We lost a lot of great things in 2016: Prince, Bowie, relationships, Muhammad Ali, human decency, Leonard Cohen, Alan Thicke, the meaning of words, Nancy Reagan, America, Harper Lee, Elie Wiesel, foresight, Alan Rickman, Doris Roberts, forward progress, Merle Haggard.
But two “things” that probably only made a few people’s list, namely, the wonderful volunteers of Usvatanssin Kennel and the beautiful family who runs it: Jahken and Ivan.
Jahken left us this spring and Ivan, just a few days ago. Is it silly to mourn the lives of dogs you lived with for just a few months, years ago, from halfway across the world? I don’t know, but my heart hurts just the same. Ivan hit me particularly hard, as I am sure his death hit a lot volunteers (and the Näsi family) particularly hard.
He was one of the first dogs my hand touched after I stepped off the bus in Tiainen, Finland (along with my Iinna, who basically takes up all the room I have in my heart for dogs, but dogs are good squishers, so it’s so weird how I can always find room for more). At the time I arrived, Iinna was staying indoors with the volunteers, recovering from a physical injury, while Ivan was indoors recovering from a less physical one.
Something was off. He had stopped eating, stopped getting excited to run. His wife Flame, and sons Liekki and Loiste are three of the best sled dogs around, part of the Dream Team, but he just wasn’t feeling it. At Usvatanssin, there is always a place for you (seriously), no matter how you’re feeling, so hoping it would help cheer his spirits, Ivan started sleeping with the volunteers in the cabin at night. And by sleeping with, I mean sleeping on, next to, on-top-of, in-your-face, snuggled-up-stretched-out-ALL-over, in your tiny twin bed, with.
And we loved every second of it.
My favorite part of the day quickly became walking out to the kennel into the pitch-dark arctic night, after all the chores were done, after you had your time with your family, to find you waiting patiently by the kennel door. You knew exactly what time it was. And if we came early, eager for your company, and caught you off-guard still snuggling in your house, all we had to do was softly say your name and you’d gracefully leap out of bed. But if you saw us first, your stealthiness was admirable.
And you’d calmly sit there, while we’d try to let (slightly at this point) injured Iinna escape the tiny door space without letting Iisku out (which was the second favorite part of my day), unfazed by the crazy howls from all your doggy friends, egging them on. You’d proudly waltz to the cabin, not all crazy-Iinna like, but with confidence and pride, like you’d been there before, just like every step you ever took.
And as soon as we’d walk in the door of the cabin, you made yourself at home, because it was your home. On the couch, on the floor, on our beds. You never acted like the other dogs we invited as our indoor nighttime guests (thinking we were doing them a favor – hint: Siberian Huskies LOVE the outdoors). You never got your head stuck in the garbage bin trying to get at scraps of food, or knocked over tables in excitement, or barked at the VHS on TV like crazy, or went bonkers over the reflections in the windows. Any time someone would sit even remotely near you, you’d reach out that friendly paw of yours to touch them, just to say, hey man, I’m here for you.
Wherever you were was where you belonged. And what’s more, you made us feel like we belonged, no matter where we were from.
Remember when we Facetime’d my sister and you yawned real big and showed all your teeth and she was like…aren’t you sort of afraid of them? Looking back, your head must have looked really big and your teeth really sharp, like it probably could eat my whole head, but I just laughed at the idea and snuggled your giant face. Ivan? The Poet? The Gentle Giant? Sweet, sweet Ivan? Nah. I’ve seen you when you sleep. Even your snore is adorable.
And that last time I was in Finland, when you decided it was time to come out of retirement? It warmed my heart to see you so excited to run. I had heard you had it in you, but I had yet to see it for myself. I wanted to cry, so honored to be on an adventure with you, pulled by your willpower, your drive. I am so, so thankful to have seen you in your true light.
I’ve been planning to return to Finland, my center, my reset button for many months now. It was my first place, it was the place I went before hiking the Appalachian Trial, it is the place I will return to before hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. And after all the black holes of 2016, I can’t think of anything better to fill it with, than the loveliest dogs in the world. But when I thought of returning, you were definitely a part of my itinerary, that warm spot in my heart that in this crazy unpredictable world, the one you know will always be the same. And for that, I am sad. But I am so much more happy that I know you existed.
Please, don’t ever tell someone, “but…it’s just a dog.” Ivan was just a dog. But he was just a dog who influenced my life more positively than a whole lot of people ever did. Don’t downplay the love someone has for a dog because it’s a dog. Don’t try to assign value to another person’s love, well, ever. Love…is love…so they say. So let it be.
I know dogs don’t live forever. I know I’m in for several years of heartbreak of dogs who have touched my heart. I know all dogs go to heaven. But it’s still sad as hell to see them go.