McGee’s favorite toy is a round rubber puck worn thin by seven years of constant play. The puck now fits perfectly in her mouth and the outside ridges have aligned with her canine incisors. The puck is rarely separated from McGee. Throwing the puck is the first activity of the morning and the last of the evening.
The puck has become McGee’s perpetual companion. It has traveled to as many locales as she – floating in the pure Frio River of South Texas and the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico, navigating the parks of Chicago, hiding (and nearly lost) in the deep snows of Wisconsin, and traversing the sand dunes and dense woods of Michigan.
McGee is a Border Collie. Sort of. She is a mixed breed who was lovingly chosen from the local Humane Society with a description that read “Spaniel/Shepherd” mix. She is clearly neither. Her behavior, characteristics, and looks closely resemble those of a Border Collie except that her white coat speckled with black is a reversal from the traditional Border. The incessant eye stare, crouched position, and lightning quick moves, however, reveal the Border Collie ancestry.
It didn’t take long for McGee to gravitate to the puck as her favorite plaything. The first year of her life was spent in an apartment where morning and evening romps consisted of a trek to the usually abandoned tennis courts that served as a substitute for the lack of acreage. The puck was used to simultaneously exercise and mentally entertain, as when it frequently became entangled in the tennis net, imploring McGee to perform a surgical extraction while leaving the net intact. Before long, McGee was using the net as her personal entertainment foil, beseeching me to chase her around and around the tennis net, puck firmly in mouth, never able to successfully catch her. Queen Bee.
The move to a new house with a large backyard proved to be more traumatic for McGee than I had envisioned. As the house was being built, my wife and I – and McGee – enjoyed weekend opportunities to visit the house in various stages of construction. Somehow, I believed that this methodical introduction to the shell of the house, the soil, the woods, and the smells would provide an easier transition come moving day. But the move arrived and McGee wanted nothing to do with the new house. She pulled and tugged to get back in the car and return to her safe, familiar surroundings, only reluctantly accepting this strange home when it became apparent that she had no choice.
The first few days in the new house produced unexpected twists when we arrived from work. Furniture and books were chewed. This behavior was atypical, since McGee had ceased chewing household objects several months before. McGee’s anxiety was forever symbolized on the corners of our high school yearbooks and with grade school pictures that had been carefully tucked away in the back pages. The faces of former classmates were chewed beyond recognition. It was somewhat stunning that this playful Border, who had always appeared completely carefree, was not as adaptable as I had imagined.
So the evening that McGee lost her puck was of paramount concern. This sole toy had been safeguarded like no other. Nearly lost in the Frio River, a fervent prayer to St. Jude miraculously evinced a glint of a piece of red rubber protruding from the sunken roots of a cypress tree along the banks. Several other lesser incidents would find us hunched over like investigators in a park, flashlight in hand, heads turned down, refusing to leave until the puck had been located. Crazy? Definitely. But given McGee’s devotion to this object and her previously exhibited aversion to change, the prospect of losing this puck elicited palpitations and heavy sweating.
Sensing the inevitable, I had attempted to horde the market on rubber pucks – a veritable poor man’s (unstable man’s?) version of Bunker Hunt trying to corner the silver market. I searched for pucks at every local pet store, and plucking the last remaining few - the pucks were apparently not big sellers and were in danger of being phased out - set my sights on the Internet. At the peak, five pucks of varying sizes littered the backyard, with an additional puck tucked safely in storage. Despite our efforts to acclimate McGee to a different puck, she refused. The exception to this rule occurred when McGee would allow a foreign rubber invader to enter her wading pool, where she became transfixed with the game of hiding and seeking her “real” puck among the other five. Hour upon hour. If a new puck were thrown to McGee, she would dutifully catch it but then immediately release it and jerk her head back and forth as she surveyed the lawn, seemingly asking, “Where’s the real puck, Jack?”
As the years moved on, the inventory of excess pucks dwindled to three, with two falling victim to the sharp blades of the lawnmower. The real puck, though, survived all mishaps, obsessively brought into the house each night by McGee. Then came the long weekend of July 4th, 2003.
The usual evening play in the backyard was interrupted when McGee became distracted by the sound of dinner plates clanking against the open dishwasher, signaling a potential left over treat. She dropped the puck and scurried to the back door, hoping to inhale the remnants of the human repast. I called out for her to “get the puck” but the salivary glands were now in control. In retrospect, I should have grabbed the puck and waltzed inside the house. But I did not, convinced that at least one additional play was in store that evening and not sensing that the puck was in mortal danger.
McGee and I went outside later that night but neither could locate the puck. McGee frantically sniffed every blade of grass in a futile attempt to unearth the missing disc. Flashlight once again in hand, the crime scene commenced and efforts were underway to detect any physical evidence. The flashlight beam struck the middle of the fence and followed its way down to the grass where the puck had last been seen. As I felt around the ground, a shiver shot through my body. A small hole, not more than three or four fingers wide and an inch deep was at the bottom of a fence board. Could the puck have fit through this hole? Could the neighbor’s dog, perhaps in a fit of sardonic humor, have pawed away McGee’s treasure?
I was dumbfounded, not knowing where or how to proceed. It was too late to pound on the neighbor’s door and demand to enter their yard (although the thought crossed my mind) and too dark to continue a full-scale search. I bounced the flashlight across the neighbor’s yard and saw the outline of the puck. I was relieved to know that the matter would be resolved in the morning.
As dawn broke, I hoisted myself onto a plastic patio chair and peered into the neighbor’s fenced yard. I felt dirty. The brain raced. What if someone saw me? How could I possibly explain stealthily tiptoeing on a plastic chair at 7 a.m. and gazing into the neighbor’s yard? Would the “puck alibi defense” be believed by a jury of my peers? Who were my peers…..a pack of canines? Despite the fears, I pressed on, caring more at that instant of retrieving the puck than of potential incarceration.
Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the puck was not in the neighbor’s yard. I could distinctly see Aspen, the large Eskimo Husky mix with those two mismatched eyes, staring at me quizzically. But I could not see the puck and wondered whether I had foolishly imagined it being there last night, or whether Aspen had performed some mysterious trick to prolong the humor and angst.
Frantic, I dashed in the house to contemplate the next course of action. This time, it was too early to bang on the neighbor’s door. Besides, it occurred to me that they might not be home, probably enjoying the start of a long weekend on a beach with boat drinks in hand while I madly pursued a dog novelty. I peered out the front window and did not see their vehicles but spotted their newspaper in the driveway. A hopeful sign, it seemed, since these fastidious neighbors would have surely suspended delivery had they vacationed for the weekend. Coward that I am, my wife pinned a note to their paper, explaining the unusual situation as best one could, and leaving our phone number. A short time later the phone rang. “Come on over” our neighbor Steve exclaimed, “but I don’t think you’ll find anything. That Aspen, I give him things all the time and they never reappear. Don’t know what he does with them. A real huntin’ dog.” My heart sank, but I was also resolved to find this canine treasure if I had to dig up their yard.
I hurried to their house and was greeted at the gate by Steve. “Have a look” he said. So I did. I scoured their immaculate backyard while Steve scaled a ladder to begin a painting project. This is how the next hour was spent: me, sometimes on hands and knees, fingers caressing the grass, searching under the shed; Steve, up on his roof, bellowing ideas about where the puck might be. “Aspen’s a good hider.” Five minutes later, “Do you think McGee might have hid it?” I did not have the heart or energy to replay the whole story, about the seven years on the road with her puck, and simply muttered in an inaudible voice, “I don’t think so.” My prayer to St. Jude went unanswered this round, and not wanting to appear as a complete kook to our nice neighbor, I abandoned the search. Nevertheless, I do believe that the puck will turn up in their yard someday. It must. Or else Aspen ate it.
I walked in the door dejected. McGee could sense the mood. We went in our backyard and continued the hunt. For an instant, I wondered if Steve was right and McGee could perform such a dastardly deed. I knew better. The puck was not in our yard and I could not ask Steve for a second look if I desired to salvage any vestige of neighborly relations. An alternative would have to be devised.
I brought out the replacement pucks but McGee was not interested. In fact, the more that I threw the “other” pucks, the more McGee would watch them fly by and sniff the ground in a focused attempt to find the real McCoy, and to remind me that the real McCoy was still missing. For the majority of the weekend, McGee stayed in the house, forlorn, and occasionally straying into the yard to search for her puck. Her mood noticeably deteriorated. So did mine.
Three nights later, I couldn’t sleep. I got out of bed, assembled the replacement pucks, and analyzed them side-by-side, like a diamond expert inspecting the three c’s of an engagement ring. I selected the disc that most closely resembled McGee’s. It was larger and thicker, not altered by seven years of constant play. I went in the garage, plugged in the sander, and started to chip away at the hard rubber surface. With the assistance of an electric knife, I began to fashion a reasonable facsimile of the lost puck. Forty-five minutes later, I lay back in bed, excited like a child waiting for Christmas Day to arrive. Only this time, I was waiting to present and showcase the new gift.
To my disappointment, the puck did not hold any attraction for McGee. Perhaps it was similar in shape and texture to the old, but to McGee, it was also clearly different. She was not fooled.
Later that day, in despair perhaps, I filled McGee’s wading pool and gingerly placed the new puck in the cold water. After some initial consternation, McGee followed in the pool. Maybe out of annoyance, maybe out of concession, McGee began to paw at the puck. I couldn’t believe it - she was actually beginning to play with the imitation! When she finally brought the puck to me, signaling her invitation for me to throw and for her to retrieve, I screamed with delight, almost knocking Steve, the neighbor-turned-painter, from his rooftop perch.
Today, nearly three months later, McGee has unequivocally accepted and embraced the new puck. It is her favorite toy, the only one she will fetch. Like the old puck, it is brought in the house each night and is her loyal companion.
Too often, the misguided assumptions that invade our belief systems must be vigorously shaken out of us. McGee has thoroughly demonstrated her flexibility and willingness to accept change and her capacity to find newfound joy. She has taught a valuable lesson. Are we willing to follow her lead?
McGee successfully moved from San Antonio to Chicago and continually enjoyed her puck for many years. On February 6th, 2011, after fifteen years of wonderful companionship, McGee taught her final lesson about the grace of life and the dignity of death. She will be missed.