This Winged-Dog Figurine Brought a Comforting Message

On a getaway to face his wife’s cancer diagnosis they found the trinket that reminded them they could face whatever lies ahead.  

Posted in , Dec 27, 2021

An illustration of a dog with wings; Illustration by Daniel Long

The piñon-covered hills on the way to the tiny community of Madrid, New Mexico, stretched all the way to the horizon, as if in a warm welcome. From the passenger seat, my wife, Genie, breathed in the view. This was supposed to be strictly a holiday trip, but instead we were headed to Santa Fe as a respite from Genie’s latest cancer diagnosis, seeking comfort and solace.

The two-lane road snaked through a land richly scented with sage and juniper. To our left, the sun had started its dip below the western ho-rizon. As we reached Madrid, the sky turned every shade of orange and yellow, holding the evening’s blues and purples at bay.

Similarly, I tried to hold my anxiety at bay, to take in the leisurely beauty of this place on earth we loved best, but with the cancer diagnosis everything seemed more urgent. I wanted certainty, to get where we were going without any detours. We’d flown into Albuquerque and rented a car to get us to Santa Fe. Right out of the airport parking lot I’d made a beeline for the interstate, our destination an hour away. I was anxious to get there, but Genie requested we take the meandering scenic route, so we could stop in Madrid like we always did. “Ruby would have loved running these hills,” Genie said as we reached the little village that was nested in them.

It was no surprise that Genie would be thinking of Ruby, our red-and-white Border collie. A free spirit with endless energy, Ruby loved to run. In her mad dashes, her paws never seemed to touch the ground, as if wings kept her airborne. But Ruby had a fierce attachment to Genie that defied easy explanation. So often, Genie only had to think of Ruby and the dog would seem to appear out of nowhere to stand faithfully by Genie’s side: my two redheads.

When Genie was first diagnosed with cancer, Ruby stuck close to home. She was Genie’s constant companion through all the chemo treatments, the loss of Genie’s beautiful hair, the difficult recovery. There was no separating them during the two-year ordeal. Running didn’t seem all that important to Ruby anymore.

A few short months after Genie’s doctor declared her cancer-free, Ruby died suddenly. There was no medical explanation, but Genie believed she knew the reason: “She was my angel, and her work here with me was done.” Now, five years later, just before Christmas, the cancer was back, and there was no Ruby to comfort Genie when my comfort wasn’t enough.

Before the trip, we’d met with Genie’s doctor to go over the results of what we’d thought would be a routine CAT scan check. Believing we were out of the woods, we’d already bought tickets to spend the holidays in Santa Fe.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “The cancer has returned and spread to your bones and lungs.” He went through the details of the chemotherapy plan he recommended. I made a mental note to cancel our flight reservations. The last time around Genie had aggressively pursued treatment. I expected she’d want to start on the doctor’s course of action right away.

“Can we wait a few weeks to begin?” Genie asked. “David and I have plans to go to Santa Fe.” She paused for a second, probably not wanting the doctor to think she didn’t understand the severity of her diagnosis. “There’s a cleansing kind of light there,” she said. “It’ll do me good.” The doctor gave us his blessing, and I hoped the trip would give Genie what she needed. What I needed too.

No one would ever mistake Madrid for the perfection of Santa Fe. The former remains rough and tumble, the streets literally dusty, home to 149 artists, poets, seekers and wanderers, all of them characters. Its main street was populated by a handful of gift shops and a tavern. It felt like it had never turned its back on its origins as a mining town, a place where treasure can still be unearthed. We’d found it almost by accident on our first trip to New Mexico, and had made a point to pass through Madrid on every trip since.

We pulled into a parking spot across from one of the shops. Genie emerged from the car looking fresh and relaxed, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. The light, like a little piece of heaven, was already doing her good. We ran across the road holding hands and ducked inside the shop. Genie examined the turquoise jewelry in the cases up front. I meandered to the back. On a shelf that looked like it hadn’t been touched in ages I spotted a clay figurine, so small it fit in the palm of my hand. I could have easily missed it, but something had drawn my eye right to it. A dog. It looked like Ruby, as red and earthy as the mesa outside the window. The clay dog even had a docked tail, like Ruby.

Twirling it slowly with my fingers, I wondered who had crafted such a unique piece. “A local artist sculpted it from the reddish clay of a nearby arroyo,” the shopkeeper told me. “It’s his childhood dog. A dog that meant the world to him.” The artist had made only this one.

Genie walked over to see what I’d found. I debated whether to hide it from her until Christmas, but I couldn’t wait.

I held the figurine up for her to see. “I know how much you miss Ruby,” I said. “Here she is.”

Genie’s eyes widened, fixing on the sculpted feature I knew I didn’t need to point out: This dog had wings. An angel dog, just as Ruby was.

Genie took the dog from my hand and softly stroked its red head. Even at the back of the shop, the light of Madrid seemed to catch the figurine just right, illuminating all the dog had meant to the artist, all Ruby had meant to us, all that Genie meant to me. All that I knew with certainty.

“She’s beautiful,” Genie said. “It’s like she’s been here waiting for me.”

We enjoyed a holiday of renewal in Santa Fe, and returned home ready to face whatever lay ahead, one day at a time. The figurine stayed at Genie’s bedside throughout her four-year battle with cancer. This time, the disease took her from me.

But nothing could ever take away the message of the winged red dog. It remains one of my most precious comforts, these 10 years later, reminding me of the light that Genie was in my life, the memory of her as beautiful and present as the heavenly light of Madrid.

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