Shed His Grace on Me

A bit of praise for life's wonders. Like forgiveness, redemption, and canine flatulence.

Sep 1, 1998
Outside Magazine

Grace attends me on my jaunts into the steep mountainside wilderness above my cabin. Sometimes I believe I can actually see flashes of Grace in the slanting light that falls through the tall pines in this cathedral of forest. I am led, by Grace, up the steep hillsides, through areas of deadfall, and over mossy logs that cross the constant roaring whitewater of Falls Creek. Grace leads me through the bear and moose scat, over the forest floor, under a canopy alive with scolding squirrels, through accumulations of alpine wildflowers — mountain bluebells and clematis and pink twinflower — and in the evening, Grace accompanies me to bed, where she tends to fart a lot.

Everyone should have a little Grace in his or her life, and my Grace is a four-year-old, 40-pound Brittany spaniel whose august and noble soul is made apparent in a metabolism that operates on two speeds: hysterical and off. A faultless athlete, entirely innocent of tranquility, Grace runs at speeds in excess of 25 miles an hour. The phrase "leaps and bounds" was coined to describe the breakneck rhythm of her passage through the forest. Grace sails over deadfall in 10-foot-long broad jumps, has no trouble swimming the creek that is too high and too treacherous for humans to cross, and streaks, at top speed, down a certain rocky hillside that most folks would describe as a cliff face.

Sometimes, when Grace leads me through the forest, she maketh me to fall down beside running water, if not into the water itself. Better to find my own way through the wilderness — it is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness that rises behind my cabin in Montana — and I know that Grace will follow, appearing now and again in a jingle of dog tags, or seen as a brown and white blur racing over the mossy forest floor, or chasing one of the black bears that periodically lumber past my cabin in search of the garbage I never put out. This little drama is played out in snatches of color barely perceived through the trees: a lardy cinnamon-colored butt waddling up the hill, some young garbage-obsessed bear harassed by a yipping brown and white streak that is the miracle of Grace.

Just lately, Grace and I have been accompanied on our walks by another dog. Trusty is an older golden retriever "type" who trudges heavily up the mountain, content to stay at my heel. Her eyebrows have gone a little white, so she has the look of a wise and aging scholar, a kind of Bertrand Russell of golden retriever types. This is well and fit, because Trusty is a dog who thinks a lot. Trusty thinks about leaves. Not leaves en masse, not forests, not sun-dappled meadows full of wildflowers. Trusty thinks about individual leaves, one at a time, and she thinks about these single leaves for hours, frowning and contemplating both stalk and blade.

Dry leaves are apparently as complex and revelatory as ones fresh from a bush or tree. The dog carries the chosen leaf gently in her mouth to a shady area, out of the sun, flops down onto her belly, and drops the green or brown object between her paws. Then she stares at it, intently, sometimes for over an hour, her patrician English logician's face crumpled in concentration. William Blake wrote the memorable opening stanza of Auguries of Innocence for Trusty: "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour."

Presently, after an eternity or an hour, some concept great or small will occur to Trusty, some link to the final meaning of it all. She'll snort, a brief "hurumph," which is her canine version of "eureka!" And the breath expelled through her muzzle will lift the leaf and set it atremble, as if to modify the physics of the entire situation and perhaps alter the very meaning of life, if not the physical state of the universe as we know it. Something to think about for another hour, anyway.

I have been watching Trusty contemplate leaves for the last several days. She's not my dog. She belongs to a family that lives in my town, the Liskas, whom Linnea and I count as among our best friends on earth. The father, Jim, once told me about the dog his kids love. The family was having a yard sale, and the dog, penned up in the backyard, longed to be out front. She attempted to climb the fence. Jim heard some strange sounds and ran out back to investigate. Trusty had gotten stuck between the house and the fence in such a way that she had strangled herself. The future canine philosopher was not breathing. Jim moved fast, hoisting the dog off the fence and clamping her nose and mouth so that he could give Trusty mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Thus the dog's life was saved.

"So," I said to Jim, "your lips touched dog lips."

"And I don't even like that dog," he lied.

"She started staring at leaves after that?"

"Brain damage, probably."

Personally, I think it was Trusty's near-death experience that turned her into a canine metaphysician. She sees the world, heaven, infinity, and eternity all in the turn of a leaf.

Linnea and I are keeping Trusty for a few weeks because Jim and his family are 1,000 miles away, out east, in Minneapolis, where his young daughter is undergoing serious and perhaps life-threatening surgery. Her name is Courtney, and she's awfully tired of being called "a brave little girl." She not a little girl; she turned 15 in March and, like many young women her age, loves horses. Unlike most, she rides like an angel and competes against adults in the sport and art of dressage.

The doctor, at least, treated her as an adult, fully capable of making her own decisions based on the best and most honest information he could give her.

"Am I going to die?" Courtney asked.

"I don't think so," the doctor said.

"Will I be paralyzed?"

Once again, the doctor didn't think so. What Courtney knew, what the whole family knew, was this: Her spine needed to be rebuilt. If she did not have the operation, she would surely be paralyzed, probably in less than a year, and that paralysis could easily lead to death.

"Will there be a lot of pain?"

The doctor was candid: Yes, for several weeks after the operation Courtney would be in serious pain.

"And afterward, will I be able to ride a horse?"

The doctor said that if everything went well, it was a distinct possibility. But there were no guarantees in a surgery as prolonged and complex as hers.

Courtney and her mother, Geri, flew to Minneapolis, while Jim and his 12-year-old son, Daniel, drove out to save money. Linnea and I took Trusty. The operation was scheduled for July 6.

Our little town's 75th annual Fourth of July parade featured classic cars and all the town's several fire engines, as well as floats based on the theme, "75 Years of Ridin', Ropin', and Wranglin'." The Rodeo Queen contestants rode fine mounts and waved imperiously. The marching bagpipe band was, as always, a big hit, as were the miniature horses and the gaited pasafinos, and the mule train, and the cowboy band called the Ringling Five, playing on the back of a flatbed truck emblazoned with their brutally honest motto, "It Ain't Music."

Last year, some dimwit from Portland, Oregon, traveling through the West, caught our parade and wrote an angry letter to the local newspaper, criticizing the order of march. He was incensed that a float featuring a Marilyn Monroe impersonator was positioned ahead of one carrying a man dressed as Uncle Sam. I was idiotically enraged by the letter and fired off one of my own, suggesting that next year this patriotic imbecile could march behind Mickey Mouse and ahead of the street sweeper.

The parade is one of my favorite events of the year, a chance to see most of my neighbors and to cheer for floats my friends and their kids have spent days and sometimes weeks constructing. I like to applaud and acclaim those organizations that I support and think do good work in the community.

"Hurray for the Big Brothers and Sisters," I holler, my hands cupped around my mouth like a megaphone.

"Hurray for the Rural Volunteer Fire Department!"

This year the Shriners, a fraternal group I used to find faintly ridiculous, with their secret handshakes and grand pooh-bahs and distinctive red fezzes, were a large presence in the parade. Many of this year's Shriners were great big men in absurd clown costumes, wearing bulbous noses like neon lights and huge floppy red shoes. They rode tiny motorized tricycles in looping circles and blew amplified aooogahhh horns. Later, after the parade, a few of them would get drunk, and somewhere, in one of the downtown bars, some sentimental clown with booze on his breath would tell me once again that the Shrine is a philanthropic organization operating a network of 22 hospitals that provide expert, no-cost orthopedic and burn care to children under 18. At this point, the drunken clowns usually have tears in their eyes and look altogether like a bad painting on black velvet.

"Hurray for the Shriners," I shouted at the top of my lungs.

"What a bunch of bozos," a friend standing by my side said.

I could feel my fists clenching at my sides. My forearms swelled and the muscles corded in my upper arms.

"What?" the guy asked.

"You know Courtney Liska?" I asked.

"Having that operation?"

"Shriners are paying for it."

"Hurray for the Shriners," my friend hollered.

Grace, from a christian viewpoint, is the love and mercy God visits upon sinners. The doctrine further holds that we are all sinners by simple virtue of our humanity. That is to say, grace is unmerited, which is why it is celebrated as being amazing. Great theological battles have been fought over the concept of grace and the idea that it is there for the taking, entirely unearned.

My own background is Catholic. I suppose my current status in that church can best be described as long lapsed. Even so, no one who has suffered a Catholic education is ever entirely free of the belief, or at least the discipline. Quaint notions, punitive and medieval, color my perception of the physical world. I tend to see the wilderness through the broken prism of my faith.

About a 20-minute walk above my cabin there is a place where Falls Creek forks. Over the years, I've tracked a bit of a trail to that location, but it still requires a little bushwhacking to get there. In early July, the runoff is just beginning as snow melts on the mountains above. The creek is only 10 yards wide, but the slope is so steep that whole trees, 70 feet high, are carried down the mountain and battered into slivers against protruding rocks. There is the sound of rushing water, constant and unrelenting, and something deeper, a contrapuntal rumbling that can be felt in the ground itself and that is the sound of large boulders rolled down the streambed by the sheer and savage fervor of rushing water.

At the exact point where the creek divides, there is a rocky, moss-covered triangle of earth nudging out into the rushing water. It is where I sit when I visit the Fork. A constant mist, thrown up by the creek, makes the spot 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the forest. At dawn and dusk, when the sun is low in the sky, the slanting pillars of light that fall through the mist shimmer with a rainbow's color and look precisely like the light falling through stained glass windows in a cathedral.

This place, the Fork on Falls Creek, is where I would go to pray, if I could pray or if I thought that it would do any good at all.

Instead, on the day before Courtney's surgery, I walked up the hill with Grace and Trusty. We arrived at the Fork, and Trusty contemplated a leaf while Grace appeared now and again, first on this side of the creek, then on that. Any ordinary dog would surely die attempting to cross Falls Creek during the runoff, but this was Grace, and Grace is amazing.

Courtney went into surgery on the morning of July 6. As they were wheeling her into the operating room, lightly tranquilized, she calmly asked her mother a favor. If she died, would it be possible for Geri and Jim to put up a memorial to her in the little park down the street from their house? It didn't have to be expensive or anything, but she'd like a little horse that little kids could play on. Before they grew up and could ride a real horse.

The surgery was scheduled for 8:00 that morning and would take between nine and 12 hours. It would be done sometime after 5:00 Minneapolis time, 4:00 my time.

The day was hectic, and I was on the phone, on and off, for hours, conducting my business, such as it is. About 3:30 I stopped making or taking calls. We waited for word about Courtney from Geri. Linnea had a list of folks to call, who all had lists themselves. There were dozens of people across the country who, like us, had spent the day worrying about Courtney. Trusty lay on the kitchen floor, studying a leaf I'd provided for the purpose. Linnea and I watched our respective telephones with the same intensity.

At 4:20, Geri called. Her voice sounded exhausted, slow and unsteady, as if each of her words had an anvil's worth of weight to it. I listened carefully and didn't hear grief.

"You sound good," I told Geri, which was a lie on the face of it.

Linnea picked up the extension phone.

"Courtney's out of surgery," Geri said. "They tell me I can see her in an hour."

The brave little girl made it. Young lady. Brave woman.

"The nurses tell me she can wriggle her toes."

Not paralyzed.

It had not yet occurred to Geri that she was relieved or happy or overcome with joy. Linnea promised to call the half-dozen people on her list.

I listened from my position at my desk. Trusty lay near Linnea's feet, staring at a new green leaf. She snorted briefly, the leaf jumped slightly, the entire universe tilted on its metaphysical axis, and the dog regarded her leaf with a deep concentration.

Three days later, Geri called and said that the surgery had gone so well that Courtney's therapist thought she could be up on horseback in about 30 days.

I called the dogs and together we started walking up the hill. I hadn't actually prayed at the Fork, and now I was walking up there to not actually give thanks. The dogs were happy, anyway. I had Trusty at my heel, and Grace abounding.

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