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Lilly & Me: The Worst Five Hours of My Life

One of the most helpful quick-tips I've run across for dealing with bouts of depression is to imagine yourself with a stuffy nose. You know when your nostrils are all blocked up and you'd give just about anything for the relief of a clear airway, that thing you suddenly realize you always took for granted? Well, when you're feeling hopeless, when it feels like there's no joy to be ascertained from the world, it helps to recall the agony of a stuffy nose -- maybe nothing has meaning and we're all just floating hopelessly through the void, but hey, at least you can breathe in the fresh air, right? It sounds silly, but you'd be amazed how far you can get with some basic appreciation of everyday comforts.

I'll get back to that.

Regular readers of the column know that Lilly's had her fair share of off-leash escapades. There was her first morning in Oxford, of course, when she led me on a chase through the neighborhood in my sweatpants and moccasins. And there was that time on the trails when she left me in hysterics after taking off into the woods for 20 minutes.

But that's just what I've written about. All told, there have been close to 10 instances in just the last three months in which I've lost sight of her for more time than I'm comfortable with. Most of these have occurred out on the trails when she bounds into the woods to chase a deer or a squirrel, or just to expel some of her endless energy. But there was also the open door she took advantage of on Green Beer Day, and the other night when she broke free out the back door without her collar on (both of those resulted in search-and-rescue missions that ended with me finding her at the dog park, a shit-eating grin splayed across her snout).

It's not that she's trying to run away -- whenever she sees me again, she runs right up to me. Rather, she gets so thrilled about being outside that her excitement often exceeds her understanding of her own limits. Before she knows it, she's gotten herself lost.

Every time it happens, I vow that I'm not going to let her off the leash again, but I always eventually talk myself back into it. Not wanting to be labelled overprotective, I somehow think that it would reflect poorly on me to restrict Lilly to a leash. I imagine the judgment from other dog owners: What, just because you can't control her, she doesn't get to run free?

I think it's safe to say, however, that I learned my lesson this past weekend when I lost Lilly in the foothills of rural West Virginia. Having introduced her to the basics of backpacking over Spring Break, I brought Lilly on her first trip with the Outdoor Adventure Club, a weekend loop through the state's Dolly Sods Wilderness. Following a cramped, seven-hour car ride to the trailhead, I let her out to loosen up when we arrived -- and watched in vain as she took off up the mountain and out of sight.

I'm not going to go into too much detail about the five-hour search that followed -- partly because I'm restricted by word count that I'm already on track to exceed, partly because the memory is still fresh and too painful to delve into -- but I will provide you with some moments that highlight the anguish of that Saturday afternoon.

The search involved hours and hours of trekking through dense wilderness, whistling, calling Lilly's name and listening in vain for the sound of her collar clinking. It involved two river-crossings, one of which saw me slipping and falling into the icy current as snow began to fall around me. It involved trespassing on private property and knocking on doors throughout the Appalachian mountain town near the trailhead, accompanied by a local kid who described the community's residents as "gun-happy."

It involved two hours of sobbing as I came to terms with the fact that my best friend was gone. I wondered how I would break the news to all of Lilly's friends back home, how I would explain to my sister, who is visiting next weekend, that she actually wasn't going to get to meet her dog-niece.

Plagued by the intensifying nausea of my worst nightmare becoming a reality, I wondered if I didn't deserve to throw myself from the trail's steep edge. I talked myself out of it, but I still felt stung by a searing guilt, and for the first time in nine months, I seriously thought about drinking again.

As the sun descended and the frosted mountaintops around me started falling under a shadowy glow, my mind raced through all the things I knew I would never see again -- Lilly's ears perking up when she hears me get home from class, the little rocking-back-to-front stretch she does first thing every morning after hopping down from my bed, the toothy grin she sports whenever she runs up to me at the park and hops up to place her paws on my chest. Those would all be memories now -- memories accompanied by the guilt of knowing that, because I was overconfident in her abilities off the leash, she was out there on her own in the woods, shivering, scared and wondering why I'd abandoned her. I honestly hoped that I would come across her body in the woods, mauled at the hands of a bear or something. Somehow seeing her just once more, even if she was dead, would give me the closure I craved.

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Eventually hope ran out, and I submitted completely to desperation. I looked to the sky with eyes ruined by tears and prayed to whoever would listen to let Lilly find her way back to me. I called in every favor I felt the universe might owe me, drew on every ounce of karma I had stored up and begged to be allowed to see her again, to have another chance. I promised to never take her for granted again, to never let her off the leash. She could run free at the dog park -- other than that, there was no shame in keeping her tethered, if it would keep me from this agony.

In essence, I was pleading, once more, for a clear airway to breathe through.

Lilly did come back. Roughly five-and-a-half hours after I watched her disappear into the woods, I caught sight of her on a gravel service road on the other side of the mountain -- and, as expected, she ran right up to me, as if nothing was the matter. I half-expected her to turn to me and say, "Okay, now it's your turn to hide."

It's funny how much an experience like that puts things into perspective. Things that a few days ago would have filled me with dread and anxiety -- that paper due Wednesday, for instance, or that job application I need to get turned in -- now seem so... inconsequential. Why worry about a homework assignment when I know I'm lucky enough to have the most beautiful girl in the world snuggled next to me as I work on it, that familiar toothy grin spread across her face?

I'm still mad at her, to be sure, and I'm not positive she's going to have the privilege of going for a walk later today. But if she does, I'm sure she's going to love and appreciate every second of her time outside -- and she's going to do that from the safety of her leash.