Once More to the Lake

By Elizabeth Berg, January 2019
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TERESA CRAWFORD

Photography by Teresa Crawford

Did you think he was dying?” Bill asks me this morning, about Homer, my thirteenand-a-half-year-old Golden.

“Yes,” I say. “I was afraid of that.”

So let’s back up a bit.

Yesterday morning, the sun was out after a day of rain. A sunny day in October is an offering nobody should pass up. I decided that I would go to Wisconsin, to Hartford, where I once had a second home. It would be a nice day trip, a chance to look at the leaves, but mostly it would be a chance for Homer to get out of the house and out of his cone of shame, as they call it. He’s been wearing it for weeks, because he won’t leave his paw alone. The antibiotics are working but not as fast as we’d like, and the healing is not made better by him licking it. Each day we give him a chance; he blows it, and the cone goes on.

But yesterday, I removed the cone with a flourish. Homer was lifted into the car, an indignity he endures for the sake of a ride. Gabby leaped into the car like Superwoman, and I could almost see Homer thinking, “I used to do that, too, you know. Only I did it better.”

We drove for a while, stopped for lunch and the dogs each got a cheeseburger, which they ate with astonishing speed. We admired the palette of turning leaves, the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine, and stopped at Pike Lake State Park, where Homer used to go swimming and for long walks. In those days, I would throw a stick out into the lake and Homer would go flying into the water, swim fast, approach the floating stick in a kind of calculating way, then reach his neck out like a snapping turtle, seize the stick and return it to shore. Rinse and repeat.

But yesterday, he was lifted carefully out of the car, both dogs were leashed, and we began walking a trail beside the lake. Eventually, I released Gabby and she ran around in a way that gives new meaning to the term whirling dervish. “Let Homer off, too,” Bill said, and I said, “I’m afraid Gabby might hurt him.” Gabby has not yet comprehended that Homer can’t play like he used to, and she often jumps on him like the olden days, which knocks him over. But finally I decided, oh, why not, let him be free on this glorious Fall day. We’ll make sure Gabby doesn’t hurt him. I released him and he started trotting, which he does not often do these days, and then he began nearly running.

Into the lake.

“NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!” Bill and I were yelling, but Homer was yelling back, in his dog way, “YAAAAY, THROW THE STICK, THROW THE STICK.”

“HOMER!” we said. “Come!”

He stood in water up to his belly staring at us, confused.

“Come!” we said.

He looked out over the waves. A swim would be so nice, he seemed to be thinking, never mind the fact that the water was freezing. Never mind the fact that he no longer has the strength to swim. If he made it out a few feet, he’d never make it back.

I started thinking, I’m going to have to go and get him. I had it all figured out. I’d bring him in and then I’d sit in the car with the heater on and him in my lap.

But he did come out. He came out and fell down and couldn’t get up. For a minute, we all stood around, Gabby, Bill and I trying to figure out what to do. Three beings standing around watching an inert fourth. We might have been a construction crew.

Finally, I snapped the leash on Homer and said, very gently, “Come on, buddy, you can do it.” And he did it. He got up, shook himself off and then came on a quite lovely walk.

Unfortunately, both he and Gabby walked through some stinky water at the side of the path and perfumed the car all the way home.

After the dogs ate dinner and went out for their post-prandial walk, I gave them both a shower. Bill and I dried them off and then we watched some political shows that had us practically screaming in outrage. So, you know, a typical night.

I was headed off to bed when I saw that Homer was shaking. “What’s up, Home?” I asked him. “Are you cold?”

I thought maybe he hadn’t been dried off well enough and so I took warm towels from the dryer and dried him again. Then I put blankets on him. Then I lay on the floor next to him to give him my body heat. Still shaking.

I thought, Is he in shock? Was this day too much for him? In trying to give my dog a beautiful day, did I kill him?

Eventually, he stopped shaking, and I lay on the floor with him for a while longer. At 1:30 I went to bed, and Bill stayed downstairs with Homer.

At 4 a.m., I went downstairs to check on Homer. All was well. Gabby had stayed downstairs too, in a show of support, and she was sound asleep. I saw that Homer seemed okay, but I wanted to be sure, so I got a dog treat to see if he’d eat it. He did, lying on his side like a fat Roman emperor who’s eating peeled grapes.

Back to bed. Up a few hours later to give a very much alive Homer a little massage and a promise that if he came upstairs to the kitchen he could have his breakfast.

He ate all of his breakfast and part of Gabby’s. He went out for a walk. He barked the whole time I ate a bagel because he wanted a bite. Which I finally gave him, which is why he barks all the time when you’re eating; I am a terrible teacher of dog table manners.

Today is another sunny day, and it will be a day of rest for valiant Homer.

I did think he might die. And I was thinking two things. One was, You idiot. You killed your dog. The other was, If he dies, it was on the day that was the best day he’s had for a long time. He got to go on a car ride. He ate a cheeseburger. He went back into a lake he loves one more time. He walked along a beautiful trail in the woods and smelled a million smells. He lay by one of the people he loves and got warm.

Right now, Homer’s asleep on the landing, halfway between my office and the kitchen. I can feel him feeling me.

People say all the time that they love their dogs. What an understatement.

Excerpted from “The Book of Homer” in Still Happy by Elizabeth Berg. Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Berg. Used with permission.

Elizabeth Berg is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling novelist. Her most recent novel is Night of Miracles. The entire “Book of Homer” can be found in her book Still Happy. She lives with her Golden mix, Gabby, her cat, Gracie, and her partner, Bill, outside Chicago. If she had her way, though, she would live on a farm with fifty more dogs.