That Labrador Life

Jeff Bernstein

Answer: A Labrador Retriever.
Question: What is the meaning of existence?

Energy/environmental lawyer and writer, Jeff Bernstein, a lifelong New Englander, divides his time between Boston and Central Vermont with his family and two chocolate Labradors, Maggie and Isabelle. His chapbook Interior Music was published in 2010 by Foothills Publishing and his writer’s blog is Poetry is his favorite and earliest art form. Jeff is particularly proud of the creative achievements of his wife, painter Stacey Cushner, and his children, Ben (who designs this website) and Ally, an undergraduate at Wesleyan University.

Our days begin with frantic licking by seventy pounds or more of Labrador Retriever perched on our stomachs, enthusiastically greeting the light and letting you know it is high time to get moving. (And if you have two, as we do, you get one hundred and forty pounds pressing against your bladder, sending you quickly to the bathroom; Labs mistake as the beginning of the morning walk. This notwithstanding the fact that you are barefoot and hardly dressed, let alone ready, for a subzero walk in the snow.)

In my life so far there have been four Labradors, all chocolate. (Chocolate can come in a variety of palettes, and it has taken me decades to appreciate the subtle differences in brown coats from mahogany to burnt caramel to … well, you get the idea).

I wouldn’t know if there are personality differences between chocolates, blacks, and yellows. (Don’t believe anyone who says there are white Labs—they are just very pale yellows or as the purists say, there is no such thing as a “white” Lab or a “silver” Lab.) And I wouldn’t know if American Labs or English Labs, with their typically blockier faces, have different temperaments. I do know that if you have time on your hands, you can have a lot of fun (or at least pass a few hours) learning genetics by predicting the color of the offspring of a pair of labs based on their color and which gene is dominant and which is recessive.

The first chocolate Lab to occupy the same house as I did followed after our first Retriever, a Golden from a back road in Vermont. After her death, we made a slight but irrevocable breed change and got Sophie. Her bloodlines were impeccable on one side (Ocean Spray, a wonderful Massachusetts Labrador breeder consisting of two of the saltest-of-the-earth people you’d ever want to meet) and questionable at best on the other side. She nonetheless wormed her way into my heart although I was still grieving for my Golden.

It was then I began to notice the subtle but important differences between Labs and other Retrievers.

For one thing, when they start to teethe they chew as if their life depends on it. While it was true that my Golden had, as a puppy, de-tiled the floor in our apartment (and since we hadn’t gotten permission to have a dog from our landlady, led us to spend an entire night re-tiling the kitchen floor ourselves), Labs have a power that is hard to believe. Later on in her life, having destroyed her fair share of wooden and other items, Sophie would happily pull both my children on a sled over hill and dale.

The adjective “exuberant” must have been designed for Labs; it takes almost nothing to make them joyful. Conversely, of course, failing to pay attention to them can cause misery or at least lethargy. And Labs have an unerring sense of which person is wearing clothing that is most likely to show Lab fur—and then to walk to that person, dog-lover or not, and shed all over them.

But at the core, if there is a religion based on being present and happy, it would have to have been inspired by Labs. In our case, our response to the 9/11 attacks was to add a second Lab to our household. My children and I had been agitating for just such a result for some time prior and my wife and I decided that if the world was going to hell, we might as well have two Labs. I also may have offered to vacuum on a regular basis (Labs shed mercilessly)—the only major promise I haven’t kept.

Labradors are made to swim above all else. Their webbed feet give them that extra oomph through the water though my daughter at three cried inconsolably whenever our six-month-old Labrador headed for a lake, pond, or stream.

I never realized that for whatever reason Labradors can’t swim backwards until one unusually warm April day in Vermont when Sophie and Maggie, our young post-9/11 Lab, were swimming in a pond full of hidden logs and snags near our house. The pond had probably iced out only a few days earlier so the water was plenty cold but Labs are impervious to that sort of thing and our chocolate girls headed straight in before we could take their collars off, beginning with that joyful extended dive, all four feet in aerodynamic position (we call  this a “Labrador leap” in our family). They were paddling back and forth when my son noticed that Sophie was stuck and becoming frantic. It became apparent that her collar had caught on a snag just below the surface and instead of swimming backward she could only go in one direction—forward—and was becoming progressively entangled. My adrenaline kicked in and I jumped into water which had a temperature that couldn’t have been much out of the thirties, waded in about four feet deep, and was able to take her collar off and allow her to swim off.

It is a scientifically proven fact that Labs (and certain other breeds) can detect diseases in humans even before medical tests do. A German study published earlier this year reported that some dogs can even detect certain early-stage lung cancers more accurately than medical tests and physicians. And Labs seem to have a special sensitivity to disease and pain, physical or emotional. My father visited us only weeks before he succumbed to lung cancer in 1997. Our younger Lab, Isabelle, at the time a true bruiser who loved crashing into all manner of objects, living and otherwise, showed uncharacteristic restraint and did not want to leave my father’s side.

Recently, Maggie underwent surgery to remove a growth on her back. We worried that Isabelle would disturb her biblical-proportioned incision but needn’t have. Isabelle just seemed to know that Maggie was not up for the usual Lab roughhousing and helped to nurse her through her recovery period. Once those stitches were gone, Isabelle rewarded Maggie with a full frontal Lab assault.

And it isn’t just sickness and sadness that Labs have an uncanny ability to read and respond to; it is virtually every choice you make in your day—whether you are just getting up to visit the kitchen or whether a walk is really in the offing or, Lab pay dirt, a ride in the car! And if you simply want to collect your thoughts, there is no better companion on a walk than a Lab or two, especially if you are prepared to walk for a long, long time!

I spent so much time one January walking a visiting Lab that we were considering adopting that I had no time to eat—a very effective diet method that I have not repeated since.

Over the years, I have come to believe that Labs live multiple lives (perhaps a defense against the too-shortness of theirs with us). Certainly, there is no creature that could be more sensitive to the most minute changes and signals in every minute of existence. That’s not to say that a Lab will be shy about letting you know what she or he wants—especially if it involves eating. Around 3 o’clock on these short winter days, my girls let us know that dinnertime is near!

But one thing you have to learn with Labradors, as with all other dogs, is that they just don’t live long enough. While this may be true of other breeds as well, these big dogs seem to fall prey to a range of cancers and other ailments. Once you have had one Labrador and experienced their pure joy of living every minute to the fullest, you’d have to be a pretty cold-hearted person to stop, even though you know at the beginning that you are going to outlive your marvelous friend.

Memorizing the Planet
She started
with an alarm clock
for a mother, we didn’t know
what we were doing we did
our best to comfort the tiny
creature lost inside
her wooden crate
under the kitchen counter.
If this was what it was like
to be a parent, I wasn’t sure
I wanted to be one, ever!

Gradually, as is the way
of most things, the days
and nights, especially the nights,
passed more quickly and quietly.
She kept us company
on long car trips, learned
to swim in the cold Maine lakes
we favored then, would paddle out
to the wooden float and sun herself
beside me like a seal.

On Mondays, garbage night,
every shadow spooked her—our walks
were Halloween in a haunted
house. Skunks and peanut
butter attracted her like beer
for slugs; our first child
did not taste sweet to her. But love
grows when least expected,
hurts so much it feels
fine and you can’t remember
a time without her until

one summer when her tender
paws barely worked
and we lifted her up and down
the steep stairs and I told
my wife that on walks,
down to fifty feet at best,
she was sniffing the air
to memorize what life was
like on earth, so whatever
was next, she’d remember
the battered old oaks in front
of our house, how it was
when I told the rest
of my family it was time
to say goodbye.

Painting by Stacey Cushner

Issue Twenty Two