I've just gone through 17 of the worst hours of my life.
While watering the plants and lawn out front yesterday evening, I had both dogs with me. Hoover rolled in a clump of moss while Lincoln feasted on the first fallen apple of the season—unripe but he's never been a picky eater. I continued watering at the side of the house while glancing over at the neighbor's yard where my dogs like to wander. No wandering this time. Or so I thought. After soaking the daisies for no more than ten minutes, I hauled the hose back to the front and both dogs were gone.
I called and Hoover came back quickly but not Lincoln. As Hoover had emerged from behind the house across the street—his first foray there, to my knowledge—I checked there for the other one. There was only a narrow tract of land, followed by a drop-off and a ravine with extensive undergrowth. Lincoln has weak legs and stumbles frequently. Could he have fallen down there?
I called his name and got no response. (But then again, Lincoln's hearing has faded dramatically in recent months.) I zipped back to the street, ran up the hill and scanned the other yards. No Lincoln. I slid down the ravine, wrestled the rampant blackberry bushes with all their unwelcoming thorns. No Lincoln.
I climbed back up and ran along a hiking trail at the end of my street. Startled a few songbirds, but my search was fruitless. I ran back to the house and took off in the car, searching throughout the neighborhood. Nothing.
My dog with weak legs, bad hearing AND poor vision had vanished. How could he get so far from home in so short a time? This is a dog that stops to sniff EVERYTHING. "Hurry" means zilch to him. If he were granted a Wild Card entry into a snail race, I'd give Eduard the Escargot the edge. I tried to stay calm. Which bush had he crawled under and lost his bearings? Whose doorstep was he standing outside of, confused again as he'd gotten that one time a few months back on an evening walk?
People always say, "Relax" at a time when only zombies and heavily tranquilized individuals could reasonably be expected to follow the directive. It's no different when the advice comes from within. It was 7:30 p.m. and time was of the essence. My neighborhood is surrounded by wooded areas. I hear coyotes howling nightly from somewhere in the forest each night and a sign warns hikers of a bear sighting at the entry to the closest trail. Cougars are also reported a few times a year. Along the nearby shoreline are a busy ferry terminal and a two-lane highway—not heavily used but the logging trucks and always-speeding mill workers in pickup trucks cannot break quickly for a darting animal. Relaxing was impossible with so many dangerous possibilities.
I combed ravines, hiked plenty of trails and walked through a sewage drain desperately searching for Lincoln. I stopped evening walkers. No sign of my twelve-year-old schnauzer. By 10 p.m., it was too dark to continue foraging in the forest. I drove ridiculous distances, repeatedly covering every paved and dirt roadway within a 10-kilometer radius until 1 a.m....just in case. Then, I peppered the neighborhood with Missing Dog signs.
As Hoover obliviously snored louder than ever on the bed, I stood by the wide open window, eyes fixated on the driveway hoping for Lincoln to saunter to the door while my ears listened for a faint bark or a yelp that never came.
Nothing made sense. With all Lincoln's challenges, he is simply not an escape artist. (Besides, he has severe separation anxiety and insists on remaining near me.) With nothing to do but worry until the first light of day, I faced the reality that Lincoln had fallen prey to wildlife. If not right away, what chance did he have of surviving the night? He'd stumble in a rocky area or get stopped by a fallen tree, lie down and wait. Terribly gruesome visions flashed through my mind whenever I'd close my eyes. There he'd be, his puppy dog eyes gazing up, his head continuing with that Parkinson's-like shake as a coyote tracked his scent.
By 5 a.m. I renewed the search, first in the car, covering the roads before the shift change at the mill. Then I crawled back in the ravine, back to the trails, back to the meandering creeks. I searched not only for a frightened, shivering schnauzer, but also for tufts of light grey fur, the remains of an easy hunt.
When it opened, I stopped at the vet in town. The ladies there knew the local protocol—who to call, which kennel took in stray dogs. One of them also knew which animal could make off with a small pet without triggering so much as a yelp in alarm. Cougars, I was told, go for the head of their prey. There would be no opportunity for Lincoln to react. (I'd also read how the animal stalked stealthily, waiting for the perfect moment to attack.) As awful as the thought was, it seemed the most plausible explanation for Lincoln's disappearance. The hunter would identify Lincoln as the weaker of the pair of doggy treats. It could lie in wait until I drifted to the side of the house. The ravine would have been the getaway, with Hoover looking on in bewilderment.
But there were always the What If thoughts. What if Lincoln hadn't fallen prey? What if he'd fallen in a ravine, stumbled away disoriented and was waiting desperately to be found? What if he was wandering aimlessly, wondering why nothing looked familiar? (What would he even see in a new environment with his limited vision? The blurs would be completely foreign.)
A neighbour out for a morning walk with her dog reminded me about her previous pet, a collie, being killed by a bear years ago in her front yard. (On the other side of me, a fellow had his schnauzer killed by a bear in his yard as well.)
I was to blame. I had become too complacent. I'd failed to protect my needy dog.
Despair mounted, but all I could do was keep searching. I now understand the agony of not knowing. I know how difficult it is to wait helplessly in the dark as a search must be halted. The night had been tortuous and, as I desperately trekked wooded pathways, I stopped every ten seconds to call out, "LINCOLN" and to listen for the rustling from my beloved pet, responding to my voice. The whole thing was a needle in a haystack. So much ground to cover. So little chance Lincoln would hear me. (Only hours before he vanished, he'd stood four feet away from me and hopped in the wrong direction when I called his name. Could my calls take him even farther away?)
Finally, at 11:30 a.m., after not hearing back from the SPCA and various kennels, I called back. Once again, I only got a recording from the SPCA. When I left another message, I couldn't recite my phone number. Lack of sleep and the stress of the situation stripped me of even rote memory. At the first kennel, the attendant told me someone had called saying she'd found an old schnauzer sitting in the middle of the highway at 9:30 last night and had taken him home. I broke down. I could let go of all the worst-case scenarios.
It took another hour--busy signals, answering machines, alternate phone numbers--for us to connect. During the wait, I was too restless to stay put. I drove into town and withdrew money from the ATM for a reward. Lincoln had been saved. I made sure I was generous. When I pulled up to the woman's van at a gas station in town, I spotted a small fox-like dog in the front seat. No one would mistake that dog for a schnauzer, would they? She walked me around to the side door, opened it and there he was, resting comfortably in the seat, not looking the least bit distressed. I broke down again as I held him in my arms and felt his little body convulse with happiness. In retrospect, the thank you was too brief. I was in no state to speak.
Lincoln is back home to my great relief. (Even Hoover showed a trace of excitement to see the bossy old guy again.) I keep looking at him, petting him. It's real. He is here. He still shakes my stinky socks in his mouth. He still drinks sloppily from the water dish. He still slides across the laminate floor. I have more time with him. It's the same, but different. I never want to walk in the woods again. Not these woods. The images I envisioned there are too haunting. We'll stick to the beaches...and the fenced in back yard.
For now, it's nap time. Suddenly the visions are better when I close my eyes.