O’Keeffe on the ranch.
Spirit of Winter Solstice
It all started with a found dog brought to me years ago and in another lifetime. In this other lifetime, my children were quite young, I was married to their father, and I’d been witness to our family dog attack a toddler in our home. My fear of dogs around young children was so extreme that I never, ever let Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn near dogs. When they toddled over to pet any dog, the memory and sounds of the bark, growl, and attack rang in my ears. I heard the mother’s scream when her child was bit. When the kids were anywhere near a dog, my blood raced, and my vision narrowed to a dark tunnel that held only my child and the animal – until I moved my child safely away.
Then a dog, all 90 pounds of unknown German Shepherd arrived one night in my home. My family had found him walking the road in the country in the dark and brought him home. My vision narrowed as I watched his mouth eye-level with Wynn. I spent the evening trying to keep the kids away from him. They asked, “What are we going to name him, Mom? What are we going to name him?”
“We’re not keeping him,” I said. “He is somebody’s dog. We’ll find his owners and return him.”
“Dad said he didn’t have a collar and so he didn’t belong to anybody, so we’re keeping him.”
“He must belong to somebody. We’ll find his family.”
The next day I called all the local animal shelters and pounds to report a found dog, in case anybody had reported a dog missing or lost. I made flyers and posted them all over the closest town, as well as Santa Fe. I kept the dog with me, away from the kids. And, we waited for somebody to call to claim him. I called the local vets to report his presence and ask if anybody was searching for a dog. Nothing. One week passed. Then, another. I put ads in the local papers. The dog still had no name. “We can’t name him,” I said. “He isn’t ours and he’ll go back with his family soon.” I was determined to find his family and get him out of our home and our lives.
I couldn’t leave him alone in the house, as he’d chew through the door. We didn’t have a kennel, so I took the dog with me everywhere, loading him up in the back of our Suburban. Another couple of weeks passed. Maybe it was because we were together all the time, imprinting, but somewhere along the line, I started to fall in love with this dog I’d never wanted, ate all of my favorite shoes (somehow he seemed to intuit my favorites and chose these as his chew toys, leaving the others alone), and barked incessantly in the truck everywhere we went.
I tried for weeks to find his owners. And somewhere along the way, my heart opened a tiny bit and he found his way inside, through my determination not to let him in. I took him to the animal shelter and dropped him off—only to return the next day, anxiously scanning the kennels for “my dog.” We looked at each other through the mesh and both rushed to the gate. I got him out of there and “home” as fast as I could. Something shifted inside me then. At last, I named him, “O’Keeffe” after Georgia O’Keeffe, an artist whose work I love. “He’s man enough to carry off a woman’s name,” I said.
O’Keeffe running on the ranch.
Six months passed. I started to take O’Keeffe running with me. I tried to teach him to heel while I ran. He never learned. As we ran miles through the desert, he channeled much more the spirit of a husky sled dog pulling a sled at top speed through the snow. He never missed a run. He LOVED it. I had to put on my running clothes in a room where he couldn’t see me. As soon as he saw me dressed for running, he started levitating feet off the air, jumping all over, and almost knock me down as I tried to tie my shoes to get out the door. For the first few years, we ran in the dark of pre-dawn. Through the winter, snow, wind and cold, so dark I couldn’t see my feet, we ran. He loved it.
The first time Dad and Mom came to visit, Dad let him out one morning at 4:00 am and O’Keeffe must’ve thought it was time for run and he took off. Dad walked the streets of our neighborhood at 4:30 am calling, “O’Malley! O’Sullivan! O’Grady!”
Someone once told me that while Labradors are family dogs, German Shepherds are one-person dogs and O’Keeffe was mine. If I moved from one room to the next, he came with me. He had an uncanny ability to intuit exactly where I was going to walk and would meet me there.
O’Keeffe was always there.
A few years later when suddenly my kids were gone from me every other week to be with their dad, it was just O’Keeffe and me. He seemed to sense the loneliness and pain and stayed extra close to me. We ran miles and miles. I talked to him and cried with him. He was always, always there. O’Keeffe had three beds in our home, one in the living room, one under my writing desk, and one in my bedroom. Whichever room I was in, he lay on that bed. When I wrote, I lay my feet on his belly. Through those lonely, painful years, O’Keeffie’s was always, always there. I can’t imagine what I would’ve done during that time without his presence. He took my loneliness and pain and held steady alongside me through the hardest years of my life.
When the kids were home, O’Keeffe was forever found curled up in the book nook with whichever child was reading. I’d find Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn curled up against the pillow, their legs or arms thrown haphazardly over O’Keeffe. And as a mom alone with three small kids, I never worried about somebody breaking into our home. I left all bedroom doors open and had no doubt that O’Keeffe would’ve torn any intruder limb-from-limb. One time O’Keeffe and I were out running and our friend, Heidi, rode past on her mountain bike. She told me later that she saw us coming, “Let me just say that nobody is going to mess with you with that dog beside you.”
O’Keeffe loved the freedom of the ranch and took on the look of a sleek wolf after our month there in the summer. O’Keeffe was regal in both in body and nature.
Three years ago, I noticed that O’Keeffe seemed to tire on our runs. He was around eight-years-old (the best guess the veterinarian could give) and I thought maybe he was getting too old. He couldn’t come on long runs anymore, so we walked. That worked for a while, but within weeks even short walks tired him. I took him to the vet, who took him into the back of his clinic for tests. When the vet emerged, I learned that O’Keeffe had cancer of the blood. There was no cure and it was just a matter of time.
O’Keeffe went much more quickly than I dreamed. I hated leaving him to go to work or anyplace else. I opened the door to my home the evening of Winter Solstice 2010. I knew as soon as I opened the door. I couldn’t feel him. I found him lying beside my bed. I had so wanted to be with him when he passed. I felt he’d left me, instead of choosing for me to be there with him. Since that time, I’ve heard story after story of animals and people passing in that moment when loved ones are out of the room.
Of course, his spirit chose the evening of the Winter Solstice to pass over, a sacred day symbolizing rebirth and the coming of light.
Three years later, I still feel O’Keeffe’s absence, miss the best running partner ever, and find myself reaching out to rub his belly under my writing table, only to find empty air. Then, one day, Noé told me a story and instead of O’Keeffe’s absence, I now feel his presence.
Noé woke one night and walked from our bedroom to the kitchen. As he walked through the living room in the dark, a large dog walked toward him. “Hey, Clyde,” he said. Clyde is our new Shepherd, whose bed is in the living room. Noé reached out to pet Clyde and touched nothing but air, and turned the corner into the kitchen to discover Clyde laying on the floor there. Noé looked back into the living room to find the large dog he’d just seen—and found nothing there.
Winter Solstice candle for O’Keeffe
Except there is. O’Keeffe’s spirit lives with us still. Not quite yet able to let go of his ashes, they’re tucked away in my closet, along with his collar. One day I’ll spread his ashes along our running trail and on the ranch. I just haven’t quite been able to do it yet.
On this Winter Solstice, I light a candle for O’Keeffe. For his majestic, kind, loving, protective spirit who walked with me through the darkest years and always brought light. He gave the best of himself and lived with unconditional love. His spirit found mine when I needed him most. He was there with me to take care of my kids when I was otherwise alone. I am forever grateful.
When I wake in the early morning darkness, I always hope that perhaps I’ll find O’Keeffe’s spirit there in the living room, as Noé caught a glimpse of him. This hasn’t happened yet, but I’ll keep hoping. Maybe I’ll leave out one of my favorite shoes for him…
* * *