“Gino, we’d like to offer you the chance to have our initial pick of litter that unfortunately is missing a tooth, therefore can’t be shown… name is Link. Are you interested?” Asked Jamie, the Australian Shepherd breeder from Washington state.
“Yes I am, Jamie,” I replied, over the phone.
“Of course, we’ll have to see if Bodhi will accept Link and vice versa; as you might know, two males can be a problem.” added Jamie.
“I understand”, I said.
Link and Bodhi had been born a minute apart. They had just turned six months. As Link stepped onto the property, bursting with life, the two long, lost brothers had at last found each other again. They both immediately bolted, running in tandem, as if testing each other’s speed and grit. Up and down, up and down the fenced-in acreage, twisting and turning at sharp angles, zigzagging, as if winding in and out of cattles’ legs. Jamie and I smiled at each other. The two brothers loved each other on sight, and would so till the last moment.
And yet, there was a troublesome part of Link that nobody knew about but Tricia, me and Bodhi… and the person who had shaken Link badly in his early months. For short periods of time, Jamie had entrusted Link to a trainer and handler. Only years later we all discovered that some cruel neighbor had taunted and thrown stones at Link. In lieu of timidity, Link was one of those defiant personalities that chose defensiveness and aggression when he deemed it necessary.
More and more, Link showed growing signs of over protection, hypervigilance and distrust of anyone but the family. A darkness would suddenly come over him now and then. At times he would growl, poised to bite even the kindest person who may have simply pet him in a way he disliked.
One summer day I was sitting comfortably at an outside table, Link and Bodhi by my side, while Tricia had gone into New Seasons to snatch up a couple of food items. The sun was shining and all was calm, as I read. Out from the parking lot, a man approached me, calling out my name, seeming to have recognized me. Link sprung like a jack-in-a box, roaring and charging at him ferociously, his wide open jaws missing the man’s neck by inches, stopped only by a leash fastened to my chair. The man was justifiably terrified. My fears had been confirmed, as Link had shown telling signs of this sort of behavior before, but had never completely followed through until then. I had to do something quick and drastic, else a terrible accident was bound to happen. Of course many are quick to throw their hands up in such cases, believing a dog’s aggression is inexorably tied to his inborn personality. But I knew in my heart the boy was hurting and could be turned for the better. He just needed time, patience and devotion to heal a lingering wound.
Link was a well-muscled, thick-necked Aussie, powerful loins that would have him leap four feet from a standstill. He was a picture of physical confidence, afraid of no one and nothing, that is, except for whatever ghosts that kept haunting him under the skin. Between the two brothers he was the enforcer, while Bodhi remained the wily leader of the small pack. I loved Link too much to give up on him. I became determined to heal him. I was in possession of his unwavering trust; it was all I needed to accomplish the goal.
Everyday, without fail, I took him to the studio with me, walking him in public during breaks, having him sit with me at lunch, then randomly stepping in and out of some of the shops on the main road, carefully greeting people of all ages. While Bodhi was a natural gem with everyone, Link remained guarded. Each greet was always prefaced with, “slow and gentle,” to anyone who was inclined to pet Link. I kept my hand under Link’s lower jaw at all times, my face close to his, whispering comforting words.
Sometimes I’d get a muted growl; at times, simply an overloaded, laboring silence. What came easy for his brother was a long, hard climb for Link. But time and endless repetition, like any spiritual discipline, finally reaped rewards after eighteen months.
Link had magically bloomed into the most loving and trustworthy companion. While he still followed my every footstep like a sun shadow, he had become frantic and overjoyed to say hello to everyone strolling in and out of the shops on the old highway. He would even offer a lick on the sly to the most flattering of his admirers. He was especially gentle with the infirm, seeming to understand their circumstance. It was the miracle I had hoped for.
In early fall, just before Link’s ninth birthday, he began to cough and hack incessantly, spewing a foamy-white, gooey spittle. Suddenly, something was so wrong. After a long list of supplements, meds and multiple visits with specialists, within two months, Link was gone.
He had been vomiting all night. His oxygen levels were now in the eighties. His tongue was deep blue. It broke our hearts to watch him breathe so laboriously. The time had come to end the poor boy’s suffering. Tricia and I made the final decision that morning.
My friend and neighbor, Ken, helped me dig a three-foot deep grave at 9am. I was beside myself with sorrow and disbelief, full of tears, as I dug. The appointment with the vet was at 2pm that same day. I hung on to both Link and Bodhi tightly in the hours before we left. Link mostly sat in my lap for the whole time. I bore the deep pain of knowing I had just dug Link’s grave. I took one final photo of him.
Link passed in Tricia’s arms, with my lips to his ear, telling him it was alright to fly away and hurry home. In the car, Bodhi looked over Link’s perfectly still body. He carefully put his nose to it. He looked at Tricia and me with a silent acknowledgement of what had just happened. At least he would not question his brother’s whereabouts from now on.
Link lies at the top of the high ridge where he loved to look out from. I visit his grave everyday before starting up in the studio that is now a couple of hundred feet from the house. Of course, I always manage to blur my vision with a tear, while I stand at his grave; but I am beginning to lift up my eyes now, as I look up to the sky and the tips of the towering Douglas Firs all around, seeing him as returning to the wide open spaces of the higher plains of light, on trek back to the Source.
The open wound is slowly closing. Bit by bit, the sorrow mellows into a quiet gratitude for having had such a friend at my side all these years—a companion as fearless and loyal as he was gentle and loving. An enduring gratitude for knowing that Link had risen to his highest potential: knowing what it is to love and be loved in return.
Thank you dear boy, we owe you so much.
Tricia, Bodhi and Gino