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Splash of reality hits home

Life can be difficult for a woman married to an authentic hero.

But believe me, it's a lot tougher to be the husband of a true heroine.

Louise's exploit happened Saturday afternoon, when a bull mastiff named Joy fell off the dock behind our house. In her younger days, Joy used to fall off that dock on purpose, and simply swam 10 feet to shore, scrambled up the bank to the lawn and shook the water onto the nearest human.

But Joy is almost 11 now, and deaf, nearly blind and barely ambulatory. She no longer has the strength to climb out of the pond.

Nevertheless Joy has character. Once she looked a bit like a small lioness; she still has the heart of a lioness. But she would have drowned if Louise had not gone in after her.

"I held her head above water," Louise said afterward, "and somehow I steered her to the bank. But I couldn't _ I just couldn't get her up the bank."

Joy is small for her breed, but even a small bull mastiff weighs about 100 pounds, and the weight was watersoaked.

"I pushed and shoved and pulled, and then I heard a cracking sound, and right in the small of my back was the worst pain in my life. I thought, "My God, I've broken something,' but my legs and arms still moved.

"I called to the neighbors, but they weren't home," she told me. "I called you, but you were on one of your 10-minute trips to the hardware store that take an hour-and-a-half."

When I finally got home and heard her calling, Louise was lying prone on the bank of the pond, arms extended over the edge. Waves of pain rolled across her back, but she never let go of Joy's collar. With her other hand, she cupped the dog's head, holding it above the water.

I got into the water, too, and with considerable difficulty boosted Joy onto the bank where she lay in an exhausted heap of old bones and reddish-fawn-colored fur.

Louise, unable to stand up, managed to put her arms around her old friend. Joy summoned her strength and gave a thump of her threadbare tail.

I got Joy into the house and Louise into the car. By then she was nauseated from pain. At a hospital emergency room, they X-rayed her back and found a cracked vertebra and severe muscle sprains.

A doctor dispensed pills and advice: bed rest till the pain goes away. From my point of view, this was the prescription from hell.

For Joy is only the oldest of our bull mastiffs. We have 17. And 13 of them are (as you read this) exactly seven days old. And their mother hasn't enough milk to feed them.

As a result, look for me at 1 a.m. and again at 7 a.m., bottle-feeding 13 puppies. Also, some time in the early evening. (A friend comes in to do the noon feeding.)

For me, unlike Louise who made a career of breeding dogs, this is not love's labor. I wasn't crazy about bottle-feeding my children, let alone my dogs.

And there are other attractions to this new career of mine: mopping, laundry and other strange rites of house-cleaning.

Meanwhile I watch Joy, a new dog since her weekend swim. Her appetite came back, she has begun to bark again; when she walks, she lurches less.

"I'm proud of your heroics," I told Louise. "Otherwise I'd never have gotten the chance to do all this wonderful stuff."

She gave me a look. I tried to make amends, I told her: "You do more around here than I realized."

"It's torture to watch you in your new career," she said, and I didn't care to look too deeply behind her words.