I can safely say I get more ideas for novels than I’ll ever have time to write. By the time I’m wrapping up the first draft of a manuscript, I'm rarely able to recall the story’s inspiration. This is partly because, as opposed to a lightning strike, most of my ideas come in sprinkles, a little bit here, a little bit there, until they morph into something worthy of a full-length manuscript. That said, I remember well that it was this lovely canine who inspired the first book in the Rescue Me series when she came into our lives twelve and a half years ago.
My family adopted Hazel, a border collie mix, from a small rescue organization when she was eight weeks old. She, along with her ten siblings, were dumped in a plastic bag on the side of a busy road. Thankfully, after spotting the wriggling bag, a man rescued the litter and brought them to the shelter. The puppies were in fair health, but Hazel had a scar on her forehead from an unknown injury she’d sustained while mere days old and ended up needing surgery post adoption. It was during this time, while raising young kids and attempting to train an energetic and high maintenance puppy, that I had the idea for the first Rescue Me book. I had already drafted a handful of manuscripts, and my early career involved working for animal-centered non-profits, but it wasn’t until Hazel entered our lives that I had the idea of using my experience with animal rescue organizations in my writing.
In her twelve-plus years, Hazel has been witness to so many life changes, from the loss of an older dog in our family who taught her the ropes, to moving houses a handful of times, to family members growing up and moving out. The kids, her once favorite playmates, have gone to college or moved into places of their own and are gone much of the time. Hazel has also needed to learn that our two cats are not, in fact, related to squirrels but are part of the family and not to be chased or herded. She’s adapted from suburb life to country life to city life. She’s gone from the youngest dog in the house to the only dog to the oldest.
And all the while, she’s never complained.
If you ask me, it’s one of the most beautiful things about animals, their great adaptability, their skill at accepting what is.
When Hazel was born, I was in my late thirties and in the midst of those remarkable years of being a mom to young children, a time when it’s easy to think life will go on forever just as it is. In dog years, Hazel has morphed from a playful puppy into a serious adult dog with a herding habit, and now, into a graceful senior canine who’s showing her age. She’s gone a bit gray and cloudy eyed and lost a few teeth. She needs a bit of help shedding her coat. She puts herself to bed right after dinner and doesn’t wake up before dawn for much of anything. Added to that, I can’t say if it was days or weeks that went by before I realized she was no longer jumping up on my bed for her daytime naps because the jump up had become too high or the hop down to the hardwood floor was too painful.
She perks up most in anticipation of her twice-daily neighborhood walks and even prances along with the energy of a much younger dog, ears perked forward and tail lifted, after limbering up. Once every week or so (for myself and for the dogs) I head out in the woods on hikes with family or friends. I bring water for the dogs and make sure to avoid high temps, and I bring Hazel along whenever possible. How couldn’t I? Her whole body still wags at the promise of a hike.
More and more, I second guess whether it’s right to bring her on the longer hikes. So far, she’s still loving them, even if she falls asleep in the backseat in minutes on the way home. This weekend, we hiked a gorgeous but strenuous trail along the bluffs in Illinois. There were a lot of hills and the terrain was rocky and steep, but the weather was chilly and we stopped for water breaks. At the highest lookout point, as always when we’re there, she stood closer to the ledge than I’m comfortable with, sniffing the wind and gazing over the valley below, looking entirely at peace. I wondered if, like the afternoon naps on the bed, this would be her last time up there.
I hope I’m savoring this time with her enough, with everyone I love enough. It’s one of the things about dogs that’s as miraculous as it is sad, the way we get to be there for the full spectrum of their lives, the riotous but endearing beginning, the easy and long middle, and the somber final stretch. If we’re really present and paying attention, there’s so much they can teach us. As for whatever Hazel has left to teach me, I’m doing my best to listen.