A Return to the Old Country

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Jack is thirteen, but he’s a spry canine thirteen. Which is why, the other morning when his back legs slid completely out from underneath him on the hardwood floor, we were dumbfounded, and devastated. 

By the time I got him to the vet, the profound weakness had progressed to his front legs, bowing out almost cartoonishly. On the drive to the vet’s, he was almost completely limp, having trouble holding his head up, and his breathing was becoming labored.

There were two calls made that morning after Alpine Veterinary Clinic; the first to cancel my shift at work for the following day, the second, to our friends Greg and Mary.

Greg and Mary, like Mr. Stavros, whom I introduced you to a while back, are from “the Old Country”—as I like to refer to the sweet, walkable, centrally located neighborhood we grudgingly moved from last year when the 650-square-foot rental, where we’d been grandfathered into a reasonable rental agreement, could no longer contain the lives of two adults, a dog, and my husband’s guitar repair side-gig business. Sadly, we couldn’t find another affordable place anywhere in the vicinity.

When we lived on Myrtle Street, there were a few, reliable ways I could tell the time and day without even looking at a clock or a calendar. Besides the bar crowd emptying out into the street just after 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, there was the riding lawnmower guy on Thursdays at 9 a.m. sharp at the Presbyterian church across the street, the one where Norman McLean’s father, John McLean, was a pastor in the early 1900s. (Shout-out to any fans of A River Runs Through It.)  There was our neighbor, Kim, a teacher, whizzing by our living room window on her bike between 7:30 and 7:36 each weekday morning. And then there were the dog walkers: a man, a woman, and two little mop-like dogs passing by every morning between 7:38 and 7:42, rain or shine.

Turns out the dogs were named Jack and Larry. The people at the ends of their leashes were Greg and Bev, a brother and sister who had grown up in the neighborhood in the 1960s. They went away and saw the world, then respectively returned to their roots on Woodford Street. After her husband died, Bev moved back into the original family home, still owned by the third sibling, Cathy. Greg and his wife, Mary, after retiring from healthcare careers in Hawaii, bought a house right across the street. The story is like one of those heartwarming ABC after-school specials from the 1980s, but true, and with real grownups instead of annoying child actors.

Greg knows everybody in the neighborhood, and seems to have his finger on the pulse of the whole town; not surprising since he was, after all, a registered nurse. He’ll keep an eye on your place if you’re out of town, casually cruising by on his bike, or taking a gander as he walks by on the way to the Kettle House for a pint.

Mary keeps up with other news of the neighborhood: which trees the city is planning to cut down—and for what reason—which streets’ potholes will be filled next, and intimately knows the details of the Missoula Downtown Master Plan. She isn’t afraid to call city officials, or attend public meetings, to get the facts straight.

Mary also knows which houses on the block have the best plum trees, and knows those trees’ owners. They’ve got a deal worked out: They furnish the plums, she makes the jam: everybody wins.

While locked down in the throes of the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, our visits with Greg, Mary, and Bev were confined to street corner conversations, backyard dog parties, and widely spaced porch visits. In between, there was a lot of waving from windows. 

When my husband was temporarily laid off from his job due to COVID shut-downs, Greg and Mary offered him landscaping work in their backyard, compensating him generously. They are those kinds of neighbors.

That terrible morning last week at the veterinary clinic, the vet tech called over his shoulder, “We’ll call you as soon as we know anything,” as he whisked my wide-eyed dog off to the scary place in the back. I’d wanted to follow, but I knew better. I have worked in the ER; I know this tone. 

So, I left my car parked and just started walking.

I walked through the park, stopping to watch the kids from the Montessori preschool scoot down the slide, screeching all the way down. I did a quick scan for Mr. Stavros, even though I knew he’d be over at the Food Farm that time of the morning. There were all manner of people and dogs, doing what people and dogs do on ordinary days.

As I walked past my old house, I longed to be back inside on that couch next to the window with Jack in a state of perfect health, drinking coffee while watching the usual parade of people walk by.

I continued down Myrtle Street to where it turns into Woodford, until I arrived at the little stucco house that looks like a storybook cottage, a place that Hansel and Gretel might live if “Hansel and Gretel” was actually a happy story.

At the side door, a painted wooden heart hanging from a ribbon said, “Welcome Home.” I paused before knocking so I could clear the lump in my throat and wipe my eyes. 

Mary opened the door and invited me directly into a hug, offering me a glass of lemonade before we left the kitchen. Besides all of the other wonderful things about Greg and Mary, they somehow always have lemonade in their refrigerator, and chocolate milk.

I fumbled around with apologies about taking up their time, ruining their afternoon plans. “You are our afternoon plans,” Greg said gently, motioning to the couch with an open hand.

In the face of adversity, people can fast-track past the small talk and directly into life, death, and the inevitability that all of the things we love will someday be gone. We spoke of grief, loss, and hard decisions. We talked of the spring blooms, recent rains, and the greenness of everything this time of year, too.

The vet called a couple of hours after I sank into the couch on Woodford Street, to report Jack’s diagnosis of tick paralysis, a reversible condition. The bloodsucking tick who’d pumped a neurotoxin into my dog’s bloodstream had been located and removed, and with the right medication and fluids, he was already on the road to recovery. 

By the end of the next day, Jack was back on all four feet, waiting impatiently at the front door for a walk, all twenty toenails clicking on the floor. I thought about the afternoon at Greg and Mary’s, and how, like a petrified seatmate on a plane about to crash, I may have revealed too much. For just a moment it felt like the part in the movie when it was apparent the plane would not, in fact, nose dive into the ocean, and the seatmate who had poured her heart out was chagrined. But it wasn’t a movie, it was real life. And even better than a Hollywood ending, my seatmates didn’t disappear into the obscurity of some foreign airport after the safe landing: I get to keep them as forever friends.

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