Had I died Monday afternoon, my last act before passing would have been to strike an arcing 70-yard pitching wedge shot through the high blue sky. Not an awful final memory, as those things go.
April 23, 2018 — that was the day. An abominable Minnesota winter was finally packing up to leave. The midafternoon temperature reached 70, melting thoughts and traces of the blizzard that had dumped 16 inches of snow just a week earlier.
There’s a golf course a block and a half from my house. My dog Radar and I can roam it unencumbered from December through April. I see a regular contingent of dog walkers there, where most pets range free, but just as often there is no one around.
No one to hear your scream for help.
I took Radar, my pitching wedge and five moderately beaten-up golf balls to the course. I would let sunshine soak into my bones and work on my chipping while Radar chased mallard pairs, who just wanted to be left alone, it being spring and all. Many of the golf course’s water hazards — ponds surrounded with cattails — were still frozen. A few of the smaller, shallower ones had open water, while still others had water rimming an interior of dark ice.
Like I said, I hit a nice chip shot, picked up my ball and started walking toward a small cattail pond that was still covered with ice. Radar had peeled off in that direction. I was on a grassy rise, with a good vantage point to see a male and female mallard begin waddling across the crusted ice. I couldn’t see Radar but I could see the cattails shaking on the pond’s edge as she nosed through them.
Radar yipped! She had pushed through the dense perimeter cover and now could see the ducks on the ice waddling away as fast as their duck feet would take them. Then three things happened almost at once. Radar bolted after the mallards, I hollered “No!” and Radar broke through the ice.
I scrambled down the rise to the pond’s edge, finding a combination of mud, water and ice. I stayed in visual contact with my dog, calling to her, careful to remain calm. “This way, Radar. C’mon girl. Up! Come on.” Only her head was above the hole in the ice. She struggled mightily to pull herself up onto the ice, trying to get her front paws onto something solid, but the ice mush broke again and again, dropping her back in the water.
She tired quickly and began to cant sideways, on the verge of capsizing. I kept talking to her, trying to pull her to me with my voice, but now she only looked back at me. I thought: Her head is going to go under the ice and that’s going to be it.
I swore aloud. I quickly unzipped my hooded sweatshirt, leaving me in a T-shirt. I took my cellphone out of the pocket of my sweatpants. I left my rubber shoes on. For some reason I picked up a long stick.
My first few steps onto the ice were OK, mostly because the cattail stalks protected the ice from direct sunlight. With one more step I felt the ice sink, but not completely give way. I got down on all fours to spread out my weight.
“I’m coming girl,” I said to Radar. She was only some 20 yards away. “Good girl. It’s OK.”
The ice ruptured and I went under. Freezing water rushed over me, swallowed me. I expected my feet to quickly hit the bottom of the pond, turning this event into nothing more than an embarrassing hassle. But there was no bottom to be found. The icy water was a jolt.
I broke ice, swimming to Radar, who still held her head just above the waterline. She wears a harness to walk by leash to and from the golf course. I grabbed her harness with one hand and started pulling toward shore with the other. Ice kept breaking under my thrashing arm.
I thought: If I can get her front legs on firm ice, she’ll be able to pull herself out. I’d hoist her up only to have the weak ice give out. It was like being trapped in a giant Slushee. Radar is an athletic, 55-pound pointing dog, but her earlier efforts to fight her way out of the hole, plus ice-shocked muscles, turned her into dead weight.
I swam with one arm while kicking, and pulled Radar along with the other. Finally, I got her to the rim of cattails, but still, unbelievably, it was too deep to stand. I worked her front paws onto the ice and shoved her up by the butt. She crawled into the cattails with me urging, “Go on. Get up there, now. Go on.” Then I grabbed cattail stalks and pulled myself out of the water, now hearing my own loud, panicked breaths. Slow yourself down. Slow yourself down. I, too, crawled through the cattails and came out, numb, on the sunny bank.
Long after taking a shower, my hands tingled with millions of pinpricks. I had cuts on my fingers and palms, raw scratches up and down both forearms and wrists, and scrapes and bruising on my elbow and side. When my son got home from school, I showed him my hands and arms and asked him to guess what happened. “You fell on concrete,” he said.
Concrete, I thought. Oh, for a hard, unyielding surface.
Dogs and humans can communicate, sometimes with no more than a simple look. A few hours later, Radar opened her eyes and caught me in her gaze. She had been napping.
I wondered: Will she look at me differently now? I saved her life, after all.
Her look communicated a clear message: “So, are you gonna take me for a walk or what?”
Kerry Casey is a writer in St. Paul.