Day 110: Sydney, NSW - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 14, 2014

Day 110: Sydney, NSW

I wake up to the sound of Kristen crying. She's on the phone with her mom, Jill.

Last night the family dog, a seventy-pound black Standard Poodle named Maggie — who is by any objective the smartest dog the world has ever seen — died last night. She was nine years old.

A few days ago Jill noticed that Maggie was feeling more lethargic and acting less interested in food. The second part was reason enough to think that something might be wrong, so Jill took Maggie to the veterinarian's office, where x-rays were taken. Both the vet and the radiologist examined the films, and both agreed that the dog was suffering from bronchitis. With a diagnosis given, antibiotics were prescribed and Maggie was sent home. In most ways she still seemed fine, going on short walks and playing with her toys and making it through each day without any hint of complaint.

But late last night Maggie laid down on the floor and either couldn't or wouldn't get back up. Kristen's step-dad Dan picked her up, carried her to the van, and together he and Jill rushed off to the emergency vet's office. The doctor took Maggie into an examination room, ran a few tests, and soon returned with an answer no one was prepared to hear: your dog has cancer, it has spread all throughout her body, and there's nothing that can be done to make her better. This wonderful, amazing, complex, thoughtful dog that only a few weeks earlier was fetching frisbees, watching the floor for fallen scraps of food, laying down on command, barking at the Goodyear Blimp whenever it passed overhead, and following behind Jill wherever she went was now bleeding internally, collapsing from within, too irreparably broken to take home even for one more night.

With no options left, the doctor brought out Maggie on a stretcher. Jill wrapped her arms around the dog and held her as a needle was inserted, as the flow of drugs began, and as the last breaths made their way out of her tired body.

And then Maggie was gone.

It's one thing to have what I'd call a part-time dog, where you see them for a few hours at night and a little more on the weekend, but where you spend most of the time apart because you're busy working or traveling or raising a family, in the way that so many people in America and probably here in Australia do. It's something else entirely to have a dog that lives life right alongside you, who's never more than a few dozen feet away, who wakes up when you wake up, who falls asleep next to you, who's there to run around the room when good things happen and there to lay next to you when it feels like the world around you is falling down.

With that kind of dog, your daily rhythms start to fall in line with one another. They are as much a part of your life as a child or a spouse. They make you smile, they make you proud, they bring you comfort, and they are such an integral part of the family that over time their happiness becomes inextricably linked to your happiness. This seems like the way it should be for every person and their dog, but it isn't; it's rare and it's precious. Yet that's what Jill and Maggie had. It was obvious from the first hour I spent in their home. She gave Maggie an amazing life, one better than anyone else ever could have. I can only imagine how hard it must be to appreciate that fact at a time like this, when the sadness inside you pulses with so much force and depth that it leaves your body in physical pain, but it doesn't make it any less true. If there's any kind of silver lining to a terrible event like this, I have to think that must be it.

Every time Kristen thinks about Maggie, she cries more, and I hold her. I think about Maggie, and about my dog Walter. Although I try not to, I can't help but imagine about how I would feel if the roles were reversed, if he was the one who had to be held and kissed on the head and reassured that everything was going to be okay, even though I would know that wasn't the case. And when that happens it takes everything I have to keep from breaking down.

All at once we've never felt so far from home.

Goodbye sweet girl.
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We deal with the unexpected and terribly sad news by leaving the room behind, intent on finding distractions somewhere in Sydney. This first leads to Starbucks, where we help drown our collective sorrow with a gingerbread latte and some delicious caramel chocolate cake-type thing, set to the sound of the smooth jazz versions of Christmas carols that every Starbucks must play, no matter in the world they're located. As someone who's lived in the northern half of the United States for their entire life, there's an unbreakable association between listening to "Jingle Bells" or "O Holy Night" and looking outside to see overcast skies, cold wind, and rain or snow. It seems at odds with everything that's true in the world to hear those songs while sitting in a cafe where the doors are propped open because the morning outside is sunny and seventy degrees and exactly like what we felt when we left Los Angeles at the end of the American summer more than two months ago.

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Then we wander around Sydney's central business district, which is quiet and calm at 8 a.m. on Sunday. But despite the relative emptiness, it's exactly what you'd expect to find at the center of any major city: tourists of a dozen different nationalities, the same bank and hotel brands that exist in every industrialized nation in the world, transit buses that pass every two minutes, and people with varying degrees of mental illness walking or sitting or sleeping along the streets. Because last night was a Saturday, and because we're in the thick of the Christmas party season, there are also a high number of hungover party dudes walking home in their half-buttoned party shirts with bare feet because they lost their shoes at some unknown point during their public drunken stupor last night. The only thing that lets us know for sure that we're in Australia is the fact the words in the logo attached to the front of the Burger King fast food restaurant read Hungry Jack's instead.

What?
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We lay around our room for hours, writing and reading and starting to piece the bikes back together. But the frustration that always comes with trying to reattach the fenders and racks with the right combination of nuts and bolts and washers soon makes an appearance. When we finally give up, we leave them in a pile on the dirty carpet and head back out into the city. Outside of the downtown business core it becomes more interesting and less like every other big city we've ever been to. Jacaranda and gum trees arch up and over narrow side streets, where turn-of-the-century brick buildings mix with the most diverse kinds of restaurants and cafes and bars that we've seen since we rolled out of Portland back in August.

That's more like it.
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Later we sit on a wooden bench in the shade in Hyde Park and look out on the shirtless men laying on their sides and tanning in the grass, the drunks dead asleep against the trunks of the trees, and the backpacked tourists rushing off to their next scheduled meal. There's something calm and pleasing about sitting in the park, where it's warm and everything around us is green, and where the noise and the chaos of the city seem far away.

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But moments after we walk out of the park we step onto a crowded sidewalk that fronts a mall, where we walk shoulder to shoulder with thousands of holiday shoppers and tourists among honking car horns, chain restaurants, panhandlers, screaming children, and three-story-tall advertisements for thousand-dollar handbags. In an instant the charm of the city disappears and we find ourselves wishing for the simple pleasure of riding bikes through the small towns of rural Australia and heading to sleep each night in our tent, under an umbrella of stars beneath the spotlight of the moon. It's only two days away, but we wish we were there already.

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Back in the room we attend to the business that must get done first: reassembling bicycles, setting up mobile phone service, searching for a good bike shop, and coming up with a list of all the other things yet to be finished. But the air of excitement that carried us through the challenges of yesterday has been replaced by the sadness of loss, which makes it tough to find joy in the work or the desire to see it all through to completion. It doesn't take long before we give up the fight against exhaustion and fall into the arms of rest.

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