Walk #21: Missing in Iowa City

The posters are everywhere. On the window at the front door of Graze, a restaurant in Iowa City’s trendy section. There’s another on the door at Cortado, a coffee shop I’ve come to love. Two more are tacked to the wall in the entranceway of a Chinese restaurant and on a bulletin board inside Prairie Lights Books. The search has been on for more than a week for the missing University of Iowa student. Mollie Tibbets went out for an evening run near her home in Brooklyn, a farming town, where she was staying with her long-time boyfriend and has not been heard from since.

We are in Iowa City with Sam. Leslie and I have agreed to stay at the home of her daughter and her boyfriend to water the houseplants while they’re away on a tour of South Africa, a long-awaited special trip for them. Sam is along because, well, Sam likes Iowa City as much as we do. It’s dog friendly, for one, and the college town has an artsy, and yes, a big literary vibe, as it’s the home of the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For a writer and book guy like me, Iowa City is a kind of Mecca. And it was in this town that Leslie reclaimed her life, living here for two years to reevaluate after a divorce and a successful, miraculous battle with thyroid cancer. She’s alive when she should have died. Plus, her daughter and son were attending the University of Iowa at the time, so it was a good place to settle in, learn to crew on the Iowa River, do yoga, walk her then dog, Dakota, twice a day, and rehab an old English cottage close to campus. It was her personal sabbatical. Iowa City holds a special place in her heart. And for Sam, well she’s been to Iowa City before and she liked it the first time. How do I know this? It’s her prance, that cantor she has when I walk her here. It’s a sign of joy,  contentment. On her walks here, she struts with pleasure.

We are without Sam when we notice all the posters. Leslie and have decided to have lunch and a coffee before heading back to the house and then out again to a friend’s home for homemade Indian food. The posters are unnerving, the photo of this beautiful young girl who has simply vanished. There’s a gloom over Iowa City, even as the town prepares to host 20,000 guests for RAGBRIA, the big bicycle ride across Iowa. Mollie Tibbets didn’t go missing on these streets, but she was part of this community. She was a member of its tribe. You don’t have to know this young girl to feel the void.

After lunch, we drive back to the house. Before heading out for dinner, I take Sam for her walk. We move along Melrose Avenue away from campus in bright late afternoon sun. Sam is alert, taking in new smells, watching a robin hop across a lawn. She’s on a bit of a vacation, it seems, enjoying the freshness of a getaway. We turn left on Sunset Street and there on a maple a tree is a poster, not of Mollie Tibbets but one announcing a missing cat. It’s a tabby named Leo. He hasn’t been seen for weeks. The poster says Leo is very friendly and knows his name. There’s a phone number and an address. Whoever put up the poster is also offering a reward—“a good amount of money involved”—it says.

“Someone is missing their friend,” I say to Sam, pointing to the poster. Sam looks at me longingly, as if to say how sad to hear of a missing pet. Sam has never been missing, but she’s certainly stretched her limits, running too far from me in the park, playing her game of ignoring or running from me instead of coming when I call, a defiant adolescent testing her boundaries.

It seems odd to think of this poster, a missing cat, after seeing the dozens of signs downtown about the missing university student. No one can compare the two. Not even close. But both are signs of human struggle, unbearable worry, certainly of widely differing degrees, but on the same spectrum. They are both the signs of dramatic shifts in life’s unpredictable narrative. One moment all is well; another your world is turned upside down, happiness to awful dread. It can also go the other way, of course, terrible to wonderful. Both of these stories can, I pray, have happy endings. The cat will come home; the girl will be found. Life will regain its balance.

“Maybe we can find the cat, today on our walk, Sam,” I say. “Keep an eye out, okay?”

Sam looks at the poster and then sniffs the trunk of the tree on which it is tacked. I wonder if she’s trying to find Leo’s scent.

“And maybe,” I say, with dismay, “we can keep an eye out for Mollie, too.”

Change is inevitable. Good or bad. It’s an obvious statement, isn’t it? But I think we are reminded of this most often when our hearts break, when life makes the days difficult or, for the family of Mollie Tibbets, unimaginably agonizing, an anxiety that is inconceivable. Still, change can also be renewal, reaffirming, restorative. Think of Leslie’s Iowa City time. Babies are born. Marriage. Renewing old friendships. And all of these changes, no matter the kind, do not happen alone. Loved ones, friends, even our pets are markers of periods in our lives, our changes.

Farther along Sunset, Sam and I hear voices, the sound of children playing. On our left just over a slight hill, a playground comes into view. Mothers and kids near a swing set, a seesaw, and a decorative water fountain. A dog—a Shetland sheepdog mix, t appears—is running through the spraying water while a little boy chases it. One of the mothers smiles at Sam. I smile back.

Sam was my change. She was our change, Leslie and I. She came to us in a rather unconventional way. Sam had been the pet, a young pup, to her first husband, but his girlfriend was allergic. Leslie’s daughter brokered a deal and we took her in for a weekend, a sort of test drive. I fell in love. Sam became ours.

But her joining our household did not come without a period of sorrow. When Leslie and I moved in together, before our marriage, we had a dog apiece. Dakota was a Chow-retriever mix Leslie had rescued. He had been abused, left chained outside. Remarkably, he was a gentle dog, but he had a snarly attitude sometimes, one developed out of his  tough early years, I’m sure. Dakota had a way of giving you the finger; he didn’t seem to always care for people. But then he’d cuddle up to you and pine for a hug and a scratch, and he’d fast become your best friend. My dog was Mike, short for Michelle. A female yellow Labrador with all the usual lab attributes­—unwaveringly friendly, a perpetual smile, and the kind of lack of intelligence that breeds untiring joy. She was everyone’s buddy. She loved everything and anyone who came within licking distance.

Mike died first. She had been ill, throwing up an ugly bile. The vet suspected the worst. Maybe kidney failure and suggested it might not be very long. Leslie and I were scheduled to be at event for the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park just outside Chicago and had been reluctant to attend, knowing Mike’s condition. She wasn’t in any pain, so we thought maybe just a few hours would be okay. We blocked her off in the kitchen with a baby gate, left her plenty of water, and decided to go with a plan to come home early. When we returned, Mike was lying in the same spot where we’d left her; the water bowl was still full, she looked so very tired. But there was a positive sign—her tail thumped the wooden floor when we entered the door. I had been concerned she might pass while we were out, a dreadful thought.

That night, sometime in the wee hours after we went to bed, Leslie was arrested from sleep by an odd metronomic sound, a click and a scratch of sorts. Les touched me on the arm and whispered. “Do you hear that?” I lifted my head from the pillow to get a better listen. “Oh my,” I said. “That’s Mike.”

Mike was still in the kitchen, in the same spot and position, the baby gate in place, and  was now extending her front right leg and pawing at the floor, a rhythmic signal of sorts. I need you. Please come. I am certain, absolutely sure, she was calling for me. I got on the floor and put my arm around her chest, petting the soft fur on her head as her breathing became labored, halting. A half an hour later, Mike was gone. I was there to hold her until the end.

A few months later, Dakota began to struggle. Age had caught up with him. He had become disoriented, falling inexplicably. There were times we would find him staring at the wall. Then the falling became more frequent, as if he had lost his balance, his sense of awareness. Leslie found it too hard to be with him in his final hour, too sad. Once again, I spent a night on the kitchen floor, holding another dog until its last breath.

Leslie didn’t want Dakota cremated, but she did keep his collar. I, however, have Mike’s ashes. I’m not sure why I felt the need to cremate her, but I did, and I’m glad I did. Someday I’ll find the right place to scatter her remains.

Months after Dakota was gone, Sam came into our world. Leslie admits she wasn’t as ready as I was. I had been secretly researching rescue dogs, breeds, looking at photos of cute and forlorn pups at the animal shelter. Then we had the two days with Sam, the trial run, and I was smitten. Leslie agreed she was, too. We made the arrangements with her ex-husband, were given Sam’s toys and leash, and we offered her ex the opportunity to visit and walk Sam anytime. But we also made it clear, as hard as it was, that Sam was now in a new home, she was ours. There were no givebacks, no returns. Sam could not be taken away. We saw her as our change, our commitment, our new beginning. Mike had been my dog; Dakota had been Leslie’s. But Sam was ours.

Dogs can’t speak for themselves. Their only advocate is you. They have no say in who will take them on, so it was up to us to keep Sam healthy, make her happy, defend her, shape her growth, and help her flourish. I’m still trying to find out what’s the best way to do this. I’ve had dogs most of my life, but these have always been tough questions to answer. How do you balance master and friend? It’s more than feeding Sam grain-free dog food. But undeniably one of the ways is to walk her, getting her out in the world, necessary for her and me. The regular walks with Sam came at a time of change for me, too. I had turned 60 years old, had become more sedentary than I would care to admit, gained a few pounds, lost some zip. Sam was a puppy, just a year old when we brought her into our house. It would have been unfair, irresponsible to be a couch potato. It was imperative to get her some exercise. This, too, sounded like the perfect remedy for an aging man. Sam helped me walk into a new decade with a new outlook, to face a time of natural decline with a renewed self-assurance and belief in the restorative powers of a good walk, of caring for another living thing, one that looks to you, and only you, for nearly everything she needs and wants.

Sunset Street takes us to West Benton Street, a busier avenue. We turn left past ugly brick and stucco condos and apartments. I have my phone with me and check Google Maps for the best way back to the house. It suggests another left turn, but when we make it the road only leads to a construction site and a newly carved out dirt street. New condos are being erected here and Google has no idea the roads that were once here have been bulldozed. Maneuvering through tall piles of earth, stacks of stone and brick, Sam and I take a narrow unpaved road on the edge of the construction zone. There’s a large crane truck working along a strand of trees just off to our right. Sam is paying no attention to it, but I am. The operator is guiding the big crane toward a tall and majestic tree, first smashing the crane into the high part of its trunk then backing up and colliding with the lower section, apparently making room for the new condos to come. The big tree teeters, wobbles, defying the hefty effort to take it down. The operator slams into the tree again, the it gives up, snaps and crashes into the surrounding trees, ripping branches away, its towering trunk tumbling, seemingly in slow motion to the brush below, creating a destructive, disturbing noise. Sam jumps, lets out a mild yelp, and snaps her head toward the sound of the crash. She’s quivering now, leaning on me, startled by something she has never heard before, never seen.

“It’s okay, girl,” I say, kneeling to pat her head and hug her neck. “It’s just the sound of working men. Development, you know?”

Sam sits and moves closer.

“Maybe not progress,” I continue, “but definitely change.”

Sam stands; I loosen her leash, and lead her to the paved road we now see ahead of us. We make our way to George Street and the GPS gives us a better, apparently a more reliable route to follow back home. At Highland Drive, there in front of us, attached to a utility pole, is another poster of the missing girl, Mollie Tibbets. Such a heartbreaking story, I say to myself. I’m not sure there is a god, not one that we can understand or fully realize, but I say a little prayer anyway for Mollie Tibbets, one for her family, her boyfriend, for everyone who has ever known her. I say a prayer for Iowa City. Difficult times do not come to us on our Google calendars; we can’t plan for them. They sneak up like ghouls in the night. But what we can be certain of is change. Good or bad, tragic or miraculous. We can only hope we will know how to find our way through it all.

As Sam and I step to the house’s driveway, there’s a blackbird sitting on the roof. It’s cawing at something. It’s not a cry of distress or fright. Instead there is sweetness in the sound, not one often heard from a bird of this type. Maybe there’s something fresh to sing about, some new change for the bird—hatchlings born to the world, maybe it has a new nest to crow about. Sam stops and looks up. Sam watches the bird for a few moments and as it takes flight, she follows it through the air. As it passes just overhead, Sam leans on her back paws and lifts herself to the sky as if to greet it somehow, as if to say, I’m with you, birdie, I’m with you.

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