George & Gracie

— Jason Imber —

When he first saw her, she looked smaller than she ever had looked before. Her body was quiet and motionless, her face without expression. Her breathing was shallow but regular.

“We had to sedate her to prevent her from tearing out her stitches,” the doctor said.

“She looks so weak,” Phil said.

“Her injuries were serious and the surgery was extremely traumatic to her body. She lost a good deal of blood.”

Her midsection was wrapped in bandages, which offered proof that she had been through hell in the last four hours.

“What happened?” Phil asked.

“It was a bear trap,” a voice said from behind. It was Ed, his farm manager who had brought the dog in:

“Some hunter must have placed it a while ago. From the looks of it, that thing had been in the ground a long time.”

“What was she doing out there?”

“We were out in the orchard and she saw a squirrel,” Ed said. “I am so sorry. It’s my fault.”

Phil took a breath.

“No Ed, it’s no one’s fault but the hunter’s. She runs after squirrels with me too,” he put his hand on Ed’s shoulder. 

“You can go and see her,” the doctor said.

“Will she make it?”

“If she makes it through the night. Her age is playing against her recovery,” the doctor replied. “I am sorry I can’t do more.”

“You did your best—thank you,” Phil said as he stepped over and sat in the chair next to the table. He reached out and placed his hand on Gracie’s head. The large, black Labrador retriever did not move.

The doctor was kind enough to let him stay in the room with Gracie all night. If something changed, he did not want her to be alone. As he sat there watching her breathe, he drifted back to the day he first saw her. He had gone to the breeder to find a new dog after his last one, an Airedale Terrier, had died. He had had three others like him, and like the others, his life had been cut short by illness. Phil and his wife had decided to try a new breed. 

“Ever thought about a Black Lab?” the breeder had said.

“No.”

They walked over to the pen where four little puppies were roaming around. When they stepped in, three of them ran to the other side of the pen in fear. One stayed behind and sat in of front him, wagging her tail. When he knelt down and looked into her eyes, he knew she was the one. There was a connection he could feel even then.

Suddenly Phil was jolted awake by the strange movement from Gracie. The computer monitor sounded an alarm and the night nurse came in.

“Is she OK?”

“She moved slightly and it jostled one of the sensors,” the nurse adjusted one of the wires and the alarm went quiet.

The nurse left the room, and silence once again filled the air. This was not the first time they had been here. He remembered when Gracie was four and had been experiencing trouble walking. Tests showed she had a tumor on her spine that was causing the problem. It was recommended that she be put to sleep. Phil sought out a second opinion but that was the same as the first. He was about to give up when a doctor from Manhattan, Dr. Mel Silverstein, contacted him. The first vet was a friend of his and had told him about the case.

“I think I can save her,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“I think I can remove the tumor and save her.”

“The others said it was impossible.”

“They are going on what they know. They do not know what I know.”

“They all want me to put her down.”

“Based on what they know, that is the right thing to do, but I have been studying areas of veterinary medicine they haven’t. If you let me, I can help her.”

“She’s in your hands,” Phil said.

Two days after the surgery, Gracie stood up and walked around freely, without pain. The tumor was gone and did not come back. It was benign. Now here they were again, but this time it seemed that they were out of miracles. Phil rested his head next to hers and closed his eyes. His mind took him back to his wife and her illness…

Carol had fought the cancer and won the first time, but the second time was not the charm. It was stronger and resistant to the treatments. The tumor was inoperable. Rather than languishing in a hospital, she decided to live on the farm. During the day she would walk around the property with Gracie. The doctors said she had said four months to live, but she was into her eighth month and she gave all the credit to the dog. Somehow she fed off of the love she was getting and used it to fight the disease that was ravaging her body. The cancer finally won the battle on a late January morning. Normally when he woke up, Gracie was sitting by his side of the bed, wagging her tail. If he took too long, she would lick his face until he woke up. On this morning, she did not wake him, and she was not by his side. Instead, she sat on the other side, with her face on the edge of the bed and sad expression in her eyes. The noise that had woken Phil was the sound of his dog crying for her beloved mistress who had passed away. 

It would be a few days before Gracie would snap out of her funk, but she did—in fact, they both did. 

Phil stirred and opened his eyes. The room was dark, and the monitor showed that Gracie was still alive. He put his head back down and closed his eyes again.

George was a chocolate lab and very feisty. When they had first gone to pick him up, Gracie did not know what to make of him. At home, George wanted to play and nipped at her legs, but she was not interested. As far as she was concerned, he was an annoying little thing that was invading her territory. Soon, they were playing all the time, and you could not pry them apart. Back at home, George was probably crying for her now.

On the monitor, Gracie’s heart slowed and her breathing seemed to decrease. Phil caressed her head. As if in response, her heart and breathing got stronger. Watching her lying still reminded him of the worst night of his life. Gracie had been let out to do her nightly business before bed, saw a squirrel and chased it into the darkness. It was a half-an-hour before he realized she had not returned and started calling for her. Frantic, he got into the truck, rolled down the window, and slowly moved along the road calling her name. Out of the woods, George came running and jumped up into the open door, licking Phil’s face. Gracie was nowhere to be found. At 1 am, he made a pass along Tuttle Road, the small dirt road that made up the northern border of his land, and that was when he saw it: A dark body on the ground. In the headlights from the truck it looked like her, not moving and there was a hint of blood on the ground. He ran to her side, his heart sick from what he had just lost, and then he saw it: The scar on the dog’s right cheek. It was not Gracie it was Sherman, the Porters’ dog. The Porters were his neighbors, whose dog was friendly and liked to play. They were in tears when Phil left the scene and resumed his search. Emotionally exhausted from what he had just gone through, he returned to the house where George began wagging his tail wildly, and he could see why. Gracie came bounding up from the front porch to greet him. 

Somehow Phil knew that the first thing he would feel in the morning would be the touch of the doctor waking him to tell him Gracie had passed, but the sensation he felt was almost certainly not him. It was a wet, warm feeling on his hand. Opening his eyes, he was greeted not by the veterinarian but by Gracie licking him. 

“Hey girl,” Phil said scratching her.

“Morning,” the vet said.

“She looks better,” Phil said.

“She is better. Her vital signs are strong and her wounds are healing. She is going to make it.”

“How long does she have to stay here?”

“Couple more days and you can take her home.”

“Thank you,” Phil said shaking his hand.

Gracie wagged her tail, and Phil returned to her. Two days later, they would go home, and soon she would be running around with George again. “Dogs are man’s best friend” may be an overused cliché, but it also happens to be true. 

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