It’s a cold, blustery January morning. Blustery…perfect word. It’s cold, windy, no snow…blustery. What do you expect…it’s mid-January in Ohio? The morning sun’s pale, yellow glow tries in vain to break through the slate-gray sky in a futile effort to warm the barren landscape. From the bay window, I can canvas the lake that is covered by thin ice in patches. A subtle banging sound draws my gaze to the old, wooden boat dock. A loose mooring cleat clangs intermittently in the wind. ‘I’ll have to fix that,’ I mutter to myself. Fix it…yep…that’s what I do. Or that’s what I did. I’m a surgeon you see…retired, but I was a fixer most of my life…a fixer of people. Retired…not by choice but to escape the insanity…the insanity of a broken system, Obamacare, rising costs, declining reimbursement, and the ever-present specter of a lawsuit. Do I miss it? Sure, but I suppose life does seem less stressful nowadays.
A string of geese in flight catches my eye and I follow them across the sky until they disappear over the trees at the end of the property. I look towards the trees at the edge of the lot. Evergreens…the big Christmas tree ones. Those are special trees that mark a special place. That’s where Flo lives…forever. Flo is a dog…I still speak of her in the present tense, but she was the best dog in the world…at least to me. Most of all, she was the best damn bird-dog ever. Dogs…aren’t they something? Some days at the hospital were bad…unbelievably bad. The stress of life and death decisions was overwhelming at times. Sometimes you can fix people and sometimes you can’t. I still get a lump in my throat when I think of a little girl who asked me, ‘will you fix my dad?’ just as we were wheeling him back to the OR. ‘I’ll try my hardest my dear’ I replied. Well, I couldn’t fix him. I came home mad at the world that night and the first sight I saw was Flo…wagging her tail like it had its own turbocharger with her favorite duck toy hanging out of her half-opened mouth. Loyalty. The anger melted away. I snap back to the present, but I’m instantly transported to another lake on a sunny November Saturday many years ago.
It was cold. Flo and I were in the familiar bird blind. My hands were somewhat warmed by the metal Thermos mug of coffee I was holding. The wisps of java vapor warmed my reddened nose. Flo sat just to my left slightly shivering. She’s a flat coated retriever and her jet-black outer coat was covered with small icicles in spots. Her eyes darted between me and the blank sky over the water. Across my lap, muzzle pointing downrange, was my 12-gauge autoloader. Remington 1187 or was it the Beretta A390? I can’t remember. My father had a saying…a typical ‘dad’ saying. ‘Son, there are a few things in life you can’t have too much of…money and guns.’ Funny…I just said that to my sons not too long ago.
I sat my mug down and grabbed the duck call. Oblivious to the cold, Flo’s hackles stood up and she froze her line of sight over the water waiting for me to ‘quack’. After a few calls, I heard them. Flo raised her butt off the ground and leaned forward like a
spring waiting to be sprung. I raised the barrel of the shotgun skyward, feeling the familiar grip and cold of the cheek-rest against my face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the v-formation of the mallards come into view. I led them a bit, disengaged the safety, and let loose three rounds. The thunderous sound shook the blind and rang in my ears and the scent of burnt gun powder hung in the air. Two birds tumbled out of flight…okay, okay, I was a little rusty. Before the birds hit the lake, Flo bounded out of the blind and into the cold water with practiced precision, made a beeline to both birds, grabbed them and doggie-paddled back through the deeper water until she could touch bottom. She trotted back to the blind her breaths puffing in white steam like a locomotive. As if to say, ‘here ya go boss,’ she dropped the motionless ducks at my feet. I put the ducks in my game bag, toweled off Flo a bit and rewarded her with a treat. I resumed my position as did Flo…shivering, a little, like before but waiting without complaint for the next bang. Loyalty.
‘Dammit…this is never going to happen,’ I shouted to myself in frustration. The eight-week-old black fluff ball was rolling on her back in the grass after trying to catch a bug. I garnered her attention, finally, and threw the stuffed duck toy high up in the air and out towards the middle of the yard. She ran and ‘retrieved’ it but only to run in the opposite direction of my out-stretched hand to drop the duck behind the crooked, old apple tree. Eventually, she’d get the hang of things. She started bringing the duck back. She learned to get two ducks. She grew into her legs and we started sprints. I introduced the report of a gun with a track starter pistol. Finally, after much work, enough curse words to fill a phone book, belly-rubs and treats…I had my bird-dog and hunting partner.
Fifteen years flew by…countless hunting trips along with the trials of life: marriages and divorces, children growing up, personal ordeals and successes, and a new relationship. Flo’s jowls turned a wise gray-white and she retired from hunting. Despite arthritis and aged, cloudy eyes, she was faithfully by my side or warming my feet. It was a spring day in March 2020 and I was sitting on the stark, cold floor of our vet’s clinic. Flo had an I.V. running. I looked at the vet and nodded. I cradled Flo’s head in my lap and said, ‘I’ll see you again old girl…now go get ‘em.’ Her turbo-charged tail wagged ‘til the end.
Through misty eyes, I’m jostled back to reality by the drone of the television…the usual talking heads and pundits yapping about the virus, test numbers, masks, the election, the Capitol, a fractured party. I receive a text from my oldest son. He must spend the next week at home and ‘attend’ school virtually because he sat next to a classmate who tested positive. ‘Such bull,’ I say under my breath. Yeah…we must fix some things…
What does a dog mean to us? What do they bring to our lives? They bring immeasurable joy, unending loyalty and steadfast companionship that transcends stress, worry and anxiety. Flo did that always and sometimes better than human interaction with just a look, a wag of the tail or a sloppy lick. She showed me that faith, love and compassion can soothe anger, hate and discord between all of us. I’m convinced that’s the blueprint we need to fix things.