Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Douglas Dogwood

The Douglas Dogwood
non-fiction memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           I felt the December chill in my bones as I grabbed the rough-split pieces of firewood from the stacked cord and scurried back into the house. Gone were the warm days of fall when it was a joy to linger outside on a golden, sunny afternoon. The smoke from the chimney curled into the air and spread throughout the neighborhood, the smell provided a seasonal clue that colder and darker days were to come. The oak logs fueled the crackling fire in the hearth, and my spirits lifted. I completed the task of stringing the Christmas lights on the soft, green fir tree carefully positioned to the side of the living room.

          Douglas, our fourteen-year-old Cairn terrier, was ill and uncomfortable. He had slept most of the day, but once I illuminated the Christmas lights, he appeared from the corner. Poor guy. He was weak, but I sensed he was glad to be in the warm, inviting space. Over the next hour, he found no less than five different places to curl up for a nap, including a spot directly underneath the lighted tree which was void of ornaments and presents. In his restlessness, he stopped and laid his head at my feet. It was unusual for him to seek out my attention. I stroked his head just to let him know I cared.

          In the dark before dawn, Douglas had a seizure and my wife, Gretta, and I rushed him to the animal hospital. The staff did their best, but he couldn’t be resuscitated. He had reached life’s end. We signed papers, and with tears in our eyes, drove home to a cold, dark house, which matched our mood.

          The loss for Gretta, the true master for Douglas, was greatest. She always made sure he had the right diet, and she kept schedules of his medications. Her attention and care helped the dog stay fit and happy. I remembered many mornings when I’d hear Gretta cheerfully chatting to Douglas as she went about getting his food and water, then coaxed him to be still for his numerous eye drops.

          It helped our mood to talk through the memories of him.

          “Remember the times you bounced the big red ball in the back yard, and he jumped to hit it with the end of his nose? He’d push it and chase it all around the back yard!”

          “How many times did he hunt for mice in the woodpile or trap chipmunks in the downspout and harass them until we dragged him into the house? He really loved the back yard, especially when you were cooking on the grill.”

Douglas on a mouse hunt
          We were overwhelmed by kind notes and cards from those who knew Douglas. Lorraine, our friend who cared for him when we traveled, came by to comfort us and reminisce. She was our dog-whisperer because she connected with Douglas at a level I couldn’t comprehend. She taught him how to fetch a ball — something even Gretta couldn’t teach him. He was always excited when we told him “your Lorraine is coming.”

          She brought a poinsettia and a sympathy card, and we drank tea and coffee while sharing anecdotes of happy times with Douglas. She gave us some money and said, “Buy a plant in the spring in his memory.”

          In March, as the temperatures warmed, I struggled with what to plant. I wanted something that was a befitting memory for our regal, happy dog — then it hit me: sweeten the pot and buy a dogwood tree. The shady area in the back yard was a perfect spot.

          The nursery was unloading the trees on a warm, sunny day and I selected a four-foot Cherokee Princess dogwood. In the late afternoon, I prepared the hole in the backyard. Then Gretta and I took turns pouring the ashes of Douglas’s remains before I lowered the small, burlap ball at a spot where Douglas used to sit and watch the children play in the park beyond. At that moment I could see the look in Gretta’s eyes that reflected the healing of our loss and the memories of all that was good in Douglas.

          As she looked at the tree, she summed up her feelings. “This is a happy tree, and Douglas was a happy dog.”

          The tree grew and flourished from the first day it was planted, adding two additional feet in less than two months and rewarding us with nine, white blossoms.

          We see the Douglas Dogwood out the kitchen window every morning, as well as the increased, spring activity at the bird feeders in the ash tree. Our excitement always rises when the first goldfinch arrives at the finch feeder (which is another Gretta project). She has taken it as her mission to be the benevolent provider to all the neighborhood birds in need. Recently, a female goldfinch began to show up each morning. It was another sign of glorious spring.

          “Gosh, she’s eating enough food for a small army!” I exclaimed. Then I realized she was preparing for nesting time. “She’s gonna be a mama goldfinch. There’s no possible way she is consuming all those calories for herself.” The brave little bird showed up every morning, undeterred by the nasty group of blue jays and grackles trying to shake and raid the seeds. She landed in a nearby maple tree, then flitted onto closer limbs and swooped down to perch on the feeder.

          Yesterday, in the cool of the early morning, a bright flash caught our eyes as the brilliant-colored male goldfinch darted through the air to perch on the feeder. Mama goldfinch was probably at home in her nest, warming and protecting the eggs.

          Beyond the finch feeder, the Douglas Dogwood grows taller and leafier by the day. We cheered one morning when a red cardinal landed in it for a brief moment, the bird’s legs deftly clinging to an angled branch.

          Hmm . . . if we see a goldfinch land in the dogwood some morning . . . well, that will be a happy moment for all of us: Gretta, Douglas and me.