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Almost 12 years ago, a black Lab puppy came to live with us. With her short puppy snout and silky black pelt, she looked so much like a bear with a long tail that Dylan, our middle boy, named her Ursa Minor, Ursula for short.

In those days, we had another dog, a big, yellow shepherd mix who was in her golden years. We thought she would teach Ursula how to be a good farm dog and protect the chickens.

But first we had to teach her not to chase them down and catch them in her mouth. That was hard, but we finally did it.

But the cycle of life being what it is, we lost our old dog soon after, and Ursa grew to be a smart protector of her flock, even if she never learned to stop stealing eggs.

About four years later, Cullen, the brown dog, came to join us. We think he is part duck tolling retriever and, coincidentally, is about the same age as Ursa. They make a good team — as long as we don’t let them both out. When they slip away together, they run, and after several hours of gallivanting in the creek and woods and weeds, they return full of burrs and mud.

The cycle of life being what it is, I recently researched the life expectancy of a Lab. Can you guess? Ten to 12 years. A duck tolling retriever lives a bit longer, up to 14 years.

It’s safe to say that both of our dogs are in their golden years. But I don’t think anyone told them that. How else could they hike with us (old folks ourselves) 20 miles over five days in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan this summer?

Every day since she arrived, Ursula has set my morning schedule. My first task upon waking must be to feed the dogs, even before I get dressed, brush my hair or put in my hearing aids.

It’s Cullen who comes into the room as soon as he hears the bed creak and my feet hit the floor. Ursula waits just outside the door while I put on my robe, and then they both follow me out to the garage, where I dump a scoop of kibble into two silver bowls. It’s always the same routine — until this morning.

Cullen came into the room, but Ursula wasn’t waiting at the door. Lately, Michael has been letting her out for one last run before bed. My husband thought it would be good for her and asked me to help him remember to let her in again. I didn’t think he had let her out last night, but she must be outside. I expected her to greet me at the kitchen door, barking “what took you so long?” But she wasn’t in the yard.

She must be waiting on the porch, I thought, and called her, but she didn’t come. A sinking feeling began to creep in on me. She seemed perfectly fine on our evening walk last night, and then I remembered about the life expectancy.

The cycle of life being what it is, it would be a relief, I thought, if she went suddenly, no long decline, no difficult decisions. Maybe I would find her curled up in her puppy place, a den in the kitchen under the counter that Michael made for her.

I looked there and in all the rooms and in the attic and the basement. But no little black dog. I asked Cullen if he knew where she was, but he didn’t answer. He didn’t seem particularly concerned.

I thought I should search the yard and began to think about arrangements to be made when we found her. Digging a hole near the pond, one of her favorite spots. I began to rehearse telling the boys, calling each of them to gently give them the sad news.

When Michael got up, I told him my suspicions. He shook his head, sadly, and agreed to help me search the yard. Then he went into the bathroom. But before he even shut the door, he came out again. “I hear crying,” he said, and went back in.

I hadn’t put my hearing aids in yet, but sometimes when someone tells me to listen carefully for something, I can hear it after all. And I listened really hard, and then I heard it, too. A soft whining.

I followed the sound to the technology pantry — a little Harry Potter closet where we keep the printer and the modem and a tangle of wires. I opened the door, and there was Ursula, hungry, but no worse for wear.

Who knows why she would go into the closet? Nothing to eat in there, but I can imagine her knocking the door shut with her rump when she tried to turn around and come out again. She must have been there all night. She was glad to get her breakfast, and I was glad to find my dog.

Hide in Beauty; Seek Peace; Blessed Be

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in The News Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small-town newspaper. You can see pictures about this week’s post on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 61856. She wants to thank her friends for writing and will answer you all soon.

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