“Here, take my car,” the stranger said to me, pushing her car keys into my hand. “Just take it.”
My whole body was trembling. My throat was already hoarse from screeching, “Peaches! Peaches!” to a dog who never comes when I call anyway.
“What?” I said. “Are you sure?”
“Take it,” she said, her own dog waiting obediently by her side. “Go find your dog.”
My hands shook as I placed the key in the ignition. The emergency lights were flashing and the blinkers were on but I couldn’t figure out how to turn them off. It had been about five minutes since I last saw our Lab-mix puppy tear down the street and around the corner, a yearning for freedom fueling her Greyhound-like stride. A dog like that could be anywhere in five minutes. If I took the extra time to run back home and get my own car, precious minutes would be lost. So I drove off in the new-to-me Volvo station wagon.
“Just be careful with it,” she said. “I can tell you’re upset.”
Upset was a euphemism. I was distraught, flabbergasted and guilt-ridden. How could I have let the dog out of the house before putting her leash on? How could I inflict so much pain on my children when I would have to tell them that Peaches, their Hurricane Sandy consolation prize, was gone?
One passerby saw the direction Peaches had bolted toward. “She was booking,” he said, pointing me toward where I should go. I drove, looking more to my left and right than at the road ahead of me. I called my friend Jim, a fellow dog owner, and asked him to please look too. “No problem,” he said confidently, which was just what I needed. “She’ll turn up.” Other neighbors joined the search, including the stranger whose car I was driving. I prayed I’d see a flash of white fur dart across a street. I prayed I wouldn’t see a police car or ambulance — did they call ambulances for dogs hit by cars? I thought about where she might go. She loves sniffing telephone polls and grass. She loves the dog park, so I drove past several times. No Peaches. Could she have headed toward the water? I tried not to think about that.
After about a half hour I returned home. A neighbor had called my husband, Sid, for me to inform him of the disaster I had unleashed (literally). Distraught, he left the kids home alone to start his own search. We never leave the kids in the house alone yet I did the same, telling them to stay upstairs and get ready for bed. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” Nothing, nothing at all, I lied. I ran back to the stranger’s house hoping to give her back her keys. She was still out, looking for my dog. Another neighbor saw me. “What can I do to help?” she said. I was at a loss. Find my dog! I wanted to yell. She had a more strategic idea. “How about I come over and watch the kids so you can go back out?”
When a friend offers to do the exact thing you need, when you have no idea what it is you need, you realize you are truly a blessed person.
I lied again to my children and told them Daddy and I were going out to a friend’s. I got in my car and drove in circles. The winter winds whipped through my open car windows. I strained my ears for my dog’s unmistakable high-pitched bark. I thought I heard it once but for all I know it was the construct of a hopeful mind. For two hours I drove until I remembered that I had Jee Mee sitting in my messy house probably wanting to settle in for the night herself.
Jee Mee gave me just the amount of sympathy I needed — enough to make me feel supported but not so much that I would fall apart emotionally. Once she left, I took to Facebook and Twitter, posting pictures and an urgent plea. The temperature kept dropping, hovering around 20 degrees. Snow was forecast for the next day. I couldn’t help but think about the dog from my youth, Sandy, who ran away twice and one time was found miles away, exhausted and dehydrated after failing to find her way home in the snow. I tried to push out my other dark memory of Sandy, her striding across an avenue and being mortally wounded by a passing car. I can still hear her dying yelp.
At 12:30 a.m. Sid called off the search. We figured she must have found a place to sleep by then or been taken in by someone. We’d resume the search in the morning at around 6, her normal wake-up time. “We need to sleep,” he said, and within minutes was snoring beside me. I stared at the ceiling. My stomach churned. I wanted to throw up but couldn’t. Just hours before, Peaches had been at the door, barking because she had to be walked. I put on my coat, hat and gloves. I grabbed our dog-walking bag. And then I opened the door. Peaches darted out and we shared a moment of mutual shock. I had forgotten to put her leash on her. How could I have done that? She was unexpectedly free. She headed straight into the street where a passing car brushed up against her, startling her. I shrieked, “Peaches!” I started to run but then stopped, fearing my gaitwould encourage her. She paused. But then she was off again, around one corner and then the next, until she was gone into the back streets of Far Rockaway.
How would I tell the kids what happened? Dread consumed me as I thought of their inconsolable tears when we tried training Peaches off the leash while at the beach. “Get her!” my 6-year-old son Miles shouted, tears streaming down his face. “She’s going to run away and I love her so much!” His 9-year-old sister joined the chorus. How could I tell them I lost their dog? How could I carry their worry about her being lost in the cold, with a snowstorm pending? How would I tell them if the worst turned out true?
These thoughts made sleep impossible. I prayed and prayed, asking that she’d be led into the arms of a dog-friendly person who would save her for us. I thought of her cold and scared. She’d run in a direction we don’t frequent on our walks. Would she be able to pick up a scent to bring her home? If it started to snow would she get confused?
My heart pounded. My stomach lurched. It was 4 a.m.; two hours until Sid would go back out and two hours until the kids would ask, “Where’s Peaches?” As I fought off thoughts of “we have to prepare for the worst,” I heard a single dog bark. My logical mind said that’s not at all her. My wishful one said it was. Never silence your inner dreamer.
I looked out the window and saw a white dog butt wagging in front of my front door. “It’s Peaches!” I exclaimed. I ran downstairs, flew open the door and our puppy walked through the door as if she had missed curfew on a school night. There was a certain “What’s the big deal?” swagger as she headed toward her water bowl. Sid and I collapsed on the living room floor, rewarding her with hugs and rubs for her impish behavior.
“Am I dreaming?” I asked Sid, seriously concerned that my exhausted brain concocted this whole story just to allow me to rest. “No,” he assured me. We brought Peaches upstairs and she slept on the floor beside our bed. I barely could settle down for the excitement of it all. What was lost was found; the dog’s sense of smell brought her home; and most wonderfully, we would not have to tell the kids what had happened.
As I prepared the kids’ lunches, Peaches rolled over onto her back, her “rub me!” pose. I got down on the floor and scratched her belly. “Tell me your stories,” I asked Peaches. What happened to you out there in the dark night? Why did it take you eight hours to find your way home? What did you see and how much traffic did you dodge? I’ll never know. But this experience informed me of one important thing: Once you let a dog into your life, you also let her into your heart. And like anything you love, it has the power to break your heart.