It was not a good night for Duncan and for most of it, after the terror that ignited his eyes and while I laid curled around him in his kennel, his heart beating rapidly and his whole body quivering, I felt like the worst papa in the world.
The City of Littleton has an odd way of celebrating Independence Day in that they never actually do it on July 4th. This year our festivities fell on the 1st, so around 8:30 I gave Duncan a dose of his Tranquility Blend calming drops and waited for them to kick in. After the sun had set and the last of the day's light turned into clear, cool darkness, I asked if he was ready to venture out. Several years ago, our first Fourth of July here, Melissa and Kona invited Roo and I to tag along to the park across the street where they shoot off the fireworks. Duncan did relatively well and I figured that this year would be the same. We crossed Bowles and trudged across the street, staying well away from the masses which had gathered on the upper level of the park overlooking the lake and the mountains. I told him, "Tell me when you want to leave, okay? No questions asked, we'll just go." So we found a nice quiet spot, hunkered down together, rolled in the grass and had a peaceful time laying near each other, the stars shining down, the air sweet with Lindens.
Until the first rocket went off.
Almost immediately he crawled into my lap, resting his head on my shoulder and panting in my ear. I patted his back like a parent burping a baby and whispered in his ear. A moment later the second rocket exploded, painting the night in orange and purple, reflecting off the faces of every person sitting around us. The boom that followed was tremendous. While everyone began to clap and children danced and shouted in delight, Duncan pressed his head against my chest, whined, and pressed harder, using his back legs to force himself against me, as though attempting to push himself into me, to crawl inside my body and hide. "Duncan," I said. "Do you want to go?"
It was all he needed. He bolted away, his leash yanking my arm up and back behind me, turning it brutally in its socket. Before I could climb to my feet he took off running, the force of his panic pulling me onto my back where he dragged me for ten feet. I scrambled to turn over and stand up but he kept running and running, the sound of his breath loud and deep, frantic and more than just startled but absolutely terrified. And he stayed that way as we ran together as fast as we could through the crowds to the edge of the park, across the street, through the parking-lot and up three flights of stairs. No sooner had I opened the door and removed his leash than he darted down the hall, into my room and into his kennel where he turned his back to the window and shook almost violently. But the rockets, which I could see through the window, were bright, illuminating the room, and loud enough that we both felt their concussions in our chests. On and on it went. Just before the grand finale I climbed all the way in with him, curled around him and rested my head against his, covered his ears with my hands and hummed to him softly, hoping the vibration of the sound in my chest would somehow soothe him. It took over an hour before his breathing slowed and calmed but he refused to leave the softness of his bed and the quilt my mother made for him for Christmas two years ago. I felt terrible and kept whispering in his ear, "I'm so sorry. I'll make it up to you. I'm so, so sorry, Roo. Please forgive me." He licked my face once then hid among the pillows again.
He was reluctant to venture out this morning on our first walk of the day. He was fine strolling through The Wrangle, but once we left its shaded path and crossed the street, he lowered his head and began to resist my pull on his leash. It was slow going, but with many treats and soft words, scritches behind his ears and determination we managed to get there. I removed his leash to let him run free but he stayed steadfastly by my side, not venturing far even when we approached the cool hillside where the bunnies herd up. He ambled along, looking up at me as though to make sure we were safe, and brushed against my calves almost constantly. And when it was finally time to turn back home for breakfast he was more than ready to go.
Ken was late getting out of bed but by the time he opened his eyes and lifted his head from the pillow I'd decided how to pull Duncan out of his funk. "Get up," I said. "We're taking Roo down to the river to swim." Not thirty minutes later we were packed and out the door, Duncan following close beside me. He'd lost a bit of his timidity and by the time we'd turned off the street and onto the side road, he was leaning a grinning face out the window and whining excitedly. Once the car was parked and we'd opened the doors, he practically dragged us down the path to the familiar beach where he and I have spent so many warm summer mornings and afternoons together.
It was Ken's first trip to the river with us and the morning could not have been more perfect. We followed the trail under the freeway and down into the cool shade of the forested riverbank, Duncan running far ahead of us through the tall, green reeds while Ken kept his eyes peeled for snakes. I marched happily along and a bit behind them, a smile spread across my face, thankful to be there, finally, with the two of them.
We found our sandy shore and spent over an hour tossing the ball into the deep water for Roo to fetch. He soon forgot the trauma of the previous night and got lost in splashing and rolling in the sand, hiking his ball between his legs and behind him, and playing with the other dogs. And Ken quickly discovered the joy of Dunc refusing to shake the water off unless he's standing right next to someone, be it either us or a complete stranger. I was happy just to sit back and watch the two of them, the warm sun beating down on us, the birds singing from high above and all around.
Last night, falling asleep listening to the troubled breathing of my restless and nervous dog, I felt as though I had done irreparable harm to his spirit, that his trust and faith in me had diminished and that perhaps we would never be quite the same. I worried that there was nothing I could say, no words invented, that could restore the bond we had. This morning, watching the reflections of the river dapple off his incredible face while his dad looked on with a smile of contentment, I believe I did right by my dog, which is one of the most important things a man can do in this life.
The language of friendship is not words but meanings.
(Henry David Thoreau)