As collies go, Beau wasn’t particularly handsome, but he had a good heart.
We lived out in the country, and if there were leash laws, we weren’t aware of them, or at least, I wasn’t. I was a 9-year-old girl who loved her dog and did as she was told. I accepted as normal that Beau had full run of our three acres between Eagle Hill Road and the river, where he spent his days looking for dead ducks to roll in or chasing bevies of quail that sped single file from pasture to woods as if on miniature Segways. Now that I think about it, Tippy, the dog on the adjoining property, was always tied to a doghouse. It seemed punitive at the time, but in retrospect, it was the responsible choice because Beau roamed, and we would learn, in the most awful of ways, that not everyone welcomes a male collie exploring their property and that lucky timing rarely happens twice.
Occasionally Beau roved as far as the rental cottage on the hill to the east of us across the marsh. I didn’t know the new tenants, but I did know they had a dark-haired, 14-year-old son because that spring George appeared on the school bus.
One Saturday, when sea nettles drifted like watery ghosts around the pier pilings, the crows were making a racket, and the persimmons were still green along the lane, Beau didn’t come when called. After scanning the distance, I could just make him out on the other side of the marsh by the renters’ cottage. I whistled, cupped my hands to my mouth, and shouted his name. He turned in my direction, seemed to see me, and took off at a run for home. But as I watched the streak of white and gold racing my way, the crack of a rifle split the air. Did he falter? Suddenly what had been a normal Saturday morning became something else, something incomprehensible. Beau was running full out for home by then.
He made his way across the stream where the marsh flowed into the river and up the hill to our house. With the shock of the rifle blast still in the air, we examined him where he now lay panting in the dry summer grass. He wasn’t bleeding and appeared uninjured, but on closer inspection, we saw what was clearly a bullet hole in his side.
“Your dog’s been shot all right,” the doctor said after we’d rushed him to the nearest vet. “Bullet went right through him. See? Here’s the second hole on the other side. Missed his internal organs. Must have just emptied his bladder,” he said, looking up from the exam table. “That’s what saved him.”
That’s what got him shot, I thought. It was a miracle of timing that saved him.
After that, we were careful to keep Beau close to home, but the next time he didn’t come when called, I’d learn that he would never come home again.
I was changing from school clothes to jeans and a sweater. It was winter now and had been bitterly cold for a week, the temperatures so low the river had nearly frozen over.
Beau wasn’t in the house, and he didn’t show up happily panting at the back door when called. Tragedy had unfolded while I struggled with multiplication tests, played dodgeball at indoor recess, and sang “Oh Susanna” (loudly and in my best singing voice) when Ms. Fielding pushed the blond upright into our classroom for music.
While my sisters and I were at school and our parents were at work, Beau had trailed several smaller dogs over the frozen surface of nearby Black Hole Creek to play on the island in the middle of the channel. By mid-afternoon, the smaller dogs slipped and slid their way back across the ice to shore, but when Beau tried to follow them, he broke through the ice and fell into the frigid water. Witnesses called the Lake Shore Volunteer Fire Department, and they were just feet from him with a boat and ladder extended on the ice when he went down. Timing.
How old was Beau? Not old enough.
How old was I? Not old enough.
I’m still not old enough.
What do you do with the freight of guilt and sorrow? I was a 4th grader with parents who were not paying attention. I wasn’t in charge, had little understanding of the risks, and no authority, but I grieve for that dog, have prayed for that dog, and I wish I’d grown up in a household where the dependent and vulnerable had been better cared for. Who decided Beau could stay out all day? It was so cold the river had frozen! I imagine it was a disastrous oversight. Everyone rushing to work or school thought someone else had put the dog in the house for the day.
There is only one way to compensate for all you regret. The places in your life where you’d give anything for another chance. There is only one way to attenuate the remorse you carry.
Do good now.
With every dog I feed, walk, have vaccinated, bathe, and serve in my adult life, even the dogs I only briefly interact with volunteering at the SPCA, I do this dumb thing. Out on the shelter trail where the American slider turtles sun themselves on semi-submerged logs in the stream, just beyond the cozy knoll where the deer bed down, I stop and whisper in each silky ear, “When you get to heaven, tell Beau I’m sorry.”
It has been said grief is love with nowhere to go, but the river of love has to go somewhere. It cuts a fresh channel and becomes something new. A waterfall, a lake. An ocean. A neglected rescue you eventually take home. It becomes surrogate service. Proxy love.
Whenever a shelter dog I’ve come to love is adopted, I rejoice for the dog’s good fortune. I’m also a little sad. I will miss each wagging tail and excited bark. The bruise of old loss pressed by new loss, or maybe it’s just the price of attachment. A bill that will come due for all of us.
But I continue to think of them, even years later–Daisy, Roxy, Chase, Jett–imagining them in their new homes. Hoping each remains someone’s beloved.
But the empty kennels they occupied symbolize not just the need to redirect my service hours to new charges but that a family with affection to share has found a place for it to go. That love, ever the survivor, has given grief a new home.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.