A Dog’s Tale… Wagging Goodbye

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Everyone is aware of the terrible tragedy that took place in Japan with a 9.0 earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami wave that obliterated entire areas of their country’s northeast coastal areas and has killed estimate 20,000 persons thus far.

By a unique series of circumstances, I found myself directly in the path of the same tsunami as it raced across the Pacific to hit Hawaii. For me, it was a collision of tragedies on several levels. The morning of Thursday March 10th began as I was gathering up my diving gear and photo equipment in my hotel in the oceanside town of Lahaina on Maui. I had an assignment to do a topside and underwater site inspection on a remote area of offshore Lanai Island’s western lee shore. I do litigation consulting and expert witness work in the diving and maritime fields and had been hired to extensively survey and photograph an area known as Shark Fin Rock where a diving fatality had occurred in 2007.

Princess rests in her car seat on the way to veterinary hospital before passing away the morning of March 10th

Princess rests in her car seat on the way to veterinary hospital before passing away the morning of March 10th

I was to meet with renowned oceanographer and big wave surfing pioneer Prof. Rick Grigg, Ph.D. of the University of Hawaii who would accompany me on the boat trip. Just as I was grabbing my bags to meet Rick, my cell phone rang. It was my wife Gretchen back in Maine with very sad news. Some dear friends of ours, Jim and Pamela Graham of Dallas, has just suffered the death of their beloved dog Princess only a few minutes before. She didn’t make it though an operation to solve an obstructive breathing disorder that affected her chronically as she had aged.

For those of you who know me, I’m the quintessential dog lover. In fact, many would say that I like dogs more than most people. There’s just something deep in a dog’s makeup that bonds with me and I become passionately and emotionally attached to my canine friends in a way that’s difficult to articulate. For reasons that I can’t explain, I am able to mentally detach sufficiently from the loss of humans that I can manage to bear their passing… but when my dog friends die, I completely crumble in grief. I guess I think that it’s the duty of us humans to protect our animals and make certain that nothing happens to them. Even if we take extraordinary measures and spare no expense, we still feel such a devastating loss and always ask ourselves if we could have somehow done more. I know… I’m a total wimp.

Princess resided with the Grahams whom I had originally met back in March of 1975 when they were on their honeymoon in St. Croix. I taught them to dive through my first diving operation called V. I. Divers Ltd. and we’ve been lifelong friends ever since. We share time in our various homes as well as trips all over the world. I’d known Princess for nearly a decade and she had a special place in my heart. Whenever I was with her, she spent the time in my lap or curled up next to me. Immediately, I choked up and the tears began. I managed to ask Gretchen to send my condolences to the Grahams and hung up the phone. It took me another ten minutes to pull myself together to be able to get down to the lobby to meet Rick and take off for Lanai. I didn’t want a macho Waimea Bay surfing legend and distinguished scientist to know I’d been brought to my knees in grief when a friend’s dog died.

The lee bay where Shark Fin Rock is located is tranquil before the tsunami hit later

The lee bay where Shark Fin Rock is located is tranquil before the tsunami hit later

The ocean was odd that morning. I’m used to storms, hurricanes, and all sorts of bad weather at sea where I’ve spent my whole life and professional career. That day was bright sunshine and clear skies but the trade winds had reversed. The swells were steep, confused, and blocky with little period between wave so we pounded our way nearly two hours over to the bay where Shark Fin Rock was located. Once there, we were almost completely protected. Steep vertical cliffs over a thousand feet high rise sharply from the water and we eased into position so I could dive over and secure us to a permanent underwater mooring. We decided to get the underwater phase of our work done first so we geared up for the dive that would have us traverse the shallow pinnacle down to depths in the 100 foot range at the bottom of a precipitous drop-off. Rick, at age 74, is still an active diver and surfer as well as being one of the top oceanographers in the world. He’s a remarkable individual and one of my heroes since I was teenager surfing back in the mid-1960s. I was thrilled to meet him in my legal work decades later. Since then, we’ve worked several cases together and shared some great times.

We rendezvoused underwater… me with my camera gear and him with his sketch slates, compasses, and diagrams to chart the area’s topography. After 40 minutes, we surfaced and commenced another procedure to release a green dye in the water to measure the relative drift direction and speed of the prevailing current that was a factor in the fatality. Rick handled the dye, taking the compass bearings and azimuths, and time-keeping while I shot photography of the long stream of green trailings that now marked the path of the current as it preceded offshore. Finally, I shot images of the topside area and we re-packed our gear for the trip back to Maui.

As soon as we rounded the point, we again found ourselves pounding into the steep swells making it an uncomfortable ride. Our aching backs and legs were distracted by frequent sightings of humpback whales that surfaced nearby in the channel to give us a peek and blow a hello as we cruised by. As we got closer to Lahaina, the lee took affect again and our seas calmed.

We relaxed now knowing our work had gone well and that we’d shortly be back ashore to stability. As we departed our boat, Rick and I shook hands and he was rushed off to the Maui airport by the captain to get back to Oahu. As I was coming into my hotel, I encountered a lady selling Hawaiian leis of fresh tropical flowers and I spontaneously bought one in Princess’s memory and to honor her passing earlier that morning. I left my dive gear and cameras in the lobby and waved down a fellow in another boat and asked him if he’d mind taking me offshore a little way to drop the lei for Princess in the water to drift off with the tide into the sunset. He agreed and told me he was happy to help as he was dog lover, too.

The beautiful sunset of March 10th as I set Princess's lei off to sea

The beautiful sunset of March 10th as I set Princess's lei off to sea

As I eased the lei into the water, this kind stranger recited this brief verse with me:

“Remembering”

As my spirt leaves this bow

Remember that I am with you now

I am the waves upon the sea

Your smiles and tears are full of me

I am the island winds that blow

I am the evening stars that glow

I am the rainbows in the sky

The morning light, the clouds up high

A part of you I will always be

My name is Princess

Remember me…

I also included a passage from a traditional mariner’s perspective on a loved one’s passing. It’s another we use in a lot in sea burials to celebrate those that passed.

The Ship Passes
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship departs the harbor and spreads her sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength and I watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says, “There, she’s gone.”

Gone? Gone where? Gone from my sight… that is all. She is still as large in mast and spar as when she filled my eyes departing her anchorage. She is just as able to bear her load of heavy cargo to the place of destination. She is still just as grand and elegant bent to the wind hurrying her onward.

Her diminished size is only in me, not in her.

Just at that minute when the one at my side laments, “There, she’s gone” there are eager eyes watching her coming on a new horizon beyond us.

And other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here, she comes!”

My hotel located only eight feel above sea level in Lahaina on Maui... I was on the third floor

My hotel located only eight feel above sea level in Lahaina on Maui... I was on the third floor

I went back to my room on the third floor and fell asleep, physically and emotionally exhausted. Later that night about 10:30PM, a piercing siren went off just outside my balcony to warn of an approaching tsunami. I nearly levitated off the bed from a deep sleep. I turned on the television news to learn that there had been a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The entire Hawaiian islands were on emergency evacuation alert orders to get to higher ground as the tsunami headed our way and was expected to hit us about 3:00AM. It was utter chaos as the town of Lahaina tried to evacuate thousands of people in less than five hours. You cannot imagine the anxiety and total craziness that ensued as people fled in cars, mopeds, bikes, and on foot to gain higher elevation. I carefully watched the tsunami track on TV and decided that I would be safe enough in my third floor hotel room and declined to be evacuated. I was one of only two persons that stayed in the hotel. Another gentleman, 75 years old, remained on the 7th floor.

At 1:00AM I went down to the lobby to let the resort manager know that I was going to stay.  He graciously said it was okay with him but if the police came around they might force me to evacuate.  Again the mind-numbing shriek of the tsunami warning siren went off and I noticed a small puppy that was cowering under a counter in terror. Knowing that if left alone, the wave would probably drown it, I spent nearly a half hour coaxing her into my arms and took her up to my room where I hoped we’d be reasonably safe.

When the wave hit at 3:21AM it was pitch dark but you could hear the shriek of the oncoming water. It was about 10 feet high in some areas where it surged almost a half mile inland causing massive damage in some areas that is still being cleaned up. The people that had been evacuated to higher ground spent that night in cars or out on the ground and couldn’t come back until nearly noon the next day on Friday the 11th. The whole town of Lahaina was empty… a literal ghost town.

In the morning, I went down to ground level to look at the damage. My new puppy friend bounded eagerly along with me. As I walked along the shore, she began to bark frantically and began jumping against the trunk of a palm tree. I looked back and there in the palm’s branches, right in front of my room, hung the lei that I had put out at sunset the night before for Princess. It had been carried back to Maui by the tsunami and was undamaged hanging about 12 feet above the ground in the palm fronds. It glittered in the morning sun like it was waving to me. As the puppy madly wagged her tail at the flowers, I realized her tail was in perfect cadence with the lei’s motion.

I think Princess came back to watch over me and was gently wagging at me to let me know that she was alright and that she was glad to see that I was, too.

I left it hanging there and all day people commented about the mysterious lei that had survived the tsunami. I think it inspired a whole bunch of people who were coming down from a terrifying night. As my newest best friend, the puppy, bounced into my arms I noticed her collar had a phone number etched into a tag. I reached into my pocket for my cell phone and dialed it.

A distraught young woman answered and broke into tears when I told her I had found her dog. She thought I meant its dead body. But I assured her that her pet was fine and it had spent the night with me in bed and was eager to be reunited. The woman had been evacuated from her home and separated from her beloved dog when the sirens frightened it and caused the dog to run away. Luckily, providence led her to me. The woman set a new land speed record to the hotel and I passed the puppy to her. We shook hands in silence. Nothing needed to be said.

I finally got out of Hawaii late Friday after the airports reopened and flights resumed late in the afternoon. I got home Saturday evening to Maine after having not slept in nearly 54 hours. My own dog Duffy jumped excitedly to welcome me home. It was the first time that I could really see the news about the terrible destruction, both in Japan and parts of Hawaii. USA Today reported,”Hawaii officials estimated that the powerful tsunami generated from the Japan earthquake caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to ports, roads, and homes in the state and expect massive declines in tourism as a result. The tsunami swept through the islands before dawn Friday and flooded some coastal businesses, hotels, sank boats, and tore apart piers and infrastructure. The worst damage occurred in Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii.”

It was reported that when the tsunami hit the vertical face of the cliffs at Lanai, that sea water and debris were found as high as the summit… over 1000 feet above sea level. Rick Grigg and I had been there only ten hours before it hit.

Dogs are my favorite things in life. They are our best friends. Although they sometimes leave us before we’re ready for them to go, I do think we will catch up later with them. Princess caught up with me that night and stayed to greet me that morning.

It’s nice to know I had a friend along looking after me in Maui that night…

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6 comments for “A Dog’s Tale… Wagging Goodbye

  1. John Bantin
    March 24, 2011 at 10:30 am

    You cannot imagine the power of a tsunami unless you have seen it. I got the news of the disaster in Japan while I was in Banda Aceh, epicentre of the Dec 2004 quake and tsunami. It’s not often you get to see power station built on a barge the size of a cruise liner seven miles inland from the coast where it finally came to rest after ploughing its way through the town. Everyone in the town was killed. Only two mosques survived.

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  2. April 3, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Great story, Bret!

    Much of our family was in Phuket for my youngest brother’s wedding exactly 1 year before the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. So, for us, interest in this type of human tragedy has peaked. Witness the “You tube” documentation of devastating waves with boats, building, and bodies seen by people feeling safe enough to capture this on film. Survivor stories of tsunamis are touching and terrible, especially when warning systems are lacking.
    Thanks for posting, Bret!
    -jan
    Maine

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  3. David Shem-Tov
    April 5, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Bret, your story reminds of the time I was onboard the Ocean Rover, north of the Similan islands of Thailand when we were warned of the oncoming Tsunami.

    The boat’s captain was told of a wave, 50km wide and 3m high heading our way. Two of the guests, an elderly Swiss lady and her son, quickly donned their wetsuits, grabbed mask and snorkel and a bottle of mineral water, and stood on the dive platform waiting for the wave to hit us. I have a great deal of respect for the Swiss and their instincts, so I too joined them. An hour or two later, bored uncomfortable in the heat, I left them and went into my room for a nap.

    Naturally, nothing happened to us. We were in deep water, heading north to Myanmar, almost oblivious to the tsunami. Only the worried expressions on the Thai staff and the increasingly gloomy reports broadcast by the BBC World Service reminded us of the terrible devastation left in its wake. A week later, back in Thai waters, we saw the debris, household furniture floating eerily the middle of the ocean. We returned to survey some of the sites in the Similans that were destroyed by the Tsunami. The sight of the reef fish, clearly disoriented by the rubble beneath them, was heartbreaking.

    I had a couple of days in Phuket before returning home. My hotel, its ground floor rooms destroyed, was almost entirely commandeered by the Swedish rescue team. Only two weeks earlier, I had been through beautiful resort area of Khao Lak. As my flight was delayed, I missed the Ocean Rover’s departure and a taxi was arranged to take me from the airport north to Khao Lak where I was to met by a water taxi that ferried me to the boat. Less than 24 hours after I left, that whole area lay in ruins.

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  4. Jim Graham
    April 26, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Bret:

    Thank you for your caring remembrance of my best friend for life, Princess. I have had many dogs in my life, and have loved them all. But I have loved none with the special love I have for my Princey Girl. She is buried in our back yard next to her mother, Babe and her grandfather, BoBo. Her tombstone reads as follows:

    Babe’s Velvet Irish Princess
    So shy, so sweet, so missed
    April 29, 2001-March 10, 2011

    So missed will be so true until she meets me at the gates of heaven. If she is not there, I want to go wherever she is!

    Thanks for celebrating her life with your story. Very special.

    Jim Graham

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  5. bret gilliam
    April 27, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Jim,

    My article was from the heart. Princess is now joined up with our other beloved dogs on the “other side” and I know they’re having a big time waiting for us to hook up with them.

    Bret

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  6. bret gilliam
    September 21, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    From: Fran Prince
    Date: September 20, 2011 7:03:48 AM EDT
    To:
    Subject: A dog’s tail; wagging goodbye

    Bret,
    You don’t know me and we probably will never meet..but you have touched my heart..I just finished reading A dogs tail..and am weeping unabashadly.
    Not only because the death of a dog (or a friend’s cat) rips my soul.. but that you were able to convey the feeling with so much clarity on paper..
    It seems that everytime I hear of a friend loosing their dog, it hurts me…almost as much as if I have lost my own…

    There is a tight knit group of Frenchbulldog owners; some are breeders; some are dedicated to educating the public ( like me) and all are owners of companions..when one of this group suffers, we all suffer..
    My Dad just passed at 90; it was time, he was ready and told me…and shortly after my 10 1/2 year old dog was very ill… thankfully she made it.. but that , OMG.. that loss..would have been worse.. I think because they are not only perfect, but we can’t say goodby.. we don’t know if they understand..

    Saving the pup…what a joy.. how could you do anything else.. bringing happiness into destruction.
    Maybe this is just too much information for a simple thank you and telling you that others are the same.. We mourn our companions harder than we mourn the loss of humans..But I just wanted to let you know..
    Fran Prince…

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