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Facts & Arguments

Life support

One day in the dog park, a stranger reached out and sobbed in my arms, Barbara Wackerle Baker writes

When you least expect it, an extraordinary encounter in the park can change your outlook on life – forever.

One quiet, sunny summer day, a golden retriever races up the path toward me with an orange ball in his mouth. He drops it at my feet and looks up with chocolate brown eyes and a playful grin. I bend over and pick up the slobbery ball.

"Noodles!" A lady yells from somewhere down the trail. "Noodles get back here!"

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Who in this world names a beautiful dog Noodles?

A short woman appears over the hill. She waves a Chuckit stick in the air as she approaches.

"I'm sorry. He usually listens," she puffs. "I hope he's not bothering you."

"Not at all." I reach for the stick, stuff the ball in the scoop and tease Noodles as I whip it in the air. He dashes back and forth in front of me. His eyes never leave the ball stuck in the stick.

"Ready?" I ask him. "Are you ready?"

He gets into a football scrimmage stance. I flick the stick and the ball flies across the field. The tip of Noodle's tail zigzags through the tall grass as I pass the Chuckit back to the woman.

"It's the least I can do," she says.

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"Pardon me?"

"I take him out for a run so he can play." She points in Noodle's direction. "The kids work all day. It's the least I can do for them now."

"Yup, I hear you. I've got three grand-puppies. What is it with kids getting fur-babies as soon as they leave home?"

She shrugs. Noodles lopes back with his orange ball tucked in his grin. She tosses it and away he goes again.

"Man, it's sure been a beautiful summer." I inhale the smell of ripe wild strawberries.

She nods.

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"Have you picked any berries yet?" I ask. "The Saskatoon bushes down by the osprey nest are loaded."

She turns to me and starts to cry. A flood of tears. Berry picking upsets her? Something happened to the osprey?

Noodles comes back with the ball. I take the stick from her, scoop up the ball and throw it in another direction.

"I'm sor …" she blubbers.

I put a hand on her shoulder. "Is everything okay?"

This complete stranger turns and grabs me. She hugs me. Hard. I have no choice. I hug back. She squeezes me till I have to expand my chest so I can breathe. I pat her back.

Her sobs run into each other as she presses her face into my shoulder. The dampness seeps through my shirt and onto my skin.

I try hard to remember what else I said to her. My kids often tell me I talk before I think. Maybe they're right.

But who cries over berry picking and ospreys?

Noodles tips his head up at me. I slip one arm down, get the ball and, maintaining a one-armed hug on the sad stranger, lift and toss it a mediocre distance. Noodles takes off with as much enthusiasm as ever.

Her sobs subside. She pushes away but her hands grab my arms.

"I'm so sorry. That hasn't happened for months." She squeezes my biceps. "I'm so embarrassed."

Not judging, but I would be, too, I think to myself.

"Are you okay?"

"My grandson died." She stares at me. "I did it."

I glance around looking for another person, a safe place to run to far away from this grandson-killing grandmother. But my feet don't move. I chuck the ball and scan the horizon over her head.

She moves beside me and we both watch for Noodles to come back. I remain speechless which, my kids will attest to, doesn't happen often. Out of the corner of my eye I assess her mood.

She laughs. "You must think I'm crazy."

"No." I stare straight ahead and shake my head. "Of course not."

"It happened fast. He got so sick. Almost overnight. Meningitis. They ran test after test. But it didn't matter. He wasn't there any more. The doctors said he was brain dead."

Images of this tiny woman pressing a pillow over a child's face flash in front of me. This time when I reach for the ball, I take a step away to get a head start.

"My son, his wife … they couldn't do it. The doctors said only the machines were keeping him alive. The kids couldn't make the call." She inhales a few jerky breaths. "They asked me if I could. If I would make the call. And I did." She brings her hands up and covers her face. "I pulled the plug on my grandbaby."

I turn to her and wrap my arms around her. "I'm so sorry."

Tears stream down my face as I hold her tight.

"He was only," she sobs, "he was only 18-months old."

I shake my head.

"His brother, he's five. He won't … he won't go to kindergarten. He's scared someone else will die when he's gone."

I rub her back and sob as she tells me her story.

I don't know how long we were there. I don't know how long we stayed like that, locked in the hug. I just remember listening to her heart break and recover and break again.

At some point, we both faced the city skyline; the skyscrapers shimmered in the sun, the quiet roar of rush-hour traffic hummed from a distance and Noodles was sound asleep at our feet.

Neither of us said anything for a long time.

"I usually walk at 2 o'clock." She bent down and clipped the leash onto Noodles collar. "You know, if you don't want to run into me again."

I smiled at her. "I'll be here."

On my way home, I remembered the argument that pushed me out of the house for a walk and realized how trivial it all was. Life sure does have a way of putting things in perspective.

Barbara Wackerle Baker lives in Calgary.

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