Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tucker Everlasting

By some divine sense of comedy and tragedy, we began to immerse ourselves at school in the book Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt at the same time that it appeared that Tucker, my English Cocker Spaniel and best friend, might not be everlasting.

When Tucker runs, his ears bounce around so much we like to say he is "bunny rabbiting." For eight and a half years, he has loved every opportunity to bunny rabbit off-leash both on (and off and on and off) paths through the many beautiful woods we are fortunate enough to live near. He gets better exercise that way and can sniff this bush or that stump for as long as he pleases while I get to keep walking at my pace. His typical stray is much less than 50 yards - not so far that I can't talk or sing to him while we walk, and he makes frequent passes back to me for a kiss or a treat. He has taught several puppies how to be great off-leash woods walkers.

Tucker, before his summer haircut. He's as beautiful inside as out.

On roads, he needs a leash. He is curious, friendly, and utterly without street sense. He thinks cars are friends to go up and sniff, even if they're moving. He's smarter in the woods. He knows not to bother bikers and joggers and, although he loves to chase deer, he soon gives up and comes back to his humans.

The fourth day of school, September 12, significant to so many people as the day after the tenth anniversary of 9-11, was a warm and sun-dappled gift. My daughter and her friend decided to walk the dogs in the nearby woods. Unusually, I decided not to go with them. About a half hour into the walk, I got a panicked phone call from my daughter.

"Tucker took off in the thick bushes barking. Then cried loudly in pain and then he was silent. We can't find him."

With several loving friends, we searched, calling and clapping, whistling and yelling, pushing through bushes and prickers, sludging through muddy bogs thick with mosquitoes and smelling strongly of rotting vegetation. Confident that Tucker would come back to us any moment, I was both calm and clueless about how to find him if he didn't come to us. Since he had never gone missing before, I had no tricks or strategies up my sleeve, but that was okay; I knew we'd find him.

After a long and mosquito-bite-filled evening, the others needed to get home. Dinners needed to be made and eaten, homework needed to be done. Lives needed to move on.

I stayed until it was too dark to see anything. By then, it had hit me. I was about to go home without Tucker for the first time in his life. Was he alive? Was he hurt? Was he still in the woods? Why didn't he whine or cry? Why couldn't I find him? How could this be happening to us? Not much sleep that night!

Over the next week and a half, my daughter and I asked countless joggers, walkers, bikers and bystanders if they had seen Tucker. We made flyers. We called the police and the pound. We kept searching and so did many friends and, amazingly and inspiringly, strangers. Countless people wished us well and tried to help us find our black-eared, four-legged gentle friend, but we have yet to find an explanation that works or even one clue.

For the first few days, I was always on the verge of tears. Not just tears, but sobs. Who knows what we ate. I certainly wasn't keeping up with cooking and chores. Keeping up with my work for school, at least a little, was both necessary to my ability to teach a lesson and also to my sanity. School was a reprieve from walking obsessively and repetitively in the woods, yelling and clapping and whistling for a dog who didn't show up.

For five minute snatches, I can sometimes forgot he's gone. Then I am hit with the realization all over again. It's a hole that can feel too deep to cross over. Our puppy, Mocha, lets me kiss her nose twice as often, which helps. Her antics are as funny as ever, and her need to be cuddled, held and noticed helps my daughter and me fill some of that furry quota. She reminds us to laugh and play tug-of-war and to live each moment in the present. When she shakes her toy and growls at it to remind us to throw it for her, she suggests that guilt and regrets are about as useful as excrement. Undeniably, she tells us minute by minute that life goes on. I believe her.

From an interview of Natalie Babbitt I learned that an ancient meaning of "tuck" is life. Tucker has been my life teacher these past eight years. I hope to have news of him to report one day on this blog. Meanwhile, my thoughts and love for Tucker are everlasting; I just have to learn not to flinch every time we use the word Tuck.