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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Off the Grid: Lessons in fragility and resilience

By Ammi Midstokke The Spokesman-Review

“Can I be with her now?” I asked.

The doctor shook her head no and slipped into the dark room with three others, lit by the spectral glow of an X-ray on the distant wall. In the moment before she pulled the door closed, I saw the limp legs of my brown dog hanging over the ledge of the table. Even then, I was stoic and patient.

When the door opened again, Freya’s nose was tucked into a plastic mask.

“We just put her on a little supplemental oxygen,” the technician said, as if I didn’t know what that meant, then she called in another vet.

My pragmatism finally gave way to tears.

Until then, the woman had only given me grunts and nods, uncertain about my insistence to carry Freya myself and whisper in her soft brown ears about what was happening. She had held still for the IV, looked into my eyes while fingers dug around her bloody chest. I could only apologize as she went limp in my arms, and promise her she was the best brown dog, even if she was a bit red right now, too.

I hate days when the gods remind us of our fragility, of the fickleness of life, of how for granted we take most things.

“Does she always breathe like this?” the vet asked of her rasping, halted breath.

“Only when she impales herself on sharp sticks,” I answered.

I also hate that she’s done this more than once and that she apparently moves at such speed that any encounter with a well-aimed stick leaves her skewered like a clumsy jouster. This one had her yelping from the trees, hobbling back onto the trail as I ran to find her, blood dripping from a wound that revealed more anatomy than a high school biology class.

Just that morning, on our way to the woods, I had stopped at the park with the giant weeping willow to watch the construction workers cut it down. I guess compromises take time and the world is fresh out of that. Across the street, the children of the Waldorf school sang morning verses, their little voices drifting on the wind toward the violent buzz of saws. The air was a hymn of hope and despair.

Someone rattled the chain link fence in frustration. A group of silent protesters stood by watching and exchanging claims of administrative transgressions and politicians’ lies. A woman from the school came and asked for tendrils of the willow. She carried them back like wounded children of war. Those tendrils have more promise than what we’ve seen in the headlines lately.

If anyone can grow forests from a few shoots, it’s the Waldorf school, I thought.

Something about seeing those branches laid across a bench and hearing the songs of cosmic connection soothed my grief, blanketed it with something like faith with fewer vowels. A quiet knowing had settled in me that even if this tree is gone, now several more will grow from it. We think that because we might not see it in our lifetime, it is not happening at all. But time is the measure of our insignificance, not our import.

That belief was still warming me like tea as Freya frolicked in the thick and wild forest and the soil of eons supported my feet. Just when I think I’m dabbling in enlightenment of sorts, life offers to humble me once more. It is the gift of the human experience, no doubt – a full-spectrum carnival.

Three veterinarians and one technician emerged as I squeezed my way back into the room and stared at the X-rays. There were blotches where there should not be, air in places it didn’t belong, but the consensus was Freya’s borrowing lives from our cats (in a karmic trade for all the birds they kill) and her lungs and heart were OK.

They let me stay with her while they operated. I wondered how I can plant the branches of this brown dog, why love comes with the heartache of impermanence, and if I am paying attention to what matters. So often, we forget to until we no longer can.

When the tip of her tail twitches in an attempt at a wag, I sigh with relief that today is not the day I must traverse the entirety of that spectrum. But as long as we don’t know how many days we have left to sit under a particular tree or play with a particular dog or tell someone we love them, we ought to make good use of the current, precious one.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at Freya the Brown Dog is enjoying an increase in familial doting throughout her recovery.