Why I feel close to a woman I never met


I never met her in person. She died at age 30 from complications associated with Lupus the year I joined the flyball (think dog relay racing) team with my Brittany dog Sassy. But she was the reason there was a team at all.

She was its founder.

I have come to know Monica Roberts through the former and current team members who knew her. I’m friends with people who were her friends. I know two of her dogs, who were the foundation of our team. Her border collie Shilo still competes.

The matriarch border collie Sally died two years ago. Sally was a force to be reckoned with. She was a very competitive start dog (first dog to be released in the relay race) and would always give the opposing team’s start dog the evil eye just before taking off across the jumps toward the spring loaded box that would yield the prized tennis ball. All dogs come back to a reward of some sort, and Sally’s was a plastic car on the end of a tug toy.

Border collie Sally gives her opponent "the eye" while Monica holds her until it's time to race.

Border collie Sally gives her opponent “the eye” while Monica holds her until it’s time to race.

Sally was a special dog who was sure of her place in the world, and seemed to embody Monica’s determination to give her all in a sport she loved. She was the first dog I ever handled in an actual race. It was part of Sally’s job; she trained the newbie humans.

There is such an obvious hole in our team with Sally gone, but in my faith system, Monica and Sally have been reunited. That makes me smile.

Monica was a hard worker with a dream of a flyball team that could have fun competing. The team she formed in 2004 practiced the sport in barns, outdoors, and wherever its members could find a large enough space. They traveled to places all over New England and New Brunswick to compete in tournaments.

She lived in Bar Harbor and was a research scientist at Jackson Laboratory. Living on MDI had its advantages. Monica would walk with her dogs most days on the carriage trails that would go to Little Long Pond near Seal Harbor Beach, let her dogs swim during the appropriate seasons, play with them and walk back.

The makeup of the group participating in the Friends of Monica walk varies from year to year, but this is the group for 2016. Monica's dog Shilo is there, as is Chance, another border collie that ran on her team.

The makeup of the group participating in the Friends of Monica walk varies from year to year, but this is the group for 2016. Monica’s dog Shilo (second dog from right) is there, as is Chance, (third dog from left) another border collie that ran on her team.

In memory of our founder, Flyball MAINEiacs members and friends have retraced that walk every year since Monica’s death. This year was our 10th Friends of Monica walk. We laugh and reconnect and let our dogs swim, feeling the spirit around us of the woman who gifted us with a team where we have made new friends and have bonded like family.

We are family. Monica saw to its foundation. Our current captain Rebeccah sees to its continuation.

After our walk, we gather in the parking lot to the Little Long Pond trail for a potluck picnic, while we talk about old memories and future activities, catch up on each other’s lives, and just enjoy that special moment in time.

An opportunity to let the world make its own way without us for a little while.

In earlier years, we would eat at the Jordan Pond House, but switched to a picnic when the restaurant’s operator changed in 2013.

The memorial walk is an annual ritual that is especially important to those who knew Monica personally, but all of us can feel her spirit flit among us in that place, like the monarch butterfly that is her symbol on our team logo.

This year as I sat with my friends and teammates, I thought about the indiscriminate nature of death, which steals from the living without regard to age or species.

Monica’s death on Aug. 15, 2006, struck a heavy blow to her young flyball team, but so did my husband Jim’s death from pancreatic cancer in December 2010 affect the team, albeit on a different level.

Jim was not a competing member of the team, but he was part of the flyball family. The team Christmas party, scheduled for the day of Jim’s funeral, was postponed and most of the team members attended his funeral. I will never forget how their love and friendship enveloped me that day, as they gathered around me, almost protectively.

We are family when it counts most.

There have been multiple dogs belonging to team members that have crossed Rainbow Bridge, which is a place some dog owners believe their pets go after they die to wait for their humans, recently too. Some had competed in flyball; some had not. I understand the loss felt by their families as they try to come to grips with their lives minus their canine friends.

Death means pain of loss for those left behind, but it also means change. Our flyball team has grown and evolved over the last 10 years, as have the people in it. Many of our members participate in multiple dog sports, so compete together in activities other than flyball.

We also attend some of each other’s life events. In the last month, there was a baby shower and a wedding. Family stuff.

This year there was a change in our annual walk too.

The swimming area near the boathouse on Little Long Pond that has for many years been open for dogs to swim was closed to them this year. A sign indicates it is for children only, but the area is under construction, so it was off limits to them too.

It made us all a little sad.

The new area designated for dogs has large rocks that make it unsafe, especially for older dogs, plus it is uncomfortably close to the road.

We felt a new death during this walk — the death of our memorial walk as we have known it since 2006. It, too, is changed.

Must be time for another Plan B.

 

We watch others swim after Sassy has had a dip in the pond. Karen Davis Photo

We watch others swim after Sassy has had a dip in the pond. Karen Davis Photo

 

 

JULIE HARRIS

About JULIE HARRIS

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.