The clock couldn’t move fast enough. For hours, my brain instructed my body to carry out the task of dealing blackjack at a local casino; it was my job. Meanwhile, my emotions were screaming at me, “What are you doing here? Isn’t Shadow more important than this?”
Yes, he most certainly is. But I have bills to pay and gas to put in the car. I need the money. Just leave me alone and let me finish the day.
I finished my obligatory eight hours and swiped my badge in the time clock to end my work day. However, I had another job to do; I had to search for Shadow. No boss, no cameras watching my every move, no time clock, and no breaks. But I did have an ominous deadline: Nor’Easter Athena was scheduled to make landfall in about 12 hours.
I feared this storm, which would bring freezing temperatures and a wintry mix of precipitation. Shadow had recently survived Hurricane Sandy. I wondered if he had used the last of his physical strength and willingness to live. Could he endure Athena? I worried that Mother Nature was going to lead him to the Rainbow Bridge. I wanted and needed to create a detour along that fateful path.
I spoke to Cindy, who was acting as a communications director in a search for Shadow. She told me Shadow was last seen earlier that day, heading up a driveway, across the street from Highland Lake. Cindy had created a Facebook page Help Bring Shadow Home. It was a community forum where people could share their thoughts, prayers, searched locations, and last sightings of Shadow.
Concerned residents loaded their children in cars and searched for Shadow. Other children told their friends about Shadow. The Facebook forum and the community support grew like a snowball tumbling down a steep mountain. The community was building a new road which led away from the Rainbow Bridge. But would we finish in time?
I arrived at Highland Lake around 10:00 P.M.
Where do I start looking? He could be anywhere. Well, I’m not going to find him standing here, staring at the lake. What will I do if I see him? How will I catch him?
Thoughts of a rescue attempt a few weeks earlier for a different dog haunted me. I did the best I could, but my efforts were not fruitful. I had come close, but ultimately, I failed. There was no happy ending. A car led him to the Rainbow Bridge. I was devastated. I don’t like to fail and I did not want to feel that disappointment again.
With a flashlight in hand, my right jacket pocket filled with pepperoni slices and my left pocket holding a leash, I took the first step. I had to stop wondering, I had to stop thinking, I had to stop praying. It was time to take action, to move, to do something, anything!
I followed a gravel driveway into the woods that led to a two-car maintenance or utility shed for nearby condominiums. I thought nothing of a pile of cinder blocks that were neatly stacked in front of the garage doors. I stepped clumsily over a large piece of plywood that lay on top of a crumpled green nylon tarp. The tarp was half covered in leaves and dirt.
I heard a rustling in the woods.
What was THAT?
Adrenaline shot up my spine and goose bumps stood at full and erect attention. I heard the sounds of branches breaking.
It’s definitely something big. That’s no squirrel or raccoon. And the skunk I saw earlier went the other direction. Maybe it’s him or, maybe it’s just a deer. Oh please, let it be Shadow. C’mon boy. You can do it. I’m not here to hurt you. C’mon out. It’s time to go home now.
I panned the flashlight across the thick brush hoping to see a set of animal eyes glowing back at me. Nothing. The sounds continued although they grew faint. Whatever it was, it was leaving.
No, no, don’t leave. A deer is tall and they stop and will look right at you. Deer in headlights. I would have seen his eyes. It had to be Shadow.
A proverbial light bulb turned on in my head. I recalled a conversation I had with Shadow’s owners the day before. They told me Shadow likes to hide under things, like coffee tables and on numerous occasions, he has tried to dig under their house.
He must be looking to get into this garage. He is looking for shelter. I must build him a shelter.
I don’t know if it was pure coincidence or Divine Intervention but I had everything I needed. I was “given” the location. I was given the rustling sound in the woods, a sign, a X-marks-the-spot. I was given the materials: cinder blocks, plywood, and a tarp. I was given the idea to build a shelter. I was thankful that I was aware enough, silent enough, and open enough to follow His plan, His suggestions.
And so, I built Shadow a shelter. I criss-crossed the cinder blocks to make a strong foundation. I used a piece of plywood for a roof. I unearthed the tarp from beneath the leaves. I folded the tarp several times to to create walls and a cover for the roof. I used leftover bricks from my foundation to hold the tarp in place. I was never a Boy Scout, but I was pretty darn proud of my makeshift creation. I was confident it would hold up against Athena.
I used two, big, puffy, dog-only blankets and placed them in the shelter. Shadow would have something comfortable to lay on and if he wanted, he could burrow under them to keep warm. I also poured a can of Friskies moist cat food (with lots of gravy) into a dog bowl and left it in the shelter. My task was complete. I had done the best I could. The rest was up to Him.
The following morning, I helped Ledyard Animal Control place a humane trap in the Highland Lake area. We tied dirty socks and a hair brush of Shadow’s owners to nearby trees. We placed his favorite blanket on top of the trap. We wanted the smells-of-home to lure Shadow to the trap.
I checked my shelter. All the food was still there. I felt dejected. He had not been in the area. Where had he gone? Did we put the trap in the right place? Was he on the run again? I hated the uncertainty! The wind was picking up and it began to rain. I did not think we would catch him that day. He knew the storm was coming. He was hiding out somewhere. But WHERE?
I went to work to do “my time.” I had thought about faking illness to go home early, to search some more, to camp out for him. To weather the storm with him. Meanwhile, Athena had arrived. I completed an unfocused, mistake-riddled work day. I couldn’t stop thinking about Shadow. I did not search for him that evening. I was guided by a higher power to stay home and take a break. I felt guilty. I had the luxury of a warm house, a comfortable bed, and my family. Shadow was out there, hungry, cold, scared, and alone. I could not sleep.
The Nor’Easter had passed and was relatively kind to our town. Perhaps, it was kind to Shadow. Our search committee hadn’t had a sighting in quite some time. I understood why. He was resting. He had expended a lot of energy trying to survive the storm. Had he survived the storm? Somehow, I knew he did. As the weather warmed a bit, I knew we would see him again.
Then, I got a text message while I was at work. Shadow was spotted a few miles away from our trap, in a quiet neighborhood. The Facebook pages were buzzing again with activity. Our snowball of support was now an avalanche. New volunteers emerged to open their fence gates, their garages,and to follow Shadow around the lot of an empty house. There was a non-stop “parade” of slow moving cars cruising the streets searching for him. All of them, strangers to one another, strangers to Shadow, and his owners. But friends in spirit, in their souls, and in their actions.
Shadow was alive. There would be no Rainbow Bridge for him. This son-of-a gun would not give up! And neither would the community.
I awoke Friday morning with an unexplained confidence.
Today is the THE day. Today, we will bring Shadow home.
It wasn’t an instinct, a hunch, or an awkward gut-feeling. It was a motivated determination.
While at work, Cindy texted me that Ann, an Animal Control Officer, had been to the lake. The trap was empty, but the food was gone. I nearly cried. I knew it was Shadow who had eaten the food.
I arrived home from work and immediately sent Cindy a Facebook message.
“Hi. I’m just getting home from work. Quick change of clothes and I will be off to the Lake.”
She replied, “Anything you need?”
I answered, “Prayers. All day, I tried visualizing him sleeping in the shelter I made. And just kind of being too groggy to make an escape. An easy catch you know. Law of Attraction kind of thing.”
I arrived at the lake shortly after 9:00 P.M. I quietly approached the shelter. My confidence was high, but I was cautious.
I’m glad I put the entrance on the far side. If he sees me coming, he has plenty of time and plenty of room to escape. Don’t screw this up Peter. You know what to do.
OH MY GOD! There’s something in there. Oh God, please don’t let it be a coyote.
I directed my flashlight beam into the shelter.
It’s blond. Shadow is blond. Please let it be him. Let him be alive.
A head came untucked from under it’s tail. It looked at me. It’s eyes as big as golf balls and black as coal. It’s face sunken. It was Shadow.
It’s him. Oh dear God, it’s him! He’s alive. He’s alive. HE’S STILL ALIVE.
A lump, the size of a hot air balloon, swelled in my throat.
I knelt down in front of the entrance and blocked his escape route. I texted my wife, Cathy. “He’s in my shelter.”
She called me. I did not answer. I texted, “Not now.”
I restrained my emotions. I had to finish this job. I had to bring this boy home, but I had to be careful.
I slowly reached into the shelter to determine his level of cooperation, strength, and the intensity of his fight or flight response.
He half-heartedly snapped at me, bared his teeth and growled. It was a warning. If he wanted to be aggressive, he would have nailed me. He had no strength, he had no more fight in him. He barked once, threw his head back, and howled. It was the pitch of a fire truck’s siren. He barked and howled again. It was his instinctual canine distress call.
I hear you. I understand you. I am here to help you. No more running. No more cold nights. It’s time to go home.
I never made eye contact with him. I tossed him a pepperoni slice. No response. He was fixated on watching me; he didn’t trust me yet. I tossed him another slice. Nothing.
I was fighting back tears of joy. I was thinking of a reunion with his family. I was thinking how happy his little buddy, a West Highland Terrier, named Lucy, would be to see him. I wasn’t concentrating on the task at hand. I was excited, nervous, anxious. And he knew it!
Settle down Peter. What do you tell your clients? Dogs don’t trust nervous, excited behavior. Follow your own directions. Calm down. You know what to do here.
The aroma of pepperoni must have wafted and reached his nostrils. He became aware. He snapped out of his fear trance. He ate the slices voraciously.
‘Atta boy Shadow!
I rewarded Shadow for each tiny incremental movement towards me. I needed him to trust me. I was finally able to lure Shadow’s head through a loop in a slip lead I had made. He got a handful of dry cat food for that major accomplishment. I now had him on leash. He was literally eating out of my hand. He gave up. He submitted and surrendered to me.
“Thank you Shadow. It’s time to go home my friend.”
I led him out of the shelter and to my car. I gave him a hug. I hugged my Shadow. I had invested so much in this boy that I treated him like he was one of my pack members. I gave him a hug from the entire community. I hugged our Shadow.
I opened the rear hatch of my Subaru Forrester. He made no attempt to jump in; he knew he didn’t have the strength. He looked over his shoulder at me as if to ask, “Hey buddy, can ya give me a little lift here?” I gave him a boost and closed the tailgate. He was safe.
I SOBBED in a joyous relief. It was an easy catch, just like I had been envisioning all day. No struggle, no fight, no harm. I understood his body language. I respected him and trusted him and his actions were mutual. It was a beautiful few minutes of communication.
Meanwhile, Cathy and Cindy coordinated a reunion with his owners at the Ledyard Animal Control facility.
As I began to leave the lake, I literally saw Shadow flip a switch. He changed from being a wild, surviving-on-instinct dog to a domestic, I-love-car-rides dog. He stood in the back (I had the seats folded down) with his head between the front seats. I reached up with my right hand and scratched him on his chin as he peered out the front windshield. He accepted my affection. For him, life was good again.
I was still crying. I mean runny nose, gutteral sound, belly aching, sobbing!
“Shadow, I am in no condition to drive right now, but I gotta get you home. You really are a sweet boy aren’t you?”
As we approached the right hand turn from Rte 214 onto Spicer Hill Road, Shadow still looking out the front windshield, dropped his head down and looked both ways.
“Do you know where you are boy? Huh? Does this look familiar?” I laughed.
When I arrived at Ledyard Animal Control, Shadow immediately reverted back to his fearful form when I took him out of the car. I told Ann, Cindy, and Cathy to ignore Shadow. As hard as it would be, I did not want them to look at him or speak to him. He hadn’t been around people in eight weeks and I didn’t want him to feel threatened.
I said, “Let him approach you when he is ready.” Shadow investigated each of the women and they were finally able to greet him. It was a very emotional moment for every one involved.
We brought Shadow inside the facility and he immediately spotted a few kittens in a cage. They were meowing and trying to get out and creating a general ruckus. He paid them no mind. Shadow explored the small room until he found the bags of dog food. We gave him a bowl of food and some fresh water while we waited for his owners to arrive.
I was numb. I realized what had just happened. I got him. I used my God-given talent to bring this boy home. This was no mundane, Sit… Down… Stay… Basic Manners dog training session. This was something much bigger. Shadow had chosen me to be his rescuer. Why me? There were hundreds of people who helped and wanted to see him come home. He could of easily just submitted and wound up sleeping in someone’s backyard, on their patio, or in their garage. Why was it my shelter? Why was it me?
I was relieved that he was safe, but my emotions were in knots as I tried to make sense of it all. I felt like this was going to be some sort of monumental defining moment in my life. But what is it?
Thankfully, Steve and Judy, Shadow’s owners arrived and brought me back to reality. Judy fell to her knees and began crying. Shadow curiously approached her. He did not show immediate recognition. He was overwhelmed. Steve, already crying as well, dropped to his knees. Same thing. Shadow greeted cautiously and quietly.
BAM! Shadow’s light bulb turned on. “I KNOW YOU GUYS!”
Shadow pawed at Steve and from a seated position he put his paws on Steve’s shoulders and showered him with kisses. Shadow knew he was “home.” We saw his personality come to the surface as he laid on his back and received a belly rub from his daddy.
We could have filled Highland Lake with the amount of tears everyone was shedding. Steve and Judy were lavish in their gratitude. They took a moment away from Shadow to give each of us a genuine and warm hug.
However, the biggest reward came from seeing Shadow with his tail standing tall, upright and swaying back and forth.
His stomach was full. He was no longer thirsty. He was warm. He was reunited with his owners. He was home.
Before leaving, Steve said, “Now, we just need to get Lilo right?” (Lilo was another dog that had been missing for several weeks, also in the town of Ledyard.)
I felt an immense sense of pride. Steve was already thinking about paying it forward. I was proud to have helped return a dog to a loving family, a family that cared about it’s community.
I want to express my sincere gratitude for the support a small team of people received from the Ledyard community. Someone left me a very kind note on Facebook telling me that I was a hero. Please, I am no hero. I am just a man with a dream. I followed a plan, a calling, the directions that were given to me. And for that I am grateful and thankful.
Mother Theresa once said, “We can’t all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” No one person did a great thing. We, as a community, did small things with great love. You, the people who have taken the time to read this story should be proud. You sacrificed your time and your effort. You changed your driving routes on your daily commutes to work. You inspired and set good examples for your children. You came out of your comfort zones. You helped a stranger, you made new friends and you became part of a community. You are not just a resident of a town.
We found beauty in the mundane. We survived a hurricane and a nor’Easter. We found comfort after the destruction. We created a beautiful story. We created a happy ending.
But our work is not done. Let’s now get Lilo and bring her home. Let’s find the lost kitties. Let’s bring them all home!
Be Kind. Be Thankful. Be Significant.