A collection of episodes saved from the kaleidoscope of my life.
So they are not lost.
Matters of the Heart
My typical window seat gives way to a dazzling evening sun throwing rays of gold and copper towards the western horizon. I stare into the blinding light, my head resting against the vibrating cabin siding of a Boeing747, and contemplate my decision. I could have driven and made it a leisurely road trip in my Jeep. It would take me three days each direction, though. Besides, with the load I intended to bring home, it is very questionable that it ended up being leisurely. In the end, I opted for the air, much shorter. My thoughts wander between the past and tomorrow and I squeeze my eyes shut. Partly against the celestial glare, mostly to not let the tears win.
Every door that closes opens another one. The saying reached a new meaning, lately. Each ending means a new beginning. Yet, I am struggling to get excited over the next beginning. I still mourn the recent ending.
In April, I lost my beloved dog. Overnight she became a lifeless body bereft of running, jumping, digging: never again greeting me with her enthusiasm and true wanting. An epoche of trust of the truest kind ended. Soul mates shattered, our synchronization of hearts brutally cut. When Stella died I thought she had broken my heart. I was wrong. She had taken it with her and left me ragged and hollow. Like an empty wardrobe, dark and dusty, with only the wire hangers’ stark reminder of what was there, what should be there, of what is gone.
I mourned the death of my friend for weeks, spent months of agony and countless tears. At the bottom of despair, I realized that only the company of another dog will end this suffering. Clinging to hope and a heavy heart the search for a new puppy began. With trepidation, I closed the reliable door of familiarity, custom and habit to open a door to a hundred unknown possibilities.
A bank of downy clouds swallows the plane when shortly afterwards we emerge into the sphere lyrically called “above the clouds”. The smell of airplane coffee wafts through the aisles, comforting my senses. I want to hope my planned enterprise becomes just as lyrical.
I am headed to Edmonton in Alberta, a three-hour flight from Whitehorse in the Yukon, with a brief stop at Calgary.
* * *
Under a fairy-tale blue Albertan sky the sun offers enough warmth to relax on a grassy stretch right in the middle of South Edmonton Common, a huge shopping area. My back rests against the medium-sized dog crate I had carried around since the morning.
All traffic sounds receded into the back of my mind, subdued like white noise. Still, I notice insects whizzing by my face, the sun wandering over my legs, strangely caressing, when suddenly, a pickup stops. They arrived.
In the truck bed, I see a handmade wire kennel. Inside it, tiny fur heads are bobbing up and down. The family piles out of the cabin, while I rise from the lawn and we acquaint ourselves. The people selling the puppy had come 600km from a northern, remote Mennonite community called La Crete.
They brought my puppy – and its six siblings. Two have the same colouring of tan and black with white spots at the chest and the toes. The rest are as black as a moonless winter night. The family lets the puppies out on the grass, secured on thin leashes, attached to slimmer cat collars. Naturally, chaos breaks out with lines getting crossed, fights starting, and the odd puppy slipping right out of its collar.
While we adults talk, the kids try to keep the puppies under control. I am surprised when the parents offer me the pick of the litter. Apparently, I can choose anyone there on the ground crawling & growling, sniffing and pawing. I am also allowed to take more than one.
More than one? The black males?
I am not even slightly swayed.
My choice made from pictures on the Internet stays firm. It will be the multi-coloured female, labelled “Dainty”. The moment I hold her in my arms, she stops squirming. She is so tiny, much smaller than I expected. The crate I brought easily can house three of her, or four. But I take only one, her.
The family drives me back to the airport. My plane leaves in a little over two hours. Outside the terminal, the great GoodBye gets washed under a wave of hectic. Father helps me put the dog box together, his wife pushes a bag with toys, diapers and puppy food into my hands, and the kids are holding on to my squirming cargo.
The moment I set my puppy inside the crate, padded with diapers and a few food crinkles, she cries, then wails, then screams. We think it best to separate quickly and exchange our human adieus in a hurry. The truck pulls away from the curb, hands waving out its window, and I stand by myself on the walkway. With a screaming puppy. Under a now blue whitish evening sky in Edmonton.
Being sure that she will settle soon, I grab one of those luggage carts into the airport building. I walk beside the cart so she can see I am right there talking reassuring words to her. Yet, she does not stop crying. At the airline counter, I become the centre of the area’s attention. To have a cute puppy can do that but here the attraction spills from a screaming animal. The Air North personnel are a fantastic lot. One smiling lady comes straight out from behind her counter handing me the papers I need to fill out. We both agree. I need to take the puppy out of the cage. Which I do.
Absolute silence. Minimal squirming in my arms. Tentative face licking. But no sounds. I sign the documents while holding a 6kg animal, then pay for her fare.
A plane attendant arrives to show me the way to the dog check-in. The moment she is back in the crate, her screaming starts up, reaching the level of a screeching parrot. My heart cracks. Again, I walk beside the cart, half bent over, trying to calm her. Nothing helps.
When we reach the oversized luggage screening desk, it becomes obvious the crate will not fit through the scanner. The agent needs to hand-swipe it for any contraband, weapons, or drugs. So, I have to lift the puppy out again. I relish having her in my arms, feel how she pushes her nose into my elbow crook, stifling the snuffles. Just before I lay the puppy back inside the crate, I see she has already shredded her pipi-pads. Afraid she might swallow parts of it, I take the pads out. Instead, I grab my nightshirt from the daypack and stuff it into the crate. The official standing beside me smiles and nods approvingly.
It is time for him to bring her past the check-in. The moment the puppy is inside her crate, terror starts all over again. Heart-piercing screams echo through the airport hall. My heart cracks a bit more.
The further the officer wheels the cage the fainter the screams become. With surprise, I realize I want them gone – out of earshot. As long as I can hear her, I will not be calm. I hurry in the opposite direction.
I arrive at the people check-in counter and boarding should start soon. The vast window leading out to the tarmac offers an open view of our aircraft. I scrutinize the luggage going into it, but no dog crate is among the suitcases, boxes, and bags.
Eventually, all luggage is loaded and the toy-like chain of carts drives off. And nothing.
My heart races. They forgot to load her. I am not boarding! I turn to raise hell with Air North staff when, finally, another baggage cart approaches the plane. They lift four dog crates onto the conveyer belt, from where they roll into the plane’s belly. One of them has the exact size and colour of my crate.
I willingly board.
* * *
A few minutes before takeoff, the pilot walks down the aisle and stops at my seat. He hands me my dog’s flying passport. It was taped onto the crate’s top. Apparently, no flight leaves without the animal passports delivered to their owners on the plane! Now I know.
Again, my head rests against the vibrating wall of the airplane. This time I am filled with anxiety of a different kind. Anticipation gave way to doubt and fear.
I did it.
I opened a new door and the next chapters start to unravel. Have started already.
My feet won’t remain still. Repeatedly, I cross my legs only to uncross them shortly afterwards. My hands keep fidgeting, from bracing my body tight to being shoved underneath my thighs. Soon enough they come out again, with interlaced fingers, clasped in my lap. I look out the window. Greyish clouds swim by as if they have nothing to do with me.
What will it be? Everything is possible. I know I can write part of my dog’s life chapters. Teaching and training, and being a trustworthy leader. But then, there is always nature besides nurture. How much is already imprinted in the puppy, DNA I cannot change?
With a sigh, I shake my head, trying to free it from the dark thoughts. Glad I can not hear the puppy anymore I wish the same would be true about the baby across the aisle. I have never had much patience with crying babies or toddlers on planes. But truth be told, I see the parent’s situation with fresh eyes, understand the impossible stoicism they display. Empathy emerges from my heart like a snake from a woven basket – and immediately disintegrates when the little boy – playing with the window’s sunshade – in one quick move rips the whole shade off the window.
I turn my head and glare into the clouds. Better them than I, knowing well it might be me soon enough.
Two hours later, we land in Whitehorse, and I do something I despised all my life. I am out of my seat, even before “the engines came to a complete halt”. With my backpack in my hands, I am ready to leave. But airplane life does not allow it. As I full well know. Stuck in the aisle, I am pressing into other passengers who are total obstructions pulling their carry-on from the overhead bins, shrugging into coats, adjusting handles of their rollers. My behaviour is downright cringe-worthy and I loathe myself. However, it is not enough to stop me from pushing on. In the tunnel to the terminal, I push past people no matter how narrow the space. When I reach the passport check, I even side-step a few undecided dawdlers to move up in the waiting line.
The crowd! I moan in frustration. How can I be held back here?
My mind plays images of a cart with my dog waiting in the arrival hall with a terrified puppy inside and nobody coming to pick her up. I ask the next official if I can go to the head of the group because of my puppy. He declines. The worst passenger ever.
I am finally at the arrival counter when the person behind it lets me know I had not filled out my form correctly. She thinks it faster if she reads the missing questions out to me and then checks them off herself. Despite her best intentions to help, she stumbles over sentences, misses words and starts to repeat another question. My blood heats to a near-boiling state. I am hard-pressed to keep some of my unpleasant German traits under control.
Naturally, I am the last person who enters the room with the luggage carousels.
And no crate.
Suitcases spill out of the opening, slide down the chute, and start their revolving dance on the conveyor belt. One by one, they get picked up. People are leaving the terminal. A few bags sit out additional rounds before their owners take possession. The crowd thins.
In the meantime, I continue to be the worst passenger. I ask nearly every airport employee when and where to expect the dog cates to come out. Ask for a second time, or possibly the third.
Nobody gets angry. A group of people assembles in front of a pair of silvery sliding doors: The elevator for oversized luggage, such as bikes, car seats, and strollers. And dog crates. The couple with the crying toddler appears beside me, their child mercifully sleeping in their arms. They are waiting for their car seat. Patiently.
I have to ask again.
A whirring sound tears my attention to the door. The elevator whines. I unearth the last vestiges of good behaviour and do not push to the front. All our eyes are on the doors. They slide open and inside are four dog crates. Three quiet as a rock. One with a squealing puppy.
I can’t help it. I dash forward, go on my knees, and slide towards the crates. Seizing the crate that holds my puppy I shuffle back, between the legs of more cultivated people waiting with grace.
She is beside herself, yowling at the top of her lungs, biting into the wire gate. My heart cracks further. But I can not get to her. For safety reasons, I zip-tied the crate’s wire screen. Now I can’t open it. I need to cut the plastic strip, but who carries a knife or scissors, having just left the airplane?
The father of the sunshade-destructive kid tries to help. He thinks he can hack through the plastic tie with his car keys. Not working. Puppy still wails at the top of her lungs. I rattle the cage, ripping with my fingers at the zip-tie when a dark sleeve crops up in the corner of my eye.
“Here, let me do it.” The dark sleeve belongs to an Air North airline person. And he has a knife. Swiftly, he cuts through the zip-tie and the door opens.
I am still on my knees when I pull the shaking body from the crate. She clings to me with the force of a drowning person. Her front legs clamp around my neck, the tiny head shivers beneath my chin. Within seconds, the whining loses strength, dissolves into short ragged shudders. With her slight frame next to my chest, I feel the tremor of a terrified heart. Feel it beat a million times a minute, beat right into my own heart. Which mysteriously has regained its normal pace, strong and reassuring, calm and protective.
As it should be.
As I should be.
My arms cradle the little creature, while I breathe confidence over her furry head. Confidence which, a few hours ago, I doubted I had. Confidence and responsibility.
“Ok, we can do this,” I mutter to myself – to the puppy, and possibly to the entire world. My legs feel like stiff logs when I try to get to my feet. With the puppy in my arms, I awkwardly shoulder the backpack and try to hoist the empty crate on a trolley.
Miraculously, help is here again.
Another person from the airline staff gently removes my hands from the trolley and offers to escort me to my vehicle. How could I refuse?
When we arrive at my Jeep, I thank the man several times. He rolls the trolley back, and I am left with only my precious belongings. A sudden calm settles on me, wraps around me like a promise: I know what to do.
Lowering the puppy to the ground, I feed her some kibbles and have her drink water from my hands. We seem to be quarantined within an obscure bubble of unity, leaning towards each other, drawn to each other, beginning to connect. We both breathe regularly. Nobody shakes or shivers, whines or frets anymore.
With the crate and my luggage in the hatch, I get behind the wheel, start the engine, and strap on the safety belt. Lights on, reverse, and out of the parking lot. I aim for the highway, heading home, half an hour north of the city.
The weight of the puppy hangs lifeless in my arms. She has crumbled into my lap. Her head bent towards her belly, tail over her nose. My left arm curls around her slim body as my hand cups the head of my unique companion. When I feel soft ears twitch under my fingers, my heart bursts into a million brilliant stars.
I drive one-handed, which I am used to for a long time.
A new door has opened. The next chapter has begun. Loud and clear and with a mountain of emotions. Whatever that path, we are on it and will walk it with determination, care, and love.
In time, she gets named: “Princess Sarafina Maxxine de la Crête.”
Or maybe just “Struppi.”