Death twitches my ear. "Live," he says, "I am coming."
On November 30, 2005, my friend Scott lost Kodi, his dog of over seventeen years. In anticipation of experiencing the unfathomable loss of Timber, I sent him the following message:
“The fact is (or will be) that eventually you and I will have stood in the same place. For despite surrounding yourself with family, friends, and canines; or my living alone in the woods surrounded by life itself, there is no escaping the fact we are alone in our pain when such losses occur. Nothing will stop it, nothing will slow it down. For a time, each new day will bring a reminder of the previous day's pain. And someday, when enough time has elapsed, the pain will turn to discomfort, which eventually will transform into insight - the knowledge that you appreciated something that equaled your own life. This will be the day you're happy to be alive.”
A year later, almost to the day, I stood in the same place. For one third of my life Timber was my companion. Our journey lasted sixteen years, and somewhere along the line she ceased to be a dog. Instead, she was simply a being whose life was intertwined with mine. Our partnership allowed us to move mountains neither of us could have done alone. Together we created a third entity - a closeness so profound I've been unable to match it in human terms. It was a dog who brought me my greatest insights in life so far, and it was the struggles we faced together that produced them.
We were together through a dynamic time of my life, one of exploration and constant change. As a research biologist, I often spent a great deal of time in the field, which had not always fostered long term relationships. For Timber, however, romping through forests and over beaches offered a way for her to overcome her demons and to treat life as one giant adventure. As a result, Timber outlasted four girlfriends, five jobs, and a pet rat. She was my only constant, and I hers. Like Jason and the Argonauts, we persevered through one challenge after another, as if the Gods were using us to amuse themselves.
Throughout much of her life, death seemed only a moment away for Timber. When she was only nine weeks old I had become her third owner. As I learned later, previous owners had tied her to trees and beat her. The result was an anxiety disorder that led to eating rocks as a way to relieve her stress when I was not around. Over the first several years, she had four abdominal surgeries to remove rocks from her stomach and intestines. I learned she simply had to wear a wire muzzle whenever she stepped outside. Nevertheless, I was determined to give Timber a life where her mind was calm and free of worry, at least as much as I could.
My belief Timber could have a real life was realized after seven years of patience, persistence, and sometimes excruciating exasperation. But none of it was possible if not for Timber's personality which allowed for eternal optimism and a resiliency I've rarely seen in any living thing. I never saw a dog so happy to be alive. Through it all, I learned how smart she really was, which demonstrated abuse can last a life time and has nothing to do with the victim's intelligence.
In 1999, I moved to Montana to continue my wolf research, and in part to give Timber an even better life. Within several months, the wire muzzle, which had now been used only occasionally, was no longer needed. Periodically, she would ingest something that would have made a Billy goat puke, but thankfully no more rocks. As one challenge ended, however, another began. The previous tenants had released domesticated rabbits in the yard and they were living in the surrounding forest. When Timber caught sight of one she would chase it into the woods and be gone for a period of time. She would always come back, but her outdoor life was completely centered around them. Within a year or so nature took care of the rabbits, and almost took Timber with them. While chasing one of these bunnies she was hit by a car. She lived, but her eyesight was never the same and her depth perception was no longer intact.
This incident occurred because I was not thinking from Timber's perspective at the time. I didn't see a rabbit, therefore, it didn't exist for me. Timber, however, smelled one. From her perspective, running after it was the appropriate thing to do. Her near death experience was a harsh reminder: I could not waver from seeing the world through Timber's eyes. In later years, age-related ailments increased the risk of injury or death when she was in the environment. Nevertheless, our experience together helped curtail these set backs, because over time Timber had learned to see the world through my eyes as well. We were a team whose goal was to increase the quality of both our lives. We succeeded beyond our expectations. Well, mine anyway. So when she died, I felt not only alone, but empty.
For me, emptiness was like floating on the sea without a compass, just aimlessly bobbing up and down with nothing in sight in any direction. I began to write about Timber to try and figure out why her loss was so profound to me. I was then able to put into writing what I had felt and lived for sixteen years - that our relationship was the third entity, in addition to me and Timber. Within a moment, I had gone from living with two entities to only myself. My compass was gone, as well as the motivation to even use it. I kept writing, however, reliving memories and working through my sorrow, all of which lead to the completion of this book - my final journey with Timber. Throughout this process, I was able to reflect and then marvel at what a remarkable being she really was. Imperfect, yet perfect.