September 15, 2015
The world is darker today. Not because I’m blind. My world is always black. But this day my heart is broken.
I sit for a very long time next to the door. I long for her smell of fresh cut flowers, her touch and her gentle voice. I visualize her face. I see the fullness of her lips and the deep compassion in her dark eyes. She is the most caring human I’ve ever known. I long for her comforting arms around me.
People come up and pet me. One nurse offers me a bowl of water. I remain aloof, not wanting to be distracted in case… in case there’s some word. She couldn’t possibly be capable of being with me now.
Bay leaf and ocean scent assault my nostrils as I feel Ashlundt pass by into the ER. I stretch my nose toward him, searching for some sort of hope. I feel his desperation as he hurries past me with two words, “Stay, Luke.”
My stomach growls. I suppress the hunger. It doesn’t matter now. In trying to push away the anguish, my mind wanders back to when Sara left us. I was younger and not blind. She wanted to protect Ashlundt from the pain of her cancer. She must have known that he wouldn’t be able to cope with her being sick.
I’m not sure what makes him tick. It has to have something to do with his brother’s surfing accident. He blames himself to this day. Maybe that’s why he can’t cope with illness or imperfection in those he’s supposed to love. I once was his golden boy. We went everywhere together. Now, my blindness has pushed him further away from me.
I still feel Ashlundt’s athletic strength every once and a while. He’ll brush his large hands over me, and I can visualize his big frame and angular face bathed in his long, sun-lightened hair. I wish he knew how to cope with my blindness. It’s hard not to take it personally.
I wish I could cope better with my loss of site. I’d always been a watcher. It must be part of my Lab nature. What scares me the most is that I can’t observe my humans, or help them now. Sara has always depended upon our unspoken bond. Ashlundt is another story. I’ve been through tough times with each of them, and I’ve had to be more like that human detective, Sherlock Holmes, than a dog for them. I am the product of a broken relationship.
It’s long past my evening meal when I feel Sara’s presence. I hear nothing but the despair in her voice. “Come, Luke.” She takes me by the collar and leads me to the car.
I sit in the backseat and slowly lay down. I know what has happened but can’t bare thinking of it. She is silent, but her pain is unbearable and palpable in the air. I think back to how Ashlundt pushed her away, even when he finally discovered she was sick. I fought so hard to help him try and win her back…
I’m jarred back to reality as the car stops. I hear the door open, then the backseat door. Sara whispers, “Let’s go inside, Luke.”
Slowly, I follow Sara into the house.
She says nothing as she fixes my kibble and leftover chicken, then leaves the room. My greatest fear has been realized.
After sating my hunger, I go to find Sara in her bedroom. She is lying across her bed in silence, tortured and bereft. Even though I’m not usually allowed on the bed, she says nothing as I crawl up next to her and place my head on her hip. I give out a whimpered cry of sorrow.
We lie together in silence for a long, long time. I have to go outside so badly that my bladder hurts, but I don’t dare leave Sara. She is so cold. I move closer to her, wanting her to feel my warmth, the warmth that Ashlundt should have offered. Time passes. My stomach begins to growl and adds to my discomfort, but it doesn’t matter. I will not leave her.
Sometime later the phone starts to ring. It must be morning. All those distraught voices leaving messages of sorrow on the answering machine. I crawl up to her face, pressing my nose on her cheek to see if she is asleep. Her hand softly touches the top of my head. “It’s okay, Lukey. Thank you for staying with me.” A ragged sigh escapes from her and is joined by my own.
Still we remain motionless. I think back to the chain of events until I started going blind. But, I’ve gotten way ahead of myself. I need to go back to the beginning so that you understand how we arrived at our darkest moment in time.
Chapter One - The Deception
Ashlundt Jaynes didn’t know about the cancer, but I smelled it on Sara Colson from the beginning. I may just be a dog, but when she lied to him about it, I realized I had to help them.
I was born a large, blonde Labrador Retriever—a handsome, big-boned guy with a large square head and an unusually fine mind, so it was easy for me to reach the knobs and learn how to open doors… unless they were locked. Without too much exertion of my 87-pounds, I could just nudge them open with my nose and saunter in to be with my humans. They always seemed so pleased when I entered the room. Well, all except for this one time when I wandered into the master bathroom on that fateful day to find Sara, with her long dark hair tangled around her face, hunched over the edge of the bathtub crying.
I have to emphasize that I truly understand humans. I took great pride in my ability to comprehend the events surrounding me.
Since my birth, I had never seen Sara cry. It startled me. I plodded over to lick her face and hands, trying to wipe the tears away. She grabbed my head, slid to the marble tile floor and buried her face in my furry neck.
“Oh, Luke, what am I gonna do? I can’t add my problems to his,” she moaned.
I whined in Sara’s ear and plopped down next to her with my head in her lap. She cupped her arms around her left breast and rocked back and forth. “Your mommy needs an operation. Chemo too.” She rubbed the top of my head. “Ash can’t deal with me being sick.” Sara bent down and rested her cheek on my ear. “With the law suit and all, this would be… too much. I need to go away for awhile …” Her voice trailed off.
I pressed my nose closer to her mouth and smelled the disease on her breath. A dog’s olfactory senses are much greater than a human’s, or so I’ve overheard. I knew it was bad. It was very much like the last time I saw our old next door neighbor, Mrs. Simmons. She patted me on the head in front of her house one afternoon. She was so weak and sluggish. It was like all her strength had been taken away. A week later, the ambulance was taking her away for the last time. Now, as Sara held me tighter, my body began to tremble with hers at the fear of losing her.
Sara moved through the house like an invisible stranger, not her usual demeanor. She was lithe or “gracefully athletic” as Ashlundt phrased it. She didn’t just walk into a room; she dominated it. But after our moment in the bathroom, she seemed to dissolve. I dogged behind her as much as she would let me. She wandered listlessly through our one-story ranch-style house, from the large open kitchen with its brick floors, to the adjoining den with its stone fireplace. The house was filled with hard-surfaced textures that Sara had softened with earth-tone fabric, pillows, flowers and Southwestern-styled rugs. I’d track her into her home office, once a bedroom with an adjoining bathroom. She’d sit for awhile, then get up and shuffle into their master bedroom across the hall and start folding towels and putting them away in the closet. It almost became a routine. She’d walk to the large waveless waterbed and stretch out on the delicious chenille bedspread that I wanted to snuggle into with her. After a few minutes, she’d get up and slowly saunter by Ashlundt’s office, a converted rec room at the end of the house next to the garage. She would pause for a minute, glance in, then shuffle to her bathroom where she would lock herself in for long periods of time. She had always kept the doors unlocked so I could join her in any room. Now, I was resigned to just waiting.
Our long walks on the horse paths in the woods surrounding our house were always the favorite part of my day. Weather took on a significant essence in the woods – full of the fragrance of the pine and oak trees in summer, or the crunch of the path on cooler days. Only at that point, everything was overcast and gray with Sara deep in thought, laying across a fallen log on a trail. And, again, I waited. It never used to be like this.
Ashlundt didn’t notice. Once, after Sara had locked herself in the bathroom too many times, I went into his home office and peeked up over his wooden desk. He sat in his high-backed, black leather chair, his shoulder-length blonde hair falling around his unshaven face as he stared blankly at his desk. Tell-tale signs of many sleepless nights were etched across his face. His tall frame was hunched over a book. In a t-shirt and shorts, he looked more like the surfer-dude in the framed photos on the wall behind his desk than a respected psychologist. Suddenly, he looked up and fixed me with his steel blue eyes that used to always be filled with laughter. “Damn, Luke!” He quickly picked up the book and hurled it to the floor.
It hurt me to see how an unfair lawsuit had reduced this vibrant, kind man, who was always full of fun, into an angry shadow of himself. The steady decline of patients that visited him (and generously brought me treats) had fallen to an all-time low. Half his built-in oak bookshelves were empty. His office floor was littered with haphazard piles of books he had hoisted there in anger. He was often distracted at the dinner table. Odd behavior for a psychologist, I thought. It was so unlike what I had always known of him. Boyish, charming and handsome, with a strong chin and broad shoulders, his blue eyes usually sparkled with mischief when he looked at Sara and me.
Ashlundt was a casual man. Our life together had always been relaxed… till now. Growing up in San Diego, his entire family was into surfing. I heard Sara once say that Ashlundt had been a champion; that he almost went on the professional circuit before deciding to go to college. I knew he had a large family, but in the year I had been with him they only had visited us once. And, we had gone to their beach house in San Diego another time when they all showed off their surf board skills. Sara and I were thoroughly entertained. They all had unusual first names that started with an “A” … Ashlundt, Asa, Anya, Ardin and Asmara. Of course, Ashlundt was my favorite of the “A” group. Although, I really enjoyed Asmara, the youngest of the three boys. Asa and Anya were the parents.
A few days after Sara revealed her cancer to me, I watched as she peeked around Ashlundt’s office door and entered with a question. “Hey, you think we could we go out for dinner and a movie tonight?”
“Sara, I just don’t feel up to it. Sorry,” Ashlundt seemed to be lost in thought. He didn’t look up, but instead kept his eyes fixed on the papers on his desk.
Sara took a tentative step into the office. “Well, how ‘bout if we take Luke for a walk to the equestrian center after dinner? You know, just spend time together?”
I seconded that with a large “Ruff!”
Ashlundt sat back rubbing his arm across his forehead. He sighed. “I’m really sorry. Have to finish this marketing plan!” The frustration rose in his voice.
I watched her melt away back into her office at the opposite end of the hall. I followed her, attempted to get into her lap and lick her face -- only to be pushed away. I was momentarily shocked. Sara had never refused my affection. I pushed on and offered to play ball and Frisbee, bringing them each to her and dropping them at her feet. Her reaction: “Stop it, Luke! Go lay down!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing but persisted, placing my chin on her knees and letting out a deep sigh. She looked down at me, melted and wrapped her arms around my neck.
I knew she was thinking about that awful illness, and she confirmed it with her next words.
“I love him too much to put him through the pain of my illness.” She rubbed my snout, and I licked her hand. “He’s been destroyed by the malpractice suit. And that girl’s death.”
I sympathized by whining and licking her hand harder.
“And then there’s his brother.”
I was puzzled by that. Which brother? Ashlundt had several.
“It’ll be easier for him if he thinks I’m away for…”
She trailed off and started to cry again. I licked her face, but she sobbed harder. I backed away and pondered what to do. I knew she was trying to protect Ashlundt, but this was wrong. I had to force her to tell him. So, I padded down the hall from her office to his, took his t-shirt in between my teeth and tugged. This was my attempt to get him to follow me to her. He was in the middle of a phone call and pushed me away. At the same time, he covered the mouthpiece. “Stop it,” he commanded and glared at me.
I sat back on my haunches and waited until he hung up. Then, I tried again. I placed a large paw on his leg and whined.
His face suddenly softened, and kindness flooded into his eyes. “What is it, Luke? You okay, boy?”
I barked and wagged my tail, then turned and ran to the door. I stopped and cocked my head at him. He shook his head from side-to-side. “Sorry, boy. Can’t play with you now. Gotta work.”
Again, I walked up to him and barked loudly several times. “Ruff! Ruff!” This seemed to grab his attention.
“Oh, all right, I’ll throw the Frisbee for a few minutes.” He laughed as he jumped out of his leather high-back chair and followed me. The in-his-face loud barking routine always seemed to work with him. It was my go-to move.
I ran straight into Sara’s office. She was sitting at her desk, her head slumped down in her hands. She was still crying. Ashlundt rushed to her side. “Sara, what’s the matter? What’s happened?” He knelt beside her chair and put his arms around her.
“No-nothing,” she stuttered and flashed me a look I couldn’t decipher.
“Then, why are you crying?”
Sara’s nose was all red and irritated. She blew it into a tissue, crumpled it in her hand and took a deep breath. “I just have some decisions to make right now; that’s all.”
“Decisions? About what?” Ashlundt stared at her, eyebrows arched.
“Well, I got a job offer,” she softly replied. She turned her eyes downward as she said this. Sara didn’t lie often, but I could sense the few times when she did. Ashlundt seemed oblivious.
“Really, that’s great! Where?”
She paused, then whispered, “In England.”
“England? As in across the ocean?” His mouth hung wide open in complete surprise.
“Yes, at Oxford … as a … teaching assistant. I’ll be able to do my research. Uh… my book has received some good reviews … and they called me,” she lied on and shifted nervously in her chair.
I growled at her. She shot me a sharp warning glance.
“When did this happen?” Ashlundt threw his hands upward in disgust and stood looking down at her. “You haven’t said a word to me. Why would you consider it without talking to me?”
“That’s why I wanted to go to dinner with you. You’ve been so preoccupied since the lawsuit, and … and I have to think about my career; my future. Maybe I can get my psychology doctorate; be on a level footing with you. It’s just for a year.” She straightened from her slumped position in her desk chair and looked up at him. “We’ve been together for awhile now … and … well … I haven’t been one of your recent priorities.”
He looked at her with a furrowed brow. “Priorities? Have you not been aware of what I’ve gone through? I was raked over the coals for something I didn’t do. And it’s all but destroyed my practice.” He let out a huge breath and walked in a circle, frantically running his hands through his hair. “That girl’s suicide, it wasn’t my fault, no matter what charges her father brought against me. I’ve been fighting to rebuild our lives,” he shot back at her. His face grew redder with each syllable. Now keep in mind, I couldn’t see colors, but, honestly, I could see the discoloration in humans’ faces and knew that meant they were turning red.
“Our lives?” she snorted now getting angry. “Our lives? YOUR life. You say you love me but we’ve been so… disconnected.”
“Oh, you mean marriage. We’re talking about marriage here! Ashlundt squinted and stared sharply into her face. “Sara, I’ve told you how many times that I want to marry you. But I’m just trying to work things out financially for us. The last thing we need to do now is try and make a big wedding.”
I sat just behind them and followed their retorts like a tennis match, my head swiveling from one to the other. I wanted to scream at them to stop.
She gasped. “I didn’t mean that! But, is it that repugnant to you, Ash?” Sara slapped her hand on her knee to emphasize the point. I recoiled in momentary fear.
“Of course not! You’re being unreasonable now. Why? Why are you doing this? Do you wanna leave me and go to England?” He raised his voice and threw up his arms. “Is that it?”
She shot up, tears rolling down her face. With a defiant “Yes,” she ran from the room. Ashlundt stood staring at her empty chair with his mouth hanging open.
I just made it inside the master bathroom across the hall, my toenails clawing at the polished wood floors, before she slammed the door. Sara crumbled to her knees next to the bathtub, her fingers twisting at a ragged hole above the knee in her jeans. “Luke, I had to lie to him.” Then, more to herself than me, she mumbled, “He needs time to heal; doesn’t need me as a distraction right now.”
I laid down next to her with my head in her lap and tried to comfort her as best I could. Didn’t she see that Ashlundt wasn’t himself right now? Couldn’t she offer him the truth about her illness so he could maybe help her? Did she think he wouldn’t love her if he knew she was sick? Why did she want to make him think that she didn’t want to be with him? Wouldn’t that hurt him more? Ashlundt had to stop her from leaving. She had to tell him the truth.
Several days of arguing between Sara and Ashlundt were torturous on my sensitive ears. Then, Sara started packing. She began to put individual pieces of clothing in plastic bags and arranged them in her suitcase. Ashlundt kept a watchful eye in their bedroom.
“Hey, it’s just for a year and then I come back. It’s for the best. Without me here, you can focus on rebuilding the business. You won’t have pressure to entertain me, or … plan our wedding.” She opened her jewelry box on the dresser as if to take something from it, then suddenly shut it.
“But, I want you here. And how can you leave Luke for an entire year? We’ll both be so lonely without you.” He paced back and forth like a dejected schoolboy, his hands pushed deep into his khaki pants, alongside the bed where her suitcase was being stuffed.
She sighed and took a deep breath while turning to him. “Oh, Luke. Of course I’ll miss him! But I know you’ll take the best of care.” She picked up an orange summer skirt and placed it in another plastic bag. “And hey, it’ll be over before you know it. By then I’ll have hopefully made a giant leap in my career. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be able to have a practice together some day.”
I was frantic. I ran back and forth between the two of them. I tried to will Sara not to leave. It was hopeless. She somehow couldn’t understand that real love means loving someone no matter what. Or at least, that’s how I saw love. My people were everything to me. I would love Sara no matter what happened. It was how my brain was wired. That was what I heard her friends say about her book; she was supposed to be the expert on unconditional love. Love really did make humans oblivious.
She snapped shut her last bag and bent down and wrapped her arms around me. “I love you, Lukey. Don’t forget me, boy.” I covered her face with kisses, then rolled over on my back hoping to con her into a belly rub. Just maybe my irresistible appeal would change her mind. No such luck. She gave my head a last pat and stood to face Ashlundt.
“Please, Sara. Please don’t leave me.” He placed his hands together in a pleading gesture. “You’re the only one who can put up with me. You know how to make me smile. You always know what I need. How can I go on without you here?”
If I spoke in human words, mine would have echoed those that Ashlundt had just uttered. His pleas brought back memories of the day he’d been hit with the lawsuit; how he had gone into a dark funk smoldering in his office. I recalled Sara sitting in his lap, holding him close and kissing his face. Words weren’t necessary. Soon, she took him by the hand and led him to the backyard where the delicious aroma of barbecued steaks assaulted our senses. As he took in the aroma, she handed him a gift.
“Sara, what’s this?”
“Open it, silly!”
Ripping the paper away, he held a frame in his hand. “It’s Hagar the Horrible! I love this comic strip, Sara.”
“Remember, Ash, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff! That’s the moral of the story.”
Then, she started with her silly lawyer jokes. “How do you know when a lawyer is lying? . . . His lips are moving.”
Ashlundt broke a smile with that one.
“What do lawyers use for birth control? . . . Their personalities!” They both broke into hysterics. I hunkered down on a slab of beef Sara had tossed my way.
Ashlundt’s voice jogged me back to reality that she was leaving us. “Please don’t do this, Sara!”
She picked up her bags, and we followed her to the driveway in the front yard.
“Sara, I love you. Please don’t do this!”
His plea made Sara hesitate for a moment. Her thin arms trembled even in the warmth of the June day. She stared at him, then reached out and pushed a lock of blonde hair from his forehead. “You’ll be fine. I’ll send you my contact info as soon as I get settled. In the meantime, my cell phone should work.”
His response was to grab and enfold her in his arms. “I love you, and we will get married as soon as you get back.” He pushed her away at arms length and looked at her with fear in his eyes, “Promise me you’ll come back?”
“Of … of course, Ash …” Her voice trailed off.
I knew that she had to be unsure if she would beat the cancer. How could she know if she would make it back? I replayed the picture of Mrs. Simmons being put in the ambulance over and over, and my heart ached for her.
Ashlundt wrapped his arms around her one last time. “You better, no matter what.”
She turned quickly and stuffed her luggage into the back of her car. And then… she was gone.
We stood in the fenced front yard and watched the little blue and white Mini-Cooper back out of the driveway. It was the one that Ashlundt had given her for her 23rd birthday. Soon, it rounded the turn and disappeared. Ashlundt dropped to the grass with me and wrapped his arms around me. I smothered him with a wet nose and pressed against him to let him know I was there for him. I loved them both, no matter what, and I knew that it was important for me to somehow get them back together. I just didn’t know how. Not then, anyway.
© Copyright 2016 Carol McKibben. All rights reserved.