Monday, November 30, 2009

Signs From Sally

Was his beloved dog really gone?

(Depiction by S. Williams)

By Rob Hiaasen
Sunday, November 29, 2009 It must have been a coincidence. These things must happen to other people. It was just my turn.

There's a dog involved, because often there is with me. We have owned other dogs -- a border collie, a basset hound and a Lab mix named Oscar. It's borderline heartless to insult second-place dogs, and certainly this is no slight against any of them, but Sally was our top dog. In 2007, when she was 11, we had her put down. The details were important but aren't anymore. Since then, we've often reminisced about Sally's sleeping, eating and all-around habits so that we don't forget her. There were her Three Stooges' snoring, humping of startled house guests, pilfering of Oscar's food, no-touching rule regarding her paws, and illegal naps in my son's bed -- under the sheets, no less. A good stock of memories for a good dog.

Eighteen months after Sally's death, I didn't expect to discover a sign from her.

First, it's worth knowing something about my back yard here in Baltimore County. It's a natural mess. Twigs, acorn shells, birdseed husks and leftover leaves from past autumns create a bed of debris. I mow whatever grass manages to grow under all the shade trees. The yard slopes down to a creek, and while the stiff earth resists tilling, the soil does tend to drain down to the creek (my yard is going bald in the back). Things get easily lost in my yard -- lost, chewed up in the mower or washed into the creek. With the exception of a resident box turtle, I never stumble on any remarkable finds in the ruins of my yard.

Last December, I was in my yard on the phone with my daughter, who was away at college. We happened to be talking about Sally and how she would launch herself onto our trampoline with a soppy tennis ball in her mouth. It wasn't a sad conversation; enough time had passed for us to talk easily and naturally about Sally. It was a bright Sunday, very bright. While on the phone, I saw a reflection in a tuft of grass. Absently, I walked toward the shining object (a dime? bottle cap? ancient Lego piece?) and discovered a dog tag. -- Sally -- I belong to Maria and Rob. ... Our dog had lost the circular silver tag from her collar six years before, and here it was. I was elated and unnerved. I tried reading mystical things into my discovery but came up short. It was easier to jam the tag onto my key ring and show it to friends. I tell them how I found the dog tag at the exact moment I was talking to my daughter about Sally. It's a pretty good story, but it's missing an explanation.

Some things cannot be explained. We've all heard that -- especially on print ads for scary movies about hauntings. If Sally did want to haunt me, she would make another dive into my son's bed or swipe another meal from Oscar. If she wants me to remember her, she needn't worry about that. She certainly didn't need to conspire to have her dog tag appear under my nose. Such occurrences can unsettle and rattle the irreligious mind. Can make a man ask himself questions. Why did I find her tag? Do pets watch out for us after they're gone? What evidence do we need before the case for coincidence collapses?


I visited my sister Barb this past March at her house in Florida. Six years ago, Barb took care of Sally and Oscar at her home for a year while my family and I lived in California. Barb's back yard doesn't slope to a creek but stretches out behind her house like a dining room table. A riding mower regularly cuts and presses on the yard. In the high wattage of the South Florida sun, she walked me to the back of her property to show me trees she had planted. I looked down and noticed my shoelace was untied. Next to my shoelace was a rusty, copper shield. It reflected no sunlight -- or none that caught my eye. I picked it up. It was a 2003 rabies tag from Baltimore County. It had come off Sally's collar when she stayed here. It had survived rainy seasons and regular mowing. How a dog tag escapes being ground up in a mower is beyond me. But I now have two dog tags for my key ring and a sequel to tell people.

I'm no dog whisperer, but there must be an explanation. Sally spent time in both yards. She was an active dog who, given opposable thumbs, would have torn her collar off every chance she could. Sally could have flung her silver ID and copper rabies tags into the nearest creek or pool. My son, he of the college philosophy courses, said that maybe my mind wanted to find those tags, that my mind was looking for those tags and my eyes were simply following orders. I like the sound of this reasoning despite only a partial understanding of it.

Let me try it my way: We see what we want to see. The dead live on in our seeing and finding -- and believing. Maybe the mind plays no sad tricks, stages no hauntings or cosmic showboating but rather collects these discoveries to sustain and benefit memory. Another option would be to stop analyzing strange happenings, and, while I'm at it, stop showing off my key ring.

Sally is gone, but that fact will not rest. I keep finding signs from her. I don't know what it all means, but it means something to me.

Rob Hiaasen is a writer in Maryland.

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