"A Cluster of Freshly Planted Aspen Trees"

In the late fall, the rolling sand hills of western Nebraska were stunning.  Autumn days there possessed a diffused light like … it had journeyed through a soft-focus optical filter.  Abundant bluestem and buffalo grasses covered sandstone bluffs the precise color of oatmeal.  The pale tan and russet colors of the grasses water colored the landscape like people’s memories becoming sepia-tinted with the application of age.  A close friend, JD Harcharick, had invited me to visit her and assist with the removal of several miles of barbed wire fencing.  She, her deceased husband Jerrol, and I attended the same small rural church many years ago.  Being life-long friends, with a common history of joys and sorrows, brings with it an authentic inherent closeness not found in many relationships.  Within this magnificent country setting, their old-ranch-guard-dog Blanco, demonstrated by living his life to the fullest every-single day, more than a couple of life’s profound lessons.  He was, to alter several of my world viewpoints – forever.       

Seeing JD again after many years, caused me to consider the specific paths that I have chosen in life.  These paths are often questioned by many, in our later years; when in retrospect, we seek self-validation or reaffirmation of those choices.  Some paths, I would be reminded by Blanco, are costly on many levels; while others are both valuable and inexpensive.

It felt terrific to be outdoors working in the sunshine.  JD and I were removing a seemingly never-ending line of centuries-old barbed wire and wooden fence posts dating from the age of the first Nebraska settlers.  We were chatting and reminiscing about the days when we were considerably more youthful.  Jerrol’s nine-year-old ranch dog, Blanco, a Great Pyrenees, was always nearby.  His coloring was mostly cream, with dinner-plate sized patches of tan on his sides, gray raccoon-face-mask-like eye markings, all topped off with thick black ears that were as soft as a mink’s coat.  He was a living reminder of Jerrol.  His prized occupation was to announce the arrival of visitors to the ranch.  He did this with a spirit of enthusiasm that was unmatched by any of the neighboring canines.  Exhausted from chasing rabbits, he ambled over to us to rest.  Plopping down unceremoniously, he proceeded to lick his foreleg.

Needle grass possesses a seed like a hypodermic needle, which can often become embedded in a dog’s feet.  Thinking one of these was bothering Blanco, I knelt beside him to offer assistance.  “JD there is something wrong with his leg.  It is swollen near his wrist joint.”  JD stopped pulling nails from fence posts and came over to have a look.  She looked at me with concern and question marks in her faded-blue-jean colored eyes.  “Do you think he should see a vet?”  Trying to sound calm, I responded.  “If he were mine, I would have it checked right away.  I have never seen anything remotely like that bulge.”  

We stopped our work for the day, loaded our tools into JD’s dusty old beat-up truck, and headed straight into town.  Riding in the open back of the truck, Blanco was testing the air for critter smells; he was in Great Pyrenees heaven.  The local veterinarian carefully examined Blanco’s leg and immediately set up an appointment with the University of Colorado at Fort Collins.  Approximately a five hour drive away, they have one of the best veterinarian teaching hospitals in the country.  He needed to be seen in Fort Collins as soon as possible.  This was strike one against Blanco Harcharick.

Blanco was ecstatic from all the attention.  Freshly bathed, brushed, and smelling of lavender shampoo, he looked like a completely different sheep dog.  With his fur missing its normal adornment of sand-spurs, cockle-burs, twigs, leaves, and dirt, he was much whiter and looked quite handsome.

With large estate-like highly manicured grounds and new three story red-brick buildings, the University of Colorado Veterinary Teaching Hospital looked to be superior to most human hospitals.  We were met in the lobby by three doctors and an intern who explained the procedure.  “We will take a couple of quick blood samples and a biopsy of the bone to see what is happening with his leg.  We should have some definitive answers available soon.”  Blanco appeared somehow smaller than usual as he was led down a very long, white hallway.  He was wagging his tail as the doctor spoke to him while they traversed the passageway.  JD and I watched as they neared the far end of the hallway, slowly turned the corner, and then quietly proceeded out of our sight - directly into the face of his future.

Over an hour later, Blanco returned, sporting a couple of shaved spots on his leg along with the requisite Band-Aids.  JD and I were to learn unfortunately:  Blanco had Osteosarcoma, a particularly aggressive form of bone cancer that is commonly seen in some of the larger breeds.  The life expectancy from the time of diagnosis was six to twelve weeks without treatment.  With both chemotherapy and radiation this expectancy could possibly be increased to six months.  Limb harvesting (amputation of the leg) was also an option.  This disease is exceptionally painful for animals, and euthanasia is normally required in the end due to the increased pain.  The cost of full medical treatment would be approximately twelve thousand dollars.  We were assaulted with torrents of information comparable to a bag of marbles being ripped open and loudly clattering onto a stone floor.  This was strike two against Blanco Harcharick.

Twelve thousand dollars spent on an old ranch dog might have seemed extravagant.  Most people would not hesitate to spend two hundred dollars to extend the life of a companion.  Jerrol and JD had purchased many dry-land farms over the last forty years.  They would drill water wells, install irrigation equipment, and then as JD would explain, “… flip the land for a considerable profit.”   They were more than comfortably wealthy.  For Blanco, money would never be regarded as an issue.  When his treatment, or lack thereof, was at first debated, the only consideration was for his quality of life.    

Blanco was to undergo both radiation and chemotherapy.  With his leg strength reduced from the radiation and cancer, he needed to be custom fitted with a leg brace.  Watching him first learn to walk in this rigid brace was hilarious; to witness how ungainly his stride was…like watching an old Charlie Chaplin movie with his side-ways, lop-sided gait.  He would do amazingly well, only becoming slightly weaker toward the end of his seven weekly treatments.  On the way home after each treatment, we would stop for a dish of strawberry ice cream; to him there was nothing better.  After his treatments were concluded, I left Nebraska.  It was not easy to say farewell to either of my very much loved friends. 

Weeks later, JD would telephone to relay how after dinner one early evening, during a light dusting of snow, Blanco had taken a nap and simply relinquished his job of announcing visitors to the ranch.  This was strike three against Blanco Harcharick.  

He was to survive less than sixteen weeks after his diagnosis.  His lavish medical care had purchased for him, the gift of absolute freedom from pain.  JD wrapped Jerrol’s much loved companion in an old quilt and buried him on the ranch.  A cluster of freshly planted aspen trees on a grassy hillside would mark his grave.  JD remarked how, “This would allow him to have a suitable view of his arch enemies, the rabbits.”  Love, personified through him, was deceptively packaged in, fluffy white fur, thick black ears, and a joyful companion smelling of lavender.

A simple loving ranch dog would teach me to treasure the time we have on this planet.  Taking life for granted is not an option after seeing the rapid end to Blanco’s life.  His courage is something I would attempt to incorporate into my everyday thought process.  From the first time he saw the hospital and doctors, he was fearless.  Even after he understood what going there for treatments required, he faced his world with a calm cheer - if I could learn to do the same.

"A Cluster of Freshly Planted Aspen Trees" by Frederick (Derick) McGrath 
Published in The Mile Marker Review, Volume 2, Issue 1, December 2011