Culture: Stories & Lit
Heartfelt wishes bridge profound differences
Oh, my! He’s doing so much better!” I looked up from rearranging the sling on my dog Hulk and saw the blonde, smiling, good-looking lady nearby with her little dog, Moses. “Good morning,” I said. “He is doing better, thanks.”
She bent over Hulk and let him sniff the back of her hand, the way dog-knowledgeable people do, and said,“I’m so happy for him. I think of him. I bless God.Your brave little dog has been an inspiration to me, and I pray for him.”
Hulk’s hind legs had been paralyzed and useless following an operation on his spine. I’d exercise him by holding a sling under his abdomen and lifting his rear quarters free of the ground by about an inch while he walked forward on his front legs. He’d run with gay abandon, and I’d trot alongside and behind him, lumbering like a fat old dancer trying to keep from stepping on his limply hanging hind legs. At the same time, I’d switch the sling—my wife’s best pillowslip—from hand to hand when he veered and changed direction, which was often.
The lady in the park had seen us operating that way several times and told me each time that she’d prayed for his wellbeing. She had also seen us at other times before that, when I had him strapped into a specially made cart with wheels, which, like the makeshift sling, held up his hind quarters while he propelled himself and the cart forward by his front legs. The dog and I did this for about a year, going to the park and the streets twice a day; while I developed muscles all over my body, he became a happy, trotting-on-two-frontlegs, carefree dog.
And why shouldn’t he be happy? He could go wherever he wanted, trotting along with this old Jew running beside him, holding up half his body weight.We figured that was to be our way of life and that was okay with us. That’s what we had to do, and that’s what we did. Later,magically, he got stronger and started crawling around the house without the wheels or the sling, dragging himself with his two strong front legs and pushing forward with his hind knees.We had lots of carpeting and laid down mats so that he wouldn’t rub his skin raw.
We tried fitting him with panty hose material to protect his knees. That didn’t work. Then I tried to have someone make a flat cart with ball bearings on the bottom so that he could propel himself like a dog-person on a skateboard. That didn’t work.
So we kept going out with the sling, and we kept going out on the wheels. That worked.
Then one day at home,my wife and I were stunned to see him rise from his bed.He stood wavering on all four legs. He moved forward. He tottered. He stopped. He moved forward. He wobbled. He walked. Not well or normally. But he walked.
Not long after Hulk regained partial use of his legs, the blonde lady saw us in Holmby Park .Hulk no longer on the wheel-cart or hanging from the pillowcase slip, but walking. Ungainly and looking determined, but covering ground, sniffing, occupied and serious, not unhappy.When she spotted us, she came running over, transported with pleasure and unrestrained joy that he had regained some use of his legs.
Hulk is a little 35-pound French Bulldog. His ears stand straight up in a permanent expression of acute personal interest. He has big serious eyes, wide open and direct, that stare right into yours as though you and he are having a deep, silent, important exchange of ideas.He has a fat little sausage of a body, the circumference of a football, firm, lush, and brindle in color, soft and warm to the hand. His right hind leg trembles when he stands, braced, looking like a champion, posing show-dog star. No tail, just a round soft luscious ass that fits right into the palm of my hand when I carry him.
Even when he was okay, he had attracted people. But now, limping and waddling heroically along like a wounded G.I. marching out of battle, he is a magnet to anyone with a heart, and that turns out to be almost everyone.
Let me tell you how crazy he’s made me: I realized one day with a shock that I might die before he does. So I wrote a will dictating his care. Here’s what I wrote in it:
Last will and instructions on how to take care of my dog in the event I die before he dies.
First: Inasmuch as I expect my beloved wife, Takayo, to throw herself on my funeral pyre, that kinda eliminates her from being around to look after my dog.
Second: The person or persons who do take care of my dog will be very well paid just as long as the dog remains happy and contented.
Instructions: He gets taken for a walk twice each day. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon.And you walk where he wants to walk, not the other way around. That often makes for some difficulties inasmuch as you may find yourself several blocks away from home when it’s time to head back, but he may not want to walk that way.Don’t drag on his collar.Don’t yell at him. Pick him up and carry him home.
A Tip: Sometimes, after you pick him up and you’ve covered about a half-block or so in the new direction, put him down and see if he likes the new direction and will head homeward with a gentle signal on his collar. If that happens, thank whatever you thank and congratulate yourself on having a wonderful day. Otherwise, pick him up and carry him home. That’s why you’re getting all that dough. Even if you do have a good heart at the same time.
The following are expressions you might say aloud to him to describe the extreme pleasure you feel when he takes a dump:“Good boy! Goooooooood boy! Aren’t you a gooood, gooood, boy! Aren’t you? Aren’t you?” Don’t wait for him to answer, just say, “Sure you are. Yes you are. You’re a good, gooood doggie boy!”
A. If this happens on the street and there are people nearby who can hear you, for God’s sake, don’t lower your voice or he’ll think you’re ashamed of him and what he did, and he won’t shit for a week.
B. Be sure to carry two or three doggie bags with you, and I’m not talking about those cute take-home things you get at restaurants. I’m talking about the real thing; doggie bags with which you scoop up his poop in order that we leave our streets and neighbors’ grass clean.And incidentally, flash those doggie bags around ostentatiously as you walk, so that everybody will know that you’re a good guy with every intention of cleaning up after the dog. That will help keep them from getting nervous when they see the dog studiously casing and sniffing the ground for the most attractive place to do something unattractive…
And it went on like that, only crazier. That’s some of the history of the dog and me leading up to that eventful day in the park.
The lady in the park told me that she had often, on seeing us, wanted to pray over him. And I remembered the day she had timidly, almost inaudibly, asked that of me. I hadn’t responded, pretending not to hear her. The moment passed, but I remembered it always with regret, shame and discomfort. I’m not one for prayers. I’ve had a number of tough moments in life, including being shot at on bombing missions over Germany, but prayer was never a source of comfort for me. I’ve been an atheist all my life, and when she asked that favor, I became paralyzed. We were so profoundly different. I couldn’t be deceitful, pretending to be something I’m not, especially to a person so caring.
Now, she said again, “Oh, my. He’s doing so much better.” She leaned over him and touched him. “He’s been so important to me. So inspirational.He’ll recover completely. God doesn’t do his work halfway. Oh, how wonderful to see this,” she said. “Oh, how wonderful is the work and heart of God. He heals and cares and this dog will recover entirely. I pray for him at home and think of you. I pray for you at home.”
And then I said, finally, very late, “You can pray over him. You can pray over him any time you like.”
She said something quietly.Hulk was sitting then.His legs often folded under him when he changed direction too sharply, and he’d lose balance. No pain, he’d just fold. I’d sometimes help by lifting his rear end, or he’d struggle on his own to all fours. Now he was sitting looking up at us.
“Oh Lord Jesus, make this wonderful little dog well. Care for him and keep him. Help him to walk,” she said touching his face.
I knew Hulk was getting ready to get up.
“Jesus, help this beautiful creature to wellness.”
Hulk looked over to the other side of the park. Was that a squirrel, or did it just look like a squirrel? He gathered his hind legs under him. He slanted a little sideways as he generally did in his effort to rise, and then, with a little grunt, he lurched to all four feet, tottered, remained erect.
“Oh Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, dear God, for caring for this dog and this man.”
Hulk stood for a second, then took direction and wobbled away, looking a little like John Wayne in his lopsided but determined gait to get somewhere. “Thank you, Jesus,” she said with a smile that started in her heart.
“Thank you, Jesus.” Hulk stopped. He looked back at us, at her, looking directly into her eyes in that serious, penetrating way of his.We all stood there, held in that lovely green park in a lovely soft moment.
Ah, Jesus, she was beautiful, my lady in the park, Christ, she was sweet! How I loved her goodness and how happy I felt for her joy.
We were profoundly different. We were essentially alike.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The day after Thanksgiving is a busy one for the shelter
As far back as I can recall,my daughter has had a special connection with animals. I remember a visit to a petting zoo, when I said, “Look at the cow,” and from her three-year-old vantage point she observed, “That’s a bull.” Or the time at a farm when a goat jumped a fence and everyone ran away from it—and she, age five, ran toward it. She had more of an affinity for animals than I would ever have. My attention was focused on the two-legged variety as I dealt with people in a fastpaced, dog-eat-dog world.
So on the day after Thanksgiving—Black Friday, when most people were sleeping late, eating leftovers or catching up on their reading—here we were at the animal shelter. Since I’d taken off work to recover from the pinched nerve that had forced me to slow down, it had become our “mother-daughter” activity.
I smiled, musing on the irony, because I had thought that having a daughter would mean dance recitals, shopping at the mall and visits to the nail salon with my little girl. My 12-year-old has exceeded my expectations, but not with ballet slippers or dolls.We had dogs: a life-sized stuffed Rottweiler; small plastic dogs; dog banks, posters and robots; encyclopedias that were dog-eared.When she was eight, we finally broke down and got a real dog, our Shih Tzu, Scooby.
Holding a writing pad and a library book, I look around, smiling once again at the small wooden sign above the front door: “Pets welcome, children must be leashed.” My daughter and I are here every Friday, photographing the new arrivals and posting them on the shelter’s Internet site. She thought of the job herself, inspired by the hours she spends on Petfinder.com, e-mailing the right dog to people she just “knows” need that dog to complete their lives. She has unbridled optimism, and is convinced that there is a home for every dog and that there should be a dog in every home.
I take in what will probably be one of the last warm days of late fall on the busiest shopping day of the year, almost as important as Thanksgiving itself in our consumer-driven society. As cars pull up, the shelter’s residents bark loudly in anticipation, eyes bright, tails wagging furiously. It almost sounds as though they’re saying, “Pick me!”
A family arrives in a silver minivan. An alpha mom, obedient dad and three boys about eight, 10 and 14 is my guess —shopping for a pet? All eyes are on the family as they walk past the pens and enter the building. Then they retreat to the car. As Mom retrieves a small pet carrier, Dad lights a cigarette, scratches himself and makes a call on his cell phone. Mom exits about 10 minutes later with her carrier purring, changing the course of a cat’s life forever.
More shoppers arrive. They move like Terriers in search of prey—swift and single-minded. Some are regular browsers, as far as I can tell; some are first-timers; others are bargainhunters, hoping to snare the occasional pedigree. Volunteers help themselves to leashes hanging on the walls. I hear them sigh with relief when they see that their favorite dogs are still there to be walked. Or is it a sigh of sadness that they haven’t been adopted yet?
A middle-aged couple stops to admire and pet Sheba, a brown-and-black mix sitting next to another volunteer’s mom, who is very attached to the gentle, two-year-old female. She once confided to me that she wished she could take Sheba home, but could not because of her five cats and blind father. She herself looks like a Persian cat, I think, with her dark hair, sable eyes and sleek movements. It occurs to me that I have probably been spending way too much time here.
Sheba wags her tail, jumps and kisses the man gently. The wife bends over and pets Sheba—Please, I think, please take her! The wife seems torn and sad, and her husband smiles weakly; then they return to their luxury SUV and leave.My silent prayer for Sheba’s future is not answered. After they drive off, I find out that they had recently lost their 19-yearold son and were looking to add something to their lives. I swallow hard. At that moment, I feel a pang for all the dogs who need people and for all the people who need dogs.
The stories go on. There is the family with four carrottopped toddlers looking at rabbits, while Grandma, who resembles a Mastiff, looks at dogs. I overhear them say that they are in search of that “just right” smaller dog to make their family complete.No luck for the Irish Setter,who would match their children’s hair perfectly. Not today.
A young woman dressed in a tweed blazer and jeans spends two hours trying to find a dog, to no avail. I wonder if she also takes such agonizing time to decide on the men in her life. She is looking for a companion to provide her with company, unconditional love and lifelong commitment. She is just not sure which one. Not today.
Volunteers keep walking in—some are regulars, taking their favorite charges out for a walk or run; others pull up with carloads of worn blankets, sheets, towels and half-empty bags of dry dog food. I see goodness, hope, sadness, joy, doubt and determination in the battered station wagons and rusty pickups that come bearing gifts.
The sun is beginning to set. I call to my bright-eyed daughter, who lovingly finishes brushing an old white Malamute mix. Time to go home and say a prayer that Spotty finds his perfect family or is still here when we come the next time. But first, we must go to the store and get dog food.
Update: Six months after this was written, Sheba was reunited with her original family. Her real name was Sandy, and we found out from the shelter that she was the hapless victim of a divorce, left there by a woman unbeknownst to her ex-husband or children. Sheba’s family spotted her photo on the Internet, and they were joyfully reunited.
Culture: Stories & Lit
What are the odds the past and the present will collide on a Manhattan street?
Jasper gets four walks a day. At 30 minutes each, he is on the road two hours daily, 14 hours per week, or 728 hours per year—equivalent to the month of April—with either Mike or me on the other end of the leash.
Given the math, it was odd that I would ask Mike to join us on one of my assigned walks that Sunday evening. But Mike’s mother had died the previous weekend and a code orange terror alert, warning financial institutions of an impending strike, had attracted swarms of cops to our United Nations neighborhood. We gravitated toward the security that only our little pack, in its completeness of three, could provide.
Neither of us was alarmed when a young man with tattoos and a shaved head sliced his way through a group of tourists in pursuit of Jasper, because Jasper, after all, is an 18-pound hottie.
Those who remember the “Thin Man” series call him Asta. In my opinion, Jasper, with his intense dark eyes, more sharply resembles a cleaned-up Colin Farrell. Reason enough, I figure, not to have argued with a woman who recently insisted that he looked just like me.
“Don’t tell me,” the hipster said. “That’s a Lakeland Terrier.”
I grinned, unimpressed.
“I had one once,” he said.
I dropped my guard. The odds of meeting someone with actual Lakeland experience are slim, like discovering a WMD in Times Square. I hope.
“They’re impossible to find. Where did you get him?” he asked.
Mike did, indeed, find Jasper. I had been the holdout. Since I grew up on a farm, the combination of “city” and “dog” made no sense to me. Mike, on the other hand,
“Pennsylvania?” the hipster said. “I had a Lakeland from Pennsylvania.”
“We got him from this guy who breeds, of all things, Lakeland Terriers and Great Danes,”Mike said.“His name is M. J.…”
“…Cohen,” the hipster completed.
“I got a puppy a couple of years ago from him. Weird, huh?”
We nodded. Weird.
“Had to give him up though,” he shrugged, “for work.”
The only way I could imagine giving up Jasper would be in a Sophie’s Choice moment of desperation. When Mike returned from his mother’s side for the last time a week earlier and collapsed, exhausted by the weight of her illness, Jasper, in an atypically affectionate move, jumped squarely upon his chest and began to lick his face. Proving that dogs often know what to do when people do not.
The hipster bent down to Jasper, but his girlfriend remained standing. She studied Jasper, carefully.
And then I did the math.
The hipster said that he got a puppy two years ago. Mike and I got Jasper one year ago…shortly after his first birthday. My ears buzzed, but not from the hovering helicopters. How had threats of terror, about which I could do nothing, blinded me to the clear and present danger crouched before me on the street, intimately caressing my dog’s ears?
I considered the options. I could: (1) remain silent and pray to be wrong; (2) make a preemptive strike, grab Jasper and run; or, (3) blow our cover.
“I think this little guy was yours,” I said, blowing our cover.
“You still call him Jasper?” the hipster asked.
I wondered if option two was still available.
“Well, of course,”Mike said.“He’ll always be Jasper. We could never change that.”
The hipster’s girlfriend looked nervously from the hipster to Mike. “This is weird,” she repeated. “He looks so different. I didn’t recognize him at first.”
Define “so different,” I thought, giving her the look.
The breeder had said that Jasper’s original owner was a photographer who had lived in New York before taking an assignment abroad.
“Oh, little buddy,” the hipster said. Jasper wagged his tail.Now I gave Jasper the look.
Mike and I had often imagined a version of this scene—the “deranged-birthfather- who-stalks-us-for-months-before- eventually-abducting-Jasper” scenario—in vivid, apocalyptic detail. Looking down upon the two of them, however, the hipster did not appear to be a dognapper.
Which could also mean that he was a very clever dognapper.
“It must have been so hard to give him up,” I said. The schmaltz was involuntary at this point.
The angle of the hipster’s head kept the tears pooled in his eyes until he stood and looked down at Jasper before gazing into the distance.
My grip tightened on Jasper’s leash.
“You guys have done a great job with him,” he said, finally.“He’s very happy.”
The hipster was not happy. He extended his hand to each of us. I said nothing in fear of suggesting visitation rights. He and his girlfriend continued down the street. Jasper did not put up a fuss, thank god.
Mike and I reached the end of the block before either one of us dared to look at the other, before we spoke and turned around, slowly, to see if the hipster was following us.
Clean Run Productions, $19.95
Kudos to Winter and the publisher for putting together this absolutely clear and well-illustrated book.Not only is it functional, but, with its more than 125 color photos and clean layout, it’s also attractive and fun to read. As its subtitle—Taking the Mystery Out of Massaging Your Dog —proclaims, it gives us the tools we need to help our dogs relax and feel better. Give your dog a full-body massage or, if time prohibits, a quick pick-me-up. The information is presented step-by-step in sections, so you can choose what works for the specific situation literally at hand.
Culture: Stories & Lit
My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me; I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised, and envious, as wondering how she got so much education. But indeed it was not real education, it was only show; she got the words by listening in the dining room and drawing room when there was company, and by going with the children to Sunday school and listening there; and whenever she heard a large word she said it over to herself many times, and so was able to keep it until there was a dogmatic gathering in the neighborhood, then she would get it off and surprise and distress them all, from pocket-pup to mastiff, which rewarded her for all her trouble.
If there was a stranger he was nearly sure to be suspicious; and when he got his breath again he would ask her what it meant. And she always told him. He was never expecting this, but thought he would catch her; so when she told him, he was the one that looked ashamed, whereas he had thought it was going to be she. The others were always waiting for this, and glad of it and proud of her, for they knew what was going to happen, because they had had experience. When she told the meaning of a big word they were all so taken up with admiration that it never occurred to any dog to doubt if it was the right one; and that was natural, because, for one thing, she answered up so promptly that it seemed like a dictionary speaking, and for another thing, where could they find out whether it was right or not? for she was the only cultivated dog there was.
By and by when I was older, she brought home the word Unintellectual, one time, and worked it pretty hard all the week at different gatherings, making much unhappiness and despondency; and it was at this time that I noticed that during that week she was asked for the meaning at eight different assemblages and flashed out a fresh definition every time, which showed me that she had more presence of mind than culture, though I said nothing, of course. She had one word which she always kept on hand and ready, like a life-preserver, a kind of emergency-word to strap on when she was likely to get washed overboard in a sudden way—that was the word Synonymous.
When she happened to fetch out a long word which had had its day weeks before and its prepared meanings gone to her dump-pile, if there was a stranger there of course it knocked him groggy for a couple of minutes, then he would come to, and by that time she would be away down the wind on another tack and not expecting anything; so when he’d hail and ask her to cash-in, I (the only dog on the inside of her game) could see her canvas flicker a moment—but only just a moment—then it would belly out taut and full and she would say as calm as a summer’s day, “it’s synonymous with supererogation” or some godless long reptile of a word like that, and go placidly about and skim away on the next tack perfectly comfortable, you know, and leave that stranger looking profane and embarrassed and the initiated slatting the floor with their tails in unison, and their faces transfigured with a holy joy.
A young family undertakes a cross-Canada adventure to visit literary legend, Farley Mowat.
In 2007, with their two year- old son Zev and pup Willow in tow, the couple undertook a third excursion, this time to see the venerable writer and environmentalist, Farley Mowat. Heuer has said that it was through Mowat’s books—Owls in the Family, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing among them—that he learned about Canadian wildlife and threats to it, as well as gained a better understanding of his country.
When Mowat extended an invitation to visit him and his wife Claire at their Cape Breton farm, the couple—along with Zev and Willow—literally launched themselves on what turned out to be a five-month trans-Canadian odyssey, setting off by canoe from their home in Canmore, Alberta, and following a route that took them through the settings of some of Mowat’s iconic stories. From this, Allison created a feature-length documentary, Finding Farley, and Heuer is working on a book of the same name.
In 2005, we talked with Heuer about his Yellowstoneto- Yukon (Y2Y) trek, and when we learned that he had made yet another incredible dogenhanced journey—with a two-year-old child, no less— we made it a point to find out more.
Bark: On your 1998 Y2Y expedition, you were accompanied by Webster, a Border Collie mix. Is Willow his successor?
B: How does Willow compare to Webster as a trail partner?
B: What kind of relationship does your son Zev have with Willow?
B: In retrospect, what would you say was the primary benefit of traveling as you did?
B: From the philosophical to the practical, tell us how you taught Willow to ride in the canoe, and how she occupied her time while she was in it.
B: What would you say was the most challenging aspect of the trip? KH: Managing Willow and Zev. They’d be clambering around—he’d be stepping on her or she’d be stepping on him. Sometimes all Leanne and I wanted was just some peace and quiet, but that wasn’t usually an option. The bugs were another challenge. When the flies got bad, we couldn’t do much for Willow. Some of the travel arrangements were also an issue. For the maritime section— 30 hours from one land mass to the next—we lucked upon a perfect guy who was willing to take us on board. He was a total dog lover and didn’t object to having Willow on his ship, or to the accommodations we felt she needed. We made little bouquets of spruce branches and grass and left them in out-of-the way places so Willow would have something familiar to go on if she needed to.
B: Were you surprised by anything that Willow did?
B: Did having Willow along enhance the trip in other ways?
B: How would you compare the Y2Y experience and this trip?
B: Tell us about Farley and dogs.
B: What’s next? Are there more “incredible journeys” on the horizon?
Culture: Stories & Lit
My wife finished her first set of chemotherapy in 2002. They were aggressive drugs, and Genie fought hard. In the spring, cancer’s grip was finally broken. We thought we could rest easy.
Then something odd occurred, something cold.
Cancer took Wylie, our first sweet dog, the summer of 2002. Cancer took Ruby, our tall red dog, the following year. And when Jackson — a bigger, stronger dog — died a few years later, he too was riddled with cancer. Our first three. Gone.
They had all stayed by Genie’s side — as close as close can be — as she battled cancer in 2001 and into 2002. As jumbled and full of distractions as that period of time was, their eyes never lost sight of Genie.
Is it possible, as Genie and I believe, that they took on Genie’s cancer so that she might live?
I know — too dramatic, too outlandish. No way could that be. Besides, cancer isn’t contagious. Good point, I guess.
There are few things any of us know with certainty.
I know a few things. Dogs are funny. They aren’t selfish. They are loyal. They ask no questions. They never doubt. They stand by our side as the world spins, as the world darkens, as the winds howl.
Sometimes you wonder why. Is it merely because we house them, pet them, feed them? Or is it something more? Could it be something more?
We speak of devotion when we speak of people. There are devoted people, and people in blissful love. What a beautiful thing, devotion. And how sweet deep love, which leads to devotion. It’s what we all want out of life — to be loved. To have someone there when darkness falls, and to warm us when it turns cold, as the world does from time to time.
The thing about people is that sometimes they hesitate. They may come around, they may love, they may be devoted, but, sometimes, maybe for only a fraction of a second, they’ll hesitate when times turn tough. They’ll blink.
Dogs don’t hesitate. They stand by our side, no matter the odds, the reason, the depth of cold. If we step into the blackest of nights, they step with us, and sometimes — most of the time — they take the first step.
And no matter their size — from the smallest to the largest — they’ll do what needs to be done to safeguard their human companion — their friend — even if it means giving their life. They don’t weigh the odds, or ask any questions. Dogs are selfless.
Maybe Genie and I are luckier than some, but we’ve known a number of devoted dogs.
We’ve seen three fall to cancer. Yes, I don’t know for certain that they took on Genie’s cancer so that she might live. But from the depths of my heart, that’s what I believe. They loved Genie that much, that’s what I know. And here’s one more thing: If they bought her but a mere minute more of life and time, they’d be happy.
I’ve seen and touched and felt such tremendous love.
Devotion. A truer sounding word I can’t name.
Author of Marcus of Umbria
We talk with Justine van der Leun about her new book Marcus of Umbria—a Bark Summer Reads pick. Deciding to leave the big city and a good magazine job, she packs it all in to live in a very small Italian village and a chance at love. What she finds instead, and where she finds it, makes for charming storytelling.
Bark: What compelled you to leave your NY city life and venture out to a (very) small village in Italy? And why that particular village?
Justine van der Leun: For love, of course! Or perhaps lust is more accurate. I had gone to Collelungo, on vacation, and while I was there, I fell helplessly for a local gardener named Emanuele. The stereotype of the seductive Italian exists for a reason. After just three weeks, I wanted to live with him in his tiny, rural town. I was working with a businessman on a memoir about Italian wine, so it was convenient for me to settle there. I returned to New York, sublet out my place, and booked a one-way ticket back.
B: What was the one thing that surprised you the most about the villagers’ attitudes towards animals? Had you expected that?
J: Collelungo was an ancient farming culture and the people had endured centuries of dire poverty. Though this generation is relatively comfortable, the people of Collelungo, like most farming cultures, have an old-world approach to animals. For them, animals are a means of survival. They raise everything by hand—the opposite of factory farming. Because of this, farm animals like sheep, cows, and pigs roam free on untouched land. On the other hand, horses were for casual sport, and the training techniques were, to say the least, not progressive; and cats were feral and expected to fend for themselves. Dogs were caged out back and used to hunt. The idea of having a dog inside disgusted people. In Collelungo, there was little concept of an animal’s emotional life; the mere idea was absurd to them. But even in that society, there were exceptions: People who adored their dogs; who spoiled their horses; who fed and coddled kittens.
B: Marcus is a English Pointer, a dog with an “intense” connection to everything around her, how did she redefine or refocus your own connection to nature?
J: Marcus changed everything. I’ve been watching her stalk and chase birds and bunnies and squirrels for four years now, and it never gets old. Before I met Marcus, I had no relationship with the outside world. I grew up in rural Connecticut, surrounded by natural beauty, but all I wanted was to read indoors and move to New York City. But once I found Marcus in Italy, I began to walk in the woods, to look at the trees, to climb hills and ride horses. At first, I did it to see her joy, but soon I was able to feel my own joy. Now, even though we’re back in the states, I am nearly unrecognizable to myself: I run with Marcus in the morning, hike with her through parks and forests, take long strolls down the beach. We just spent a day canoeing on the Delaware Water Gap. I see nature from her perspective, as something right and necessary.
B: Since you rehabilitated a dog who was kept (if you can call it that) just for sport and had little human contact outside of the hunt, what affect did this have on you? Did it change how you viewed the human/dog bond? Did it alter your view of different cultures and how they treated their animals?
J: I rehabilitated Marcus with the help of a very generous behavioral therapist named Nikki Wood, whom I called crying when I returned to the States. I was at a loss for how to live with Marcus, who, because she lacked socialization and had been mistreated, trembled and ran whenever she saw a stranger or heard a loud noise. Nikki sensed that Marcus and I had a special connection and agreed to work with us as long as I would put in the effort. Did I ever! Training Marcus for nearly two years, I got a crash course in dog-human interaction. We think we know about our dogs, but we’re really so uninformed. I read all of Patricia McConnell’s books and really delved into the brain and heart of the dog, which was fascinating. I still have much to learn, but my new, more intricate understanding of her has really bonded us. I’ve seen such tremendous improvement in Marcus, who has overcome most of her fears. She will never be that super-confident dog with a great puppyhood, but she can now accomplish nearly anything. She’s more resilient than I could have imagined.
B: You weren’t expecting to meet up with the dog-of-your-heart when you went to Italy. If Marcus hadn’t come along, how differently do you think your experience there would have been? Would you have come home sooner or later? Do you think you could have settled there permanently?
J: I would have been home in two months, and that would have been a shame. I was wildly lonely and unfocused at first, living in such a remote foreign place. My relationship with Emanuele wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep me there. But when I found Marcus, I couldn’t leave her. Her existence also made me wonder what other surprises lay in store for me—and there were many! Marcus acted as my unwitting anchor and my little spotted tour guide. Because of her, I had the most illuminating year of my life so far.
Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog
With so many new books making their way to my desk, there is a special one to recommend—Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog, a memoir by Susannah Charleson. Readers ride along with Charleson’s canine partner, Puzzle, a rambunctious, delightful and very smart Golden Retriever, from the moment the pup enters her life and through her training. With wit, charm and a deep understanding of dogs, Charleson’s story about her dog, and their long road together towards a fully collaborative partnership, is a revelation and joy. Look for an excerpt in our next issue!
Culture: Stories & Lit
Caring for two loves
I am not responsible for much. I do not have children who have to get to school on time and wear matching shoes and be taught the difference between right and wrong. I do not have a job in which the well being of a company or the safety of the nation or the health of anyone at all is resting on my shoulders. I have a couple of plants I must remember to water. I make a point of paying my taxes on time. I take care of myself, but that’s not worth mentioning. I pitch in and help all sorts of people when I can, but they are people who could find the same help elsewhere if I went on vacation. When I think of who I am responsible for, truly responsible for, the list whittles down to my dog and my grandmother, and it just so happens that last week they were both sick.
Rose is white with ginger ears and an extremely alert tail. She weighs 17 pounds even though she should probably weigh 16. She had some angry-looking lesions on her pink belly that made me take her to the vet two months ago. I gave her the assigned antibiotics wrapped in cream cheese or peanut butter, depending on what was around. But the inflammation lingered and then flared, exacerbated by Rose’s very focused licking, and I decided we should go back and try again. I had heard there was a dog dermatologist in town with a three-month waiting list, but decided to give my regular vet another try. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t go to the dermatologist if I had pimples on my stomach and so I don’t see why I should make my dog go either.
My grandmother is 94, a mere 13 in dog years. She lives in an assisted-living facility three miles from my house and four blocks from my vet. Sometimes I take her with us to the vet, even though it is a lot to navigate a scared dog and a mostly blind, very confused grandmother into the waiting room. Still, she likes the excitement of barking, the snuffling dogs, the chance to comfort Rose, who is inevitably trembling with her head pressed beneath my grandmother’s arm. Rose doesn’t like the vet, which would be a point too obvious to include were it not for the fact that my mother’s cat worships his trips to doctor. They are his 15 minutes of fame. He purrs for hours after coming home at the mere thought of having received so much attention.
“It’s okay,” my grandmother tells Rose and rubs her ears. “Nobody’s going to eat you.”
But Rose, for all her incalculable wisdom, is still a dog and we cannot reassure her that something really hideous isn’t about to happen. Maybe she does think that an enormous and drooling animal is waiting to chew her up behind the door of examining room number three. She vibrates in her fear, tucking her head down and her hindquarters in until she is the size of a grapefruit. How can I explain that this was all for the good, that I would never leave her here, that I would protect her with the same passion with which she protects me from the UPS and FedEx trucks? We have such a language between us, Rose and I, but in this case it fails us and all I can do is pet and pet.
My grandmother has said her leg was sore all week. There was a bruise behind her knee, a funny place for a bump, and so my mother and I kept an eye on it. As soon as my mother flew off for her vacation, I received a phone call from the assisted-living nurse. My grandmother needed to go to the doctor, immediately.
“Are we going to your house?” my grandmother said, once I had wrestled her and her suddenly useless, painful leg into my car.
“We’re going to the hospital,” I told her. “The doctor needs to see your leg.”
“My leg is fine,” she said.
“It’s fine because you’re sitting down. Do you remember it hurting before?”
“My leg doesn’t hurt,” she said.
Her leg is blowing up like a summer storm, dark as an eggplant now across the back and getting green in the front. Her skin feels tight and hot. How did it get so bad so fast? The doctor said her blood was too thin. She’s had a bleed into her leg, which is better than a clot, and was admitted to the hospital.
If twenty minutes in the vet’s office can turn my bounding, snarling, terrier mutt into a cowering grapefruit, three days in the hospital would cast my sweetly confused grandmother down into the bottom circles of dementia.
“Where are we?’ she asked.
“In the hospital.”
“Are you sick?”
“No,” I said, leaning over to lightly tap her leg. “You have a sore leg.”
“I’ve been here before.”
“A long time ago.”
“There weren’t all these pots and pans then,” she said. “Not so many red squirrels.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“Where are we now?”
“Still in the hospital.”
“Do you feel sick?”
And so we went on in our circle, hour after hour. We had stepped outside of the routine we knew and found ourselves in a place where language was utterly useless. Still, we could not stop talking, the same way I talked to Rose while we waited for the vet. “It’s okay. I’m right here. You’re a beautiful dog. There was never such a good and beautiful dog as you.” I whisper to her over and over again while I pet.
I could not call Rose and tell her I was at the hospital, and I could not leave. IVs can get pulled out much quicker than they can be put back in; I had already found this out. Every five minutes my grandmother swung her feet to the floor. “Let’s go now.”
I picked them up and put them back in her bed. “You aren’t supposed to walk.”
“Where are we?” she asked.
Is it wrong to tell a story about your grandmother and your dog in which their characters become interchangeable? My sense of protectiveness for the two of them is fierce. They love me, and because their love is all they have to give, it seems especially pure. I love them too, but my love manifests itself in food, medical care, rides in the car, grooming. On Saturdays, I bring my grandmother home and give her lunch, and she always claims to be too full to finish her sandwich so that she can give half of it to Rose, who does not get sandwiches at other times, especially not straight from the table. I look the other way when my grandmother whispers to my dog, “Don’t worry. She doesn’t see us.”
My grandmother longs to have the ability to spoil someone again. My dog is the one mammal left who is unconditionally thrilled by her company. I wash my grandmother’s hair in the kitchen sink after the dishes are done and Rose sits in her lap while I blow it dry and pin it up in a twist. Sometimes, when I’ve finished with my grandmother’s hair, I’ll wash Rose in the sink and use the same damp towel to rub her dry. Then they lie down on the couch together and fall asleep, exhausted by so much cleanliness.
Back in the hospital, I cover my grandmother up with a white blanket.
“Your little dog sure did give me the cold shoulder,” she said, her voice full of hurt.
“She didn’t even come over and say hello.”
“Rose isn’t here,” I told her. “We’re in the hospital.”
My grandmother’s eyes move slowly from the window to the door, then back again. “Oh,” she said, glad to know she was wrong. She takes the white blanket up in her hands.
Three days later, my grandmother went home, her leg still sore but stable. I have told her she was in the hospital, but she doesn’t believe me.
Rose, on the other hand, remembers her antibiotic. After dinner she sits in front of the counter where the bottle is kept, wagging her tail. She thinks only of the cream cheese, not the medicine, because she knows that part of it is my responsibility.
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