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A Message Without Words

by Susan

Bongo, Uncle Owen's dog was a wire haired terrier. I was fourteen years old the summer I met him. And as you can imagine, it was love at first sight. He was cute and playful - full of energy. And back then, so was I.

We were visiting at Uncle Owen's, my sister and I, and with Bongo on a red leather leash, we had walked down to the lake for a swim with a passel of younger cousins and their parents (our aunts and uncles). Uncle Owen didn't live quite on the lake. He was about a city block and a half away, but the subdivision he lived in cooperatively owned a lakefront lot, where he and his neighbours all had "beach rights".

It was a beautiful spot and I exulted in every moment we got to spend there. We crossed the highway that stretched along the lakeshore from Kingston and then went through the iron gate in the post and wire fence before following the path through the trees and down the slope to the dock. There was a swimming raft, maybe a hundred feet off shore, and we spent the better part of the afternoon diving off the raft, climbing back up and diving back in again. We were probably exhausted, but I still felt like it was way too early to be heading back to the house for supper. I could have stayed down there from dawn to dusk. But that wasn't allowed without adults and adults had responsibilities. And so we had to leave.

Parents gathered up beach toys and wrapped our shivering cousins in brightly coloured beach towels for the walk back to the house. Uncle Owen carried his youngest child, 1 year old Craig on his shoulders, and took his four year old daughter by the hand. I was only too glad to help out by taking Bongo's leash. No-one had to ask. I loved having the opportunity to be in charge of the dog. There was a total of 12 of us who snaked our way single file along the pathway to the gate. Uncle Owen opened the gate and then waited until everyone else was through before closing it behind us.

I can still hear the screech of the tires and the gasps of horror, as little Bongo darted away from me and onto the highway we were about to cross. I was holding his leash, but not tightly enough. When he broke into a run unexpectedly and tugged at the leash, it slipped out of my fingers. I can still see the tire of that car as it stopped just inches from the impetuous, but now terrified little dog and realized that I had come sickeningly close to causing his demise.
"What did you do THAT for?!" spat out one of the aunts, as though I weren't humiliated enough.
I wanted the shoulder of that highway to open up and swallow me whole. I wanted to die. And I'm not exaggerating. I wanted to die.
I looked up at Uncle Owen, who had by this time retrieved the leash and pulled Bongo back to the shoulder of the road where the rest of us were watching the drama unfold. The driver of the car waved in relief and drove on.
With everyone else in the party staring at me, I looked up at Uncle Owen, my eyes filled with tears of shame, and I mouthed the words, "I'm sorry."
His handsome face looked back at me. I loved this uncle with all my heart and even worse than the close call I had caused, was knowing that I had let him down. I waited for the words that I knew had to come. It bears repeating: I wanted to die.
Uncle Owen walked over to me and reached for my hand. He didn't say a word as he pressed Bongo's leash back into my palm. I closed my fingers around the leash disbelieving,as he squeezed his hand tightly around mine for an instant before letting go. Then he turned back toward the highway and looked both ways before leading the entourage across. I followed him - dumbfounded, and so full of feelings I could never attempt to identify them all, even now, some forty-three years later.
I don't remember what anyone said on that walk home. But I'll never forget what Uncle Owen said to me that afternoon without any words at all...
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