The Black Dog

By Linda Neale

It was a snowy day on the mountain. Eight women were gathered at my stepfather’s cabin on Oregon’s Mt. Hood to learn about the teachings of the North – part of a yearlong women’s medicine wheel ceremony.

The previous day I had cross-country skied with Maakai, my Australian Shepherd, through the snow-laden trees, down the Barlow Trail. In the 1800’s this arduous trail led wagon trains and pioneers over the Cascade Mountains west to the verdant Willamette Valley, to a place of unknown trials and joys. I was happy to be skiing again, feeling the cold on my cheeks, and watching for animal tracks in the snow. In the three years since my last ski trip, I had been coping with glaucoma, the world’s second leading cause of blindness.

There’s no cure for glaucoma, a disease that affects the optic nerve. Usually glaucoma can be controlled with eye drops, which reduce the amount of pressure in the eye. However, I have what the doctors call “low pressure” glaucoma. The drops had not worked for me, and my blindness had progressed to the point that it was dangerous for me to drive at night. Occasionally, black words on a page would fade, and trees appeared grey rather than green. Even with a recent trabulectomy surgery for my left eye, I worried that I could become totally blind.

I hid my anxiety fairly well, and did all the right things. I took my eye vitamins, decreased the amount of stress in my life, exercised regularly, and ate my broccoli. Even the doctors said I was unusually healthy. But when I woke up in the middle of the night with a full bladder, I’d close my eyes and feel my way to the closet, to the hook that held my bathrobe, to the bedroom door, down the hall, groping for the bathroom door handle. I was practicing being blind. I worried that my writing would be affected, that I would no longer be able to drive, and that I’d become a burden to my husband, daughter and friends.

In addition to feeling anxious about my condition, I also felt a deep sadness. Gazing at a beautiful sunset, I often thought, “These incredible colors may not be in my future.” As I skied to the cabin, appreciating the bright whiteness of everything, I wondered, “How long will I be able to continue to do this?”

Maakai, my dog, had no such concerns. He loved his first ski experience, fearlessly bounding through deep powdery snowdrifts, at one point falling in over his head. His happiness was contagious, and I arrived at the warm cabin with a feeling of exhilaration and anticipation of what was to come.

As the women gathered together in circle, the two leaders for our weekend ceremony spoke about the North as the direction where wisdom and vision come together. We were each asked to bring a sacred item for our North altar. I had chosen to bring an eagle feather. As I placed the feather on the altar, I thought about my husband’s teachings about the eagle. “The eagle’s vision is strong – he flies the highest, always in a circle connecting Earth and Spirit."

After we each placed our items on the altar, our leaders told us that we would immediately go into silence until after breakfast the next day. We could meditate, go for a walk, or write, but we were to remain in silence so that we could pay attention and Listen to the teachings of the North. There was some resistance in the group members to this instruction. We hadn’t seen each other for months, and we wanted to “catch up” on our lives, the way women do. But this was a ceremony, not a social event, and the group understood that the leaders had been guided to do this ceremony in their own way. Ceremony is not the same as group process – it’s about following guidance, not democracy.

I decided that I would continue skiing and explore the land, the snow, and the bottom half of the Barlow Trail. I knew of a tiny cemetery nearby called the Pioneer Woman’s Grave, and thought it might be a good place to sit and meditate for a while. Before putting on my skis I prayed that I would pay attention and learn whatever it was I needed to learn from the North.

Maakai and I headed out the door into the deep snow. Maakai was leashed because of the many beginning skiers on the trail, and I found it challenging to ski and control an enthusiastic dog at the same time. Occasionally I dropped the leash when he chased squirrels up tall fir trees, or spotted another dog in the distance.

When we finally came to the main trail, we spied two skiers heading towards us with a large black dog in tow. The dog looked like a slim Laborador Retriever, tall and well-trained. He was sniffing the ground in front of him, and seemed content to be on a leash. His owners looked like they were in their 20’s, dressed in woolens and skiing with older equipment. Maakai pulled free and ran full-tilt toward the black dog.

“Look out”, I cried, breaking my ceremonial silence.

The man dropped the black dog’s leash, not wanting to become entangled in a dog fight. But there was no need for concern. The two dogs jumped on each other as if they were long-lost friends. Maakai ran around in circles, with the black dog chasing close behind. After a minute of this enthusiastic play, I said, “My dog is so happy to find a friend."

I continued to enjoy the dogs' play. "You have a beautiful dog, what kind is he?”

“He’s part Lab – we got him at the pound”, came the reply.

I watched the dogs as they romped for a few more seconds. They jumped at each other on their hind legs, then ran off the trail into the snow, mouths open, tongues hanging.

“How old is your dog?” I asked.

“He’s three,” the young man said. He paused a moment. “He’s blind.”

“Blind?” I couldn’t believe it. I looked carefully at the black dog. I noticed that he would occasionally lose track of Maakai, who continued to run around him in circles. But he quickly picked up Maakai’s position again, and soon the dogs were chasing each other through the snow-laden bushes.

“What happened to him?” I asked as I watched the joyful playing.

“He was hit by a car over a year ago now,” said the young woman.

I paused. “He seems so happy,” I said under my breath.

The black dog was now tracking Maakai through the brush, his nose to the ground. “He’s amazing.” I said. “Is he totally blind?”

“Yes, they had to cut his eyes out.” Then I noticed something I hadn’t seen before – the dog’s eyelids were sewn shut.

“When we took him home after the operation, at first he just laid around. We were pretty depressed. Then, three days after he had his eyes removed, he woke us up in the middle of the night with his ball in his mouth, wanting to play. So even though it was two in the morning, we got up and played with him for hours. Now when we take him to the dog park, he even plays fetch with the other dogs,” said the young man.

Hearing this story, I felt like crying. The black dog was so happy. And he was blind. It had taken him three days to accept his situation. He had no anxiety, no sadness, just unfettered joy at being alive.

I thought about what I would say to these strangers who noticed my eyes filling with tears. “You don’t know me, but I have glaucoma,” I finally said. “A lot of my vision is gone already, and I just had an operation. The doctors can’t tell me whether or not I’ll be able to keep my vision. I’ve been worrying about it a lot. But I look at your dog, and I see that there’s really nothing to worry about. Thank you so much.”

I reached down to pet the black dog who sniffed me enthusiastically. We said our goodbyes and Maakai and I resumed skiing north. Maakai was the same as always. I was a different person – no longer afraid of what lay up the trail.