The owl I never see

Three of the four corners of my house have giant Sweetgum trees within 20 feet or so. If you don’t live in the Deep South or southeast, you may never have seen the monster deciduous hardwoods. They are everywhere down here. You can recognize them by their star-shaped leaves while you’re lying on the ground, cursing at the holes in your foot, and nursing your turned ankle because you’ve stepped barefoot on one of the multi-spiked fruit the trees drop in the autumn.

Somewhere in one of those trees is an owl I’ve never seen. If not for the fact I can hear it’s hoots almost constantly, I’d fight you on the fact I have an owl on my property. I tend not to believe in things I can’t see and readily identify. But, because now–at 6am when I can’t sleep and I’ve lain awake for an hour listening to the hoots and howls–I know it is there.

I’m now home after my 2010 summer run in Las Vegas. The work was good, my co-workers better, and the laughs the best of all. Despite how much I hate being way from my family, I really enjoy the time I get to spend with my colleagues and friends. I’m still exhausted and my sleep schedule is turned upside down. Tuesday I woke up at 7am and was helpless to return to bed. By 4:30pm, I was desperate for a nap. By 7:30pm, I was passed out in bed. I woke up this morning at 5am to the voice of the owl.

Now, my family sleeps upstairs while I contemplate the day ahead. The sun will be up soon and I have more work to do in the next ten days than I will possibly ever be able to finish. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks pulling up the pages of this blog and seeing the cocked head of my old dog looking back at me. I’ve been unable to write anything else here that meant anything to me. I knew it would have to wait until I got home.

My wife kept me updated while I was gone. She told me how much the boy was growing up, how Dos was now walking more than he was crawling, and how the house felt without Scoop in it. I nodded to all of it, but never let myself really believe any of what she was saying in a way that would make me think about it. It was like the owl. I knew it was all happening, but as long as I didn’t see it, there was a chance none of it was real.

When I got to the airport Monday night, my oldest son–the one who has greeted me at the airport in diapers, in a stroller, toddling, and all–strode toward me in a baseball cap, wrap-around sunglasses, and a big boy watch. He looked like a teenager. The baby–the one who wouldn’t walk more than four steps when I left town–was now a biped by choice. And when I walked in to my kitchen and there was an empty spot on the floor where Scoop’s water and food bowls used to be, I could do no more than sit down and let it all go.

I have it pretty good. I have to leave a lot, but I get to come home a lot more often than other dads. I love to travel, I love my road friends, and I appreciate the life I have. It doesn’t, though, make it any easier to see things change–sometimes in a nuclear way–while I’m gone.

In just the past 36 hours, I’ve caught myself wondering why Scoop wasn’t sliding in beside me when I open the fridge. I’ve looked up to see if she was getting up to follow me to bed. I’ve instinctively gone to the backdoor to let her outside when I walked in the house. I’ve been careful when crawling into bed so I wouldn’t accidentally sit down on her. I found a piece of her hair on the boy’s t-shirt and thought, “Scoop’s probably shedding. Time for the groomer.” I’ve heard a sound that I was sure was the whine she gave when she wanted a drink of water.

It is now…real.

I won’t let this blog become the place where I lament my old dog. I’ve received such an outpouring of sympathy from people around the world that it’s almost embarrassing (in a completely heartwarming way). I need no more. With that understood, the last couple days have been all about me coming to grips with the fact that my life has changed while I was away. I knew it before I got home, but I hadn’t really accepted it.

It is, I guess, like what it would be like to open up my backdoor and see the owl. It is to understand that the owl was going to be there or not be there regardless of whether I believed it. It is evidence upon evidence that life goes on with and without me. When I leave town, the owl still hoots and the owl still howls.

Life, too, will go on without Scoop in it, and we will be as happy as we can possibly be. It’s up to me to accept the inevitable loneliness like the phantom hoots in the night, and make the smiles of good memories the reality I see every day.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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1 Response

  1. Mike D says:

    We planted a tree where we buried Maddie. We don’t have our beloved dog anymore (alarm dog, if you will), but the Maddie Tree is growing. Every time I look at it, I think of her and the fun we had and it makes me feel better.

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