“Maybe this isn’t a very good idea,” I thought as I lowered myself slowly into the poison oak.
I must hasten to say that I did not jump out of bed that morning, thinking, “Woo hoo! Today’s the day I get to immerse myself in poison oak! Finally!”
I’m not stupid.
Although…. That first sentence worries me, as it possibly argues otherwise.
I was returning home from the river with my golden retrievers, Holly and Jasper. Holly had stopped at one of her many requisite throw-the-ball spots, and stared at me. She has several spots where she does this: a particular bridge, a certain bend in the trail, a specific brush pile.
She just stops. Won’t budge. Stares at me. Gives a bark.
She’s not taking another step until I’ve tossed that ball back to her.
She always dodges the first ball, makes me throw the second one. Then she picks up the second ball and trots happily past me along the trail, ignoring my commands to get the other ball. I’m left to double-back and fetch the first one. After all, I need to be ready to toss it again when she requires it.
I’m very well-trained.
I can toss (and retrieve) tennis balls, give treats, open doors, feed meals, feed meals faster, play tug-o-war, wait patiently while a dog sniffs a shrub, scratch butts, and perform a host of other tricks, all on command from the dog.
See? Not stupid at all.
So when Holly stopped, staring at me, I dutifully tossed the ball back to her. She dodged it. She wanted the second ball.
But the ball took a bad bounce. Right into the blackberry thicket.
Holly looked at me. She looked at the ball, down the hill in the thicket. She looked back at me. Stood there, waiting expectantly.
In case you don’t speak Dog, that means, “You get the ball.”
“Holly!” I said brightly, encouragingly. “Get the ball! Go on!” After all, she’s the retriever.
She looked at me. Looked at the ball. Looked back at me. Backed up a few steps, saying, “Wooooo…..”
That means, “I’m not getting it! You go get it!” She’s not stupid. Look at those blackberries! They’re waist high!
I tried my alpha, I’m-the-pack-leader, command voice. “Holly. Get the ball.”
She looked at the ball down in the thicket. Looked back at me, stared intently. Gave a sharp bark.
No translation needed.
We both knew I’d be getting the ball. It was just a matter of time.
I retraced my steps and looked down at the ball. It was maddening. It was right there. Off the trail about 10 feet down the hillside. Buried under waist-high blackberries brambles.
I am more of a retriever than my retrievers. I can’t stand to lose a tennis ball. I’ll spend hours, digging various holes in sand or snow, searching for an errant tennis ball. I’ve been known to walk agitatedly around a park or field, muttering, “Where’s the ball? Get the ball! Get that ball!” to myself.
I mean, to the dog. I say it to the dog.
The dog who’s lying over there in the shade, waiting for me to get their ball.
Indeed, I’ve found myself on my hands and knees, searching for lost balls at the beach or on a hillside, while Holly and Jasper wait comfortably, watching me. If I stagger under their tree for a gulp of water, Holly gives me a sharp bark. Get back out there! I wipe my brow and stumble back into the sun.
This ball was only a short distance down the embankment, in plain sight. Yes, it was under all those blackberries. I was wearing shorts; my legs would certainly get scratched. But I had my hiking boots on, rather than sandals, so that’s good… right?
I found myself scrabbling down, trying to trample the long barbed vines, pin them down while I took each careful step. Thorns clawed at my legs and caught my shirt. Holly sat down on the trail, satisfied, watching with interest.
It wasn’t until I got near the ball that I fully realized that I’d have to squat, really bend down and stretch, to reach the ball. And as I began to squat, shimmying myself down among the sharp thorny vegetation, I realized that the tangle of vines wasn’t only blackberries.
It’s like finding yourself in a horror movie.
I froze. I looked around more carefully. I was mostly in blackberry, yes, but there were scattered poison oak plants growing among the blackberries, including a healthy-looking bright-green stand of it immediately to my right. Pretty much between me and the ball. It would be tricky to avoid.
And suddenly I had a decision to make.
Do I retrace my prickly steps, the effort wasted, and leave that ball lying there, right there, abandoned, so close? Or do I lower myself down, ever so carefully, and delicately, with precision, reach out and grasp the ball, risking a case of poison oak?
I looked back. Holly was standing now, staring at me intently, expression very serious. The message was clear: Don’t you come back up here without that ball. Don’t you do it.
She’s not stupid, that’s for sure.
So I lowered myself down among the poison oak, carefully, carefully, and reached awkwardly out. I leeeeeeaned over, stretching down the hillside, reaching desperately, head down, almost there, fingertips grazing the ball, grappling at it…
And felt the poison oak cheerfully rake my whole right side, up along my forearm to my shoulder, across my face, over my back, tickling the little gap between my shirt and shorts, and ultimately coming to a bold and definitive rest on the back of my thigh.
But I had the ball in my hand. Good trade, right?
I stood hastily. Turned. Holly was waiting expectantly. Staring at the ball fixedly.
Of course I tossed it to her. What did you expect? And if it had taken another bad bounce, ended up in the blackberries again? Would I have thrashed through the brambles and poison oak to get it for my retriever? Of course!
I am very well-trained.
Can one be well-trained and stupid at the same time?
Five days later, I have a grossly swollen right elbow and forearm, both bubbling with poison oak. My forearm is massive, enormous, an out-of-proportion bludgeon, belonging to the cartoon character Popeye. My left forearm remains skinny, its usual bony little pole, also grossly out of proportion, belonging to the cartoon character Olive Oyl. I am the grotesque and undesirable combination of cartoon characters.
My right elbow is soggy, covered with pustules, wet blisters that are popping open and pouring forth an oozy yellow drainage. It stains my shirts and grosses out my husband. This morning, he noticed plump droplets glistening in the morning sun, trembling at the tip of my elbow, ready to plop onto the breakfast table.
Spluttering, unable to formulate a sentence, he just points at me frantically with his spoon, eyes agog, making odd guttural noises, until I look down and grab a napkin.
Really, having an elbow that leaks like that is just not okay.
I am on large doses of Prednisone. My doctor warned me it can cause moodiness, irritability, agitation. Possibly a bit of craziness. For anyone familiar at all with my mental state these days, those are dire words. (If you’re unfamiliar with my fragile hormone-induced mental state, you can learn about it here and here and here. Be forewarned: it’s not pretty.)
All this suffering in order to retrieve a tennis ball that my retriever refused to retrieve!
So. Did I learn a lesson? Absolutely!
Avoid bad bounces!
Bad bounces can have unexpected and very unpleasant consequences, so you’d best toss that ball very carefully. Just in case your retriever makes you retrieve it.
That’s the lesson, right?
I settle gingerly onto the couch, my grossly inflamed right arm elevated, my spongy elbow dripping freely into the stained bandages, my legs torn and forming angry long scabs. The tennis ball sits quietly in the truck, safe and secure, awaiting its next river trip.
I feel very satisfied with myself. Nailed that lesson!
It’s always a good feeling, knowing you’re not stupid.