Reflecting over the past decade, I remember the best New Year, ever. After the worst year, ever. Here’s the story:
“Lost and Found” by Pegge Bernecker, reprinted from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living Catholic Faith (2008)
We had waited nearly two years to get a Chesapeake Bay Retriever puppy. I daydreamed of names, felt the brown puppy fur between my fingers, and smelled a young warm-bellied pup. The breeder called with a possible dog for us; he was four months old, had no training, and could not be AKC registered. I explained he would be our family dog and accompany my husband and son hunting. I assured her that his age and lack of early attention was okay with us. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I was determined to have this dog, no matter what. Thus, on a windy day, in late December, we met him. He was shy and afraid of us, of everything really, but I just knew he was my dog. We named him Kenai after our favorite river in Alaska, where my parents lived.
Less than one month later, our only child, our sixteen-year-old son, died. As I grieved, whimpering and crying in my pain, Kenai sat at attention at his fence, listening for my movements in the house. He watched and waited, 24/7. I spent more than an hour each day sitting cross-legged on a railroad tie in the yard, Kenai lying across my lap. His fur became a prayer blanket to me, his eyes a healing solace. I sometimes wondered if he was an angel, sent to companion me in my grief.
On April 1st, a little more than two months after Justin died, I made a business trip to California. It was a mistake for me to travel so soon. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was and how little energy I had to expend. I couldn’t wait to get home. On a Sunday evening, I called to check in with Jim, my husband. He sounded awful and told me he had some very bad news. While at the fire station on Interstate 80 in Wyoming where he volunteers, a train passed, blowing its whistle. Kenai, standing next to him, had bolted in fear, simply disappearing into the stark barren landscape. Jim searched for hours and finally drove the forty-five minutes home, bereft. He knew how much Kenai mattered to me, and couldn’t believe this loss.
When I got home, we drove to Wyoming and searched and searched. No one had seen him. On Holy Thursday, a friend and I drove to every house, every ranch, and posted lost dog signs. I berated myself for seeking a lost dog, while there were places in the world with people searching for missing family and friends. Yet I knew the loss of our son had left us almost hopeless. We could do nothing to change it. I had to do something now to try to find Kenai, to ease our loss. I had to believe again.
Kenai was only seven months old — a shy, frightened dog. But I had to try, to hope for a miracle. I posted a missing dog report on dogdetective.com.
The summer passed. Whenever we went to our cabin, ten miles south of where we lost Kenai, I scoured the landscape. I knew that perhaps someone had found him and kept him, or he had been eaten by a predator, or killed by a car. But I still looked. Something inside me believed in hope. I stopped telling my husband what I was doing. He felt bad enough.
Nine months later
Nearly nine months passed. Christmas was coming and we planned to visit my parents in Alaska. It had been the worst year of our lives, and we needed a respite. On December 23rd, we left Colorado in a snowstorm. Two feet of snow had fallen; cattle were dying on the plains. Arriving in Alaska, the serenity and beauty welcomed us. My parent’s cozy lodge was a comforting place to spend Christmas.
The morning of December 24th, my husband was on the telephone. I heard snippets of the conversation. “In a dead cow carcass? Brown dog? Skinny? Can’t get near him?” He hung up, shaken, and explained. A rancher out with her cows had spotted a small animal on a distant ridge. She determined it was a dog. She could see it had a collar and flash of silver around its neck. When she approached the animal, it ran. Searching the Internet for lost dogs, Brenda found my notice I’d long given up on but never deleted. She promised to leave food near the cow carcass the dog used for shelter, and warned there was another big storm coming.
At Christmas Mass, I couldn’t concentrate. Images of shepherds, ranchers, sheep, dogs, mangers, cradles, and cow carcasses traversed my mind. Was it possible that Kenai had survived all this time, alone? Did I dare I believe he was alive?
I asked myself, as I do every Christmas, “How is the Christ-child birthed within me this year?” Might the birthing be hope in a dog that was lost and found? That what seemed to be dead could live? Dare I believe and hope for a miracle?
Brenda promised to keep feeding him until we returned on December 31st and could meet her at the ranch. She was certain the skittish dog was Kenai. Though he wouldn’t let her within twenty-five yards of him, the kibble she left on the snowy ground was wolfed down each morning.
A new year
January 1st dawned clear and sunny and we drove to Wyoming. Entering the ranch, we stopped to scan the landscape with binoculars. On a distant ridge we saw him. There was no doubt now. My stomach started to churn. Within a few minutes, we met Brenda. I could barely breathe. There was only room for one of us in her tractor cab. Jim stared at me and whispered, “Go.”
Maneuvering to the ridge top seemed longer than ten minutes. Cows followed as we lurched through icy snow drifts. The sun radiated brilliance against snow and rock. We stopped where Brenda had left food for Kenai. Heart pounding, I stepped from the cab.
Brenda backed the tractor away. I walked forward. Suddenly I saw a flash of brown on the other ridge. Clapping my hands, I called, “Kenai, Kenai, Kenaiii,” over and over and over. Could he hear me, would he remember?
Kenai stopped and sniffed the air. Instantly wiggling with recognition from nose to tail, he raced through snowdrifts toward me. Whimpers and cries erupted from both of us. I fell to my knees in the snow, arms wide open, calling him. I could see his puppy collar! A solid, furry hay-smelling body launched into my embrace. He was undersized, but unharmed. We jumped up, tumbled around each other, playing, touching, petting, tears pouring forth. I can’t believe he remembers! He’s safe!
When Jim was within one hundred yards of us, I knelt, presenting to him Kenai. Kenai looked to me, then rushed to Jim as I watched, sobbing with joy.
Oh yes, I hope. I believe.
–(c) Pegge Bernecker, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living Catholic Faith, 2008