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Facing Fear and the Despair of Loss

A missing dog leads to an examination of basic human emotions.

June 23, 2005|Anne Lamott | Anne Lamott is a novelist and essayist. Her most recent book is "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith" (Riverhead, 2005).

Last Monday, I was heading home after dropping my son, Sam, off at school. He had said the most amazing thing: I'd asked how he'd liked "Macbeth," which his sophomore English class had just finished. "I didn't love it," he said. When pressed, he added, "I had no idea it would be so tragic." I thought of that as I drove along, about how many of my friends are face to face these days with the truth of this, and how many of the rest of us are merely feeling deep in the generic dark.

I started making the turn onto my own street, but, without exactly meaning to, I swerved back onto the main road: I call this a Holy Spirit Snatch, when something inside you clears its throat, tugs on your sleeve or actually takes the wheel. A few minutes later, my big dog, Lily, and I were in the parking lot beneath the foothills of Mt. Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco.

Lily bounded ahead on the path. The air smelled grassy and warm and clean, like oats that had just come out of the dryer. There was a mild breeze that did not have an objective, unlike the biting winds of winter. Wildflowers lined our way up the narrow path of the hillside. Most were purple and orange, monkey flowers and lupine and, of course, poppies, the traffic cones of a foothill meadow.

Lily raced around, carrying branches in her mouth, bounding up the steep hillside, then doubling back to check in with me. She loves me the way I love Jesus, falling into a trance of despair when she can't see me. My brother says that when he is with her in the car when I go into stores, she stares at the store like it is on fire, and then at him, desperately, like, "Can you please take me in there?"

After Lily and I had walked 15 minutes more, we left the woods and came out onto the sunny flanks of the hills. We were both panting. The difference is that Lily tore off farther up the mountain, whereas I gripped my side and plopped down on the trail. The meadows were crazy jumbles of flowers, giddy experiments like the painter was trying stuff out -- "Let's try this with this; isn't it wiggy?"

I let my vision blur and practiced looking out the corner of my eyes; a friend had told me that if you look straight ahead at things in the dark, you often only see looming shapes and can get blindsided. While I was practicing seeing glimmers and shapes, I realized Lily was missing. She sometimes bounds off through the chaparral, and returns when I call, but this time she didn't. I scanned the trails above and below me, and a fire road down the hill that drops off suddenly, like a cliff Wile E. Coyote might zoom off of, briefly running like mad in mid-air before looking down.

After a while, though, I realized Lily was really gone, and panic set in. What if I had to go home without her, had to get into my car alone in the parking lot? I thought of Lily's lonely death on the mountain. Then I thought of wolves eating her.

Losing Lily would be the end of the world in a way you can only understand if you know her, or have a dog of your own who you adore. I started walking more quickly, calling for her. Then, way below me, I saw a squirrel race out. A minute or so later, I saw Lily bolt onto the same road, heading for the drop-off.

But just as I started running after her, and before she hit the drop-off, she veered right and disappeared down the side of the mountain I call the Canyon of Death. I made my boyfriend walk down there once with me, and we are still getting over it. There is no path through the brush, and it is dark, shadowy and steep, and leads nowhere. I ran toward the Canyon of Death, and thought about all the mountain lions and coyotes in the area. And the rattlesnakes. I prayed as I ran, and took an inventory of my skills, deficiencies, mental problems and faith. But she was gone.

I looked around wildly. It occurred to me that it was me who was lost, not Lily -- I was so lost in the fear of loss, in the knowledge of all the places where the people and animals I love can go where I can't follow. People, like, oh, say teenage Sam, and now Lily. And as is usually the case -- and which I totally resent -- I couldn't fix or save anything.

Just then, the last person on Earth I was expecting came along: Darby, with whom I have been playing tennis since I was 9, and with whom I still play every Wednesday. I adore her. But these days she is quite sad, as she is going through a divorce after many years of marriage. And she was with her dog, Zephyr, a 4-year-old golden retriever with arthritic front legs, limping along behind her.

She called out ecstatically that this was a godsend, because she so, so needed to talk. I walked toward her with my arms open for a hug while trying to figure out how to get rid of her.

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