying to make us feel better, but it didn’t work. I heard the gunshots from my office.  The warden shot him twice, once in the head and once in the chest, and both times I flinched.

In many ways, I feel strange even writing about that deer in reference to the tornadoes because so many people lost so much. Twenty-five people even lost their lives. But, I wouldn’t be an animal activist unless I pointed out how many local nonprofit organizations need help right now, organizations just like Walden’s Puddle. 

Late that night, the moonlight glowed white on the grass. We had so much rain this month that it’s been a long time since I saw moonlight. A coyote suddenly started howling. He was so close it sounded like he stood outside the fence. A few seconds later his pack answered. Their baying rose and fell in that frenzied otherworldly yipping. They had found the dead little deer.

 

Coming Home: Sara’s Hugs

Do you know what makes up for every hour I’m away from my pack? It’s coming home to one of Sara’s hugs. I start thinking about that hug on Sunday night as soon as I leave the racetrack in whatever city I’ve been staying in for the past four nights. Last weekend, I worked in Pomona, CA. Next weekend I’m going to Phoenix, AZ and the cycle continues twenty-four times each year. Sunday nights are the end of my workweek, and each one feels like a mini-Christmas Eve. I even have trouble sleeping the night before I fly home because I’m so excited about seeing my freaks.

Sara has always been the quiet one, so quiet it’s easy to forget she’s in the same room. She stays close to the pack, but always at the periphery. Sara doesn’t cuddle like Ade or Floyd. She doesn’t seek afternoon or evening rubdowns like Meadow. Sometimes, Sara has a mean streak and bares her teeth if anyone invades her personal space. But, she has her reasons. Her first six months on this earth were brutal. Just like humans who survive traumatic incidents, she suffers from PTSD. And just like with people, it’s not a condition that simply goes away. It heals and fades, but it can’t be erased because it makes such deep marks.

My Monday morning flight home is always excruciating. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short hop or a cross-country slog because every minute ticks past like an hour. During those flights, I listen to podcasts or audio books, play solitaire, force my mind on anything except for my dogs because thinking about them only makes time move slower. But, once the plane descends, once we break through the clouds and Nashville spreads out below me in all its musical glory, I start getting butterflies.

I drive home 80 mph, weaving in and out of traffic with the focus of a racecar driver. As soon as I pull into our gravel driveway, I look for the dogs’ outlines through the picture window. They’ve been watching, waiting. The evidence of their lengthy stakeout is obvious, an abundance of nose art smudged across the window’s lower half. I open the car door and hear their barks, not the warning kind but the excited kind. I walk across the deck, swing open the kitchen door, and stand back.

Floyd, Meadow, and Adriana leap at me, and for a full minute I let them mob me. Adriana licks my shoes, clothes, hands, anything her tongue can reach. Floyd pushes against my shin, wagging his tail so hard his whole body moves like he’s doing a samba. Meadow performs what I can only describe as canine cartwheels back and forth across the deck. Sara is the only dog who doesn’t attack me.

Sara stands at the edge of the madness, tail shyly wagging, eyes glistening and trained on me. She’s waiting for her brother and sisters to get their fill. When the excitement starts to fade, I kneel next to her. She stands on her hind legs, stretches her front paws over my shoulders, and nuzzles my chin with her own. She’s almost eleven and starting to gray around her muzzle, but that’s the only physical sign that she’s entering her senior years. She still walks four miles with us every morning.

I push my face into her soft black fur and breath in her scent. I inhale that earthy, musty dog smell until it encloses me. That smell means home. Sara whimpers, a soft, happy whimper. I could whisper how much I love her, but she already knows. And I know that when I’m wrapped in Sara’s hug, she never wants to let go.

 

Coming soon: Part 3 of our Costa Rican Adventures aka Mangrove Day

 

Leaving Day

Floyd, Sara, Meadow, and Adriana are sleeping. They are arranged on the bed like points of a compass, together but separate.  It’s dawn, still black outside the windows. They know this is the time when I work in my office, even on leaving day, so they’ll nap until sunrise.

Sometimes, they’ll hear the coyotes’ howls or deer crunching on dead leaves, and they race outside to investigate or warn. They spend three minutes in the yard, then return to bed and situate themselves in similar positions.

Some mornings they cuddle all together or in pairs, but not today. They aren’t as relaxed as usual because they know I’m leaving. They know before I even pull my suitcase out of the closet. I must emit a scent on leaving day, the scent of excitement mixed with sadness. I’m excited because I love my job, but I’m sad because doing it means I have to leave my pack.

I work on the TV crew for the NHRA drag racing series on FS 1, which means I’m gone for over a hundred days per year because we race all over the country, all over except for Nashville. I try to fly out late and fly home early. But, airline travel is never dependable.

The dogs are a room away, but I hear their body language as clearly as any dialogue.

“She’s leaving,” Sara says.

“No walks or car rides for three days,” Meadow responds.

“At least Lino gives us a shitload of treats,” Floyd answers.

“I don’t want her to leave,” Ade says.

And I don’t want to go, but it is a necessary part of my job. Tomorrow, once I get to the racetrack, once I’m sitting inside the cool dark studio watching nitro cars going 300 mph, I’ll stop thinking about all the time I’m losing with my dogs. I’ll forget that their lives are too short.

On leaving day, I remind myself that there are women in my industry who have to leave their children. And I wonder if it’s as hard for them as it is for me.

The Pecking Order

Miss Annie Daisy

Mason and I took Miss Annie Daisy canoeing on the Red River shortly after we moved to Robertson County, TN. Miss Annie, a six-pound Yorkshire terrier, was my first dog, my soulmate. I took Annie everywhere, and if that meant doing it illegally, then I broke the law. Over the years, I zippered Annie into my backpack and carried her into stores, restaurants, parties, office buildings, libraries, classrooms, movie theaters, and television studios without anyone even knowing. And she never made a peep because Miss Annie felt the same way about me as I did about her. As long as we were together, we were happy.

The Red River derives its name from the color, a reddish-brown mixture with mud as thick as clay. Our research said the slow-moving currents were perfect for a lazy day of floating. We packed sandwiches and a six-pack of beer in a cooler, stuffed towels, books, and clean clothes in a dry bag. We rented canoes from Red River Valley Canoe Rentals in Adams, Tennessee. They said the trip took four to five hours, loaded us in a bus painted like tie-dyed shirts, and dropped us off eight miles upstream. We’d land at the same place we parked.

The afternoon started exactly as planned. We occasionally paddled but mostly just drifted. We saw a herd of deer grazing in a pasture, snapping turtles sunbathing on half-sunken snags, a groundhog standing outside his cave. A red tail hawk swooped above the river’s surface, hunting for a rodent in the greenery lining each bank. We passed farms with cows drinking from the water’s edge, glided under a bridge with an arching trellis. Honeysuckle filled the air with its sweet fragrance.

Miss Annie curled up in a pile of towels I’d arranged on the dry bag. She occasionally stretched or licked my hand. She was perfectly content because Annie loved sunbathing, laid in the sun all year around. When it was too cold outside, she napped in squares of sunshine on the wood floor. But Annie wasn’t a swimmer. I introduced her to water when she was a puppy. We’d been hiking along the Potomac River in Virginia on an August afternoon. At some point, I flipped off my hiking boots and stood ankle-deep in the river. I held Annie where she could feel the water lapping against her undercarriage. She spent thirty seconds in the river before she lurched out. She despised water for the rest of her life.

A few times, I slid over the gunwale and floated for a few hundred yards, but I was the only one. Mason grew up up flipping burgers at the neighborhood pool, and chlorinated water was the extent of his experience. In time he got over his fears, eventually snorkeled off the coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico, but back then he wasn’t a confident swimmer. He always worried about what lurked underneath him.

Mason paddled from the stern. He worked outside and sported a farmer’s tan. His chest was pale while his arms were brown, lean, and muscled from running cable up and down a quarter-mile racetrack. His chest never tanned. It didn’t burn either, just stayed winter white. I liked that Mason worked outside, that he came home covered in dirt and sweat. I liked his callused hands and pale chest. Men who work at desks or wear suits never appeal to me.

We snacked on apples and nuts, had a beer, then two more. By the third hour, I could tell Mason had a buzz, but so did I. His hazel eyes, normally so clear, glowed red and glassy. The river forked around a small island. The water merged on the other side, then funneled through a narrow straightaway. The currents in the fork were calm, almost tranquil, but they drastically changed in the straightaway. We weren’t prepared for it. Sun and beer drunk, bordering on drowsy, we hit rough water.

Ripples were the only sign of the river’s strength, but I noticed them much, much too late. The water yanked the canoe and we capsized. The current’s force felt as powerful as an ocean’s riptide. The canoe’s bright red keel scooted past me, but it barely registered. I didn’t consider that we were losing our only mode of transportation. I wasn’t thinking about the clothes, books, cooler, beer cans, and sandwich bags lost somewhere at the bottom of the river. And I wasn’t thinking about Mason either. My only concern was Miss Annie. For a few frantic seconds, raw terror vibrated through every maternal particle in my body.

Mason emerged first, twenty feet downstream. Annie’s tiny head popped up in the opposite direction, right in the heart of the rough water. I can’t think of a better way to define the term split-second decision than that exact moment. I was faced with the choice of helping my husband or helping Annie. Sure, I thought about it, but in retrospect my reasoning was biased. In less than a second, I rationalized Mason was taller, had a chance of touching the river’s bottom. He wasn’t a strong swimmer, but he could swim. But, even if my logic could have more objective, I can’t deny that my gut reaction disregarded my husband for my dog. It was though I didn’t have a choice. I silently told Mason I loved him and turned towards Annie.

Miss Annie’s black eyes were wide with fear. She wildly kicked her little paws, but she didn’t have enough physical strength for fighting the currents. I positioned myself behind her and created a breakwater. Annie acted as though she’d been swimming her whole life in the calm water between my arms. Once she stood all four paws on dry land, I started searching for Mason. He reached us first. He came slogging through the foliage, barefoot but baseball cap still on his head.

The first thing he asked, “Is Annie all right?”

Annie stood by my feet shivering so hard she seemed as though she might crumble. With her hair soaking wet and hanging flat, she looked like an overgrown rat, but she never looked more beautiful to me. I didn’t know what to expect when I found my husband, maybe anger, at least annoyance, but Mason acted as though it never crossed his mind I’d do anything but help Annie first. The pecking order was always clear.

***

Recently, I was shopping for dog food. I passed several racks displaying collars, training leashes, vitamins for joints, brushes for long or short hair, shampoo for hot spots, and life jackets. I paused, backed up. The dog market has exploded over the past decade. Stores now sell items specifically for canines, such as life jackets, that weren’t popular or available when I first met Annie. The yellow, orange, and red vests ranged in size from extra-small to extra-large. The larger ones looked suspiciously like the human version. I picked up the tiniest one, examined the buckles, read the tag. A picture of a Yorkshire terrier was modeling it. Annie passed away four years ago, but I bought it anyway.

Foster Dogs Who Fell in Love

Meadow and Bentley

It was love at first sight for both, one sniff of the behind and they were inseparable.

I miss fostering homeless mutts for a thousand different reasons, but watching the relationships they formed is one of the top five. In fact, the most beautiful love story I ever witnessed happened between our foster dogs Meadow and Bentley.

On a frigid morning five years ago, their silhouettes emerged in the backyard. I watched them from my office window, fingers suspended over the keypad. I was working on a project with an approaching deadline.

The mutts wore similar blond coats, and in the cold pale air, their fur looked white. I had no idea how long they’d been playing outside, but they were locked in the midst of it at sunrise. If the past ten days were any indication, they would rack up two more wrestling matches before bed.

Their dance looked like a mash-up of ballet and rugby. Meadow leaped, twirled, and lunged around him as elegantly as a ballerina. Bentley acted like the rugby player, agile but unsure how to focus his energy, all legs and muscle. He was a Lab-pit mix and wore his fur short and wiry, while Meadow’s fluffed long and wavy. They both weighed around fifty-five pounds, but he was taller and she was wider. He was clumsier. She was faster.

When their shapes crystallized under the morning sun, I realized I hadn’t gotten any work done because I couldn’t tear my eyes from Meadow and Bentley. Their affection was exhilarating, intoxicating, unfiltered. They couldn’t talk, yet their body language screamed their love, as though they stood on the rooftop with megaphones.

I told myself to focus and clicked open Gmail. I had a note that made me swallow hard, twice. Donna, ICHBA’s head honcho, wrote that Bentley got adopted. An ex-military dog handler, someone who could handle his aggression issues wanted him. They were moving to Alaska.

It was the best news possible. I couldn’t have scripted a better outcome. Yet, I couldn’t celebrate, not quite. It meant separating Meadow and Bentley. Like Romeo and Juliet, their relationship was doomed from the start. Except, it wasn’t so much where they came from. It was that they were heading in separate directions.

***

I was cutting up a pound of strawberries when Meadow and Bentley burst through the doggie door. They had just finished their second round of wrestling.

Meadow dropped on the kitchen’s tile floor and panted in fast huffs. Bentley, equally hot, bounded next to her. In the human world, he’d be called whipped, but canines don’t recognize labels. He feverishly licked her long snout. Meadow, annoyed by his affection, abruptly stood up and pranced into the living room.

Bentley was dumbfounded. He rotated his maw from side-to-side, sniffed the floor where she had been resting. Then, he settled for licking her drool.

Both of the dogs had special needs. Meadow had been adopted and returned once, Bentley twice. Bentley suffered from fear aggression and attacked whatever and whoever was closest whenever he saw strangers. Meadow, on the other hand, didn’t mind being around any human or dog, but she shredded shoes, rugs, towels, furniture, and children’s toys when she was alone.

Back then, I thought it was strange that these two special needs dogs found each other. It was love at first sight for both, one sniff of the behind and they were inseparable. I had wondered if they sensed each other’s neediness. In retrospect, I realize that’s exactly what they did. Don’t dogs do the same for us? Don’t they sniff out our emotional issues, then try their best to heal them? Why wouldn’t they do it for each other?

An hour after she snubbed him, Meadow dropped a Kong by his paw. Now, she wanted him to play. Meadow’s fur was still slightly wet from running through the dewy grass and it kinked around her ears like an 80’s hairdo. She was a one-of-a-kind beauty and completely aware of it. Bentley didn’t even try to get off the dog bed. Instead, he gently nipped at her ear. She plopped down, threw her head over his neck and fell asleep within minutes. They napped the entire afternoon cuddled against each other.

***

That evening Bentley and Meadow circled the yard. The winter sun was setting fast but they were unfazed by the fading light. It was their last dance, their last few hours together. They sprinted so fast that when they stopped, they needed a few yards to slow down, like a runway for a plane. Once in a while, they clashed in a flurry of paws and tails. What a wonderful way to say I love you.

They couldn’t have known it was their last dance. Or did they? Dogs can read microscopic body language. Did my body communicate the unease I felt about saying goodbye to a dog who had lived with us for four months? The unease I felt about separating Meadow and Bentley? Or was I projecting my feelings?

What I did know, even then, was that dogs are masters of living in the moment, and even if they had known about their impending goodbye they wouldn’t have acted any differently. On that evening, all that mattered to Bentley and Meadow was each other. So, I watched those two homeless mutts dancing their last dance and felt a profound sense of gratitude, gratitude for witnessing such a beautiful love story.