Four weeks ago, Belle, a shih tzu who came to live with us on The Quarry Farm some five years ago, was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. The word “inoperable” was used more than once as her condition was explained to us, though whether or not that was a consequence of her assumed age and the belief that she wouldn’t survive the surgery is a question I never asked.
I was once told that cancer is the embodiment of chaos. I’m not sure who said it or if it was even remotely accurate, but it stuck with me. In this particular case, it was about as true a statement as was ever made. The cancer attacked her lymph nodes and grossly distorted the lower half of her face. As the disease rapidly progressed, tumors swelled the glands on either side of her jaw and ripened until they began to intrude into her mouth, pressing her tongue to the side and interfering with her ability to eat (mark that I said, “interfering”; her appetite was huge and she ate well and as often as she wished, though with a bit more difficulty than she had before her cancer). Her doctor assured us that she wasn’t in any particular discomfort and that she would enjoy life for a little while longer, possibly as long as a couple of months.
When she stops eating, he told us, it’s time.
Last Thursday, she stopped eating.
On Friday, we took her in.
We brought what was left of her, her biomass, home and buried it at the base of a Kentucky coffee tree that graces the area just outside our front door. Heat and drought had turned the ground into something much harder than simple earth and it took an old railroad pickaxe to loosen the dirt enough to shovel it aside. Eventually we placed her in a hole that seemed much too small for her. Tiny as she was physically, she was possessed of a huge personality and could, when she chose, fill a room. We further marked the spot with a slab of dolomite and placed pieces of granite and quartz and red shale on and about the stone in celebration of a life that was our great good fortune to share. We then went inside and wondered at how much smaller our house seemed to be.
Less than an hour later, as a headline in our local newspaper so colorfully put it, the area was “blown to pieces.”
The storm that swept through was deemed a derecho (http://www.weather.com/news/weather-severe/derecho-explainer-20120612). Straight-line winds in excess of ninety miles per hour tore through the region, uprooting and snapping trees, tearing roofs from buildings and, in some cases, leveling the buildings themselves. Power and telephone lines were cut by flying debris and the poles to which they were attached were battered to the ground. While there were reports of multiple tornadoes in neighboring counties to the west, none touched down here. Even so, the area suffered some of the most significant widespread damage in its history. Nearly every homestead was affected, including ours.
The Quarry Farm fared better than some, worse than others. In the domestic areas of the farm we lost about a dozen trees, mostly evergreens, and several shrubs. Shingles were blown from the roof of one outbuilding and the door to the chicken coop was ripped from its hinges and beaten to splinters. A big, wooden outdoor storage cupboard was teased out from under the eaves of our house and torn apart. A window was blown loose in the big shed and smashed. The bee hive was reduced to its component parts and scattered across the yard and even though the hive was already failing, it was a hard sight to witness. In the woods and along Cranberry Run, dozens of trees were left bent and broken. The largest and oldest of the trees, the ones that reached above the common canopy, bore the greatest insult. Limbs as large as some of the less mature trees on the property were rent free and fell, dragging smaller limbs and even some smaller trees with them. Honey locust, sycamore and black walnut trees were affected the most and their limbs and trunks fell and blocked many of the paths that we have so arduously cut through the woods.
Even so, we were lucky. Our homes came through the storm unscathed and, more importantly, no one was hurt. Buddy and the boys, S’more and Marsh, seemed nonplussed. The chickens made a last second mad dash to the coop and, despite the flying debris, beat the odds. Even the duck and geese came through it without a scratch, all of whom weathered the storm out in the open despite immediate access to shelter. They simply faced into the storm and made themselves as small as possible, holding their wings tightly to their sides and pressing themselves into the earth, riding the storm out as best they could. As did we all.
The biggest part of me recognizes that this was strictly an atmospheric event, an accumulation of physical conditions that culminated in a significant release of energy. I know that, should I choose to, I can go online and research this until I know each and every factor – heat, humidity, air pressure, ocean currents, whatever – that played a role in the creation of this storm. I know that this was a cause and effect scenario.
I know this.
Even so, there’s a part of me that thinks that maybe there was something more to it than just pressure systems and cold fronts. That maybe this was a release of energy of a completely different Nature. That maybe, just maybe, this was more personal than that. Maybe this was Belle’s exuberant release, her nod to us as she went wherever it was that she wanted to go.
That’s how I’ll remember it, anyway, despite logic and Carl Sagan. After the shingles are replaced and the chicken coop door is repaired. After the debris is raked up and put aside and the paths are cleared. After all of the electrical and telephone lines are restrung and the grid is whole and fully functional once again. After the fallen trees are reduced to neatly trimmed and stacked piles of drying wood and even after that wood has eventually dried and is burned in some future fire, that is how I’ll remember last Friday.
It was the day that Belle said, “Goodbye.”
I was going to leave this for another day, but I find that I can’t. I have a couple of final thoughts I’d like to express. First, my soapbox. When Belle came to us, she was broken. Literally broken. Both eyes were severly scarred, particularly the right, which was all but entirely closed with scar tissue. At some point, she had broken her jaw and it had never healed properly. I never understood the mechanics of it, but her veterinarian explained that there was a gap in her lower jaw that had never closed. She was constantly on edge. Vague movements sent her scrambling, and with her eyesight, all movements were vague. She lived in constant fear, her bladder emptying in uncontrollable spasms of fright. Worst of all, I think, was the tattoo in her left ear: the number 25 writ in large block numerals. Again, her veterinarian explained that the number was a means of identification. Not to assure her safe return should she come up missing, but as a simple means of differentiating her from any other shih tzus that the person (and I use that term conditionally) who had her before us may have, must have, kept.
She was Bitch Number 25 and that may well have been the only name she had before coming here. She had been bred and bred and bred and bred until there was almost nothing left. Just that tattoo in her ear.
And now my plea. Should you have to live with a specific breed of dog, if a pure breed is what you must have, please check first with the rescues. There is one for every breed. If that’s not enough, not something you want to pursue, please go to great lengths to assure that the breeder with whom you are working is responsible. And please do go to a breeder. Don’t buy from a store. You just never know. http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/puppy_mills/
And now, as we so very often hear on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for something completely different. As a consequence of the storm, power was out for most of the region for varying amounts of time (and there may still be those whose power has yet to be restored). We lost ours for four days. Four days without power meant four days without water. Thankfully, we have good neighbors. Casey and Dan Walker, realizing our predicament, offered us the use of an old well on their property that has a manual pump. Without that, tending to the hydration needs of the ducks, geese, goats and donkey that live here would have been extremely difficult, at the very best. So to the Walkers, our most heart -felt thanks. You exemplify the best in good neighbors.