Baby, We Were Born To Run
Winner of the 2023 Winners Circle Open Nonfiction Contest
© Copyright 2022 by Maureen Moynihan
Photo of Buster in 2016 by Maureen.
On mornings when I worked from home, I was shaken from sleep by the pungent smell of his breath, wretchard as the stench of a rotting potato abandoned in the corner of a kitchen cupboard. His elongated tongue was dragged across my face, thick with spit and intention. It didn’t matter to him if it’s Christmas morning or if I just polished off a bottle of wine. What mattered is that it’s 5:30am: time to run.
Buster is a Labrador/Great Pyrenees mix, meaning he is smart, protective and sheds quicker than I can vacuum. His face animates the playfulness of a Labrador Retriever while his blonde Pyrenees coat illuminates him from the pack. Enchanted by beauty, strangers are lured to want to touch him, which never goes well because Buster is not a fan of strangers, especially the human kind.
We met at the Exit 2 Park and Ride when the doors of an unmarked cargo van creaked open to unleash a cacophony of yapping puppies. Stacked in piles like unclaimed baggage, the southern rescue dogs spun in their crates at the first streak of light to cut through the darkness.
Except for one. Steadfast in determination, a scraggly puppy continued to chew on the bars that caged him. In an instant, I knew: there’s my dog. I too, cannot be trapped inside dark spaces or I’ll begin to gwan on the living furniture. Despite biological differences, Buster and I shared a sameness of being. And it’s nice to spend time with someone who appreciates what you value, if they lack opposable thumbs.
Buster and I loved to run. For miles, we’d weave through the trails near our home, his ears, my ponytail, flopping in the wind. Though renowned for safety, the conservation trails are isolated from the bustling world and present sketchy circumstances for a woman to run alone. But a woman with the right dog is certainly safe.
“Ya Dawgs a Frickin' Killa!” Snap the Massholes.
Famous for dropping their Rs and all consideration when driving, Massachusetts citizens or “Massholes” migrate north to appreciate tax free cigarettes and acres of wildlife. Yielding in traffic or in life is not in their bones. Whateva. Use Ya Blinkah.
For the most part, New Hampshire residents know better than to approach a woman running alone, especially when escorted by an alpha dog. A deep respect for boundaries is drilled into our bones; loyal Granite Staters would rather join the KGB than cross into the Massachusetts border. Even if Boston is home to some of the prestigious medical facilities in the world.
I didn’t subscribe to this belief. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I sought treatment at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston because my will to live exceeds my resentment for parking fees.
Buster and I ran despite my debilitating disease. I need to move in order to think, so I was in exceptional cardiovascular shape for a cancer patient. We ran for miles until, swaddled in nature, I found enough air and trees to cry in peace. Unwavered by emotional breakdowns, Buster trotted by my side, his ears flopping, my bald head bopping in the wind. Until I was too sick to move.
When one dons a hospital gown more often than pants, humanity is lost. The butt-bearing, tie-in-the-back-or-is-it-the-front Johnny is the Scarlett Letter of the sick.
“LOOK!” it screams. “Here’s a prisoner of a medical institution! A parasite of society!”
The shame of long term illness can be as crippling as the disease itself. With a religious adherence to a medical plan and a jackpot of luck, fortunate patients return to civilian clothes that no longer fit and a world that has learned to spin without them. Life is yours to begin, again. But how?
The physical casualties of cancer treatment are tangible, their lines of loss remarkable. My chest no longer has breasts. My ponytail is gone. My skin is tattooed with scars. However, the emotional trauma of survivorship is insidious. It roots in the bones, nourishing a visceral sadness for a life lost and a paralyzing fear of what will be.
At 50, the starting line is faint and overwhelming. I lost my job. We had to sell our home. My marriage crumbled. As our children lugged backpacks to and fro rental properties, I scrambled to scrape up the fragments of my shattered self, puzzled by which pieces to keep and which ones to toss. Imprisoned by grief, I was too exhausted to chew my way out of depression. But I had a good dog.
Buster had little appreciation for a human being in the throes of a mid-life crisis. While I resisted the urge to stick my head in the oven, Buster decided it was time for us to run again. At first, he tapped a paw on any body part within reach, as an elegant, Benedict Cumberbatch kind of invitation to join him.
“Just move, my darling. Just move.”
But I couldn’t budge, trapped beneath the weight of the unknown and absence of self confidence. Neither offended nor deterred by rejection, Buster channeled his inner Tony Robinson:
"The path to success is to take massive, determined action."
Buster licked my face with the passion of a child trying to manage a melting ice cream cone. When I refused to get up, he sat on me.
“Stop it!” I said and pushed him away. “Just stop it.” I didn’t appreciate Buster’s perseverance and craved personal validation. At least I was thinking about restarting my life. At least I refrained from lighting myself on fire.
Dogs don’t care about what cannot be seen, smelt or felt; language is a means to get a cookie. So Buster persisted, despite my claims of “I can’t” or threats to ship his lily white butt back to Alabama. Without anger or impatience but the knowledge that I had lost my mind, he barked at me in guttural, Bruce Springsteen, tone:
“Baby, We Were Born To Run.”
Buster wasn’t asking me to run; he was demanding it. It was easier to try to run than resist his perseverance. Ants passed me, but still, I moved. The road to rebuild my life was steep and dirty. Until one day I caught my breath. The agony of moving transitioned to euphoria. My body felt powerful, my heart alive. I looked at Buster and I knew he felt it too: freedom.
The girl who loves life was with me all along, just buried in darkness, needing some help to be found. I had missed her so much. Mud on my legs, dirt on his fur, we move in synchrony with the wind. I was part of the world again instead of just fighting to survive. Buster glanced at me, tongue hanging outside his mouth with a wide grin of satisfaction.
“Told you so,” he said. “I told you so.”