Athens, Georgia, Cancer, Canine Cancer Awareness, Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, Grief and Loss, Memoirs

A Small Window of Opportunity

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Reggie looks out at the Tallulah River and Falls from Overlook 2 in Tallulah Gorge State Park January 21, 2019

We did it. Reggie made it to Tallulah Gorge State Park – he walked the North Rim Trail, slowly, with lots of breaks – good for both of us – and together we sat for hours looking out into the distance at the gorgeous Tallulah River, the falls, and miles of mountains and trees.

I will remember this day always – and I will never regret it – it was the best thing in the world for Reggie.

I learned something about myself today too – I’ve changed – since I moved to Georgia, since I met and married Audie. I’m not as afraid as I used to be, I take more chances, I am more spontaneous –  and when it comes to something as important as today, I won’t let anything stop me.

Today was one of the coldest days we’ve had: 28 degrees, and when I had the tire pressure checked this morning, the mechanic told me I definitely have a leak in my right rear tire – a slow one. I asked if it was safe to drive up to the mountains, once he’d put 10 pounds of air into the tire – and he said it would be okay until tomorrow. So, off we went. The drive was easy enough from US 441 North to 23 North, only about an hour and 20 minutes, give or take.

There was no traffic. The park is not far from the turnoff at Hwy 17 to Helen – if Reggie makes it to Friday, we are headed toward Unicoi next, but we’ll see – one day at a time. Anything could happen between Monday and Friday at this point in Reggie’s journey…

For most of the drive up to Tallulah Gorge State Park, Reggie was snuggled quietly among the blankets, but somewhere around Banks County, as we got closer, he suddenly stood up and climbed up onto the console – looking out the windshield, ahead into the distance – the way he used to: my co-pilot. I wish it were legal – and safe – to take photos on the cell phone while driving or I would have captured that moment.

His spirit had already begun to awaken…

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Reggie all bundled up in his stroller when we arrived at the visitors center

When we arrived at the park, it was windy and cold. The visitors center doesn’t allow dogs, but we weren’t there to stay inside, we were there to give Reggie a day outside, in nature, walking on the trail, in the fresh air, the way he used to, when he was healthier and nothing could stop his stride. I bundled him up in a sweater and coat, and added in my own neck warmer, and lots of blankets…and then I found out I couldn’t take the stroller on the trail…so…I picked him up, took him out, hooked on the leash…and Reggie walked it. It was not long or steep, only 1/4 mile to the overlook, but for Reggie, it was work. He had to stop and rest, and he was afraid at first. It was heartbreaking, knowing he used to be fearless, but I encouraged him, and he kept trying…until another dog passed by, then he was barking and walking like he always did, trotting and trying to follow that dog and its owners. There were a lot of people there today, all friendly, and several dogs. (Dogs are not allowed down the mountain on the suspension bridge or by the gorge, but they are allowed up above on the rim trails – that’s where we walked and stopped at Overlook 1, 2, 3 and 4 to look at the water at different spots).

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Reggie on North Rim Trail
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Reggie walking the North Rim Trail at Tallulah Gorge January 21, 2019

I took over an hour of video (not all at once, off and on) and posted it on Instagram – like I planned – and I wish the photos captured the same effect as video. But, I have to say, as Reggie was trotting down the trail, sniffing and marking and following his instinct to go wherever the path would lead him – I saw my dog, the way he once was. It was as if the cancer did not exist.

I can’t remember the last time I’d seen Reggie so happy – he was so happy today, so alive, so free – he was breathing normally, his gait was steady, his eyes were alert, he wasn’t sluggish – he barked at the dogs that went by, he wagged his tail when he met  people (a lot of people – adults and children stopped to pet him, both walking and while we were resting) – and I could feel his joy – it was natural and authentic. He belongs out in the fresh air, and in nature. (And excuse me for saying this, if anything proves we need to save our planet, save our clean air, clean water, natural environment – it is what I witnessed today – the healing power over my dog, whom I was told I should put down – now).

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Reggie resting by the fence at Overlook 1 in Tallulah Gorge Park
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Reggie on the rock in the sunshine at Overlook 2 in Tallulah Gorge Park

When we made it to Overlook 2, there was a sign that said no pets allowed any further, so we stopped there. There was another sign, warning people with health problems not to attempt the climb, and so even if I had been there without my pet, Overlook 2 was as far as I was permitted to go as well. But, we spent almost 2 hours sitting and looking at the water. Many people came by, and two of them took pictures of Reggie and me when I asked them. There was so much beauty to see and the sound of the river and the waterfall – that gorgeous waterfall – was breathtaking and calming, and it made me never want to forget how serene it was to be in nature – unplugged – away from the hustle and bustle and noise and problems of the day to day – away from the vet’s office and medications and the worrying and wondering, should I do it? Am I being selfish?

There looking out at the water, at the trees, in the cold, crisp air, together, we just were human and dog – enjoying the world and life with joy – the way it should be. At one point, Reggie walked over and sat on my foot, leaning against my leg, as he often does, but this time, up there in the park, overlooking the river, the wind in my face, it was different – I felt connected in a moment where he was able to find himself again – his inner dog, his inner peace, his inner joy – and it was beautiful. When it got a bit crowded with people I lifted him up into my lap and he rested in my arms. He slept and awoke and slept again but never, never did he struggle to breathe, or cry, or whimper, or even shake. Out there in the cold, he did not even shake. I know, he was truly happy, and in that moment, I wish we could have stayed like that forever.

Here are some of the photos I took from that Overlook 2, and also the photo that was taken by a young girl, Leah, who was so sweet with Reggie. (In fact, it was funny – her dad, who was all in camouflage, kind of became Reggie’s buddy – we passed them a few times on the North Rim and the last time we saw them the guy called out, “Reggie! We keep meeting like this, Reggie!” )

We laughed and smiled.  Everyone is so friendly on the trail – if you have ever talked to people about how they are different – how others are friendly out on the trail or in the woods – it is true. I’ve noticed it myself, whether in Georgia or California.

Nature brings out the best in human nature.

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Reggie sitting on my foot, leaning against me, as we watch the river flow.
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Long shot of the Tallulah River and Falls from Overlook 2
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Reggie walking on the rock at Overlook 2
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Reggie resting while looking at the mountains and the river at Overlook 2

 

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Leah took our photo with the trees in the background at Overlook 2

 

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Leah took a second photo of us with the river and falls in the background at Overlook 2
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Wide shot of the Tallulah river at Overlook 2

We spent a long time at Overlook 2, and then finally we headed further down the trail toward Overlook 3 and 4. This was more difficult for Reggie, he had to take his time and he stopped a lot more often than he had walking from the Overlook 1 viewpoint to our resting spot at Overlook 2. The day was long for him, for me too, and I think he was trying so hard to make it because he was in his element. His stride was a bit slower, but he didn’t lag, he just took his time. And that’s okay. The fact that he went on this short hike at all is a miracle, and what I was hoping for.

When he did stop, he was not out of breath. In fact, he never panted, not once. I can’t remember the last time that happened, either. He was taking his time, but he was not struggling, or in pain, I would have known. I can recognize when he’s worn or exhausted or hurting after watching how this cancer has stolen his health from him.

Today he was more like an older dog, than a terminal dog. He was more like a dog that has slowed his pace, not lost his will, and if I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t know he was dying. No one else did – no one else on the trail suspected, and I never said anything. They asked his name, they asked what kind of dog he is, they asked if they could pet him – No one, not one single person asked, “What’s wrong with him?” or anything of the sort. He was just himself, and he was amazing.

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I wish I could give him this kind of life every day. I swear it makes me wonder if it would slow the cancer down, if the tumors would stop spreading to his organs, if he would find the strength to fight back and hang onto his life with every breath in his body. I felt that in him today – I saw it with my own eyes. He had to stop and poop a lot, and he strained, but that was the only sign that he is sick. It was a relief for me, and I know it was a relief for him.

He explored the leaves, he smelled the twigs and the tree trunks.  He pondered at the sound of the water, the smells of the bushes and the clean air. He basked in the sun.

He lived the life he was meant to live – all in one day.

He was free.

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Reggie on the rock at Overlook 2 with the river in the background.

Later on, when we made it back to the visitors center, we sat at a park bench and ate our lunch (apples and cashew butter and tuna) without any distractions like we have at home.  It was about 2:30 pm by then (we’d arrived about 10:30 am) and it was still early enough in the day to avoid driving home in the dark.  But, sitting and eating, we began to feel the chill and I decided we should go back to the car and think about exploring more of the area from there.  Before I left I took a photo of what I am now calling “the last of the pay phones” because I haven’t seen one in ages!

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Pay phone by visitors center in Tallulah Gorge State Park

We drove around the area for about half an hour, and the GPS sent us to some dead ends so we did not reach the other parks and trails in the area and the nearest waterfalls were a bit more of a drive, for that hour (after 3 pm). We’d had a wonderful day, though, I just didn’t want to leave! But, Reggie was happy to close his eyes and nap and he slept almost the whole way home.

Sitting down and writing this travel post, this travel diary, of what may be the last great adventure of Reggie “Reggwood” Roberts, I feel both peace and sadness. I confess, as hard as I tried, there was an emptiness up on the overlook, something missing – someone, missing – and it is not going to just go away, but even though I wish he had been there with Reggie, to see him in that space, in this time, he was with us in spirit – his love for Reggie is not forgettable and I know it’s there.  Sometimes, a person does not need to be physically with you – their presence is there in the knowledge that in their heart, they are right there with you – or in this case, his presence was right there with Reggie.

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Reggie walking by Overlook 2 viewpoint January 21, 2019

 

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Close-up of Reggie at Overlook 2
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Reggie in the leaves on the North Rim Trail

 

 

I think I must have taken 50 photos and 20 videos today of Reggie, mostly from behind or above or from the side, but I wanted to capture him while he was walking or enjoying the view – he looked like he was contemplating often today, what I don’t know, but I imagine it was the same sorts of things he would have contemplated on all of his many walks over the years, on another trail he’s walked, while listening to other rivers, watching other people stroll by, sniffing the air in other places he’s seen, the way only dogs can – taking in every single element that we humans could never hope to smell.

I wanted this for him, so much, today – so much so I can’t even adequately express it in words. I am feeling out of breath, sitting here at home again, with Reggie at my feet in the dining room, as I write. I wonder what this all means, today, or if it means nothing different at all except that Reggie was given a gift – a gift of living that he needed – a memory of days gone by – of what once was – of what could be…if only…if only there were more time than this small window of opportunity for him to live.

If anyone out there is reading this and wondering if you should take your dog, your dog with only a short time left, on a trip like this, do it. Whatever you need to do, don’t wait. Go. Take him or her out into the wild, into the light, into the sun, among the trees, into the woods, onto the beach, out on the lake, wherever you can find the place where he or she can merge with nature and spirit and freedom.

I promise you will be so glad you did.

I am.

I dedicate this post to all of the dog owners and cat owners who are caring for a beloved pet with cancer. Never give up on them, and never doubt how much your love matters to them. I promise – it does.

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Panorama view of Tallulah Gorge State Park from Overlook 1
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Reggie at Overlook 2 January 21, 2019

 

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Photo of Reggie walking the North Rim Trail January 21, 2019
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Reggie at the Overlook 2 viewpoint

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