Queen Esther

Face the Wind

Even before long covid scrambled my brain, I was absentminded. It sounds like such a benign foible, but absentmindedness can be deadly. For example, it nearly killed my dog in a Kansas hotel one time.

It was a raw, gray Friday at the tail end of March, stubborn winter turfing out nominal spring. I’d just returned to the pet-friendly Best Western Wichita Northeast after walking Queenie and was, as usual, lost in thought, paying no mind to the twenty pound ball of fluff trailing behind me as I strode across the lobby, stepped into a waiting elevator car, and pressed the button for the third floor. The doors closed. It was then I realized Queenie was still in the lobby, her leash caught between the sealed doors. The car began to move. In the ensuing panic, I overlooked the big red Stop switch located at the top of the control panel and instead jabbed the Lobby button repeatedly, frantic as a cornered cat. The elevator kept rising.

I knew Queenie’s leash was less than two floors in length. My mind pictured the horrible scene that would unfold below as the elevator ascended. The leash line would fully unspool. When there was no play left, Queenie would be dragged to the door, then yanked off the ground, levitating like pulley freight until she hit the ceiling, at which point she would be either strangled to death or decapitated by her own collar.

After a seeming eternity, the car came to a juddering halt and the doors opened. Third floor? Second floor? I couldn’t tell. Making no assumptions, I hastily stuffed the leash handle into the narrow gap between the elevator floor and the landing and tried to jam it through. Maddeningly, the width of the handle exactly matched that of the gap, a perfect wedge. I pounded it with a fist, heedless of pain, and when that didn’t work, I stomped it with the heel of my right shoe. At last I succeeded in driving through the stupid pink plastic thingy, holding my breath as it vanished soundlessly into the void.

I hit the Lobby button again. The doors closed and the car sank. I prayed. When the doors opened again, I saw a boy of twelve or thirteen years with a stricken look on his face. Saying nothing, he made a tentative movement with his right arm, proffering Queenie’s leash handle. The leash itself was snagged in the door frame in a complicated way. I lowered my gaze, and there sat Queenie at the boy’s feet, unharmed and unconcerned, smiling that endearing openmouthed canine smile that made everyone around her smile too, whether they wanted to or not. A woman with big hair, probably the boy’s mother, appeared behind him.

“Your dog sure didn’t want to go in the elevator!” she drawled.

I stood blinking at her for an awkwardly long time.

“That could have been a whole lot worse,” I croaked.

Quick to forgive, Queenie maintained full faith in her daddy’s omnipotence despite the near-tragedy I’d inflicted upon her. In truth, I was a superhero of sorts back then, absentmindedness notwithstanding. The events I just described took place during a fifty-day cross-country road trip in which I drove 7,000 miles, ran eight marathons, did seven book signings, and published a daily blog, all while somehow keeping up with my book writing, coaching, and other normal duties. It was a limit-testing experience, to be sure, but I felt wholly equal to it throughout, in the zone and unstoppable.

Matt and Queenie

Dogs are more perceptive than even most dog lovers give them credit for. Not much escapes them. Queenie couldn’t have failed to notice her daddy’s sudden diminishment a couple of years after the elevator incident—how he no longer left the house twice a day every day wearing running or cycling clothes, or with a bag of gym or swim gear slung over his shoulder; how he paused to catch his breath while climbing the stairs; how his forehead sometimes dropped to his desktop for no apparent reason, and stayed there. And yet, like the elevator incident, these signs of weakness did nothing to dim Queenie’s faith in my omnipotence, as became evident when she too got sick, drawing the short straw of congestive heart failure.

How fitting that my sweet little pup’s cause of death was to be a heart that had literally grown too big! So big, in fact, did Queenie’s fluid-bloated ticker become in her final days that it pressed against her trachea, restricting her breathing, slowly suffocating her. Periodically in those awful last days she would fix me with beseeching eyes that betrayed a heartrending trust in my power to make it stop. But of course I couldn’t—not without taking her on a one-way trip to the place she feared more than any other, and I was determined to spare her that ultimate trauma until and unless it became unavoidable.

Among the peculiarities of Queenie’s breed is wind intolerance. Bichons have sensitive eyes, so you will never see one sticking its head out the window of a moving vehicle as other breeds do. When I walked her on blustery days she would scuttle along with her belly close to the earth, head down and eyes slitted. Sometimes she’d refuse outright, stiffening at the threshold in a posture that said, “No, thanks. I can hold it a little longer.”

As fate would have it, a storm type known as a bomb cyclone struck northern California last Sunday, by which time Queenie was in obvious distress, hyperventilating and unable to sit still. That evening, the San Francisco 49ers played the Indianapolis Colts in nearby Santa Clara in the same atrocious weather, which caused seven fumbles. Whenever NBC cut to commercial, I went looking Queenie, who kept moving from spot to spot in search of relief, comforting her as best I could with strokes and pats and sweet words and nuzzling.

During the 2-minute warning of the first half, I couldn’t find her. I looked behind the living room sofa (a favorite cozy nook), but she wasn’t there. I looked behind the headboard in the master bedroom (her nighttime nest), but she wasn’t there, either. In the kitchen, a cottony blur in the periphery of my vision caught my attention. I whipped around and there she was, on the back patio of all places, lying in her trademark Sphinx pose, facing directly into a 45 mph gale. I froze in slack-jawed wonderment. Queenie had gone fifteen and a half years avoiding breezes of all kinds, and now, in her waning hours, she’d chosen to squeeze through her doggy door and into a blow as powerful as any she had ever encountered.

Then, as if sensing my astonished stare from the other side of the sliding glass window, Queenie turned her head toward me. For a brief, everlasting moment, her milky old eyes held mine, and then she turned to face the wind again.

I found Queenie dead at the foot of the steps the next morning. But that won’t be the image that stays with me. Instead I will remember the peaceful, almost beatific way she basked in a force that had been her lifelong nemesis until then. I’m not quite fool enough to believe Queenie was sending an explicit message to her ailing, at times defeated, daddy. But I do believe dogs offer lessons to their human guardians just by being who and what they are. Lessons in forgiveness. In not sweating the small stuff. Other things.

Face the wind, daddy. It’s okay. Face it.

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