This morning started like any other morning.
I wake up. I make coffee. I feed dogs. I pull boots over the bottom of my sweats and head outside. I let the chickens out. I feed the horses. I walk the dogs over the dried-up spring and into the back 40.
But this morning, as we crossed the spring, I felt like I was being watched.
I looked up to my left saw a huge bull moose staring at us from the ridge on the edge of the property. He was silhouetted against the sunrise, in a picture impossible for a human hand to paint.
I had this strange sense that he was watching over us.
Only a handful of the 40 acres behind the barn are flat, and by the time we made our way around the game trail now beaten into the earth by dogs and horses, the moose had disappeared into the rest of his days.
We haven’t been able to climb the hills behind the barn lately, because little Emma has her own mountain to climb.
Maybe you’ve met Emma in person, or maybe through photographs or my words, and she’s already taken your heart. She’s still a puppy, only eight months old. But she doesn’t destroy the inside of the truck when I run into the store, or complain when she’s left in her crate, or take chunks out of the couch.
She doesn’t do anything, really, except walk with a limp sometimes.
And be the best companion I’ve ever had at my side, for the six short months she’s been here.
She’s a special one.
So I cried quietly when the veterinarian in this small town, who happens to be one of the best canine orthopedic surgeons in the country, told me her elbows were already disintegrating, to the point where putting her down was an option.
He hadn’t seen anything this bad, in a dog this young, in a long, long time. The CT-scan showed big, pellet-sized bone fragments floating around her elbows, and it was only going to get worse.
A lot worse.
I drove home, damning my shitty luck in between the tears. I’d just gone through with this with my last dog, who’d lost her own genetic lottery and been bionic by the end. She died last November after her spine fused together and wrecked her nervous system, but this same surgeon had given her a few more good years with a new hip.
A few months after she died, I’d started searching animal rescues and shelters, but couldn’t find the right dog for me. A couple of people close to me suggested I think about getting another Labrador, because that seemed to be my kind of dog.
So I did some research. A lot of research. I found a litter with damn-near perfect parents, dogs with board-certified elbows and hips and DNA and everything else they do these days to offset the overbreeding of a popular dog.
And that’s the only reason I got a Lab again.
The surgeon said there was one thing he could try. He’d heard about an Italian surgeon who’d had some success by cutting elbow bones early in a dog’s development, giving the joint a chance to heal together. And while cutting both of Emma’s ulnas would be invasive and tough on a puppy, with the high probability that she’ll never be normal, that was the only way forward he could see.
That, or let her go and get another dog.
If you know anything about me at all, you know what happened next.
He pulled out the floating bone fragments while he was in there. I have them in a Ziplock on my kitchen counter. They look like small teeth, probably 20 little pieces of puppy bone.
She was at the clinic post-op for over a week. Every day, the staff brought her out to lay at their feet around the office, because she was so docile and sweet. By the time I came by to pick her up, they didn’t want to let her go.
And that’s why we haven’t been walking the hills behind the barn in the morning.
But we’re walking the flats now, and probably running more than we should be.
The surgeon saw Emma yesterday for a recheck. He’s been great to me and my dogs, but he’s always seemed emotionally disconnected, like when he told me that letting this dog go and getting another one was an option. That’s probably how he has to be, with so many animals from all over the country coming to him, looking for hope every single day. I was in the waiting room yesterday morning with dogs from Texas and Montana, and who knows what the afternoon looked like.
He does incredible, beautiful work for dogs and their humans.
But sometimes there’s nothing he can do, and nobody wants to have their heart broken every day, so there has to be a disconnect.
After taking a look at her, he asked if I’d bring her back in six weeks, and then every few months as she gets older. He said she may be the case he can point to that shows a normal life is possible, even with the most dire of diagnoses.
He can’t be sure yet.
He thinks she could give folks a real, authentic hope.
And then the stoic surgeon got down on his knees in the exam room and held this puppy’s head with both of his big, ruddy hands for a few moments. He brought her close to him, and she licked his nose.
In those few moments, quiet questions came.
What if, six months ago, someone else had reached down into that pack of tiny puppies sprawled across the linoleum floor and picked this one up?
What if someone else had heard that diagnosis?
Would she have been left on a proverbial doorstep somewhere, dropped at a shelter to pass along the hard and sometimes impossible decision between bills and disintegrating bones?
Would she have been put down?
I guess I don’t need to know the answers to those questions.
But I can’t let go of the one that came next. It’s staying with me, like this morning’s sunrise bull moose silhouette.
On that early spring afternoon, six months ago, did she somehow find the person who would help her?
The until-now stoic surgeon let her head rest back on the floor, rubbed her ears and belly, and smiled as he said ‘You’re a special one, aren’t you?’
And she did.