Trying to Find Forgiveness. The Authors Collection.
July 9, 2014
THOSE FAMOUS LAST WORDS to the question, “Is your dog friendly?” I asked them that day as a large German shepherd left the side of its owner and walked toward me. I was a dog lover since I was a kid. I knew not to reach for a strange dog, but I was still in that naive stage of life that had me wanting to believe in the goodwill of others or at least good sense. Both were a tragic mistake at that moment, however, as the answer came with the assurance of God behind it, “Yes, he’s friendly. He doesn’t bite.” So I lifted my hand to invite the dog to sniff it, to feel comfortable with me. He closed the gap between us like a lightning bolt and sunk his teeth deep into my palm and the back of my hand. The pain, as intense as red-hot pokers driving through my hand caused me to fold up like an old cot, right in the middle, head at my knees. Rather than fighting the dog or pulling my hand away, the anguish held me there immobile and limp. Time later I realized that saved me from graver injury. Without a struggling victim, the dog took one more chomp and then walked away as if nothing had happened.
A young man came out of nowhere and squatted beside me as I clung to my bitten hand with my other one trying not to faint or throw up. Both he and I could see the drops of blood hitting the concrete sidewalk and spreading into jagged-edged circles. He asked quietly, “Can I help you to sit down?” His firm arm around my shoulder made it safe to straighten up a bit, and I crept over to the nearest park bench. Only then did the dog owner cease his conversation and look to see what was going on.
“What’s the matter with you?” He literally flung the words at me.
The young helper answered. “Your dog just bit the hell out of her hand.”
Still he directed his comments to me. “What did you do to my dog that had him behave like that?” That was far too much to answer, especially with my teeth clenched against the pain.
“Your dog attacked her for no apparent reason,” my new friend said. Get that dog under control. I’m calling the cops.”
“Wait a minute. My dog’s never bitten anyone in its life. She had to do something that caused him to attack her. It’s her fault.” The dog was now sitting at the man’s side displaying the epitome of good behavior.
I wanted to defend myself. I had spent too much of my life falsely accused. But the nausea was real and my hand felt like it was on fire.
The park was patrolled by mounted police and as a small crowd assembled attracted by the shouting, one came trotting across the green. From his high perch, he could see the man and the dog with his small crowd, and me crumpled up on the bench with my sole supporter.
He dismounted and came to me first. The blood had now covered a noticeable area and the officer squatted down, locked my long brown hair behind my ear so he could see my face and said gently, “I’ve got an ambulance on the way. How are you doing?”
I couldn’t answer. Keeping my mouth shut felt like the only thing that was keeping me from vomiting. So I just nodded. My hand was beginning to swell. I prayed the owner had a rabies tag on that beast and beyond that I was a study in just hanging on.
The only person who seemed to see what happened was the young man who helped me. He made a point to tell the cop what he saw. I didn’t know why he was being so kind, if kindness was what it was. In that moment, a layer of innocence was peeling off me like skin after a sunburn. Nothing made sense at the moment and that rattled me.
The cop then went to talk with the dog owner who was still insisting I was responsible for getting bitten. I heard him say yet again, “Toby here, he’s never bitten anyone. I think she was teasing him.”
“Teasing him how,” the officer countered.
“I was talking and didn’t really see what was going on, but she reached her hand out toward him. Maybe she’s nasty and he sensed it.”
I saw the cop raise his hand to stop any further conjecture on his part and then he asked, “Does the dog have a current rabies tag?”
“Yeah I just don’t have it on this harness.”
“You’ve got two hours to produce it down at the station. If you don’t show with it in that time period, we’ll impound the dog and put him down. Up to you.”
The officer came back over to me. I had been watching his horse just stand there, not eating the grass or stomping impatiently. I wondered how long it took to train a horse to be that dependable. Dependable, a word that came up often in my conversations.
“You need to get that looked after right away; that’s why I called an ambulance, otherwise you might sit for hours in emergency, and you need a tetanus shot pronto and probably a few stitches.”
Finally, I felt like I could say a few words. “Officer, I didn’t tease that dog. I asked the guy if he was friendly, and he assured me he was. I just stretched out my hand in case he wanted to sniff it, and for whatever reason, he just lunged at me and grabbed my hand. I love dogs.”
“Well check him out. Our dog people will take a look. But regardless, we can’t have dogs biting people in public places.”
I got the name and address of the young man who helped me and thanked him. He asked me to call and let him know how I was in a day or two. He felt dependable. I liked that.
I had a few stitches, but they like to keep dog bites open because they are “dirty bites,” that’s what they nurse called them, so they can be dressed to insure healing from the inside out. By weeks end, the swelling was down but a yellow-purple hue still remained. I felt like going out and decided to call the young man, since he’d asked me to, and see if I could treat him to supper as a thank you.
It was funny how I kept calling him that young man as if I were old enough to be his mother. I’m thirty-three. I suspect he’s mid-twenties or so. Not that much difference. Maybe it would be fun.
I punched in the numbers he’d given me and listened to the ring. The voice of a young woman answered. I asked, “Is Josh there?”
“Wait a sec. Josh, a woman for you,” she shouted with laughter in her voice, not that sort that comes from something funny. It sounded more derisive.
It was his voice. “Josh, this is Maggie, the gal the dog ate.” I heard him chuckle. “Thought you might like to know I lived through it.”
“Glad to hear it. How does it look now?”
“It looks more like a hand now than a paw and down to yellow in the rainbow of colors healing uses. I don’t know if I’m out of bounds here, but I’d like to take you for a drink or some supper as a thank you.”
“It isn’t necessary, but I’d like to take a look at that hand and see if I approve of their work.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “If you’re the spontaneous sort, we could meet someplace within the hour. If you have to do more planning, tell me when.
“I’ll meet you at Maxi’s in an hour. That work for you, Miss Maggie?”
I could hardly believe what I had done, and what did he mean by approve of their work? Ah, a little mystery is always better than a time-worn plot.
Maxi’s, the local pub, was busy that evening, so I picked a table in the quietest corner I could find. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but I knew folks there and often stopped in for supper. The bar had a tradition of putting up pictures of its regulars on the wall of the pub, an interesting way to make a family out of its customers, most of whom, if they had a family, wouldn’t be there. They have a dedication night, which isn’t taken lightly, each time a photo goes up. You have to be in the spirit of what they’ve created there, you know dependable to make their Rogue’s Gallery. It’s a place of long term friendships, even to the extent that if you haven’t shown up in a week, someone checks up on you. I had never seen Josh there before, but then I wasn’t on the prowl for men when I went to Maxi’s. I was there for the camaraderie.
Just then, the door opened letting in the soft peach of twilight, and Josh. I guess he wasn’t so young as I determined in the park. I was actually glad about that. I preferred men of more maturity than is usually found in the capriciousness of twenty-something-year olds. I waved with my bitten hand, and he noticed. He smiled and nodded the way a coach might acknowledge a good play on the field. I saw the barkeeps check him out as he headed to my table. Like older brothers, they kept an eye out for the single ladies in their establishment. When he saw them looking, he nodded like he knew them too.
As he pulled out his chair, his eyes went immediately to my hand.
“Well, I guess you’re going to tell me if their work is any good.”
He picked up my hand and inspected it, not like he was curious, but like he knew what to look for. “What’s with your little finger?”
I wasn’t sure how he even noticed it as the finger only misbehaved when I went to make a fist, not wanting to close down. “The doctor said I have a bit of nerve damage there. He said it will probably mend itself. Well, what do you think?”
“He did a good enough job, utilitarian. But then the docs in trauma medicine get like that. Hazard of the business.”
“So what would you have done differently?” That question ended the conversation abruptly. He mumbled, “It’ll be fine. Functionality is what’s primary.”
The waiter came then and Josh ordered a draft of the house beer. I had mine already so we sat in a gap of silence when the waiter turned to leave.
“The gal who answered the phone, who is she?” It was not the next best question especially asked into the tension that had followed my last one, but I was struggling.
“Oh, her, she’s my sister. I’m bunking in with her and her husband for the time.”
Again an awkward silence prevailed.
“Josh, I’m not about to pry, but you do need to understand I’m a writer and my mind with or without my permission just wrote a backstory to the few sentences you’ve shared.”
A smile returned to his face, tinged with a sense of relief I realized had been missing since we first met.
“Sometimes I’m not immediately privy to what the author part of me picks up, especially when I’ve just pulled my hand out of a dog’s mouth. But like someone setting a table, each piece of needed information, like the knives and the forks and spoons, gets laid down in a recognizable pattern.”
“Well Sherlock, what do you see where I’m concerned?”
“You are obviously some sort of medical professional – doctor or paramedic. You have an interest in things medical that exceeds the average attention of a friend. You are not presently working in that capacity, because you act like an outsider at the moment and because you are at your sister’s. Something has happened that has removed you from that environment, precipitated by either you or the establishment. How’d I do?”
“Do you write detective stories?”
“No, but I do read that genre a good bit.”
“So it’s my turn now?”
I nodded my head in response.
He sighed audibly. Then he swallowed hard as if the whole sad affair still sat in his craw. “It’s easier, I suppose, now that you’ve laid the story’s bones on the table, for it’s the hardest account I’ve ever had to own. My sister’s been after me to tell someone, anyone so that I can get back to a starting point. Strangely, it looks like my new dog-bite friend is it. Do you mind?”
“I don’t mind a bit.”
“This won’t end up in one of your stories will it?”
It was my turn to laugh lightly. “Well if it does, it won’t have your name on it.”
“Fair enough.” He gathered himself up one more time. “Maybe it’s better that this happened to me early in my career. I’m a trauma doctor and I broke the cardinal rule. I was full of myself, coupled with the fatigue a resident lives in, and I got lax. It’s only easy to mistake an ensuing diabetic coma with drunkenness, if you aren’t paying attention at the level that job requires. And I wasn’t. In fact, the less fortunate of the trauma world—the drunks, the street-weary schizophrenics, the druggies and the basic homeless—I had already begun to treat them as a nuisance, always there, always soon back. So I dismissed a case as just more drunkenness, argued with the nurse even, argued meanly, arrogantly. Later that night, she reported to me that drunk had entered a diabetic coma and died of complications two hours later.” He took a sip of his beer, not the sip of a drinker or one trying to avoid the truth. He sipped reflectively and with much pain.
I put my dog-bite hand on the one of his not wrapped around his glass. “We can come back from these things. I’m not talking as a philosopher or ministerial type. I’m talking from experience. You might ask what can a writer possibly do that could approach taking a life? In my case, I didn’t wield a knife that brought about her demise, I broke an inviolable vow. I used her story, told to me in promised confidence, and when urged to make it close enough to the actual circumstances that it might become obvious who it was about—a potential block buster—I did. Maybe old Toby there in the park actually did know who I was, at the core anyway. Maybe he just let me know, lady you are completely undependable, and he acted accordingly. I stopped writing, talking to people, dating, almost living, I was so ashamed of what I’d done, particularly because of why I’d done it.
“She never forgave me, and I understand. I ruined her life. How can you forgive that? I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forgive myself. But unlike all those life coaches who say, ‘you can’t go on until you forgive yourself,’ I learned to work through it, I mean, not past it but from within it, for it was the most valuable experience of my life. Anything that allows us to know where the rotten parts are is now a godsend to me. I don’t ever want to hurt another living human being or dog for that matter. That’s a life without shame. And believe me, sometimes it takes a horrible mistake before we’ll ever admit to our rotten spots.”
I saw the tears begin and then spill freely down his face, so unfettered they drop off his chin onto the table like rain. I gave him time to sit in what I knew was a starting place. His gutsiness and honesty marked him, in my mind, as a great man.
Neither of us was hungry after that. Not because we felt ravaged, but quite contrarily, we felt full. We sat and enjoyed the live jazz combo. Occasionally, one of the regulars would casually stop by our table, clap Josh warmly on the shoulder, wink at me and move on.
I said a second silent thank you to Toby and was glad I insured he was not put down and that he now has a new owner, one that understands what he needs. Sometimes we have to be one another’s fall guy, to assist each other in knowing the depths of the goodness of which we are capable. Sometimes we just do.
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