Sunday, August 29, 2010
A few years ago, my husband, Stan, descended into a bit of a funk. His job was not going well. (Which is a nice way of saying it totally sucked.) And we were a blenderized family with four teenagers. (Which meant that no matter how great they may have been, life was often...complete uncontrollable chaos.)
One Saturday, Stan slumped in his daddy chair, clicking through sports and the food network, bemoaning his less-than-perfect midlife while our yellow Lab, Stuart, sprawled on his back taking up most of the couch, one front leg extended straight up in the air, snoring and content in his absolutely perfect dog-life.
And then something on TV caught my husband's attention, reeling him in. He sat up straighter, leaned in and watched, entranced.
It was a Splash Dog competition. Dogs, many of them Labs, jumped from a dock to catch a floating toy their owners threw out over a pool. Whichever dog leapt the farthest won. The dogs were leaping and loving it. Their owners were loving it even more.
"Now that looks fun." Stan glanced over at Stuart and raised his eyebrow, not unlike the Grinch eyeing his tiny little dog just before he tied huge antlers to his tiny little dog head.
But there were important distinctions. Stan was hardly a mean one, his heart was plenty big, and Stuart seemed up for anything. "Stuey!" Stan said. "You wanna be a Splash Dog? Can you jump 25 FEET? How about 26 FEET?"
Stu leapt up from his nap in a nanosecond and sat at Stan's side, grinning, thumping his tail, and cocking his head. Stan took that to mean, "Yes, indeedy! I'll make you proud! We're goin' to the TOP." When what Stu really meant was "Did somebody say 'treat'?"
Lo and behold, Splash Dog was coming our way, to the county fair in just a few weeks. Stan researched everything Splash Dog. He drove over an hour to watch a competition. He talked to fellow Splash Dog trainers. He bought the appropriate floating toy. He even bought a Splash Dog visor.
"It's a no brainer," he explained to me, with more enthusiasm than I'd seen from him in months. "Stu loves the water. He loves the beach, the river. He loves chasing the ball. Remember how he used to jump off the backyard deck at our old place to catch the ball? Same thing!"
"Except there's the pool," I pointed out. "He's never been in a pool."
"He'll love it. He's a Lab!" He waved the brochure at me. "Besides, they have practice sessions before the competitions. Right, Stuey? Stu, you wanna be a Splash Dog? Won't that be sweet?" And Stuart wagged his tail, sure he'd again heard something about a treat.
Stan came home from work singing Splash Dog in the tune of Batman: "Nananananananana Splash Dog, Splash Dog, Splash Dog!"
He had become obnoxiously cheerful.
My son Michael, who was 17 at the time, took me aside. "Mom," he said. "This cannot be good."
"He's got way too much riding on this."
"Honey, I know."
"He chest bumped me after saying they were going to take first place." Michael shook his head. "Poor Stuart."
The day of the competition arrived. The plan was that I would drop off Stan and Stuart early so they could take advantage of the practice sessions. I received explicit instructions on when and where to meet them. Just between you and me, I wanted to stay away as long as possible. Call it woman's intuition, call me psychic, but I had a hunch.
When I got there, a few people lingered in the stands between heats, and Stuart sat quietly next to Stan, who slumped in his folding chair. Not accustomed to seeing Stuart sitting quietly anywhere outside the vicinity of our own home, I said, "Wow. He's doing great."
Stan shook his head. "You have no idea." And then he proceeded to tell me how, as the crowd gathered and filled the grandstands, Stuart refused to jump into the pool. Stan even lay next to him and splashed the water and said, "Come on! You're a Lab! You were born for this!" But he wouldn't budge.
Eventually, he escaped down the steps and started running around the pool. Stan ran after him, but couldn't see over the sides of the pool, so people shouted, "He's going that way! Whoops! Now he's going the other way!'" Stan chased him back and forth until the crowd yelled in unison, "HE'S IN THE POOL!" Stuart had jumped over the six-foot side into the water. But they weren't giving out ribbons for that.
"All I was missing," Stan concluded, "were the stick-on red nose and floppy shoes."
I rubbed his shoulder. Just then some cute grade school boys came up and asked me, "Can we throw the toy for your dog in the pool?" I suggested to Stan that since not a lot of people were around, we could use the time to let Stuart try again.
"I don't know..." he said.
"Oh, come on, why not? There's a big empty pool sitting here." So we took Stuart up to the dock. He wouldn't jump. But he would walk down the exit ramp into the water. He acted like one of those old ladies, easing himself in, one baby step at a time. You could almost hear him say, "Oh my! That's a bit chilly." All he was missing were the frilly bathing cap and flabby triceps.
The boys threw the toy and Stuart swam after it. He just wasn't having the whole soar-off-the-dock thing, but he happily swam and retrieved to his heart's content. "Wow. He's drinking a lot of pool water while he's swimming," I said. When the boys had to leave, we dried Stuart off. As we headed out, he squatted.
"No, Stu, not here," Stan said. "I used the last blue bag and the rest are in the car," he told me. He dragged Stuart away from the grassy pool area and started walking through the fair crowds toward the street. Stuart kept trying to squat, but there was nowhere to go. "No boy, hold on Stuey."
But Stuart couldn't wait any longer. He went. And he kept going, as we walked on the sidewalk along the endless line of cars waiting to enter the fair parking lot, a trail blasting behind him. We tried to find a more appropriate place for him, but we were stuck on the cement between traffic and a chain link fence, so we just kept walking and he just kept going and going and going, sick from the excitement and drinking too much pool water.
Finally, we got to the car. Stuart, evidently, was done grossing out the entire attending population of the county fair. I poured him some fresh water. "Would you drive?" Stan asked me. He usually didn't ask me to drive.
He climbed into the back seat with Stuart. Stu usually sat in the back by himself. I started the car. I waited for the words of defeat, the tirade of everything that had gone wrong not only that day, but possibly every minute of the last few months leading to that day.
But all my husband said was, "I'm so sorry Stu." I looked in the rear view mirror and saw him stroke Stuart's ears. "You're a good boy, Stu. You're such a good boy." Stuart thumped his tail and rested his head on Stan's shoulder.
Stan's eyes caught mine in the mirror. I saw not disappointment but acceptance, and not complaint but utter gratitude for the simple fact that even during hard times -- even on those days when you plan to make a big splash and instead everything goes to shit -- the love and devotion of a good dog really does make all the difference.
So thank you, Stuart. You get a blue ribbon for helping us keep things in perspective. Sometimes life is stressful, sometimes the job sucks. And sometimes, a dog's gotta poop in the street. (Okay, okay, yes, you can have a treat.)
This was pre-screened and approved by my husband and my dog, who both promised not to leave me if I posted it.