I heard that exact phrase, word for word, twice today – it left a pang in my chest, and it was bittersweet.
The first time, a lady and her husband were walking down from the falls and saw Reggie in poop position on the paved trail.
“He’s not pooping. He’s straining. He has colon cancer.”
“Oh,” she said, “You’re a good dog mom.”
Today was the first time I told strangers the truth – just like that.
The second time, Reggie and I were in the Higher Ground Coffee Shop in Helen, GA, where I was grabbing a small latte for the drive back home. In the parking lot, I’d asked a nice lady if there was a place where I could bring Reggie to eat if he stayed in his stroller. (We ended up at an outdoor patio, where I’d been once before, many years ago – it was easier). As it turned out the lady who had suggested a couple of indoor restaurants worked in Higher Ground Coffee and she asked if we’d found a place for my baby and me to eat. She then said, “I hope people have been showing you Helen hospitality.”
“I ate outside with him. Is it okay if he’s in here with me? He’s my service animal. He isn’t well. He has cancer.”
It just came out – again.
“You’re a good dog mom,” she said.
And there it was – again. The bittersweet feeling came again, too.
“I hope people have been showing you our Helen hospitality,” she repeated.
I smiled and nodded.
“Come back and see us again, okay?” she told me.
It was an easy drive to Anna Ruby Falls – about an hour and 40 minutes – according to the GPS. I knew it had a steep paved trail (my friend had told me about it) and there was the option to explore the lake and trails by the Unicoi lodge instead, but I had my heart set on the falls – and – I knew it would be easier to have Reggie in the stroller – just in case he was not feeling up to walking as much as he had on Monday at Tallulah Gorge (How lucky to have been able to take him on two trips this week. Albeit it was an unusual indulgence on my part – but I will have no regrets, ever. It was worth every moment with him.
Anna Ruby Falls Visitors Center is the starting point for the 0.4 mile walk up to the top of the falls. The river is called Smith Creek. The paved trail extends all the way up, bordered on one side by mountainous terrain, and on the other side by the rushing river with the sound of the rapids and the view of the white foam tumbling over the rocks downstream.
It was breathtaking.
It was a difficult climb, with Reggie in the stroller and me pushing at a slow pace, stopping often to rest, and trying to be mindful of my back and neck – but I was determined.
There were several patches of black ice, which was the biggest challenge. I almost slipped once, but thankfully, it was just a close call. There were not many people visiting the falls today – not too many people on the trail, which made it easier to take our sweet time up the narrow path. I stopped to take photos of Reggie looking out at the river. He seemed to be drawn to the sound of the water – or maybe it was the view, but given that dogs have superhuman hearing abilities, I think it was more the sounds of the moving water. He was bundled up in blankets and I put his thicker raincoat on him this time instead of the long brown one (the raincoat was once Toby’s).
He was quiet and thoughtful, and I kept him in the stroller the entire walk uphill except for one or two flat spots – one where he walked among the leaves to go to the bathroom and the other to take in the view of the falls as we walked higher.
When we neared the top, I left the stroller at the bottom of the steps and helped Reggie walk up the short stairway to the top viewing deck. The falls were raging with strength and the sound filled the air with a thunderous glory. There was a spray near the farthest end of the deck, close to the bottom two waterfalls. We stayed away from that end so that Reggie would not get wet. When a large family joined us on the deck, I asked them to take a few photos of us. There were two little girls who were fascinated with Reggie and giggled, as they spun and danced around on the deck, watching, but not coming up to him, as Reggie and I shared a snack of cashew butter and apples.
Reggie and I stayed up at the top of the deck for 2 hours today. At first we had our snack, and then I sat for a while with him in my lap. I was alone for a long time -or what seemed like a long time – before any new people came up to the deck, after the family who had taken our photos left. When I was by myself, I began to think and I lowered my head to smell Reggie’s fur. I thought to myself, I could stay like this forever just sniffing your fur.
And then, with no one there, and the mesmerizing waterfalls with the sound of their power before me, like a calling from God, I began to cry. I lowered my head on top of Reggie’s body and the tears came. It may have been the release of all the pent-up grief, the anger at losing so much – so many – of those I love most, or the anxiety at what is coming tomorrow, and in the next few days, and in the next month. I did not think about the significance of today, I did not let myself think about the decade that has passed, and what it means to me, what it could have been today, no, I thought only about Reggie.
But the suppression of the rest fed into the tears that came because they could, because no one was watching, and in that fortress of natural beauty that I had risen to behold – I felt close to God, close to Earth, close to everything pure and beautiful.
The tears stopped before the next couple came. Many couples came off and on after that – some older, some younger, some girlfriends, some co-ed friends, two men with dogs – that made Reggie break his silence really fast.
As people came up to the deck, they smiled at Reggie – as people tend to do – who could resist smiling at that face with those big pointy ears. I wanted to give Reggie an experience he’d remember today – if dogs do remember these things, I’m not sure, they may not. I picked him up and held him, leaning his body forward on the fence, from the middle of the deck, where he could smell the water, hear the river falling down over the rocks, two merging into one, and see it – see everything. He did not stir, or struggle, or shake – he peacefully watched. We watched together.
And in those moments, I felt peace.
After a couple hours up on the deck, Reggie did start to shiver, and as hard as it was to leave Anna Ruby Falls (I gravitated toward them – I’m a water baby), I did not want to take any chances of Reggie becoming uncomfortable – or worse. His breathing was not as slow and easy as it had been on Monday (though it was better than it is inside at home – it still seems like being outside in crisp, fresh air helps him, even if it’s just a little bit).
I picked him up and carried him down the steps, just in case, but since the downhill would be easier for him to walk, I let him walk the whole way down on his own, and pushed the empty stroller (safer too with gravity).
I remembered to look out for the black ice, and there was no danger or close calls on the way down. We encountered the older couple whom I mentioned at the beginning of the post, and a few other walkers on their way up, but walking back took a very short time, compared to the walk up the hill. In fact, Reggie did not need to stop at all and he kept a steady pace, his gait quick, but not fast, the entire 0.4 miles.
I know I can’t allow myself to hope that it is a sign he is okay, but rather, I am grateful that he still can walk like that at all, and that he seemed to enjoy the freedom of navigating the trail without a care in the world.
(I’m waiting for more photos to upload. Barnes and Noble WiFi is slow and Reggie is with me, in the stroller, and as always, many people have come by to tell me how cute he is and how sweet he looks. I will miss bringing him here very much).
When we reached the visitors center I realized there was another short, paved and flat trail by the creek across from the parked cars. I put Reggie back in the stroller and we walked along the path all the way to the end. We stopped and watched the water for a short while, and then made our way back to the car.
The Unicoi Lodge and nearby lake was not far, and I was curious, so we drove over that way. I looked around the lodge for a few minutes and then headed to the lakefront, but didn’t take Reggie out – we headed to Helen instead (it was about 3) and I knew we would need to leave by 4 to get back home well before dark.
Reggie had never been to Helen before, and the one time I’d been myself, it was Labor Day weekend and very crowded so it was strange to see so few visitors there. Many stores were closed. Reggie sat up and watched people walk by and surveyed the Bavarian style village as we walked down the sidewalks. He was slightly interested in the bratwurst and sauerkraut I ate for my late lunch, but not much.
He is being brave for me. It’s true. I can tell. And at the same time, most of the time, he seems happy, but what do I know? I love him so much, and he loves me so much, when he looks at me, maybe he’s just happy to be near me.
What a gift that is. It’s the best gift I could have asked for.
I do think the vet was wrong about one thing yesterday: it did make him happy to be out on the trail and in the fresh air, and I could tell he was enjoying watching the river and the waterfalls and listening to the sound of that water pounding down the mountain against the rocks. I know this because I can tell the difference in his energy and his alertness and his comfort level, then and now. Even in the car, he went to sleep for the entire return trip, probably from being so tired. But it was a peaceful sleep, or at least, I think it was.
I hope it was.
Anna Ruby Falls will always be a memory of that one last day with him. An ending on two fronts: of my life with Audie, and of my life with the family he brought me: Reggie and Lizzie.
I know what she is going to tell me in the morning when I bring him in, looking at him now. He is managing, but he is breathing harder than he should be, laying down in a stroller inside a bookstore that he loves, with me sitting next to him. Strange – how he was more like himself today, slower and quieter, but in his element outside, walking, listening, contemplating, sniffing.
I am grateful I can remember him like that. Not once, but twice, this week – I can remember him just like that.