Too gone, for too long.

With no small amount of surprise, I just noticed that my last blog post was nearly three months ago. That’s way too long between posts, so I thank you readers for your patience. Much has happened since then, so it’s time for an update.

Right about the time of that post, I was offered a full-time position with the Koser Radio Network family of stations in Rice Lake, Wis. It was 30 years ago this month that the company owner, Tom Koser, an old friend of mine from UW-Platteville, hired me as his morning announcer on WJMC-FM. At the time, that was one of only two stations in the company. Four more have since been added. Tom’s company has thrived, even without me in a full-time role since I had left in 1999 to pursue other options. I returned on a contract basis in 2010, broadcasting high school sports for his stations in Rice Lake and Hayward. I stepped away from that role after seven seasons in 2017, focusing on my writing and finishing up a career in Federal service with the Social Security Administration.

Five months after retiring from SSA, I was asked to return to radio, again as a contract sportscaster. A couple weeks after Tom’s phone call, I was back in the press box for opening night of the high school football season. It was like I had never left. Nine football broadcasts (and one volleyball) later, I was asked to helm the station’s coverage of Rice Lake High School for boys and girls basketball and hockey. As I’ve written previously, the 2019-20 season concluded with an exciting run by the Warriors to the state hockey Final Four in Madison. A week later my final basketball broadcasts of the season were canceled when the state association shut down the remainder of the playoffs, and ultimately the entire spring sports season, in response to the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike many other businesses, though, local radio didn’t shut down. It never shuts down, even in this age of satellite radio and pervasive internet use via the ubiquitous smart phone. Our radio stations are healthy and thriving, and Tom hired me as a part-time studio announcer in late March 2020, giving me an opportunity to utilize my skills and experience in a variety of on-air roles at the station. That led to the full-time offer, which I accepted. As of March 1, I was once again the morning personality for our country station, WJMC-FM (96.1), as well as production director for the company. Basically, when you hear a commercial on any of our five Rice Lake-based stations, I’m the guy who put it there. In many cases, the voice you hear is mine. We stream live on http://www.wjmcradio.com, so I invite you to tune in, wherever you are.

They say that radio gets in your blood, and I can testify to that. I first went on the air in college on WSUP-FM, circa 1975, and it’s as exciting now as it was back then. Plus, it pays better.

In a single week, triumph…and then tragedy.

March and April flew by, as I adjusted to the routine of once again going to work every day–and at 5:45 in the morning, no less–as well as putting the finishing touches on my latest novel, The Bronze Leopard. I set the launch of the book for May 1, lined up three subsequent appearances at events in St. Croix Falls, Rice Lake and Hayward through the end of June, and took care of the final details, of which there are always more than a few. The launch went well, and I enjoyed the feeling every author gets when he finally holds his book in his hands, then signs it and gives it to a reader who’s eager to get started on the story.

Book 3 in the White Vixen series is off to a good start.

I had some marketing plans in place for the book, but decided to take a few days off from writing after the launch and its exhausting run-up. As the ensuing week progressed, things were pretty routine around our country home. With the weather finally allowing my wife, Sue, to work extensively in her gardens, she looked forward to her day off on Friday, a chance to really get into the gardens and spend some quality time with our Yorkshire terrier, Sophie.

I had received my second COVID-19 inoculation on Wednesday, and experienced side effects some 24 hours later, in the form of fatigue and chills. I left the radio station early and came home. Sophie rested with me on our chair near the wood stove and lakefront window as I dozed. That evening I retired early, sleeping in our guest bedroom so as not to disturb Sue if I were restless. Sophie, who always slept with us in the master bedroom, chose to spend the night by my side. It would be her last night on Earth.

The next afternoon, I received a frantic call from Sue as I was wrapping up work at the station. I’d risen that morning feeling refreshed, let Sophie out to do her duty and then put her up in the main bed with Sue, giving her one last scratching behind her ears. Several hours later came the call. Sue had been outside in her main garden and Sophie was with her, as always, chasing her ball, when Sue noticed Sophie experiencing a seizure. Sue rushed her into town to the veterinary clinic and called me. I rushed over in time to join her for the doctor’s grim diagnosis: Sophie had suffered what appeared to be heat stroke, even though it was not that warm outside that day.

Four hours later, with no hope for recovery, we made the decision to let her go.

Two weeks earlier, Sue had photographed me and Sophie for a new series of photos for my website and Facebook page. They were the last of many pictures we took of her.

Sophie turned 11 in late January. Last year, she had experienced the first real health problems of her life, when she had a hernia repaired and then a benign tumor removed from her backside. She also had injured a leg while running in the yard, but we decided not to have it surgically repaired, and she seemed little bothered by it as time went on. We thought that our little girl would be hale and hearty for another five or six years, hopefully longer.

Dog owners all know this is part of the deal going in: your dog will give you thousands of good days, but there’s going to be one bad day, and I mean a really bad day, when you have to make that terrible decision to release your beloved friend from pain and send him or her to the Rainbow Bridge. Sometimes, the decision is taken out of your hands by a random automobile, or, as sometimes happens out in the country, a predator like an owl or coyote. Every night when I let Sophie out before bedtime, I worried about that, but she always came home. We would go upstairs and I would lift her up onto the bed, where she would curl up on my robe. Within minutes, she would be gently snoring away. Another great day in her great life was over, and the next great day would begin in the morning.

And now, shockingly, she was gone.

One more day…

The blessing of having a loyal dog is something that every dog owner craves. No matter what kind of day you’ve had, when you come home, your dog treats you like a million dollars. You scratch her behind the ears, maybe take her for a walk, and everything is fine. That evening, you sit with a book or watch the TV and she’s on the couch next to you. When the weekend comes, you putter around the yard or take a drive or go for a walk, and she’s chasing the ball you toss or sitting on your lap with her nose at the car window or trotting happily ahead of you on the trail, ever on the lookout for squirrels.

But there’s a curse that every dog owner has, and it’s with him from the day he brings the puppy home. The curse is that his dog will almost surely not outlive him, unlike his children, and the day will come when that most terrible of decisions has to be made. You can only hope that it will be many years off, as many as possible, and then you try to forget about it. But as your dog passes her tenth birthday, you know she’s in the final third or so of her life, and when you go to bed at night, you pet her one last time and think, “Thank you for this day with her, Lord, but please, give me at least one more.”

We buried Sophie near one of Sue’s gardens, at the edge of the yard in which she played so happily for all these years. We dressed her in her favorite sweater, the one with pink and blue stripes, threadbare now after eleven seasons of chilly autumns and cold winters. Her shroud was the orange towel we used to dry her after her weekly bath. We each gave her one last kiss. After laying her inside the grave, we held hands as I prayed for God to receive our little girl into His loving arms, and that we would be reunited with her someday.

We are working through our grief. There were times, as we went through the routine of our weekend, that I felt so crushed that I nearly collapsed. Everything I did seemed to connect to Sophie somehow; it was something we had always done together, even if she was just napping on the couch as I read or did some writing. I washed the car after church Sunday, and it was the first time in more than 11 years that I washed the car without throwing the ball for Sophie. On and on it went, a long day that was made only slightly better as we watched the Brewers beat Miami.

That evening, Sue suggested that we start looking for another little girl. I did an internet search of Yorkie breeders in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but was unable to find the Wausau-area breeder from whom we had adopted Sophie back in 2010. I made some email inquiries, got a couple responses fairly quickly. Some had pups coming in the summer. Then, Sue suggested I check in Sophie’s papers for any information about the breeder. Sure enough, in the file I hadn’t opened in more than a decade, there was a business card. The number was still active, and the woman on the other end said yes, indeed, she and her sister still operate the business and have some litters due next month. I sent an email off to the other sister through their new website, and the next morning received the thrilling news that not only would she have a pup for us, it would be the progeny of Sophie’s brother.

For a blood relative of Sophie, I told Sue, I’m willing to wait. It will mean most of a summer without a dog, but hopefully by the end of August, Sophie’s little niece–or maybe a nephew–will be romping around the yard her aunt loved so much. And we will be whole once more.

After a few restless nights and more than a few tears shed, I am getting back to normal, or as close as I can be to normal without a dog by my side. I have resumed marketing work for The Bronze Leopard and have even taken a tentative glance at the early chapters for my next novel, a stand-alone work that I have titled The Man In the Arena. This is a book that will take me back to my southwest Wisconsin roots on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. But more about that at another time.

Our next little girl is still in her mother’s womb over on the other side of the state, and we pray that all goes well with the delivery. Sophie was a tough little girl and no doubt her brother and his dam are hardy specimens as well, so confidence is high that the pups will be healthy. I have started to think of names: perhaps Maisie, or Pippa, or Sadie. So far, they’re at the top of the list. Whatever her name winds up to be, our new little girl will be much welcomed, and much loved.

But I still miss my Sophie. I will always miss her. She was the best.

“One more day

One more time

One more sunset, maybe I’d be satisfied

But then again

I know what it would do

Leave me wishing still, for one more day with you.”

~ Diamond Rio

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