Culture: Stories & Lit
Looking for love—and a meal.
He lay in the shelter of the cantilevered deck of a large house perched on top of a dune and watched the pelting rain pockmark the sand. With a practiced paw, he scratched at the fleas who had made his shabby coat their home this past week —the week that found him alone and hungry. The beach was deserted, as were most of the houses along this strip of golden coast. He remembered a time when he had all the food he could eat and a bed next to a fireplace whose dying embers gave him warmth. Someone had always combed his fur, which made him ripple with pleasure. A strange-smelling collar, gently fitted around his neck with love, seemed to him both protection and a sign that he belonged.
He rose stiffly and tried to shake the unwanted tenants from his yellow coat as he yawned mightily. A gnawing in the pit of his stomach drove him to seek sustenance. Two houses away, the tiny woman sometimes gave him leftovers if he moaned piteously by the back door; it was worth a try, but today that tactic failed. The place had been sealed for the winter. His sometime-benefactor was gone.
He trekked the long empty road to town and searched for alleys with overflowing trash cans in which he could forage for something to eat. That was a last resort, for, as he had found, other dogs had laid claim to the garbage and he had learned not to mess with them. They traveled in packs, slinking around corners in the darkened streets and showing him their sharp teeth when they found him in their territory. One of them, the leader, Whippet-thin and short-haired, as they all were, had chased him from his domain, snapping at his tail as he ran. At a safe distance, he turned his head and saw them in a tight cluster—sentinels of scraps, who made sure he had gotten the message before they turned their attention to the remnants of gourmet meals on which they subsisted.
When the rain let up, he trotted to the narrow blacktop road, stopping at a pothole to slake his thirst in a rainwater puddle. His eyes then moved to the distant highway where he watched the occasional car speed by. Wearily, he moved ahead, head hanging low.
A squat, boxy station wagon pulled into a nearby driveway. He crept along the tall, untrimmed hedge, lay down, and watched as four people emerged and pulled boxes and suitcases from the back of the vehicle. The faint smell of food drifted from the boxes they carried to the house and made him salivate.
A small boy spotted him hiding near the hedge and bent down, regarding him solemnly. Shaking his coat once again, he stood and wagged his tail to show he was friendly. The boy reached out a tentative hand and he licked the fingers ever so gently. The child’s face crinkled with delight. He ran to the man and tugged at his sleeve. The dog watched the man turn, frown at him and shake his head. The child pleaded and was soon joined by the little girl, who clapped her hands and made cooing noises. Both ran to the woman, who smiled at the dog and touched the man’s arm. She nodded, and he snapped his fingers. Obediently, the dog trotted forward, sat and waited.
His coat was now raked with little fingers, which brought back memories of other scratchings, warm beds and food. Suddenly, the man once again shook his head. The dog heard the people talking,words he could not understand, but he had a bad feeling about this. The children started to cry and the woman whispered something to the man; he shrugged, picked up a box and walked toward the house. The dog waited. The woman squatted, looked into the dog’s eyes and ran a cool hand over his rough golden coat. She clicked her fingers and he followed her to the back door, where she pointed to a fiber doormat, upon which he lay down.
The woman entered the house and returned moments later with a bowl of water that she placed by his head. She said something in a pleasing tone and re-entered the house.
All afternoon, the children played with the dog. They led him to the beach and he showed them his prowess in retrieving a thrown stick, wading far out into the surf to return with the object clamped in his mouth.He deposited it at the foot of one child, then the other, giving each equal time. Barking with delight, he did this over and over until the children grew tired of the game. He ignored the rumbling in his stomach; surely food would be his payment for all his hard work.
Finally, when the sky grew darker, the family gathered at the house, and the dog followed. He sat on his mat and waited. The man lit a barbeque on the deck and the woman brought great platters of meat and vegetables. As the aroma of charred beef rose in the air, the dog fought to control himself. In a little while, a plate was placed next to him and, although he was so hungry he could easily have eaten a shoe, he showed great restraint by gently nibbling at the food while the woman watched. She smiled and moved away. Before she had returned to the table, the dog’s reserve had disappeared, as had the meat. He licked the dish so vigorously, it moved from the side of the mat some three feet on the grass.When nothing else could be gleaned from the empty plate, he lapped at his water and stretched out on his mat. A nap was called for on this wondrous day.
Exhausted, the dog closed his eyes but remained wary. It felt good to be with people again, to belong. Sleep was out of the question, for if he dozed off, the people might not be here when he woke up.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Part V: Springer Has Sprung
Like many people with rescued dogs, i do not know the exact age or birth date of my French Spaniel mix, Chloe. When I adopted her in the fall of 2004, I was told she was between six months and one year old — which is a wide margin, considering how much a dog grows in that first year. And while part of me wanted to believe she was at least a year old (because she weighed 55 pounds at the time and I doubted that I could physically handle anything beyond that), I decided to give Chloe a March birthday.
Why was this important? Because I wanted to throw Chloe a birthday party, of course. We always welcome a reason to celebrate our new shelter dogs, and what better day to celebrate than March 20 — the first day of spring.
Spring in New York City is particularly glorious, in part because we New Yorkers have to endure such harsh and miserable winters. One could argue that New York dog people are exposed to more than our fair share of the harshness in winter, because we have to take our dogs outside at least four times a day. This is not to say that having to walk our dogs is anything to complain about at any time of year, because we love, love, love our dogs. But, to be perfectly honest, walking a dog through ankle-deep slush in the freezing rain (rain that somehow manages to rain sideways) is not fun. I can’t say I unequivocally enjoy it. Just don’t tell my dog I said that. (But sometimes, not even she enjoys walking in the sideways-sleet. So there.)
Anyway, winter is behind us now, and signs of spring in New York City are everywhere. On the sidewalks, you’ll pass dozens of mini-gardens planted in the city’s tree beds and protected by low iron fences. Because volunteers or townhouse owners or neighborhood associations take charge of these mini-gardens, each one is different and beautiful in its own unique way. Beneath one tree you might see clusters of purple hyacinth mixed with white dwarf daffodils; the next flower bed will contain clusters of colorful primroses arranged within tight tangles of ivy; next: a riot of eye-popping tulips in pink, orange and red. It’s wonderful to see so much color after so many months of gray. We start walking our dogs almost 10 times a day because we just want to be outside, soaking up all that beauty.
Often you’ll see little signs posted at the base of these tree beds, with the message: Please do not let your dog urinate on the flowers, and we dog people always respect that request, because spring in New York City is a time of happiness and renewed hope. Every New Yorker is in love with the world in spring, so we are kinder to one another, and more considerate. We smile and make eye contact. We take time along the way to smell the flowers, as they say. Thus, no one messes with the flowers. Plus, as I always tell the dog, there are plenty of other places to pee in New York.
But getting back to Chloe’s birthday. Many people scoff at the idea of throwing a dog a birthday party, but those people are usually not dog people. They might not understand our belief that each of our dogs deserves his or her own “special day” just as we all deserve one. Or two or three or three hundred and sixty-five. One could argue that with shelter dogs, the desire to create a special day is even stronger, because these dogs may have suffered cruelty or neglect. These dogs may have spent months in cages, without being treated as “special” at all.
So bring on the marching band because we’re having a party.
Now, New Yorkers are known for going over the top when it comes to parties. I know people who have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for doggie birthday parties and doggie weddings. There are bakeries that make chicken-andoatmeal birthday cakes frosted with chocolate-brown liver pâté. There are doggie daycare centers that rent out party rooms for more money than you’d pay for your own wedding reception. There’s even a boutique that sells tiny rhinestone “Happy Birthday” tiaras for lap dogs to wear to parties on the Upper East Side. I am not judging any of this. I celebrate any occasion at which a bunch of dogs get to play and have fun.
But, being a writer, I was on a limited budget; therefore, Chloe was not going to have artisanal foie gras “pupcakes” at her party; nor was I going to rent a 3,000-square-foot space and hire an agility instructor to teach all the dog guests to leap over hurdles and shimmy through plastic tunnels and hoops (bummer). Also, I don’t cook, which meant there wasn’t anyone in my household who was going to spend four days constructing shepherd’s pie cupcakes from organic buffalo meat, vegetable terrine and mashed fingerling potatoes. No, I was going to keep this party simple.
Plus, I reasoned, dog people — when you get down to it — are easy to please. Know what I mean? We’re more down to earth, in a way, because our dogs constantly ground us and teach us to focus on the simple pleasures of life: nature, exercise, food, play, sleep. So who needs fripperies when the guest of honor is perfectly content with a dirty old tug-arope, a couple of dog pals to steal it from, a gingersnap and some praise?
I decided to hold the party at our local dog run, which happened to be one of Chloe’s favorite places in the world. The invitations consisted of a handwritten notice posted on the community board inside the run and a quick announcement on NYCDog’s Manhattan Dog Chat site. I requested “No presents, please” and encouraged well-wishers to make a small donation to Animal Haven instead.
March 20 happened to be on a Friday that year, which was great, because on Friday evenings, we held our weekly Yappy Hour at the run. We’d bring wine and music (and our dogs, of course) and spend a few extra hours socializing while the dogs tore around. Technically, we were not supposed to bring any food to the dog run because the presence of food can instigate food fights (among the dogs), so our rule for Yappy Hour was that you could bring snacks that would have no appeal to a canine: tapenade, tofu (raw, not fried), garlic pickles, seaweed salad, hot green salsa and so forth. None of these things paired very well with red or white wine, but that was part of the fun. Sometimes someone would sneak in a baguette or a bag of chips to accommodate the tapenade and the salsa, and that person had to stand on top of the picnic table, doling out slices of bread or some chips to the humans, one at a time. The things we do for our dogs ...
On the morning of Chloe’s assigned “birthday,” I fed her a special breakfast of lamb chunks (which she loved) and presented her with a pretty new collar. This collar was quite chintzy — a pink faux-velour band with fake pink crystals and rhinestones and embroidered flowers. But that is why I liked it. It looked like spring — something a six-year-old girl would wear as a belt to an Easter parade. And no, I did not spend hundreds of dollars on this collar: it came from Target and cost 12 bucks.
Chloe looked very pretty with her new collar, and I also had her groomed for the occasion, so her white-and-brown coat was sparkly and fluffy. At the party that evening, friends noticed the coat and new collar, and everyone went out of their way to praise Chloe and scratch her belly and tell her happy birthday. Chloe seemed to enjoy all the extra attention she was getting. It’s always nice to be told one is pretty. It’s always nice to be told one is a “good dog” and a “special girl.” Her tail wagged nonstop for hours.
People brought the usual assortment of sour, bitter and pickled foods to the party, plus a few bottles of wine — all of them from dog-themed wineries such as Mutt Lynch and Faithful Hound. Many of my dog-run friends cheated on the no-presents rule and brought presents for Chloe — toys and small packages of treats — and one friend actually made a little birthday cake (peanut-butter-flavored, with yogurt icing). I asked this dear woman to hide the cake until the party was over. Chloe, it must be said, had been the instigator of many a food fight, and I just didn’t trust her anymore. Not even on her own special day.
There is a famous line from the movie Casablanca, in which one of the male characters is described as “like any other man, only more so.” I guess we could say that, to a dog, a birthday is “like any other day, only more so” as well. At her party, Chloe played with her usual pack of friends: Greyhound mixes and Jack Russells and Lab mixes and Pit Bulls. They chased one another around the perimeter of the one-acre run, rolled in the dirt (or rather, mud, given that this was spring) and played tug-of-war and keep away. Their joy was a celebration of play itself.
After a few bottles of wine, we humans sang a rousing and slightly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Chloe, trying to coax some of the hounds to join in. Barley the Bassett obliged, adding a singular high note to the finale. Then we brought out birthday hats — those little cone hats with those elastic strings that wraps under the chin. We managed to get the hats on several dogs, including Chloe, and we watched as they each tried to shake them off. Some might have considered this game mean (why torture the poor dogs?), but we laughed at their cute, comic struggles. After about 10 seconds, the hats became play things as one by one, the dogs got them off, took them in their mouths, tossed them in the air and/or ran off. Soon, the run was littered with mushy piles of chewed-up cardboard and string.
Chloe’s pretty new collar was also ruined within seconds, because her dog friends kept tackling her and biting her on the neck. And whose idea was it to groom a white dog two hours before taking her to a muddy dog run? Consider it a birthday splurge — much less costly than hiring a marching band. At the end of the day, I found bits of rhinestone and pink thread all over the run. “Made in China,” one of my gay friends said, with a smile and a shrug. “You get what you pay for.”
Eventually the wine ran out and the dogs got tired. Chloe returned to my side, panting, with bright eyes and a smile on her face as if to say, This is fun! I put one last birthday hat on her head and watched her run away and try to shake it off. She did so with a grunt and then stepped on the hat, looking up proudly, like a conqueror. This seemed to signal the end of the party, and we all gathered up our bags and leashes and dogs and said goodbye.
Once Chloe and I passed through the exit gate, my friend handed Chloe’s birthday cake over the fence, making sure that the other dogs did not see. It was packaged in a little pastry box tied with string, and as I carried it to the car, Chloe kept leaping up and twisting in the air — because somehow she knew this was her birthday cake. For me! her leaps seemed to be saying. Cake for me!
I always enjoy watching her leap like this — with such joy — because she spent much of her early life in a shelter. As she continued to bark and spin, I thought of all those shelter dogs, still waiting for homes. I hope that each one will have the chance to celebrate — and be celebrated — in such a way: with fun and sun and glorious weather, with trips to the dog runs to play with friends, with long walks in the park amidst the spring flowers, then lamb chops for dinner and a wellearned nap. A life like any other, only more so.
When we got home, Chloe wanted to snarf down the entire cake in one gulp, of course, but it was big enough for three meals, so we split it into thirds. As I put the two extra slices into the refrigerator, she looked at me rather forlornly, as if she had been betrayed somehow. She seemed to know (being a smart dog) that it was still her birthday and would remain so until 11:59. “Oh, all right,” I said, and gave her another spoonful. And then two more. The rest, I decided, we’d give to a neighbor — an elderly woman who was constantly bringing home abandoned Pit Bulls from the streets. “Is that okay?” I asked Chloe. “Do you approve?” She thumped her tail a few times, which seemed like a yes. Those poor Pit Bulls deserved a special treat to celebrate their new lives too.
The postscript to this story is that my 55-pound dog soon blossomed into an 80-pound dog. This had nothing to do with birthday cake. My French Spaniel mix now had the long and wide-ribbed body of a Labrador Retriever. This also meant that Chloe probably was born around March after all. She was a spring baby, as welcome as a new flower. Which is always a cause to celebrate.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Spirit Dog Leads to Hope in Costa Rica.
In the year 2000, I lived in Costa Rica for six months and fell in love with the dogs. There were many visitors to the farm during my stay there, and everyone knew about me and my love for Duque, who, like most dogs in Central America, didn’t really belong to anyone.
Dogs don’t last long in Costa Rica, particularly in the countryside, where, even if they are owned, they are allowed to run free, down the unpaved winding rock roads and into the villages, where they hang out on corners waiting for food. In Ciudad Colón, at the one restaurant in town, they would wander in and sit in groups around each table, or, if I was there, climb directly into my lap.Duque lived at the top of the hill, on the farm where I stayed in a small apartment, and he joined me every day for an afternoon nap and then returned each evening to guard my door. Sometimes we would play tug of war with a sock and then race one another up the damp, mossy, tiled road to the very top of the mountain.When it was time to leave, I made plans to take Duque with me, but the airline refused to transport animals, so I left him behind with a group of villagers who had made it clear that they thought he belonged with them.
I knew he wouldn’t be there when I returned, and that probably had something to do with the length of time it took me to go back.
When I finally did return six years later, I promised myself that I wouldn’t expect to see him running up the tiled drive, or burying dog biscuits beneath the bamboo outside my door. And I knew not to ask after him with any of the locals who might still remember me—I knew not to ask, because I didn’t want to know and because I didn’t want to reveal to them that I was still thinking about a dog that I had only known for a few months, six years ago. A lifetime, in dog years.
Within a few hours of my return, the truth was revealed: He had been shot and killed. I had rehearsed for this moment often enough and managed to just nod, as though I had already known. I didn’t ask when it had happened, but assumed it was sufficiently long ago that the emotion of the events had receded into history for the people who lived there. For me, all of this information was new.
“He bit someone,” one person said. “No, he bit a dog,” another suggested.
Duque was intact and sometimes got into trouble pursuing the female dogs in town. But when I’d known him, he was fed, and people played with him. There was no telling what had happened to him after I was gone.
Grief and guilt are necessary but often useless emotions. That is, unless they can be channeled into something more. I had returned to Costa Rica to relax and to write, but once again, Duque was leading me somewhere unexpected.
Among many other changes, the farm was now wired for Internet access, so I sat in my bed and began googling: “Costa Rica dog shelter,” “Costa Rica animal welfare,” and so forth. I found two listings within my range: an organization called the McKee Foundation, and the story of a woman named Patricia Artimana, who was running an animal shelter just outside of Ciudad Colón, the Asociation Arca de Noé. Earlier in the year, the municipality had intervened when neighbors complained about the barking of the more than 100 dogs who lived on her property.
In the news story, which was now several months old, Patricia said that if she could not find homes for the dogs, she would set them free again before she allowed the government to do anything with them. In my short time back, I had already noticed that there were far fewer dogs roaming the village. Now, I understood why.
I emailed the McKee Project and arranged to meet Carla Ferraro, the project’s program director, at the Multiplaza, one of the biggest shopping centers in Central America. The last time I had been to the Multiplaza, I had watched from the bus as motorists swerved to avoid a bull strolling casually down the middle of the eight lanes.
The locals were used to it—stray livestock on the highway is fairly common. The bull turned and wandered into the parking lot. It was Christmas, and I amused myself by imagining that he was doing some last-minute holiday shopping.
“We don’t believe in sheltering animals,” Carla said as we shared a pastry. There are too many, she said, and too few places for them to find homes. You end up with overcrowded shelters, and the problem of strays continues in the streets. The philosophy is that the cost of longterm care would be better spent neutering the stray populations.
“But I heard that there is a shelter. Somewhere near Ciudad Colón?” I asked. She seemed cautious in answering this query. “Yes, I know the woman you are talking about.” She paged through a copy of Pets y Más, a bilingual animal care magazine that is distributed throughout the country. “Here she is,” she said, pointing to a story.“And here is her phone number. It might be interesting for you to visit. She uses the dog waste to make methane.”
I thought perhaps I was mishearing something, but chose not to question it.
Carla continued explaining the McKee Project’s mission: They had been training vets across the country to perform spayand- neuter surgeries using a tiny incision. The surgery can be done in as little as 10 minutes, allowing one vet to alter dozens of animals in a single day. The animals’ recovery time is quick as well. After providing this free training, the project then encourages the vets to offer the surgery for free in their villages on a designated day each month. The training is made possible through the support of the North Shore Animal League and Spay USA.
“Some vets were reluctant at first,”Carla said. “But then they found that people who had never brought their pets in for treatment before came back again for other services. So it was good for business.”
As I listened, I once again wondered if I was misunderstanding something. If it was possible to spay and neuter animals so quickly, why had I never heard of the process before? When my own Sula was spayed, it required overnight observation and cost an arm and a leg.Why wouldn’t this new procedure be just as valuable in the U.S.? But these were not questions Carla could answer for me.
“So, you spay and neuter and then put them back on the streets?”
“Yes,” she answered, aware that this idea would seem truly foreign to me. Part of the problem is the definition of “stray.” Studies suggest that only 5 percent of the Costa Rican dog population is truly stray; the rest, though they have feeders, owners and places to stay at night, run free throughout the day. Only 25 percent are sterilized, all of which was accomplished in just the past six years. As Carla noted, “If we can get to 70 percent of the population, then we will have the overpopulation under control.” Previously, the government’s solution was to poison animals in the street. McKee has worked to make that practice illegal.
Carla’s manner was sharp and efficient. She didn’t let her emotions get in the way, even when I finally told her what it was that had inspired me to contact her—the story of Duque and the way he was killed.
I first met patricia artimana in a small bakery across from the church in Ciudad Colón. It was raining outside, the typical evening deluge of the rainy season, and we were sitting with a typical view of the typical town square. She told me about the municipality intervening earlier in the year,when she had had more than 100 dogs.“I had too many,” she said, and I wondered if she really believed that, or was simply repeating what she had been told.
“How many do you have now?”I asked. She thought for a while and then made a number using the fingers on her hands. Eighteen.
In the morning, a cabbie friend of hers arrived to drive me to her home: a mountain called Piedras Negras. On a map, it seemed to be just outside of town, but maps don’t take into account the steep terrain and the winding roads.More than an hour later, we arrived at her house. I had no idea where we were. And, of course, I had fantasies of finding Duque frolicking among the other dogs when we arrived. I knew that this wouldn’t happen, but I couldn’t expel the image from my mind.
Just a dozen or so dogs appeared immediately at the gate, yet I could see there were more.Patricia eventually joined them and began to awkwardly balance her two tasks: managing the dogs and showing me around. The property was set up using a series of corrals, with different groups of dogs in each area; some were allowed to run completely free.
At the top of the property was a stall with several horses; an ox; a flock of geese; and a small, indigenous tree animal hibernating in his coop who wouldn’t come out to see me. In order to get to the house, I needed to enter the corral, but the dogs weren’t going to let me. At each gate, the dogs would gather, jumping and barking at me, anticipating my visit. Finally she pointed to another entrance.“Would you mind coming through here?” she asked.
It was a dog door, but it appeared to be the only door in which the dogs had no interest. I ducked down and crawled through.
On the kitchen table, three dogs sat, wagging their tails. They were not small dogs—each weighed at least 40 or 50 pounds. On the stove, two large pots of dog food were being slow-cooked over a gas flame. A plastic tube ran from the back of the stove through the wall and across part of the lawn, to a plastic fermentation tent. She was, indeed, turning the dog poop into gas for the stove.
“How many dogs do you have?” I asked. She thought about it again.“Fifty-five.” Patricia wiped down the table and pulled out a chair for me to sit on.Then she went to the stove to make coffee. I scanned the shelves of an open cupboard, lined with various medicines and treatments that I assumed were for the dogs.While the coffee brewed, she introduced me to more dogs. They each had names, but it was more than I could do to keep up with them. A small brown dog made her way through the pack to greet Patricia, then settled at her feet, looking up at her with stubborn longing.
“Oh, Julie,” Patricia said. “Poor Julie.” She turned to me. “This is a special dog. This is a dog that I found myself. I kept an eye on her. Brought her food. Eventually she let me take her home.” Julie climbed into Patricia’s lap, and stayed there as the other dogs voiced their disapproval. Eventually, Patricia put her down again with the rest of the dogs.
Patricia continued to introduce me to the dogs, and my fantasy that Duque would appear there, miraculously alive, continued to dwindle.As we walked onto a patio area, a huge, longhaired, rust-colored dog bounded toward me and rose on his back legs to butt his chest—his brisket—against mine. He came back to me several times during my visit.“He likes you,” Patricia said.“Maybe you can take him home.”
I thought about what Carla had said —that sheltering dogs was a waste of resources, that it simply displaced the problem, while few animals actually found homes.
“Will any of these dogs be adopted?” I asked. Patricia shook her head no.
“They are too old. We have others that are young dogs that can find homes. They don’t stay here.”
A fewdays after my visit to piedras Negras, as I stood waiting for the bus, I spotted a woman sitting on the opposite corner in front of the new aquarium shop, with several dogs in crates on display. Arca de Noé was having an adoption fair.
I crossed the street and bent down to greet an awkward, brindle-striped puppy. He looked just like my Brando had, six years earlier, when I spotted him in the BARC shelter in Brooklyn in the weeks after leaving Duque behind.
“I have one just like this,” I told the woman.
And two days later, I was home.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Lab with a wise old soul helps family navigate loss.
There was little discussion of who would keep Tag, my brother’s young black Labrador Retriever, after John’s death. Tag was a living connection to John, and though a grief greater than my own was unfathomable, I knew my mother needed him most. She had lost her broad-shouldered, broad-grinned son. She needed Tag, if only to curl up with when death’s demons haunted. Tag and my mother mourned together. During their first year, a solid rap on the door would send Tag into the fullbody wagging frenzy he reserved for his master’s return. In the seconds before rationality reigned, Mom, too, hoped my brother was about to bound into the house. She had hung John’s Carhartt jacket and ratty baseball cap on a hook above his cowboy boots in her mudroom. It deluded her into thinking that he would be coming back from Colorado for Christmas vacation, with another semester of veterinary school under his belt, on the days when denial was her only method of survival.
John and I had often booked the same flight from Denver to Chicago to descend on Mom in unison for the holidays. On this winter morning I sat alone, squeezed between strangers. I dreaded Christmas without John.Uncovering the ornament he had made in first grade or his knit stocking, stretched out from our tradition of flooding each other with gag gifts, promised to reignite anguish that would feel new and raw all over again. At least I had Tag to look forward to. I couldn’t wait to see that dog.
I was approaching our prearranged meeting place outside O’Hare when I saw them—the unmistakable combination of my stylish mother behind the wheel and a slobbering, yet regal, Tag, straining out the back-seat window.My mom and I greeted each other cautiously, not out of animosity, but restraint. We instinctively knew that if we held each other’s gaze, the sorrow of another holiday without John would overwhelm our weak levee.
“I’ll sit in back with Tag,” I said in a desperate attempt to throw sandbags between our grief.“How’s my boy?” I asked into his eyes while ruffling his ears and scratching him under the collar, where he liked it best. As we pulled away from the airport, Tag straddled my lap to resume his position at the window.Breathing his freshly shampooed scent, I rested my head on his side and hid my burning eyes from Mom’s glances in the rearview mirror.
Despite the lapses between visits to my mother’s house, Tag and I were inseparable when we were under the same roof. He slept at the foot of my bed, trotted down the stairs after my slippered feet, waited as I fixed my coffee, and even crowded into the bathroom as I showered and blew my hair dry.What made this unusual was that Tag was generally aloof. While my mom adored her dog, she complained that he wasn’t cuddly, that he’d always give her his rump to scratch instead of his muzzle. I couldn’t help remembering that John was the same way.As the only male in our household for many years, John would often put the brakes on touchy-feely stuff. He told my mom he would give her backrubs— he on the couch, she sitting in front of him on the floor—only if she refrained from pleasurable noises. An “ooh, that feels good,” and his hands were in the air.“I’m outta here,” he would say and be off the couch, heading to the kitchen to pour himself a Coke. My practical self attributed Tag’s uncharacteristic affection to my resemblance to John. Like me, John had been fair-skinned with honey-colored hair; perhaps we even had a smell or pheromone in common. But my spiritual self believed it was more than that—that part of John’s soul was with Tag, and when Tag and I were together, John and I were too in some way.
In fact, until this trip home for the holidays, I had sometimes wondered if I should have inherited Tag. Tag’s adjustment would have been less jarring if he had stayed with me in Colorado and had an owner who was closer to John’s age and lifestyle.Yet, I knew my motivations were primarily selfish, and now I was witnessing how beautifully Mom and Tag were piecing their lives together. Mom had resumed her work as a photographer, and Tag now chased waterbirds along the shores of Lake Michigan rather than the chickens John kept on his property near the Rocky Mountains. Tag now heeled alongside Mom, though to her right side, the way my left-handed brother had purposely trained him so that he’d be away from the rifle on their occasional hunting trips. Tag’s stellar behavior evoked a pride in Mom, not only in Tag but also in her son’s fine ability with animals. Mom glimpsed John through Tag the way one sees a deceased loved one in a child who bears her likeness. As Mom and I sipped coffee in front of the Christmas tree on my first morning home, she invited me to witness a petassisted therapy program that she and Tag had become involved with over the last year. She was introduced to the program by a stranger who had remarked how well-trained Tag was.
“Yes, he is wonderful, but that credit really goes to my son,” Mom had explained. During the brief conversation that followed, the man said he volunteered with a group that helped others through the use of dogs. Then and there, Mom had resolved to sign up.
The next day, however, she’d questioned whether she had the emotional strength to work with people who had disabilities.We were grateful John’s departure from this world had been quick and peaceful. His girlfriend had smiled between sobs as she recounted that she and my brother had been goofing off on the mountain just moments before John, an expert skier, inexplicably collided with a tree, rupturing his aorta. John had, at least, not suffered—unlike those whom my mother would train Tag to assist. Despite her hesitations, Mom summoned the courage to contact the organization. “Chenny Troupe,” a cheerful woman answered. Chenny, Mom later learned, was the name of the pioneer dog of the program.
“My name is Mary Ann Alexander, and I have my son’s dog. Well, he’s my dog now,” she began.
The compassionate voice interrupted. “I know about your son,Mary Ann.My husband works with John’s father. I was at the funeral.My name is Carole Hunt.” This was an almost eerie coincidence in a city the size of Chicago. My mother’s resolve to train Tag in pet-assisted therapy was restored. Tag was hers for a reason. Maybe this was it.
When Mom received the Chenny Troupe brochure in the mail a few days later, she settled on the rug beside Tag to read it. The literature emphasized that, more than providing companionship, these therapy dogs helped with the rehabilitation of patients. The dogs needed to be not only well-trained but also gentle enough to work with children and energetic enough to engage a person with a disability. They must be patient and unbothered by wheelchairs, walkers, back braces or helmets as well as the awkward movements and vocalizations of some of the patients. Few dogs pass the rigorous obedience screening on the first try. The test date was only two weeks away. “You’ll do it, Tag,”Mom said, as she slid onto her side to lock eyes with her best friend. In a rare but increasingly frequent show of affection, Tag covered her face with kisses.
When the time came,Tag obeyed every instruction with an attentiveness that would have made John proud. Tag and my mother were invited into the program. Now, sitting in Mom’s kitchen a year later, I saw no trace of the initial butterflies she’d had, as she saddled Tag with his official work vest in preparation for tonight’s session. I, however, was nervous, even in my limited role as an observer. Then I remembered Mom commenting that Tag’s omniscient look had allayed her fears.When I saw the pure intention in his eyes, I felt my internal compass needle, haywire for over a year, regain its bearings.
Tag looked handsome, even cocky, as he leaped into the back seat to be driven to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). From the front seat I turned to tell him, “You know John wants you to do this, don’t you, smart boy?” Mom’s eyes smiled—the sandbags between us long gone—as we pulled onto Lakeshore Drive. The RIC elevator door opened to a large recreation room milling with patients, therapy dogs and their owners.Mom’s preeminence in the program showed as she was swallowed by the group to answer last-minute questions before the therapy began. Eventually, all the dogs and volunteers, paired with their patients, were spread throughout the room. In one corner, a young man negotiated trading his walker for a leash, while a teenage girl pressed her dormant vocal cords into service to command a dog to sit.
For Mom and Tag, this was the last night of a six-week partnership with a seven-year-old girl named Samantha. In an automobile accident on Christmas Eve, Samantha had lost her little sister and been partially paralyzed on her right side. She was in a wheelchair and had lost much of her speech. An older sister and both parents, who had survived the wreck with minor injuries, were there to cheer Samantha on.
Sam had fallen in love with Tag the first night they worked together. Initially, Sam would pet Tag only with her left hand, until my mother, remembering her training, urged Sam to pet him with her right hand. As Sam fought to communicate with her right side, Tag nudged her hand with his wet nose. Tag’s touch made Sam giggle, evoking a gasp from her mother, who hadn’t heard her laugh since before the accident. Slowly, Sam’s hand obeyed her brain’s signal. She extended her clenched fist enough to knock on Tag’s shoulder. It was a tremendous achievement. Every Tuesday night for six weeks, Tag helped Samantha overcome her paralysis. Sam learned to uncurl her fist to accept a tennis ball and then to throw it to Tag, who retrieved it and begged for more.
Their favorite game involved Sam balancing a dog biscuit on Tag’s nose while he waited for the command to nod his head and catch the biscuit. Now, Sam’s actions with Tag were almost fluid, and she said his name clearly.
Samantha’s mother, Julie, told us that every time they got into the car, the little girl would ask,“Tag?”—hoping they were on their way to the RIC. I listened as my mother shared with Julie her story of losing her son.My mother hadn’t wanted to burden Julie with our loss. Tonight, though, as Julie presented my mother with a bouquet of flowers for all she had done, it seemed appropriate.Upon hearing about John, Julie commented, “Your son was going to be a veterinarian so he could heal animals, but now his animal heals people.”
With Christmas behind me, I boarded my flight back to Denver. As I buckled my seat belt, I noticed Tag’s straight black hairs covering my beige corduroy pants, and smiled. Brushing the hairs from my lap, I thought how Tag was with me in more ways than just his shedding coat. Tag had taught me,my mother and even Samantha’s mom Julie that there is hope after tragedy.
In the days after John’s death, I had fearfully asked Mom,“Will we ever be okay again?” She responded that she did not know how we ever could be. Yet, we are okay—due in large part to a huge-hearted black Lab with a wise old soul.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Even in hard times, pets and people provide for one another
When my husband Greg and I decided to have a child, we figured we would make things work by sharing the responsibilities. What we did not anticipate was Greg shattering his leg in a serious motorcycle accident when our son was five weeks old. Suddenly, I was taking care of an infant, six animals and my husband in a hospital bed while I was still recovering from major abdominal surgery (C-section). With no family nearby to help, all of the responsibilities landed on me.
I was determined to tend to everyone’s needs before my own, but I was stretched thin. On top of the stress of being a brand new mom, I worried about how my animals would adjust to less attention and time. Our four-legged “babies” include two wonderful mutts and four great cats. Clyde, our Malamute/Retriever mix, had been hit by a car and left in the overnight drop box in an overcrowded shelter with a broken hip. Star, our Rottweiler mix, was found stranded near a freeway and rescued by the same organization that saved Clyde. Our four cat companions were all adopted from rescues and shelters, too. After all they had been through before joining our family, and the joy they had brought to our lives since then, I did not want to do them the disservice of putting their needs on the back burner.
Luckily, all of the pets accepted our son wholeheartedly. We took small steps to properly introduce everyone, and the animals and baby received a lot of praise. We made sure to pay attention to the animals’ body language, and gave them breaks when things got too overwhelming.
The one responsibility Greg could handle from his hospital bed was holding the baby while I took the dogs for their walk around the neighborhood. I felt that it was very important to keep their walks consistent. Even if I was tired and had had a difficult day, the walk is what they looked forward to most.
Every day, I made an effort with each of the animals. Even though I was strapped for time with having to care for everyone, as well as commute, work, cook, feed, clean and change the ever-producing dirty diaper machine, my animals were also my family members, and I needed to set aside some time, even if it was a small amount compared to what I had given them in the past. In response, my animals showed me they were thankful to be a part of my family. Star even tried to happily lick my son’s hands and feet at every opportunity (a loving gesture, I am sure, but one that did not exactly thrill me given her frequent investigations of the litter box).
Throughout this ordeal, my animals watched me cry and go through a range of emotions: sadness, exhaustion and frustration. Yet they still loved me unconditionally. They never once asked for more than I could give them. I will always be grateful to my pets because they taught me so many lessons in life: genuine love, patience, understanding and how to be nurturing to all members of my family.
I have worked in the animal welfare field for over 10 years, and have seen thousands of animals surrendered because their owners’ life circumstances changed. I understand how difficult it can be to give your pets the same level of care when your life has been turned upside down, and I sympathize with anyone who is forced to make that choice.
My husband and I were hoping our circumstance would be temporary, but at the time of his accident we were not sure if the doctors were going to be able to save his leg. However, after six surgeries and multiple physical therapy appointments, things were starting to look up for Greg and our family. We were thrilled at the news that he would be able to keep his leg and possibly walk again without crutches or a cane. I was incredibly thankful and relieved, as well as hopeful deep down that he would be able to help out more as he continued to heal.
There is still a long road ahead, with more surgeries to come. However, what I learned from my initial experience is how forgiving and supportive animals can be during difficult times. My pets stuck by me through my crisis, and their non-judgmental love gave me strength. I know it will continue as we face other hardships along the way.
I hope my story inspires other families in tough situations to do the best they can for their animals. If you can make even small adjustments, you may be able to keep your pets in your home and out of the shelter where they may not get a second chance.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I never had a dog. I grew up in a cat household, with a mother who disliked dogs for their digging and mess and noise. I can’t blame her, as we were five kids who had lizards, hamsters, parakeets, fish, and always, two or three cats.
But I wanted a dog so badly! I wanted a red Cocker Spaniel like Rusty, the fictional dog featured in novels I read again and again. I dreamed of a brave dog like Rusty, who swam into choppy ocean waves to rescue a boy, who sensed that a train was about to crash, who bounded into fields to find a lost girl. His coat was shiny and his eyes alert, and he was a hero.
At 12, I brought home a stray while my parents were on vacation, knowing our elderly babysitter wouldn’t notice. She didn’t. My mother did, on her return, and so the dog went to live at my friend’s house three streets away. I visited, but it wasn’t the same.
When I married my childhood sweetheart, I knew he didn’t want a dog, as he’d been raised with a black Cockapoo who hated everyone under twenty, and demonstrated it by biting them. We bought a house on a busy four-lane avenue, a former farmhouse with a big yard, and we had three kids.
Our first daughter was not a dog lover, as she'd been nipped on the hand by a boisterous Old English Sheepdog when she was two, and shortly afterward nipped on the face by an ill-tempered Sheltie down the block. Gaila likes rabbits. Our second daughter was not a dog lover, because she is obsessed with insects and wants to be an entomologist. Delphine collects bugs.
But our third daughter, Rosette, said Dog before she said Daddy. She is a kindred spirit, as they say. Our neighbor, who babysat her twice a week when I went to work, got a yellow Labrador puppy named Chelsea days after Rosette was born, and they slept together on the bed, Rosette with her fist curled around Chelsea’s felt-soft ear and her thumb in her mouth.
Her father and I divorced when she was only one, and Rosette began asking for a dog as soon as she could form sentences. When she was two, we took a trip to New York, just me and Rosette, and she met every dog in Gramercy Park, where we staying. By the second day she was calling them by name, those city dogs out on their walks, and we had to eat in restaurants with sidewalk tables so we could visit her canine friends, who truly seemed to recognize the smell of her chubby crumb-laden hand.
I tried to prepare: I bought books about puppies and their care, about puppies walking through meadows and cavorting with other baby animals. Rosette had other ideas: “Yellow Labrador, Irish Setter, Border Collie, Basset Hound, Beagle.” She got a dog breed book and we had to study their physical characteristics and temperaments. She was three then. In Prescott, Arizona, she identified King Charles Spaniels after an owner explained how rare the breed was, and she has remembered them since.
Having a child who loved dogs with this kind of passion was fascinating, but also intimidating. I knew we couldn’t get a puppy, as people had warned that work and school would take us away for too long. Having cried for hours over lost or stray dogs on our avenue, Rosette wanted to adopt someone from the Humane Society. So in November of that year, we walked the gauntlet of cages and barking, and wary or pleading eyes.
Rosette went immediately to the shaggy black Spaniel named Teddy, who looked so depressed he barely ambled out to the chain link. The big test was whether a dog could handle us as a family, so I’d brought all my girls and two of their small friends, along with one of our caged rabbits. The shelter assistant brought Teddy to us in the meeting area. He walked over to Rosette, licked her face, and sat beside her. He looked at the other girls as if to say, “Yeah, I see you.” He looked at the rabbit as if to say, “Yeah, you’re in a cage.”
Teddy had been found in a neighboring city, with a slight limp and bruised hip that indicated someone had been kicking him. He’d already been adopted once, but returned by the childless couple who’d kept him in an apartment for up to ten hours as a time, because he urinated inside.
He peed once inside our house, the first day, but never again. He waited patiently for Rosette to let him outside, where she fed him, picked up his poop, and brushed him. Solemnly, she repeated to me, “I made a promise and I am keeping it.”
Teddy is a classic shelter dog, in that he will never have had enough to eat. That first week, he ate a cake, plastic wrap and all, that had been left on the coffee table, and gobbled up a dropped Advil and a Flintstones multivitamin when I cleaned out my backpack. We stayed with him for hours, worried, while he waited for us to drop something else.
He wasn’t a Cocker Spaniel, Rosette assured me, paging through one of her dog breed books until she found him. Teddy had shorter, ragged ears, a taller build, a longer nose. He was a Field Spaniel, Rosette said.
I studied him those first months, wondering about his bravery and nobility. Would he have the chance to save someone, like Rusty, my heroic red Cocker? When I lifted Rosette into the air and twirled her, he ran over and put a paw on her leg to make me put her down. If I tickled her, he wedged his head between us, never growling, but looking sternly at me, as if to say I should know better. Soon, when older sisters or friends were playing rough, Rosette would call, “Teddy!” and with applications of his stinky breath and head butts, he would make them leave her alone. Once, as an experiment, I tackled Gaila, who is my size, and tickled her. Teddy just watched, slightly bored.
Teddy’s job was to save Rosette’s spirit. She has dog love threading through her veins from some ancestor, dog love wound tightly around her heart like the branching arteries displayed in her encyclopedia. Unlike her sisters, she never really had a father who lived in our house. Teddy was hers alone. She slept in his dog bed, and he slept on her small fold-out couch in the living room. He walked her to preschool with me every day, and her class, The Cute Kittens, mobbed him. He never barked or growled or even moved away. In his second week with us, Teddy sat in the middle of a circle of them, 13 three-year-olds, and Rosette talked about him. Then he ate 13 dog biscuits, to please everyone, and didn’t throw up. He submitted to inspections and hard head pats and screaming. His eyes never left Rosette. I realized the extent of Teddy's nobility, and I was willing to accept his neediness.
Because now, four years later, he is a needy dog. He has no other dog friends, though we’ve tried repeatedly. Not even Chelsea, who he attacks along with her sister Hannah, another yellow Lab. Teddy will never accept another canine, even on the sidewalk for casual conversation, and he’s injured himself repeatedly because his version of bravery makes him guard our fenced yard with blind ferocity. He has been bitten on the nose, while barking through the fence, by neighbors' dogs, and hurt his leg chasing Chows and even Pit Bulls. Nearly every house in our neighborhood has at least two dogs, but Teddy will not even wag at them. Two dogs in my brother’s tough pack, which runs in a nearby orange grove, like to visit us: We tried to acclimate Teddy to Soot and Charcoal on the front porch, which was fine until Rosette came banging out of the screen door to see them. Teddy promptly tried to take a chunk out of Soot’s back leg.
Last summer, he destroyed a rear anterior cruciate ligament, chasing down passing dogs like an aging football player. I spent a thousand dollars on your good leg, I told him, when we took him for surgery. Two days in the animal hospital, along with anesthesia, left him altered, so anxious that he has never been the same since. His new ligament works fine, but he won’t let me leave a room, blocking the doorway or the back of my chair with his body, in case he’s abandoned again. His marked resemblance to Richard Nixon on an unhappy day has deepened. Teddy stares at me in the morning, jowly and melancholic because it’s hot, or cold, or windy, or because I was asleep.
He hates it when we leave, and can't be left alone for even five minutes without trying to dig out or jump the fence. What with school and sports and errands, by the time we are done for the day he is beside himself. And that’s just when I usually have six or seven girls here for homework or basketball: Teddy sits under the basket, or sits on their papers, or tries to lie on my feet while I am at the stove, not a happy camper myself by that point in the afternoon.
I wanted a brave independent dog who would keep out the marauding cats trying to kill the rabbits, who would bark at strange men, rather than inspecting them for Del Taco burritos and hot sauce. I realize we are not drowning in the ocean or lost in a field, but some Rusty-like nobility of demeanor would help, rather than the baleful and incredulous eyes that say to me, “You’re trying to get to the cupboard for macaroni and cheese again, and I find that incredibly irritating when I am trying to get comfortable on your instep.” When we tell him to go lie down, Teddy moves five inches, and his look combines glare and guilt in a way that's so presidential that I have to laugh.
A neighbor takes care of him when we go to work or on vacation, since Teddy is terminally anxious now. This summer Rosette turned seven, and on an East Coast trip she brought her dog breed book to identify new friends. She learned the intricacies of Sheltie breeding, studying the double merle; she walked a Jack Russell Terrier, and worried about the breathing of a black Lab with a lung tumor. But the only time she cried was when she missed Teddy. Not her father, or grandparents, or friends. Only her dog.
I have watched her, all these years. No one else feeds or walks Teddy, or picks up his poop, unless Rosette is sick. She doesn’t always remember her homework, and plays no sports, preferring to amble around with her dog. I have had to learn patience from both of them, since Rosette is known as my Velcro child for her clinginess, and Teddy is called “the neediest dog on the planet” by our bemused neighbors, with their rough independent German Shepherds and Rottweilers. But I realize, looking around at my house with its pack of girls, all female animals with hierarchies and assigned spaces and conflicting personalities, that Teddy picked the right place.
He stares at me now, while I write, daring me to move a muscle, draped across the doorway. I am not ashamed to admit that I am used to chaos and company, and when my kids are gone, I need someone else in the house. It helps that I’m accustomed to company that regards me censoriously if I am not doing something useful, like laundry, dishes, walking, dropping crumbs or retrieving dog biscuits. This is the home of needy short animals, and Teddy fits in perfectly, bravely licking up stray puddles of toxic-blue Otter Pops, surviving the inexpert eye-pokes associated with brushing by school friends who have never had a dog, and lying with one eye open under the mulberry tree where Rosette reads, waiting for her to come down so he can rescue her with his patience and devotion.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Doing Double Duty as a Therapy Dog
The day I brought my puppy home to Manhattan, a giant article appeared in The New York Times reducing him to a fashion accessory. Headline news: Boston Terriers, dogs for the hipper-than-thou. But I didn’t get my little guy to lift my social status. I got him to lift my father’s spirits—and add quality to the time he had left.
A note to my husband Geoff and me lay on the nightstand in our spare bedroom, where my father slept on chemo days.
Of course he cared.
He wanted a grandchild, but he didn’t have nine months, and he knew it. The postscript on the note revealed another truth of my father’s heart: Second to grandchildren, puppies are the greatest gift.
My husband lobbied for a Husky. Taxis don’t belong in the mountains, I told him, and sled dogs don’t belong in the city.
“Then a German Shepherd,” he said. “German Shepherds will take a bullet for you.”
Clearly, we had different priorities in the dog department. He was thinking work dog. He was thinking guard dog. I was thinking lap dog.
In the end, we agreed on a breed by marital compromise.
The fairest approach was to go with my father’s preference. He kept a weathered photograph of a Boxer in his wallet, the pet of his Brooklyn boyhood who fetched lost baseballs from under the stoop and ate the broccoli his mother thought he’d finished.
“Boxers fart,” Geoff said.
At least we were talking about something other than cancer.
The dog talk let us be ourselves again.
We settled on Boston Terriers because they resembled Boxers—barrel-chested stance, erect ears and short shiny coat. And apropos of my father’s nature, Boston Terriers epitomized the all-American spirit of the people. That’s what the dog book said.
Picking out a puppy is like house hunting or wedding-dress shopping. You know in your gut when you’ve found the right one. The rescues at The Queens Animal Shelter didn’t warm up to us. At the kennel in New Jersey, the litter had worms. Then a listing on the Internet caught my eye. The breeder lived upstate, near Buffalo. I convinced Geoff to make the trek.
“I called the woman. Her name is Glenda. She has the bitch. Her daughter has the sire. Guess what her daughter’s name is? Jo-lene. Nine hundred people live in their town. Glenda’s husband Harry fixes machine parts.”
Geoff didn’t see why any of this mattered.
“These are the kind of people who have a boat on the lawn,” I said, “the kind of people who know from dogs.”
We met Glenda Hartman at the dirt road that led to her house. A fallen tree blocked the drive path, so we parked and followed Glenda on foot, up the hill. “That’s my son, sawing the branch,” she told us, and a brawny boy of about 19 tipped his baseball cap in our direction.
“You and Harry have how many children?” I asked, trying to get her to like me.
“Six kids and 16 Boston Terriers,” she said. “Harry will tell you about the pups. He’s out back taking the tarp off the boat.”
I winked at Geoff.
Harry washed down the boat and a six-pack of Michelob. One pup bolted out the screen door to greet Geoff and me. “Only fair I knock $100 off his asking price,” Harry said.
We couldn’t imagine why.
Harry Hartman explained as only Harry Hartman could: “One of his little gonads didn’t come down yet.”
Geoff named our puppy “Iverson,” after Allen Iverson, the point guard on the Philadelphia 76ers, because he’s black with one white sleeve like the basketball player in his signature armband.
“Iverson’s a champion,” I say, when he poops on the newspaper.
Geoff beams. “We don’t call him Iverson for nothing.” The NBA’s Iverson was an MVP.
When I’m working from home, the puppy jockeys for space on my desk chair. His wide-set eyes and the white blaze between them give him a quizzical expression. How can you be sad, he seems to wonder, looking up at me. Then he plunks his chin on my knee and lets out a sigh.
If I try to crawl back into bed, he woos me with impish charm. He runs around the living room with the handle of my hairbrush in his mouth. For the love of liver treats, he learns “roll over.” Since my father’s diagnosis, I’ve been trying to make everything okay and thanks to my Boston Terrier, sometimes it is.
My father recently spent an entire month in the hospital. He’d exhausted all treatment options. He couldn’t walk, was fed through a tube, spoke in a whisper. I arrived early one morning to visit him, the two of us alone in the stark room.
“Get me out of here,” he said.
I readied the wheelchair for a trip to the recreation pavilion.
“That’s where we’ll tell the nurses we’re going,” my father schemed and pulled out his intravenous lines. “Wheel me out the side door. Hail us a cab to your apartment.”
An untenable plan, I told him. He’d been prone to falls. His painkillers might wear off. The hospital could refuse to treat him over a stunt like this. “No way, Dad. I love you,” I said, “but there’s too much at stake.”
My father, a meatpacker, a Marine, macho personified, wept into his handkerchief. “I’ve been dreaming for weeks,” he gasped, “of playing with the puppy on a big bed.”
I did what a compassionate daughter ought to do. I helped him into his shoes.
“Do you know who this is?” my father said when I put Iverson in his arms. “This is my grand-dog.” He scratched the black diamond on Iverson’s belly. He bundled Iverson in a blanket and watched him tunnel out. Iverson licked his cheeks wet with kisses. The puppy didn’t see a sick man. He saw a smiling face. And I saw a Boston Terrier keeping my father from fading away.
My dog is no trendy trapping of urban swank. He’s way too cool for that.
Culture: Stories & Lit
But which one does she really prefer?
It’s become an early-Sunday-morning ritual. I stumble out of bed, throw on a ratty robe and wait for my apartment buzzer to go off.
It’s Bill, Becky’s other dad, come to take her for a seven-mile hike up into the wilderness trails of the Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Becky is my two-year-old black Lab. Bill, a steel-grey, captain-ofindustry type, is the capable, commanding and alpha dad who gives Becky the exercise and discipline she desperately craves, while I am the lazy, good-fornothing beta dad she’s forced to live with all the rest of the time.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes two daddies to raise this dog.
My old dog, Sam, died earlier this year; Sam was a once-ferocious mutt who had calmed down over the years, so much so that I could read the paper while taking him for a slow mosey around the block. Becky, recently acquired from a down-onhis- luck screenwriter, is a fancy-shmancy dog, an AKC-registered hound with more papers than a Mayflower descendant. She’s sleek and black and beautiful, like a well-oiled seal, and at 61 pounds, too strong and energetic for me to handle without a Halti, a choke collar, a bridle and a stun gun. (Just kidding about the stun gun.) Laurie,my wife,who’s also in better shape than I am (let’s face it,Dom DeLuise is in better shape than I am) is a mere slip of a thing, and prefers a genteel game of tennis to being dragged by a dog who’s pulling with the power of a tow truck in pursuit of every squirrel, bird, butterfly and blowing candy wrapper that crosses her path.
Which may be why Bill has volunteered to perform this unusual form of community service. Becky leaps up, yipping, at the first sight of his Ford Explorer, her paws scrabbling at the side door, her tongue hanging out, her neck straining at the Louis Vuitton collar and leash.(My wife’s idea,may I add.) Bill gets out to let her in, and I cannot help but admire his taut abdomen, his well-muscled calves, his take-charge attitude; even though he’s a few years older than I am, Bill hasn’t let himself go. I, on the other hand, never really had a hold on myself in the first place.
While Becky and Bill are off hiking and running and romping in the hills, and Laurie’s tearing up a tennis court somewhere, I go back to bed (on a well-timed pick-up day, the blankets are still warm), then set another alarm to get up and throw together a sad excuse for a brunch. Some coffee, some grapefruit juice, some pricey (but good) muffins from the new City Bakery in the Brentwood Country Mart. It’s the least I can do. Laurie tries to get home from her tennis match around the same time as Bill—often accompanied by his equally fit counterpart,Mimi —returns with Becky.
But sometimes they’re all a bit late, and that’s when I have too much time on my hands—time to think about how this all looks. My dog needs another man to give her what she requires, and everybody knows it. She needs the strong, sure hand I do not know how to provide. When we first got Becky, we briefly hired an expensive trainer, a big woman with short-cropped red hair and baseball cap,who observed my dog-walking technique. For a block or two, I did my best to control Becky’s wild and powerful lungings while at the same time trying to reason with her, to explain to her why she needed to stop pulling, or spit out the snail she’d just crunched between her perfect white incisors. “You’re a man of words,” the trainer finally said, fixing me with her gimlet eye. “Yes, I guess I am,” I said, modestly. “I’m a writer.” “Dogs don’t understand many words,” she said, taking the taut leash from my hands and effortlessly removing the squashed snail from Becky’s slavering jaws, all with a magical gesture of some kind and a simple “Leave it.” The dog looked up at me as though thinking, Is that all you wanted? Why didn’t you say so?
Why indeed? Because, as this dog has brought home to me, I lack the dominant gene. I cannot impose my will on anything: I can barely retrieve a soda from a vending machine. Do Becky and Bill, I wonder, laugh about that as they march over hill and dale? What do they say about me and my slothful habits? Does Becky implore Bill, her other dad, to—I can hardly contemplate this—adopt her, to give her the active, fun-filled life that I,with my sedentary habits and submissive nature, can never do?
Do they talk about my bald spot?
When the buzzer goes off again, and Becky bounds into the house, racing for her water bowl, everyone is all smiles.Bill says something nice like, “Oh, Becky’s home again, and wants to see her daddy.” And Mimi exclaims over the muffins.My wife, in her tennis duds, crows about her latest victory, and I try to turn the topic to a book review or an inflammatory editorial—whatever I’ve managed to read in the 15 minutes I’ve been up since the last alarm went off. But nobody’s fooled, not even Becky. We’re all wondering how long we have to keep up this charade, how long we have to go on pretending that Becky needs two daddies at all. I offer everyone more juice, and try to hold the pitcher—still pretty full and heavy—steady as I pour. But everyone, I fear, can see the tremor in my hand. Becky, in particular, doesn’t miss a thing.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A screen treatment
Another guest arrives at the door and rings the bell. Everyone runs over to the door, evidently excited beyond belief, and stands or jumps around, jostling each other while staring at the door and yelling, “WHO’S THERE?!?! WHO’S THERE!?!?!”
The guest on the other side of the door yells back, “WHO’S THERE?!?!? WHO’S THERE!?!?”
Somehow, the new arrival enters and the party resumes as before.
The camera follows several of the guests around, including:
A muscular male dressed all in black who carries a Frisbee everywhere, clutched tightly to his chest. If anyone touches the Frisbee, he whirls abruptly around and stalks off, glaring over his shoulder.
Another man, dressed in plaid, rather jolly, who has a drooling problem. Every so often he shakes his head and drool flies onto adjacent guests, who don’t even notice.
A depressed-looking woman who spends the entire evening methodically ripping a large, stuffed chair to shreds.
A small group huddled together in a corner. They are all talking loudly and at the same time about completely unrelated subjects.
A huge guy, with jeans jacket and tattoo, who goes up to various people, drapes his arm over their shoulders and gives them a giant squeeze. Whoever it is immediately hands their hors d’oeuvre to the guy, who eats it.
A very small old lady with frizzy hair who leaps out from behind the furniture at passersby and speaks sharply to them. Even the huge guy is daunted.
The party Lothario who sidles up to anyone, male or female, and tries to smooch, but often misses the other person’s face. Nobody seems to mind.
Various bits of action occur:
A guest, looking out the window, suddenly gets very excited and yells, “A CAT!!! A CAT!!! A CAT!!!” Everyone rushes to the window and joins in, yelling “A CAT!!! A CAT!!! A CAT!!!”
Two people—one big, one little—grab an appetizer at the same time. They stand stock still, each holding on to it and staring out the corner of their eyes at each other. Suddenly, the big one whirls around and tries to walk off with it. The little person, however, doesn’t let go and is flung around in the first one’s wake.
In the kitchen, several guests have knocked over the garbage and are going through it.
In the backyard, several people with little spades are digging holes.
A fight breaks out in the living room between two guests, but it’s over in three seconds and the opponents hug each other joyfully.
Several guests can be seen hiding bits of food around the living room. They carefully scan for a likely spot, put the food down, then pick it up again and start looking for a better place.
One guest, with his hands full of food, simply holds onto it and snarls at anyone who approaches him. He keeps trying to add more food to his pile, spilling as much as he acquires.
Dinner is served:
Then all the guests eat as fast as they possibly can. Every so often, one guest simply grabs something off the plate of the person next to him/her. Sometimes that person grabs it back.
When everyone’s finished, they jump up and change places to inspect each other’s plates.
After dinner, everyone takes a nap. They are sprawled around the room, some in little groups huddled together, some on their backs on couches with their feet up on the arms and their hands flung over the back, some curled up awkwardly in overstuffed chairs with their chins propped up on the arms. Occasionally, we see limbs twitching and hear little contented noises.
Tug of war.
How many tennis balls can you hold?
A relay race in the back yard where the baton is never passed off. Each member of the team simply grabs hold when his or her turn arrives and everyone runs together.
Tug of war.
Singing together around the piano, but everyone sings a different song.
Grab the tail off the donkey.
Musical chairs, where shoving is allowed and you can sit on more than one chair. The big guy in the jeans jacket always wins.
Outside, on the sidewalk, a passerby is knocked down by a group of departing guests.
Everyone looks very happy, and the good-byes are loud and enthusiastic.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I can't throw. As a child, I was spared the humiliation of never being picked for either team in baseball by my friend Debbie, a prodigy with ball and bat who always chose me. She was a sort of one-person Red Sox Dream Team. Because of Debbie and in spite of me, our team always won, which is to say that hers did. Because I love dogs, I have never inflicted myself on a Golden Retriever or a Lab.
For the last 20 years, I have lived with Alaskan Malamutes. One of the mysteries of dogdom unexplained by science is why the fetch gene is extremely rare in a breed that evolved in the snowball-perfect environment of the Arctic. But rare it is. The typical Malamute has a powerful desire to fly after and seize moving objects but requires that the poor things be edible— squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, moles and mice.What’s more, Malamutes don’t share. If we bipeds want rodent delicacies for dinner, we’re expected to hunt them down ourselves.As to playing fetch, the Malamute attitude is that if you wanted those balls, you shouldn’t have thrown them away.
Or so I always believed. Then along came my Django, who is named for a legendary jazz guitarist but who should properly have been called Lou, Babe or Mickey. The dog is a fetch fanatic. When the rare gene manifests itself in Django’s breed, its effect is typically suppressed by competing genes that prevent Malamutes from engaging in such servile activities as picking up after members of a useful but lesser species.My late Kobuk would return a ball to me five or six times before he’d reach the disappointing realization that it was not going to spring to life and turn itself into a snack.My Rowdy never once retrieved anything but her obedience dumbbell,which she correctly viewed as currency exchangeable for beef and liver. She regarded Django’s insatiable appetite for fetch as stupid and treasonous; in her disdainful eyes, he was a brainless traitor to a proud and predatory breed.Rowdy’s scorn bothered Django not at all.Malamutes don’t give a damn about the opinions of others, including the heretofore universal opinion that I can’t throw.
So we play ball, Django and I. As I toss the ball, I follow the advice of athletically gifted friends: Just as Debbie used to advise, I keep my eyes on the spot where I’d like to have the ball land.Meanwhile, all on its own, the ball leaps out of my grasp and comes to rest elsewhere. On some occasions, it mysteriously drops to the grass at my feet before I’ve had the chance to launch it into the air.When the mood strikes it, it travels great distances and lodges itself in the depths of hedges. Once in a while, it perversely decides to roll under the gate and out of our yard.
True pitching, as I understand it, occurs when a human being sends a tiny little round object soaring through space in such a fashion that it miraculously arrives at a predetermined place. In my experience, true pitching is thus an aberration, perhaps, or a freakish coincidence, the kind of bizarre phenomenon that happens once in a trillion times and then only by accident. It has never happened to me.
Does Django care? He does not.Never once, even while digging through forsythia roots after his ball or while watching it fall like a dead thing at my feet, has he ever accused me of being unable to throw. On the contrary, he enjoys the delusion that I am Debbie. In his view, the Red Sox lost gold when they lost me. If you ask Django what he thinks of my pitching, he’ll tell you that by comparison with me, Curt Schilling throws like a girl. And that’s why I write about dogs.
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