Jennifer Brewer Stone and Susan Gordon

River

Jennifer Brewer Stone

River

response piece

Susan Gordon

River

inspiration piece


River and Me: I

River, a seven year old Australian Shepherd has been the boss; he expects me to bend to his every whim, to know what he is thinking and do it.

One day we took a walk and he disappeared for three hours. I called, whistled, shouted while tramping hundreds of acres of woods and fields. I was about to go home, to make posters to hang all over Ijamsville, to call the Humane Society and then the dog psychic who had located Kevin Bowie’s Jack Russell for 500.00.

I cut through the woods, taking a new track towards my fields when I stumbled upon River sitting at the base of a tree. By the looks of it, he had been there for hours. Bark had been ripped from the tree. A hole was dug at its’ roots and there were scratches on the trunk where he had been jumping six feet in the air and then sliding down the tree. He had been that wild and determined, that crazy and squirrel-obsessed without ever making a sound.

He let out a single, sharp bark when I was a dozen feet away to let me know what he needed done. It was clear from the look on his expectant, prick-ear face that he had been waiting for me.

I don’t believe a person owns a dog, cat or bird but I do think there should be some mutual respect and consideration. River agrees. He considered it my job to climb that tree and get his grey squirrel.

River needed a tune-up on listening and coming skills with the man who helped him become a member of the three dog pack, following my daughter, Liz’s death. John Landry had been able to get River accepted by my golden, Ipse, and Revve, a black shepherd. John had them for three weeks and when he brought them back they swam together, ran together and played together.

I turned to John again. He took River in late February. Twelve days later he called to tell me, “River has another gear; he kicked the butt of six Marine recon dogs.” He said the Marines wanted to buy him, a neutered seven year old dog, for 3,500 dollars. John told them, “His Mom’s not selling.’”

John said, “Susan, you’ve got to be the Alpha in the pack; you’ve got to be unpredictable; you’ve got to be a mystery.”

“Jesus,” I thought, “I’m nearly sixty-three; I’m plodding; I’m slow; I operate on ritual; how do I get some respect?”

It turns out, I don’t.

The new electric collar does. One zap brings the River-dog in. I rarely have to resort to electricity; if I call, he comes. If he is too far a-field a beep reminds him, “Come or a shock might follow.”

I throw the Frisbee for River every morning before breakfast, every afternoon when I’m on a break from work and in the evening, two or three times between nine and midnight.

But now he comes back with the Frisbee. When he catches it mid-air, I’m jumping up and down and yelling, “Good job, River-bucket, great catch.”

River and me: a tri-colored Aussie with long legs, a powerful leap and stare- you-down-herding-dog-eyes and me, a 63 year old woman, 15 pounds overweight, with short grey hair and rimless glasses, leaping in the air, clapping and calling, “Great job, great job, River. Bring it in, all the way, all the way,” until he drops the slobbered and sometimes peed on Frisbee at my feet for me to throw again.

River and Me: II

River is Liz’s dog. He is Liz’s dog when she takes her last breath. Only River and, her Jack Russell, Cosmo, know when that was. They were there.

River is Liz’s dog. He loves Kerry; Liz’s best friend; he can feel Liz’s electricity running through her, somehow.

Kerry is a conduit to that “Liz place” that resides in River, still– three years and six months after her death.

River lives with me now. We are partners in crime. We are vacillating alpha dogs; we are changing leaders of the pack.

John Landry died. Just before Christmas. Kerry told me when I brought River and Revve into the vet’s to get their nails trimmed. She said that John had a heart attack separating two fighting dogs.

John was a big man, with one day’s stubble on his cheeks and chin, a close cropped head and dusky skin, dusky verging on gray. That might have been me or him. My eyes never saw very well when I was with John. It might have been that I first met him six days after Liz was found dead and that to see John was to see the world without Liz.

John hated the Iraq war but he loved the men and women who were serving. He cared about them when they showed up, injured at Walter Reed. He talked about taking his dogs in to see those vets, wounded, bed or wheel chair bound, and depressed.

I always depended on John Landry to keep River wild and obedient, listening and kicking Marine dogs’ ass. Now, John was gone and I couldn’t ask him for River adjustments, for yearly mystery.

That was my job now.

I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.

River is a dog who loves a challenge. Simple obedience is boring. What he really wants is a lively engagement of mind and body. When we take walks around Baker Park, he leaps onto the fieldstone walls and walks along top of them. He tries leaping on and off park benches as well.

“Hmm,” I thought, “agility” and I signed him up for an intro class. What is agility? It is a dog sport that rewards speed and precision as a dog runs through tunnels, trots through ladder rungs, bends his body back and forth through a line of poles, leaps jumps, runs up ramps and holds himself steady on boards that are actually a dog form of a teeter totter.

This, I thought, would be a mystery for River, a mystery to me because I would be bringing him into a world unknown to both of us.

Our teacher, Amy, a full-bodied girl with long hair and a star sapphire on one of her ring fingers She is an emergency technician with the fire department. Amy is laissez-faire and she doesn’t miss a trick when you are in her gaze.

The first night we sat in a circle without our dogs and she demonstrated with her nearly all black Aussie how to teach your dog to touch the palm of your hand with his nose. She said, “No voice, just the clicker and instant treats.” She recommended Zukes mini treats and handed each of us a clicker with the Breakaway Action Dogs logo on it. Mine was red and yellow. She taught us: Click and as soon as the dog looks, a treat. And then she taught us to reward the dog for even an accidental nose touch to the palm: click and treat.

I went home to teach River and he showed me a trick I had forgotten he ever knew. Every time I held out my palm, he raised his corresponding paw and reached it towards my hand. I lost my breath and nearly began to cry, but I didn’t because it would have been the wrong response. River was delighting in showing me a trick that he had had no occasion to use since Liz’s death. My hand gestures had brought forth a game he and Liz used to play, her palm, his high five.

River and Me: III

“Love. . . is a high inducement

Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

“Love. . . is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person…”

sometimes for the sake of a dog, sometimes for the sake of a client, sometimes for the sake of the lost husband, sometimes for the sake of two daughters, one living, one dead and sometimes, for the dead daughter’s dog.

It comes round, doesn’t it?

For the sake of the dog means wondering why, now, he is licking the fur of the joint just above his paw?

It means taking him to agility.

It means losing 59 of my nearly 64 years as I rocket across the floor, mindless and full of joy, calling out: “River, River, River!!!” as he dashes to catch me and then I, to clasp, to clap and leap with him and then trot back to the starting line, out of breath.

River loves to skip along any plank; they are just an airier version of the stone walls in Baker Park. Change the height, change the pitch, for River, it still is “trot up, turn around, trot down.”

I try to teach him “paws” which is also “pause.” That means coming off any piece of equipment: tunnel, teeter-totter, plank and leaving his hind legs on the object and placing his front legs on the target. “Ok, too technical.” It is too technical for him, too. He thinks, “I’ve got it–trot, trot, trot and then (pause) a nice clean sit on the plank.” And like any parent, I think, “Maybe what he has figured out is cooler than what is desired.

It means noticing that he is still licking that fur above his paw.

It means wondering: “What is worrying him?

I remember that in the last weeks he has been particularly attuned to me.

Thursday I called a friend and told her, “I need to scream and I won’t allow myself to do it.”

I began to sob and River was right there.

His worried eyes say, “Its’ real; its’ real; I know when it is real. How can I help?

I thought I was carrying the dog by taking him to agility, by taking him to a place where he can run narrow planks, run through curving tunnels. But clearly we are carrying each other.

Amy, the agility instructor says, “Not so fast, Susan,” as River and I negotiate an ever tipping three foot by three foot yellow-painted piece of plywood that is balancing on a ball as River balances on the wood.

Amy says to me, “He’s doing, he’s doing—but he is leaping off like it’s a hot potato. Slow, slow,” she says, “Let him gain some confidence.”

And I slow; I try not to rush him.

He is bright, enthusiastic, full of joy himself and oh, so willing.

But, if I go too fast, he is like any child in school, rushing to keep up without understanding—really.

I thought of agility for him.

I chose it above yoga, above meditation.

I thought I chose it for the love and well-being of River but really it is for both of us

I do not have Liz. I can’t be her Mom anymore.

He does not have Liz. He cannot be her dog anymore.

We have each other; we are both becoming more agile—as parent, as dog

because “love is about becoming the world in {oneself} for the sake of the other.”*

Susan Gordon

February 16, 2011

*Rilke, “Letters for a Young Poet”

4 Comments

  1. Nancy Smith
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 1:05 am | #

    Susan and Jennifer..What a lovely pairing. Susan’s story of love for and in River is reflected in Jennifer’s layered portrait. The light and the shadow in the story and the dog.

  2. Posted March 16, 2011 at 5:35 pm | #

    Thanks, Nancy! So glad you liked it!

  3. h.whittaker
    Posted May 28, 2011 at 11:33 pm | #

    Deeply affecting writing and a beautiful portrait.

  4. Posted June 14, 2011 at 7:17 pm | #

    thanks, h whittaker.

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