52 years ago today, an orca calf was taken from her mother in a horrifying, brutal roundup of about 100 orcas in Puget Sound. Tokitae was the only calf stolen that day who would survive the sentence of entertainer at a marine park, though confined in the smallest whale tank in the nation at Miami's Seaquarium. Despite decades of ardent activism by thousands, and the collaborative plan of the Lummi Nation, Orca Network, and others to repatriate her to home waters, Tokitae is still there in the hot Miami sun, turning tiny circles in her tiny tank, listening to loudspeakers blare all day, doing tricks for dead fish. Doing nothing that wild orcas do.
Somehow, I grew up not knowing of Tokitae's plight. In 2019, when I first heard of 24-year-old Rachael Andersen's connection with the orca, and of her own traumatic beginning, I was deeply touched. But when I discovered the truth of Rachael's and Tokitae's beautiful, suffering selves, the parallels between them broke my heart. Each truly has, in the other, a soul sister--and each truly has, in her mother, a fierce, abiding love. I'm so grateful to Rachael and her mother, Suzanne, for allowing me in on their journey. May it end with Tokitae flashing her flukes from the depths of the Salish Sea.
Until then, for Rachael's sake, I hope you'll read and share their story, "A Split Tale."
On Sunday I carried sweet Darcy to the banks of Los Alamitos Creek, where we’d walked together for over a dozen years, and had shared experiences of the heart that had led to my book. An editor needed a photo for an upcoming review, and I wanted to place her in situ one more time. She couldn’t walk, at sixteen, with spinal arthritis, but her attitude was happy, as always, and she posed patiently. I didn’t know she was one day away from death.
I had chosen a place on the creek where I wouldn’t have to carry her very far, and where the foxtails wouldn’t be too thick, and the bank too steep. When we reached the shore I looked up and realized I had brought her to the very place I’d come to grieve in mid-July of 2003, right after my dad died, a memory I’d included in the book as a connection to Maria Zacarias, who once lived there. I believed she, too, must have come to that place to grieve her own father’s death.
So the place was layered already with then and now, with loss and memory, with pages in process and the published book now in my hand. My dear dog was my shadow in that story, as in everything else. And once again it was a poignant evening of weed-gilding light, giving me an elevated view of summer’s take on the land.
It was in that heart-full, achey appreciation of what was gone that I carried my sweet girl back to the car, parked in a cul-de-sac. As I carefully placed her in the back seat and picked the burrs from her satin-smooth coat, talking to her all the while as I always have, an elderly man called out to me from behind a patio wall.
“You are being so kind,” he said. His wife joined in. “We can see that you're so very kind to your dog. Kindness matters so much, doesn’t it? We had an old dog whose hind end gave out too. Thank you for being so kind.”
I teared up and thanked them for their kind words, and we talked for a bit about our dear dogs, and kindness in the Days of Covid; I put on my mask so they could show me their garden sign about the importance of kindness, and I told them about having “Be brave and be kind” tattooed on my back last year, at a time when I especially needed reminding. Then I gave them my book, which I’d brought for the photo shoot, and I drove off with Gretchen’s and Greg’s words warming my heart.
The drive to Watsonville through old Almaden Valley was loaded, because midsummer on that road reeked of death to me already. I had driven that back road from Almaden one June to visit my dying dad, and the next July, I returned that way from my friend’s dad’s service. I had written about that sensory drive in MINE, imagining Zacarias soaking up the same scents and sounds in the July days right after her husband’s murder, and in a later July when two of her sons were lynched. It was a drive rich with memories of mourning and learning and journaling across this land, and of being with Darcy every step, mile, and word of the way. My dear dog is written on its landscape and in its chapters.
The land was astoundingly beautiful in its demise, with sunset reappearing at every curve and change in the mountains’ height--I got to see the day end several times. Once, when the sun sat over the hills behind a golden vale, I stopped at a turnout and picked up Darcy, who could no longer sit up and look out the window, so she too could see its beauty--I didn’t want to see that much gorgeousness alone. But now I’m glad I did that for her sake, that she saw her last sunset from my arms, out in the country we loved and wrote about. It was a gift from the Universe, which knew what was to come.
Many more kindnesses awaited us at home. I don’t want to write about—because I can’t bear to relive--her sudden turn for the worse, or the medical reasons, or the anguish of watching her hurt. I only want to dwell on the kindness of people who came to our aid at every heartbreaking turn. The bearded Vietnam vet and ex-rancher, an acquaintance from the park, whose hopeful, cheerful greeting turned sad and deeply sympathetic when he saw her. The hand-holding couple who saw I was using a harness to lift her up, and who cheerily called out “Peace to you for doing that! We used one of those for our old dog too, and we know it’s hard. Namaste!” The woman next to me in the ER parking lot, who sensed my sorrow while I was waiting for Darcy outside, and let me love on her own aging Border Collie mix. The trucker who, having heard the Chevron market clerk decline my request that she stay open one more minute so I could buy water for my dog, motioned me over to to his big rig, pulled open the giant sliding door, sliced open a shrink-wrapped case of water, and handed me a bottle, refusing money—“I have dogs too,” he said, not even knowing how important the timing of that one drink was. The handful of friends I told who said just the right thing, my landlord’s kind words of genuine empathy, my sister Becky getting up early to dig the grave at the family farm, my brother Dan taking the day off from work to help his adoring fur-friend out of this painful world, the vet who came to the farm on short notice to give her relief, and then peace.
People who filled my heart and eyes at every turn, who sent Darcy messages of kindness I know she heard.
Every dog lover’s dog is the best dog ever; Darcy was no different, except, of course, to me. But she was unusually intuitive, loyal, ever-patient, observant, and vigilant; a herd dog whose greatest goal was to keep an eye on her dwindling flock. She was unwaveringly devoted to me and the people I love. She went along with my every need—getting up at 4AM to walk under the stars, driving 14 hours to see the eclipse, waiting patiently under many a restaurant table. I never left her home alone for more than four hours, but she would lie at the window watching for me the entire time. She was so devoted to Tyler and Audrey that after they left for college, she lay by the front door for months, eyes fixed and ears pricked, listening for their return. Long after they moved to other states, even as recently as last week, she eagerly pulled me toward people who looked like them. Darcy never forgot a face or an experience; she learned everything with one try, from housebreaking to the hazards of chasing coyotes or snapping at rattlesnakes. She wasn't just smart; she was deeply intuitive and wise.
Darcy assessed all kinds of situations with wisdom and accuracy. She was my radar, my barometer, my compass. I trusted her intuition even more than mine. She put her head on the laps of those she could tell were sad; in class, she chose to lie by the quietly anxious student. She knew which tense dogs to avoid and which ones she could calm. She once barked at me to “come,” then lay across a carpet cleaner’s feet, two times, barking insistently, her Batman-ears up and her eyes fixed brightly on me, to predict the massive coronary he would have before he got out of the driveway.
Darcy really was the best dog ever.
I will never be without my sweet girl. She was with me through the best and worst times of my life, and I was with her through hers. That didn’t stop when she breathed her last, and it won’t stop when I breathe mine.