This is not–initial impressions to the contrary, perhaps–a blog post mocking religion. It is not a finger in God’s eye, or a slight directed at those immersed in contemplation, prayer, and fasting on what is described as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.
It is instead a story about the choices we make, about what we value, and about what we are willing to do to demonstrate that. In the end, it’s a story about love, about a little lost dog, and about the perils of trusting houseguests. And yes, it’s also about Tisha b’Av.
Ours is a small, tight-knit family. We are a modest number of humans and two delicious, beloved rescue dogs. We like to consider ourselves a welcoming crew, so when relatives of my husband came to town for the summer from Israel, we invited them to visit with us in the country. We brought them up with us, our two dogs, and their two human children in tow.
We arrived to the blessed darkness and starry skies of our country retreat on a Wednesday evening. By Friday afternoon, all the relaxing vibes I cherish, the fresh air, the waking to birds singing and hooting in the morning were gone, replaced by fear and rage and heartache. All because one tiny request could not quite be mastered.
You see, we decided to take our autistic son into town for lunch, leaving our guests to enjoy the house themselves for a bit. We had been together–quite together–from Wednesday evening through early Friday afternoon. I wanted to get my son out of the house and I wanted a break, truth be told, from hosting, even for a short while.
My husband made sure to tell his cousin’s wife (who seemed the more responsible one) to keep the dogs in the house. That was literally the one bit of instruction he offered. I made sure the side gate to the yard was locked behind us, and off we went, a few miles to the nearest town for lunch. Minutes into our drive, the heavens opened, one of those only-in-summer storms, the kind that come quickly and fiercely, and leave shortly thereafter. I recall thinking, Winnie is terrified of storms. Good thing she’s inside.
We came back not more than an hour and a half after we’d left and were greeted with, “We don’t know where Winnie is.” Flashes of terror and confusion tore through my head. What? How? Why? And perhaps above all, WTF?!?!?!?!
We got some nonsensical explanation about Winnie having crawled under the fence. The yard is fully gated, with chicken wire down to the ground. That made no sense, but my husband’s cousin insisted she must have gone under the back fence. Into a densely overgrown, marshy area, no less. I looked everywhere in the house, but there are almost no places to hide, so I knew I wouldn’t find her there. And I didn’t. My husband took off on foot, while I took off by car, driving up and down our long country road, calling out like a desperately wounded animal, Winnie…come H O M E!!! Over and over and over until I was horse. A neighbor we had yet to meet, who was on the road, suggested we let a local Facebook group know that Winnie was missing. Instantly, scores of supportive messages, offers to keep an eye out for her, and further suggestions, including to contact a volunteer rescue group. From them we got more advice, to make a flyer and post it. I sent photos to Kelli, a woman I’d never met, who turned them into a poster and a flyer. She also mentioned another volunteer, whose own rescue dog has an impressive track record of finding lost dogs. By Saturday evening, Emmy had come by with Scarlett. We had already, as advised, scattered some clothing with our scent in the yard and at the edge of the driveway, along with food at water.
Scarlett readily picked up Winnie’s scent and tore off, with Emmy holding tight to her long leash, and Len alongside. I was trying to be hopeful, but turned to panic when I realized it was pitch dark and no one had returned. So I headed out in my car, thinking the worst. I couldn’t find them anywhere, and saw no light to suggest they were tracing any kind of path. They came back some time later, after I’d stress-sweated through my shirt and my nerves were completely shot. Scarlett had picked up a strong Winnie scent at a neighbor’s property about a mile from our house, and in a nearby park. Emmy thought Winnie was circling, trying to figure out how to get back to us. She sent us a digital map of the area they’d covered and promised to return in the morning.
She did, and headed out again with Len and Scarlett in the early morning, this time for three hours. We had also gotten advice to grill some bacon and create a scent mixture of chicken stock and barbeque sauce and put it in a spray bottle. So after Len, Emmy and Scarlett returned, with some new areas having “lit up” on Emmy’s map of our area, but with no sightings of Winnie, Len went off to get a hibachi, some bacon, and some charcoal, along with chicken stock, barbeque sauce and a spray bottle.
So there was my husband, on Tisha b’Av, grilling bacon in our driveway, and when that was done, spraying our “stink” mixture from the wooded path Scarlett targeted, onto our road, and back to our house. That evening, he brought an offering of cooked chicken back to the neighbor’s house Scarlett first targeted and sat there with it, along with our other dog, Ollie, hoping Winnie was there and would come for it if hungry enough.
Meanwhile, Noah and I had gone all over, staple-gunning LOST DOG posters for miles around. We were still getting wonderfully supportive messages, and one of our other neighbors had even offered up that she’d driven around on her own for hours, looking for Winnie. Emmy was just blown away that everyone in town knew that Winnie was missing and seemed to be looking for her. She’d never seen that before. This was very much the silver lining in the midst of our anguish and anxiety.
I tuned in and out of Hadar’s Tisha b’Av services, trying to pay some attention to the prayers, explanations, and interpretations on offer. But I was not fully present. I did think about how the sages would probably view our multiple violations of kashrut, Shabbat, etc. with at best a jaundiced eye, but if we take saving a life as the highest value, then our efforts to find Winnie–in my mind, at least–counted. In other moments, I just leaned into the utter absurdity of grilling bacon on a fast day to try to lure a missing dog home. It was absurd from every angle, which made it perfectly suited to the nutty stressfulness that defines our lives, more often than not.
Along the way, a volunteer named Deb showed up with a motion-sensing camera that she put up on the trail Scarlett had sniffed out. She left us with a digital camera as well, so we could view the footage from the SIM card. We thought we saw Winnie caught by the camera at night, but realized it was more likely a fox. All this from volunteers, driving from miles away to help folks they didn’t know, and a dog that might never be found.
Monday morning, Len and I headed out early again, with Ollie in tow. We drove to one long, dead-end road where Scarlett had also picked up Winnie’s scent. Len got out and walked along with Ollie, encouraging him to find Winnie. I drove along slowly, calling out her name. We gave up after about two and a half hours.
We came back to the house, where we’d been leaving the garage door and all the yard gates open, as well as the outside lights on at night. We were feeling exhausted and worried, anguished over how long we could stay up there if Winnie didn’t come back. And what if she came back and we weren’t there? And what if we never knew for sure if she came back? The not knowing felt so awful. I just tried to push all those “what ifs” out of my mind, but it wasn’t easy. I was grateful for all the volunteer help we’d gotten, furious at Len’s cousin and his wife, angry at myself and him for trusting them, and just heartbroken over how the simple act of offering hospitality to family had turned into excruciating pain. Then I heard Ollie barking.
I ran toward him from the living room, and found him at the door to the garage. My mind was racing, thinking that we weren’t expecting anyone. I opened the door and there she was. “Oh my God! Oh my God! She’s back!” I was screaming. I scooped her up as fast as I could, afraid she might get away. I was in some kind of happy shock, grateful to Ollie for having sniffed out his sister on the other side of that garage door. And all the “what ifs” of her coming back when we weren’t there, of the garage door not having been left open, of Len not having sprayed the “stink” mixture to lure her home, of the winds blowing the bacon scent the wrong way, evaporated. There was just Winnie, elation, exhaustion. And the utter cacophony of emotions that carried us from Friday afternoon to late Monday morning, reminding us of the fragility of life, the fierceness of love, the power of prayer, the kindness of strangers, and how proximity to possible tragedy can be transmuted into unbridled joy. So perhaps the absurdity of grilling bacon on Tisha b’Av is less than it seems. Perhaps it is exactly how it was meant to be.