As Dad drives down the highway, I detect a heaviness in his heart. He turns off the radio. He sniffles as he drives. He remains silent until we are close to the city. My nose immediately detects the stench of burnt metal and gas fumes. Outside our car windows the landscape is surreal as a dirty ash covers everything. As we round the corner, immediately in front of us are various canines outfitted with search and rescue gear. Canines of all different sizes, breeds, mixed breeds and temperament are gathered with one mindset. All are eager to start their mission of search and rescue. I am struck by the intense sorrow emitted from the human handlers assigned to this mission. I sense their raw emotions ranging from grief, anger to fear and despair.
We gather outside in the mud. A human team leader methodically reviews the technical aspects of our mission. Each canine-human team is assigned into a group called a pack. Each pack is assigned a geographic section noted on a map to complete search and rescue. We are explicitly warned of the potential dangers for dog and human. Specific instructions are reviewed to avoid injury to the dogs from hot metal that might still be burning.
The team leader tells us in graphic detail that human bodies may be found alive but with horrific injuries. Many humans may already be dead or near death. We are told to control our emotions and concentrate on our goal: finding injured but alive humans. I am nervous at this man’s warnings as the stench of death becomes more intense with each sniff. My Dad tries to remain composed. I sense he is studying the map and the location of our search. He transforms as I do into a focused search and rescue team. My Dad looks down on me with serious eyes and scratches behind my ears as he places my search and rescue vest around my torso. “Rex, we are going to find some mangled victims but our goal is to locate them and save them.” Dad then makes the sign of the cross as he blesses me and other teams. We then march out to our assignment, Fearless and determined to fulfill the mission, we walk briskly towards what is known as “Ground Zero” of the fallen Twin Towers at the World Trade Center (WTC). As we approach the huge city blocks of mangled metal and disintegrated buildings, I appreciate the magnitude of human loss. With each breath, I mentally calculate the immense loss of human life. I sense the fear, hesitation and even confusion afflicting the younger dogs who never in their wildest dreams are faced with such a horrific array of scents of death and destruction. I hold my head high and eyes wide open when I trot by them. In a canine sense, I give the younger dogs my mental message of mature confidence. By my body language I communicate: “Do your best job. You are well trained. Now is the time to step up to the plate and focus on finding the hurt and injured. Your mission is to find humans. I believe in you. Your handler believes in you. The free world depends upon you. Now let’s get going. Remain focused and dedicated to the mission.”
Dad sighs heavily. He wipes his sweat laden brow with the back of his weary forearm. We are both covered with a sooty substance that stings our eyes and burns our nostrils. The millions of scents bombarding my brain is overwhelming. So many human scents under debris is confusing my ability to distinguish life from death. I can see that Dad is slowly getting more frustrated with each passing hour.
A church bell breaks our soulful search. I look up and see before me a stucco building. It, like everything else at ground zero, is covered with the sooty stinking substance but a warm yellow hue emits from its great front doors. For a few seconds, I stand motionless staring at the soft glow from the church. Dad tugs hard on my collar. This is a command for to me to get back to work. “Rex, what is distracting you?” shouts Dad. His stern eyes glare at me. I point my muzzle in the direction of the church. His face falls expressionless as now his swollen eyes are focused upon the church with its faint welcoming glow. “Maybe you are right, Rex. Maybe we should take a break.” Dad and I clumsily walk from the mound of debris to the muddy path leading to a cement sidewalk. The steadiness and organization of its man made concrete is soothing to my paws. The concrete represents a path for all humans who walked peacefully together. I smell the footprints of humans from many nationalities. Humans of various backgrounds and cultures who, just days ago, trod these New York streets. All had one purpose: to fulfill the American Dream. To work hard at their chosen profession. To make a good life for themselves and to assure a better life for their families and children. Through canine eyes, I can see their sorrowful souls hovering near the doors of the church as we approach her sacred steps. We enter through her majestic doors. No one seems to notice me entering the church. Dad immediately falls on one knee before an icon bows his head and sobs heavily. I hear his unspoken prayer: “Jesus, I hate those people who took the lives of our innocent brothers and sisters. Please help us in the name of God to find someone even half alive. I am tired of finding dismembered body parts and mangled dead bodies. Please help us in our chosen mission. I am going crazy with grief. Help Rex here to be safe. Thank you for his unending devotion to me and our chosen mission to find survivors. If we can’t find anyone alive, then bless their sweet souls who most assuredly gotta be in heaven. Help their heartbroken families. Help me to continue our mission.” Dad makes the sign of the cross first on himself and then over me. He looks at me hard with swollen glassy eyes, “Rex, you understand more than I think. You are A good boy.” Dad reaches to scratch behind my ears. He caresses my head with his right hand, “You are a pillar of strength Rex because of your unconditional dedication to help find humans. God love ya Rexie.”
Today is a crisp clear New England autumn morning. It’s been eight years since our sorrowful mission. The bagpipes play as my Dad’s casket is drawn towards the church steps. I proudly wearing my service vest as I quietly follow the procession. I climb the worn stairs of the stucco church. I am heartbroken that Dad is gone but the last few years were hard on him. Violent coughing at night and breathlessness described his existence. Death was merciful. I am drawn to the church as I sense a deep peacefulness under her iconic painted ceilings. Someone tugs on my collar to leave when the service is over. I resist. I whimper. I try with all my might not to leave the church. Now, two large hands are dragging me off her sacred floors. A white haired man appears. He stoops down and caresses my muzzle in his warm wrinkled hands. “You could be very comforting to people here. I think the others would feel the same.” The old man gently tugs on my lead to follow him. As we walk to the sacristy, I look up and in a dim light of flickering candles I see a faint outline of a man’s profile. It is my Dad! His head nodding with an approving smile. I realize that this is my home.
Barbara E. Magera MD PharmD MMM (Caracaleeb) is a Cavalier fancier who lives and practices medicine in Charleston, South Carolina.