Cowritten with Ruby McHarg
What they don’t say is that, sometimes God will call you to the wilderness,
gesture toward the trees, and then, hang back and wave you on alone.
—“Prayer for the Wretched Among Us”
from The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded
by Molly McCully Brown
AT NIGHT, only at night, her mind grows timber-thick—so dense and brambled there’s no way to find her, let alone bring her back to bed. Gone, then, is the tumbleweed-haired, half-feral kid who rode her goat every morning to the preschool up the hill. The kid who by fourth grade volunteered at the local vet clinic, where she sat with the grieving while their pets died. More than once I’ve been approached at the post office or market by people who say that Ruby has a gift—something beyond bedside manners. “It was like she could see what was on the other side,” an elderly woman told me after euthanizing a beloved dachshund. “Like she knew exactly where that dog was going.”
By going, the woman means going out of the body, going beyond. In Ruby’s case, it means going to bed with nocturnal epilepsy, a condition that causes seizures while she sleeps. This gerund has governed our lives for the decade and a half since my daughter was born: going to go to sleepovers at friends’ homes, or to a summer camp where she’d share a cabin with other girls. She’s going to have another one, I’d worry.
Once a seizure starts, I cannot wake her. She doesn’t breathe during or even sometimes after. By after I mean the postictal phase, during which the part of the epileptic that was absent during the seizure returns to the body but comes in sideways and scrambled. If she doesn’t start to breathe, I rub my knuckles on her sternum—hard and primal, like flint to steel.
Her brain changes as the day passes. Her bright sheen fades to glower. We try to get through evening basics—putting on pajamas, brushing teeth—without strife. At least bedtime stories still appeal, as long as we skip the fluff. Think morbidly here, like “The Cremation of Sam McGee” or Brothers Grimm originals—stories on frozen tundra, or deep in the dark woods. Where miners moil for precious metal and set flame to their dead companions. Where witches trap, fatten, and roast little girls.
R: Anybody could pick me out of a lineup because I’d have a stray dog at my heels, a chicken in my arms, and a garter snake wrapped around my wrist. The way they live, breathe, and die is so beautiful.
I’ve come to suspect that these dark tales prepare Ruby for her own nighttime wander in a way the waking world cannot. I have no idea what it’s like for her—but based on her dreams (which, come morning, she describes in rich detail), I imagine the wildest of places. An arctic still iced with permafrost. A primordial forest not yet clearcut or beetle-killed or burned. Which are, now that I think of it, examples of stories ending well. Whatever the case, before we finish reading, there’s a look in her eyes—a gaze trained far beyond anything I can see. It’s as if she’s inside the story. She could be Sam, warm at last in the barge’s roaring furnace. Or Gretel, bracing against the hot oven. But it’s not quite that. At night, when she leaves, she’s more fixed than those characters—more like a tree among trees in the forest, her limbs like boughs that feed the burn. To continue the metaphor (and why not, when science has so little explanation for epilepsy?), it’s at her base, among the very roots of who she is, where some neural campfire has been abandoned. There, fine ash covers what still smolders. Come night—when the wind blows—the embers glow, sparks fly. One million bursts of light, setting the forest ablaze.
R: I want to have my own voice in this story, to say my part. Only I can speak to this. It’s not your story, Mom. You have your own story, but it’s nothing like mine. No one’s is.
But how can I tell my story when I’m not even there for it?
If Ruby’s night world is arboreal, mine has become mechanical. For the past fifteen years, I’ve spent most nights on the floor of her bedroom in a sleeping bag within arm’s reach of her bed. Before her limbs begin to stiffen, my mind turns to metronome, counting the seconds she fails to breathe. I could not even tell you my name in those moments, as I reach for her quaking body and a syringe full of interruption. But I could describe to you how adrenaline chainsaws my cells, how a seizure lasting sixty seconds is an eternity. I could measure my desperation in the number of prayers I dole out at night, to every deity known to humankind. I could tell you how rote things get when gods fail to answer.
R: Seriously? I’m a tree? I can’t make this into a metaphor, because that would make it beautiful and it’s not beautiful.
Since Ruby’s fifteenth birthday, the episodes have grown more dramatic and dangerous. Most people have no way to know what this means, so I explain to friends, teachers, neighbors—if only to justify our zombied looks, our crude, frayed manners—“If seizure types were classified as trees, hers would be old-growth redwoods.” They loom large not only because of the frequency and severity, but also because the medicines don’t work well or for very long. They begin with the quiet cessation of breath. Her whole body stiffens so hard, I think bones will snap. Her straight arms, punctuated by fists, lift up like Frankenstein’s monster. She turns red, then white, then blue because all this time she’s not breathing. The worst, to me, is her eyes. During the day they are the copper and moss of wet river stones—Hollywood-wide and gleaming. But during a seizure they wrench backward in their sockets until only the whites remain. It’s as if some untouched part of her, uncertain what’s happening, is examining itself, gazing back at the space where the brain should be sitting serene as silk, as starlight.
For most of Ruby’s life, I have been unable to consider the wider world and the peril it is in—the mercury mounting, biota dying, and plastic floating like islands on rising seas. Another going—as in, to hell in a handbasket. But as a high desert dweller of the American Southwest—our remote home surrounded by millions of acres of dying pinyon, juniper, cottonwood, and ponderosa, where drought has tipped to a new and prolonged category of extreme—I am hypervigilant of wildfires and the way they worsen with each passing year. I go to bed prepared to dial 911 for random electrical calamities—a dry lightning strike, a seizure that won’t quit.
You’ll see, then, why I slurp coffee in the afternoon, down chocolate and booze before bed—anything to stave off the sleep that I need, but in which I might miss the call to evacuate or manage another sudden crisis. After years of this, I’ve begun to wake in the middle of an episode with no idea how long she’s been seizing. One night, I sleep right through one. And then another. And then I sleep through them all. After all these sleepless nights of tending to an epileptic child, I cannot see the forest for the charred and smoking trees.
We’ve tried every drug, diet, supplement, and therapy under the blazing sun. We’ve employed two different shamans to do “soul retrieval,” but even they couldn’t reclaim my daughter. I have burned through thousands of dollars on these things, on seizure alert systems that lured me with their promise of sleep between each episode. This is not so much so I can sleep in my own bedroom, in a real bed, with my new partner—although I am dying for all these things—but so I won’t sleep through the one epic seizure that leaves her face down and smothered in the bedding.
One device has sensors snaking through a thin plastic mat that slips between the mattress and box spring, but it sounds off anytime Ruby turns over. A Fitbit-like watch digs into her wrist and beeps all night long, no matter how we program it. There are several types of cameras, mounted where there should be a string of fairy lights, or a poster of Lake Street Dive, her favorite band. The lenses are Sauron-like—the way they look down on her prostrate body, recording her every move. The most recent of these is a model designed for babies at risk for SIDS; it monitors the rise and fall of a rib cage, sounding the alarm if the motions cease for a given amount of time. But the red glow of a tiny infrared light triggers more than it alerts. It also denies my teenage daughter any privacy.
If seizure types were classified as trees, hers would be old-growth redwoods.
Sixty-five million people suffer from epilepsy, and yet in only 50 percent has the illness been brought to heel. A quarter of all newly diagnosed cases are children. One-third of epileptic patients experience depression and anxiety—the most common morbidity of the disease—and Ruby has not been spared membership to this last statistic. Yet we still don’t know what causes epilepsy, except in cases of traumatic brain injuries or tumors. One thing is certain, though: seizures can be triggered or exacerbated by living in a stressful environment. Consider, then, how epileptics fare in a world increasingly traumatized by extreme weather, pandemics, and tyrannical heads of corporations and governments who have abandoned the planet in its eleventh hour. Consider too the 5G and HD technologies—all those screens, the radiation. The vibrations between an electric field and a magnetic field create electromagnetic waves (EMWs), which the World Health Organization considers to be the fourth largest source of pollution—behind air, water, and noise. There is ample evidence that acute exposure to EMWs facilitates epileptic seizures in humans; it’s been proven in mice, zebrafish, and rats. You’ll understand, then, why I’ve tossed all the seizure alert devices. Even if they worked, they too emit EMWs. (I’d also turn off the phone at night, but there’s the need for 911 at a moment’s notice.) I stay, then, at forest’s edge—waiting, calling, still praying. When she’s gone, I try to imagine her finding her own way back to this world—as if there were a trail of bread crumbs to follow. But the world is on fire. Her brain is on fire. The bread crumbs are toast.
R: At dinner, I heap piles of food onto my plate. Bite after bite, it goes down fast. It’s not my fault, I say to the spectators who stare at my empty plate after I finish my third helping. My seizures burn calories the way you’d burn them in a marathon. The way the fires are burning all the trees.
Female adolescence and its wild estrogen rise worsen Ruby’s seizures. We drive six hours, to Colorado Children’s Hospital in Denver, where I sob hysterically to Ruby’s neurologist. Every time we see her, I tell her I’m not usually like this, and every time, I am exactly like this. As I name the alliterative failures—mothering, medication, and medical devices—Dr. W cuts me off.
“It’s time to apply for a service dog,” she says. “One that can alert you to Ruby’s seizures so you can sleep in between.” She scribbles on her pad, then tears off the top page and hands it to me. It’s a “prescription” to acquire a $30,000 canine.
R: Remember how fragile that stupid seizure pad was? How it melted next to the woodstove? How every other device malfunctioned? Machines don’t care. They are not guardian angels or a parent or the white wolf mother that comes in my dreams and teaches me to howl. I just knew that they would not protect me.
One year later, after months of compiling and submitting application materials, after having passed an initial interview with Assistance Dogs of the West in Santa Fe, Ruby and I return for a trial sleepover with a dog that’s shown promise in seizure assistance. It’s the height of 2020’s pandemic summer. Everyone in town is masked and cordial; you could almost forget how much trouble the nation is in were it not for a sky gauzed brown by fires throughout the West and as far away as Siberia and Brazil. Today, at the El Rey Court, a vintage-cool Santa Fe motel built along the original Route 66, things feel less catastrophic. I imagine the smoke, the setting, as 1930s sepia: Standing in the motel courtyard, framed by white stuccoed walls and elegant blue-green agave plants, Ruby and I are six feet from a tall woman named Jodie who is made taller still by Vibram-soled boots with three-inch heels. She hands Ruby a leash with a squat, black Labrador attached to the other end. She’s loaded my arms with a bowl, a Tupperware of fancy dog food, and a collapsible soft crate. My daughter’s body vibrates with tectonic hope.
R: At night, I am a lone wolf. I must protect myself by sleeping in a safe den. My bed is braced by two walls. Against them, my many stuffed animals are lined up like soldiers. They keep me from slamming against the plaster.
“Video everything Hachi does during this sleepover,” Jodie says to me. “Not only when Ruby has a seizure, but before bed, when her witching hour begins.” (Witching hour. That’s exactly it, I think—when the kindling’s first fed to the fire.) “We’re looking for the dog to exhibit worry, concern, or caretaking,” Jodie continues. “But if she shows no interest, if she walks away, it might not be the right fit.” She turns to Ruby. “Remember, she must choose you. Not the other way around.”
We both nod. As we turn back to our room, I realize we had applied for a seizure alert dog as though we were in the market for a new appliance—say, an oven. We know animals, have raised most every kind of domestic—horses, goats, chickens, cats, mice, tarantulas, bearded dragons, and, of course, several beloved dogs. And because our home is surrounded by millions of acres of public basins, canyons, and ranges, we’ve had daily brushes with wild creatures—elk, black bear, mountain lions, coyotes. There’s even word that wolves are moving back in. Still, we imagined—as most people do—that a service dog could be ordered as though it were the model best suited for our off-grid life. We’d pick options: Gas instead of electric. Energy efficient. Stainless steel and self-cleaning. The appliance would be delivered to our drought-stricken, high desert home, where we’d slide it into our preconfigured life, plug it into an outlet, and get cooking.
Engravings in present-day Saudi Arabia, dated 8000 BCE, depict dogs aiding human hunters of equids, ibex, and lions.
MARIA GUAGNIN ET AL., JOURNAL OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARCHAEOLOGY
We learn otherwise at the trial sleepover, as the witching hour sets in. But it’s not in the way any of us imagined it. I, for one, thought Hachi would be a calm and attentive governess—like Nana the Newfoundland who looks after the Darling family in Peter Pan. Instead, when Ruby loses it, Hachi jumps up on the bed next to her and chases her tail so fast she’s a black blur. Then centrifugal force sends the dog sailing off the bed, into midair, before she crashes to the floor. She nails it with a tuck-and-roll and comes up tail wagging. Ruby laughs wildly, which only encourages Hachi. The dog vaults onto the bed again, rolls onto her back, and pumps her forepaws in the air—like she’s dancing her heart out at a nightclub—while sporting the biggest, goofiest grin. Ruby and I are doubled over laughing, and just like that, what smolders in my daughter’s mind is snuffed.
R: You give me fever, when you kiss me, fever when you hold me tight … Peggy Lee’s song has been on repeat in my head since the pandemic started. The fever they scan our foreheads for at the doors of my school each morning. Fevers are flashpoints for seizures. They get your brain hot and bothered enough to make a statement, like when you boil live lobsters and they start screaming. (And don’t give me that crap about the lobsters having no nervous system, no feeling. Lobsters mate for life, you know.)
I fear fires, too, given where we live. When I was, like, four, a big fire came over the edge of the mesa, straight toward our house. It’s too young an age to realize you might lose everything you can’t scoop in your arms and take with you. Ever since, I’ve lived in fear of being burned alive. And now there’s no way to escape the heat.
In all the nights I’d resorted to jokes and circus tricks, not once had I achieved what Hachi had. After Ruby climbed under the covers, the Lab curled tightly into the small of her back and stayed there until Ruby woke the next morning. She had only two seizures that night—the most mellow I’d seen in months, if not years. The dog sat up and cocked her head, her forehead wrinkled with concern for each one.
To be clear, Hachi is a service dog, not an emotional support animal (which requires no specialized training). For eighteen to twenty-four months before they are placed with a client, service dogs like Hachi undergo rigorous training with professional handlers—each one learns up to ninety cues to assist with a client’s individual needs. The training is based on the aptitudes a dog presents; a dog might, for instance, take to working in judicial court, where the scene changes daily, tensions run high, and victims need a calming influence.
In Hachi’s case, she is driven by her sensitive nose. Like working dogs who sniff out dead bodies or illegal drugs, some service dogs can detect odor molecules in parts per trillion, which enables them to alert a client or caregiver to changing glucose levels in a diabetic or seizures in an epileptic. Often, a seizure dog can alert its person before the seizure happens. As one canine researcher put it, “The dog is a natural bio sensor, preprogramed with 30,000 years of evolutionary algorithms, and 300 million sensory receptors.”
R: Remember the tree that grew down below our house by the creek? The apple tree that grew green apples every fall, right next to the wise grandmother juniper? Their trunks had merged. Their branches intertwined like hands. Like they were one being. At that age, I couldn’t understand it. But the moment I met Hachi, I knew. Her chocolate brown eyes gazed up into mine, and though we had no roots to bind, I knew we would grow together.
Before Ruby and I leave Santa Fe, we provide the ADW team with sweat-laden pads swabbed from her palms during a seizure, along with a video recording of the episode. The plan for the training is for Jodie to be me, sleeping in another room, while another trainer, Penny—a former K-9 handler—will be Ruby. As she pretends to sleep, Penny will keep tucked in her pocket the pad with Ruby’s scent on it and in her hand the phone with the audio of the seizure. After dozing a bit, Penny mimics convulsions while playing the sound of Ruby’s garroted cries. Hachi has to learn to leave Penny and find Jodie, asleep, and poke her hard until she wakes. As soon as Jodie has attended to Penny, Hachi is lavished with treats.
When she’s gone, I try to imagine her finding her own way back to this world.
A few months later, mid-pandemic, Jodie brings Hachi to our mesa in southwest Colorado. After a mutual quarantine, then with masks and air filters all around, she shares our home while we learn to live and work with the dog. We learn to “dress” Hachi in her vest that demonstrates she is officially allowed to go anywhere with Ruby. The change from goofy Lab to serious working dog is astonishing. There is the daytime stuff—walking on sidewalks, going into shops and restaurants, attending school. But there is the night shift, too—now with Ruby playing Ruby and me playing me and Hachi as the extended umbilicus between us. The empowerment my daughter exhibits by learning to be in relationship with the dog leaves me feeling as free as another mother might have years earlier. I dare to hope, asking Jodie about Ruby’s future as an independent adult. She assures me that Hachi can alert a roommate or dorm supervisor, or emergency medical services, by pushing a button that calls them. Ruby’s silver-screen eyes blink with wonder at this possibility—as if she’s never once considered such a thing.
R: All my life, at night—when I climbed into bed—I’ve been scared to let go of my mom’s hand. So I don’t get taken from this world. But before my eyes are even closed, my free hand is grasped and I’m yanked into dark matter. Hachi’s fur is blacker than night, and maybe that’s why she’s at ease in the darkness, why she can find me there. Understand what it means, to know she’s got this before I am taken away. Understand this changes everything. Maybe dogs could save the world if we’d stop thinking of ourselves as their masters.
We practice the night routine. I go down the hall to my room and climb into bed. Ruby is wearing her own scent pad and enacting a seizure to look like the video of herself seizing—an unsettling observation for a teen, but one she faced with bricked resolve. Just as the mock seizure begins, Hachi launches off the bed and gallops down the hall to my room, where she pokes my thigh so hard I’m sure she’ll leave a bruise. I get up and hustle down the hall with her, and Hachi stands watch while I check on Ruby. After that, I go back to my own room and crash. Not lightly, at the forest’s edge, but like a stone—dropped into the deep of my own oceanics—big and blue and still.
One year later, Ruby has not had a single significant seizure. None of us understands it, especially because Ruby has another dog, a pet, who for the past ten years would have taken bullets for her but has not managed to thwart a single seizure. In a study of ten epileptics with monumental seizures similar to Ruby’s, the mere presence of a seizure assist dog dropped the frequency of seizure activity by an average of 43 percent. This suggests that they do more than detect a chemical change via scent—something about their presence can calm, and possibly heal, the epileptic brain. I mention this to Jodie, who has trained service dogs for as long as Ruby’s been alive. “Dogs do so many things for humans, and we only understand a nanoparticle of how they do it, and why,” she replies. “What we do know is that dogs, if given a chance to partner with us, bring a certain kind of instinct, empathy, and intelligence to the relationship. Qualities that we cannot always muster on our own.”
Paleolithic hunter-gatherers throughout Eurasia likely formed a bond with the more “friendly” wolves—those who found it beneficial to “play nice” at the edge of human encampments so they could steal heat from the fire and scavenge the leftovers. As people and wolves became more symbiotic, the wolves evolved into dogs and the Stone Agers morphed into modern humans. That was tens of thousands of years before we domesticated any other animal. In that time, dogs have learned to read our intentions and emotions and respond accordingly. They can anticipate our every move as though they are an extension and manifestation of our thoughts, feelings, and physical bodies—no mere appendage or shadow on the wall. They are capable of seeing things from our perspective, diversifying their barking to communicate with us, even tricking us. They can induce a sense of social and emotional wellbeing by raising our oxytocin levels, and they provide what one researcher deemed “social lubricant,” thereby allowing lone wolf types to connect meaningfully with others.
R: Remember when I went to have a sleepover with Mary, and you were explaining to her mom what to do if I had a seizure and Mary got scared and started crying and didn’t want me to stay over? That was the worst. I never got over it. I thought I’d have to sleep all alone for the rest of my life.
Dogs work for us, play with us, protect us. They run next to us on beaches and trails but they lope through our dreams too. Jung called them psychopomps—creatures who try to deliver us from whatever hell our waking lives have become, who help us enter into a realm more divine. Marie-Louise von Franz, a prodigy of Jung’s, said it best: “when you have Jesus and a dog in your dream, follow the dog.” But even if you only consider the epigenetics of our long-standing and intimate relationship with canines, it is safe to say that without them, we quite literally have no idea who we are.
R: I often feel like a lone wolf—the one looking for a pack to share its den with. But no one wants to come close.
On a midwinter night without snow or moon, I’m getting ready for bed when I hear Ruby, in her own bed by now, half-growling with frustration. She’s done so well with Hachi—they now navigate the school day, pandemic-style trips to the market, and walks through the dead and dying pinyon-juniper woodlands around our home. They’ve dodged coiled rattlesnakes, freshly stashed mountain lion kills, and a too easily acquired succulent known locally as jumping cactus. And of course, there’s the night shift. I go down the hall to Ruby pulling with all her might to reclaim the covers and the bed’s central real estate from her dog—who is sprawled and snoring. Using both a firm voice and shove, I try to get Hachi to move. But the dog is dead weight, and out like a light. I mean, she’s gone.
“Mom, it’s not fair! I know she has needs too, but right now, she’s not helping!”
R: Let’s be honest here. Teenagers don’t notice beauty. They’re distracted by drama, which used to mean: how to dress, how to be popular. Well, the grown-ups created a whole new set of dramas for us—didn’t they? School shootings, botched pandemics, climate collapse. I’m just glad I learned to live like an animal. I grew up in a pack of dogs, and they taught me their values of loyalty, conflict resolution, unconditional love, and how to shake off negativity like water. Seriously, we should get out of the way—let the canines lead us out of this raging shit show.
This is less the preseizure state than a typical tired teenager—that much I know. And in this moment, the dog is exacting another trait canines share with us—taking what she wants and not apologizing for it. At least that’s my projection—which I walk back as Hachi raises her head and looks at Ruby with the longest, most unnerving gaze before she drops into sleep again.
“Rubes,” I say. “Hear me out. Remember how Jodie said Hachi needs rest, too? Well, the best rest she gets on a school day is between dinner and bed—because at school she’s filtering everything, anticipating your needs. And once you’re asleep, she has an eye and ear on you all night long. So this is her chance to rest deeply.”
Etched canines are bonded to humans with tethers, the earliest known carvings of leashes.
MARIA GUAGNIN ET AL., JOURNAL OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARCHAEOLOGY
What I don’t say is that I have this sudden vision of Hachi leaving her sleek black body behind and padding into the Underworld. It’s like the dog somehow clears a clean path for Ruby—who is not far behind. And when Ruby comes—which is to say when Ruby is going but not yet gone—the dog will walk with her until there’s smoke. Then Hachi will poke Ruby with her miraculous wet nose and turn her back the way she came. This image feels so concrete, so true. Of course, I think. Leave it to the Labrador retriever—the most fetching of the dog breeds—to retrieve my kid’s lost and shaken soul. To guide her back through the forest and into her body before the wind can gust through and light all those glowing embers in the duff.
On a clear day in late winter—just days before we get our second COVID-19 vaccine—Ruby and I are walking up a lonely dirt road on Forest Service lands near our home. Hachi is off-leash and up ahead, her nose buried in fresh coyote scat, no doubt decoding a thousand stories deposited by a thousand canine cousins over thousands of years and miles. Huge stands of ponderosa ladder the sky, which is an incredulous blue. It’s warmer than it should be, the snow already gone and bear tracks visible too soon.
Ruby waits for me to catch up. This day towers above all the other hikes we’ve taken in my daughter’s lifetime because this is the first one in which Ruby leaves me in her wake. That’s the other thing about Hachi: she requires a lot of exercise. Which gets Ruby outside, and moving. This is another way the dog helps ground my daughter in her body.
“Poor bear,” Ruby says, pointing at the good-size pawprint. “He sure didn’t get much sleep.” We look at each other knowingly. If the bears are already out of their dens because it’s too dry and warm, then fire season will also arrive too soon.
Hachi runs back to check in with Ruby, and in this moment, I see Hachi not as hound to her master. Nor do I see Ruby as master to her hound. At this point, they are indistinguishable from one another—a melded force of nature, in nature, and a stabilizing one at that. They move through the elements with such ease—and with such carnal instincts—as if they were fey creatures from fairy tales who lived here in the forest all along, since the last ice age, since the first wolf-dog and human crossed the Bering Land Bridge—arriving together to make a life in the Americas.
There is indeed a scorched earth upon us, but the subterranean realm is still cool and dank. Here, we can reconstitute our dreams, find fusion with the animals. We’ll need to be this enabled, this sure-footed, for what lies ahead.
R: Okay, I’ll use your damn metaphor. I know that Hachi is the only one who can run into the burning forest and bring me home. Because a dog is the only creature that loves you more than itself.
This article was made possible through the support of the Summerlee Foundation.