"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.” -Holden Caufield
The Catcher in the Rye
On the mornings when I worked from home, I was awoken by the repugnant smell of his breath. It was a thick, steamy stench like the smell of a rotten potato that had been abandoned in the dark corners of a kitchen cupboard. He would drag his rough tongue across my face, thick with spit, ambition and intention: he wanted me awake. It did not matter to him if it Christmas morning or if I just polished off a bottle of wine. What mattered was that it was 5:30am and it was time to run.
We shared a love for running. I was born into a lineage of athletes and started jogging at the age 14 to condition for sports. Like all habits, what began as a discipline evolved into a regiment that melted into me. I ran through college, through the city of Prague, around the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska and along the Charles River in Boston. Wherever I landed, I would lace up my sneakers and go. I didn’t run in preparation for a race or to lose weight; I ran because I had to.
Buster is a Labrador/Great Pyrenees mix meaning he is smart, protective and sheds quicker than I can vacuum. His face encompasses the all enduring features of a Lab while his blonde coat makes him rare and unique. We met at the Exit 2 Park and Ride off I-89 in Concord, NH where an oversized, unmarked van opened its doors to reveal rows of puppies stacked in crates. The Southern rescue dogs had a endured long, dark journey North and proclaimed their arrival with a cacophony of yelping when the morning light cut gloriously into the van.
Except for Buster. While the other puppies were burning their energy with aimless abandon, this scraggly little dog was steadfast in his efforts to chew through the bars of his cage. He was busting out and had a plan. Immediately, I recognized my own feelings. For if I was trapped in a cage, I too could only focus on reclaiming my freedom. This is how I knew Buster was the dog for me. Despite our physical and intellectual variances, we shared a sameness of spirit. And it is a nice feeling to have another creature in this world appreciates what you value. Even if they lack opposable thumbs.
Together, Buster and I would run through the hiking trails near my home. Southern New Hampshire is host to an intricate web of trails that provide endless hours of enjoyment for those who appreciate the great outdoors. Lake Massabesic is perched middle, majestically reflecting sunshine and collecting rainwater. She provides drinking water for the bordering city of Manchester so swimming, jet skiing and motorboats are not allowed on the lake. As a result, the trails are peaceful and secluded from the rush and noise of the industrialized world. Although the area is renowned for its safety, the isolated nature of the trails present sketchy circumstances for a woman to run alone. But a woman with the right dog is certainly safe.
Buster takes his role of protector very seriously. While other dogs stop to sniff a fisherman and his catch or chase a chipmunk scurrying back to his chamber, Buster runs dutifully by my side, his ears and my ponytail flapping in the wind. Occasionally, someone will try to pat Buster despite my explicit instructions: “Don’t pat the dog."
When their good intentions were met with deep, barbaric growl and a pearly flash of fangs they would bark, “Ya Dawgs a Frickin' Killa!” inadvertently confirming my suspicion: Masshole. Tourist living semi permanently in NH are usually from Massachusetts and readily disclose their authentic heritage as soon as they open their mouths. They are famous for dropping their Rs when speaking and all consideration when driving and thus have earned the derogatory title of “Massholes.” Yielding in traffic or in life is not in their bones. Whateva. Use Ya Blinkah.
Many Massholes have figured out that Southern New Hampshire is the best place on earth to raise a family. Geographically, it is sandwiched between the White Mountains of NH and Boston Ma producing coordinates that land in middle of nowhere and hour from everywhere. Beaches, lakes, ski resorts, Fenway Park, and Logan International airport are all within a reasonable drive. As is Boston’s financial district, where the gladiators of the daily commute willingly battle traffic on 93 South so they can earn a top notch salary while benefiting from NH’s affordable housing market. Wicked Smaht.
But for many NH natives, leaving the perimeter of the Granite State is perceived as unnecessary and most likely unsafe. Especially when everything you need can be found at the local truck stop: milk, bread, beer, live bait and a lottery ticket. Anything below the 495 belt might as well be the below the Mason-Dixon line, even if it is home to the most prestigious medical facilities in the world.
I did not subscribe to this belief. The moment my cancer diagnosis was delivered, I packed up my medical case and moved it down to Boston. Massachusetts General Hospital provides a cornucopia of cutting edge research, technology and medical procedures that are not offered at NH hospitals. For example, MGH provides immediate breast reconstruction during the same operation as the mastectomy, thus reducing the number of surgeries and increasing optimal cosmetic results. It’s the convenience of Super Walmart coupled with the efficiency of Jiffy Lube.
Oddly, Buster stopped waking me to run after my surgery. Instead, he sat at the top of the 2nd floor stairs waiting to shadow me around the house. This drove me crazy. He hovered behind me as I loaded the washing machine or unloaded the dishwasher. He pushed the bathroom door open when I needed privacy. So I locked it. Undeterred, he scratched at the door then barked until I let him in. I’ll never understand how Buster learned that I acquired a potentially fatal disease as I never emailed him. But undoubtedly, he knew.
A month after my cancer treatment was complete, Buster woke me with his foul, stinky breath. It was time to run again. But things were different for me; months of injecting and ingesting powerful chemicals had left me with a weak, floppy frame. A series of surgeries had reconfigured my body, replacing my soft, flexible tissue with hard silicone implants that made my chest feel like a pinball machine. My bouncy ponytail was gone, replaced by butch haircut that sparked questions about my sexual orientation.
So what was left of me?
I gambled away anatomical parts for the hope of a longer life, an exchange that was not guaranteed. I stripped my body of all fast growing cells then bombarded it with radioactive waves. How could I possibly run again with such a fragile foundation? Was I still an athlete, despite the torture that I inflicted on my body? What if running was yet another love I had to sacrifice to the cancer machine?
Buster would not stand for any of my apathy or self deprecation. He would relentlessly nudge me out of bed and whimper until my feet hit the floor. If I did not get up, he would sit on me. Once I was standing, he would bark incessantly until I grabbed his harness and the leash. This went on. And on. And on. Until ultimately, I started running again so Buster would shut up and leave me alone.
When we first returned to the trails, I had to shamefully surrender to walking. Walking, when on a run, is for the weak or maimed. Having earned a membership to both of these clubs, I believed I was entitled to walk. After all, walking is good for you...right? Maybe from now on, I could be a walker. I’d be an excellent walker. Nothing wrong with that.
Buster had zero tolerance for this change of pace. When I walked, he adamantly pulled on his harness, uncoiling his powerful hind legs as if I was a stagnant, heavy sled that needed to be moved.
“Keep it up and I will ship your lily white ass right back to Alabama.” I shouted at him. I pulled hard on the leash but my efforts were in vain; he was stronger and had four legs while I had only two. We engaged in a futile tug of war until I realized that it was easier to just run than to fight him. Ants passed me, but I was still moving.
It was ugly. First of all, I couldn’t catch my breath. Like, from the start. I’ve been winded before but if was AFTER a race. Or a game. Or a marathon. But this was different...I couldn’t even breathe from the START. It felt as if was drowning in air. No wonder so many people hate running. It can really suck. Then there were casualties. My balance was off so I would frequently trip over random objects. Like a tree branch. Or my sneaker. Or my own feet. Each step was a painful reminder that I was a fraction of the person that I used to be.
Buster didn’t seem to notice or care about my suffering. I began to resent his perseverance and craved some sort of validation. At least I was trying to get back in the game. At least I was not home, curled up on the couch feeling sorry for myself. But he was not impressed. We were running, something we had always done and something we would always need to do.
Then after one nasty spill, I lost it. We were headed downhill and I leaped over a thick, black tree root. Then it moved as it was actually a snake. Startled, I hit a tree and was catapulted into the air like a human tick tack. I was bruised and bloody before I even hit the ground. Buster sauntered over to me to assess the damage. He sniffed at my head and nudged me with his nose. Once he was completely satisfied with his investigation, he got down on all fours, wagged his tail and barked at me. Buster was ready to move on.
“Fuck off!” I shouted at him.
I unfolded from the ground and wiped off the blood that was oozing from my knee. Buster misinterpreted my movement as an invitation to run. He exploded with unbridled enthusiasm circling me while barking and pouncing in the air.
“No.” I told him, shaking a finger at him. “I can’t do this anymore.” He jumped on me with the leash in his mouth. “Stop it!!!” I screamed, pushing him away “Just stop it!!” I let my frustration get the best of me and impulsively kicked him in the butt. Buster yelped and stared at me in disbelief. I melted back to the ground, immediately enveloped in shame and regret.
“Oh my God Buster. I’m so sorry. I’m so very, very sorry. “ I reached out and wrapped my arms around his thick, muscular neck. “I’m sorry...I’m just not me.” I told him through my tears. “I’m not me.”
I’m just not me.
Buster curled up along my side and offered his head as a tissue. I dumped my face into the soft fur between his ears and cried. He licked my tears as they streamed down my face until I laughed. Once I was calm, I got up, picked up the leash and obediently followed Buster down the trail.
Then one day, it happened. I caught my breath. The agony of training finally transitioned to euphoria. My legs felt powerful, cutting the wind with purpose and promise. I was a warrior, gliding effortlessly through the brush, my feet pounding the rocks that once scraped my knees. I was part of the world again instead just fighting to survive in it. I looked over at Buster and knew that he felt it too:
The girl who loves to run was with me the whole time. She was buried deep beneath 18 weeks of chemotherapy, 30 sessions of radiation, and 5 surgeries, just waiting for something strong and determined to pull her out. I missed her so much.
Buster glanced over at me as his ears flapped victoriously in the wind. His tongue hung out the side of his mouth that held a wide smile of satisfaction.
“Told you so.” said his expression. I told you so.
Who rescued whom?