There are several possibilities as to how this pivotal moment in my early life might have played out. For starters, I couldn't swim, so a selfl ess, heroic act in which I rescued a drowning dog as motivation for a career helping animals in need was never in the cards. Besides, I'm pretty sure my mother had not packed my infl atable rubber ring.
At this point you would be forgiven for gasping in horror if you feared the possibility that I was some sort of malicious Damien child, a furtive witness to poor Marty's exodus, seizing the opportunity to be rid of my nemesis and rival for Grandma's attention by squandering precious time pointing out a particularly fascinating variety of seaweed before offering an inquisitive but nonchalant "So, where's Marty?"
Don't worry, what really happened struck me as far more impressive and has nothing to do with guilt or the quest for redemption. Seeing Marty bobbing helplessly in the waves my grandma jumped into the roiling waters and began swimming out to sea. Bear in mind, to my way of thinking, my grandma was at least two hundred years old and could hardly walk, let alone swim. She was fully clothed, not bothering to remove her coat or sweater or shoes. She just dove in like she was all lubed up for a Channel crossing and headed for the little white drowning rat bobbing up and down on her horizon.
For what seemed like forever, the angry waves mocked Grandma's rescue bid, pushing her toward Marty only to pull them apart at the last moment, until finally she had him in her arms, swimming back to shore and clambering back up the beach on all fours, Marty released into the shallows, able to break free, trot off, and shake himself down.
"What were you thinking?" my mum screamed, helping Grandma to her feet, taking off her own coat and putting it around her mother's shoulders. That classic cocktail of anger driven by fear had gotten the better of her. "You could have got yourself killed! And for a dog!" Grandma was shaking all over, her false teeth acting just like those wind-up false teeth, chattering uncontrollably. We began walking back up the beach, back to the car, Marty staying right by her side, and I asked, "You okay, Grandma?" She looked down at me and smiled one of the coy, conspiratorial smiles that she occasionally let me see, as though she knew she had been a naughty girl, but it had been worth it.
And right then it hit me that my grandma had actually put her life on the line for a creature sent by the devil to instill fear in children.
I could have understood if this was Cleo, but this was Marty. What strange spell had this toy poodle cast over my grandmother? What has stayed with me, all these years later, is my incredulity over an unthinkable rescue followed by a realization that something mysterious and powerful was at work between my grandma and Marty. Trudging through the wet sand, watching a mother and daughter together, their roles reversed, and a pathetic little dog, frightened of straying and consequently getting underfoot, I was forced to concede that Grandma must really love her poodle. Their relationship did not look like my relationship with Cleo and I couldn't imagine it felt anywhere near as good, but right then I realized that different is not the same as less important.
It had to have something to do with the same feeling that came over me whenever I hung off Cleo's neck after giving her a big hug.
Or it could have been similar to how my neighborhood friends and I all felt after rescuing our bagful of discarded kittens. What ever it was, I had witnessed one remarkable consequence of the warm, fuzzy, soothing sensation that could develop between certain animals and people, and this realization made one thing perfectly clear - I needed to learn how to swim.
Excerpted from Ever By My Side by Dr. Nick Trout. Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Nick Trout. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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