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.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I could not bring myself to take pictures of any of it, to take anything, although I did for a moment consider grabbing my camera to ensure that later on I’d have an image, some tangible visual record of the process of losing you. Maybe that momentary impulse came from fear that the emotional weight of participating in your last days as flesh-and-blood would eventually outweigh or alter the straight facts that photographs might hold. Fear that visuals so fresh right then, as I sat on one of the two plush green leather couches of the crematorium waiting room, would reshuffle themselves and gently blend together as merely tolerable sentimental recollection. It wouldn’t have been right, though, to shoot what only you and I should know. The camera stayed in the truck.
The kind man in charge of the ovens had just gone out into the noon blast of July in the San Fernando Valley to check on the progress of your burning. I’d followed but stopped thirty feet back as he’d asked me to.
“You don’t really want to see—it’s something you probably wouldn’t want to see… The. … uh …,” he’d mumbled, faltering in a way that had won me over instantly.
“You mean if she isn’t done yet?” I’d said, completing the thought for him.
“Yes, exactly. The, uh… sometimes they’re not completely …” He’d paused, looking as pained as if he’d known you the way I had.
“Yes,” he’d blurted out with a slight squeak in his voice. “It isn’t pretty.”
“No. I can imagine it wouldn’t be,” I’d said.
“Not at all pretty.”
He had stood there, putting on his fire-retardant gloves and his sunglasses, still looking at me as if needing to say something more. And I had waited. It’d already been a hell of a long morning, so I hadn’t been in any big hurry at that point.
“I do this all the time, but I couldn’t personally, you know, do this.”
I’d thought I understood more or less what he meant.
“My uncle’s dog,” he’d continued, “I had to do that one, and it was very difficult. I could never do it again.”
“I understand,” I’d said.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
He’d started backing sideways toward the oven. It was one of the three on the back lot that seemed to be in operation, as evidenced by the grey smoke rising from their steel-pipe smokestacks into the smoggy haze above us. As inappropriate as the thought might have been, I somehow couldn’t help but think of the much larger indoor ones I’d once seen in the Dachau concentration camp memorial. I’d felt a momentary urge to ask if these ovens had been manufactured in Europe, but it had passed.
“Please stay back here while I check and see how she’s doing,” he’d then said.
“OK,” I’d said. “And how do you check?”
He’d stopped side stepping toward the oven. “I open the door and look.”
“She might not be done. She might not be ready.”
“Yeah. OK. I’ll wait… ”
“Plus, it’s real hot. About 1,500 degrees.”
“I’ll wait here then.”
“I’m so sorry,” he’d said, tugging down the bill of his navy-blue ball cap and turning toward the oven. He’d said “sorry” several times since I’d arrived, and he seemed to mean it. “Sorry for your loss. I am truly sorry.”
After a minute spent carefully peeking through the slightly opened oven door, he’d closed it and walked back to me. “I’m sorry. She’s not done yet. Another ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Should I go back inside to the waiting room, then?”
“Yes. If you don’t mind. Sorry. I’ll let you know just before I get her so you can come and watch me do everything. Check, you know, to see if… see that… ”
“Yeah, good. OK, thanks.”
A tall, well-groomed black poodle named Paris, as I’d overheard her being called when I’d first arrived at the crematorium office, had been staring at me for a while. From her position under a sort of anaemic-looking potted ficus by the doorway to the office, she was able to monitor all comings and goings. Suddenly, she rose and bolted straight for me, jumping up on the couch right next to me, barking excitedly. Her breath smelled like boiled carrots. Sort of sweet and not altogether unpleasant, but not something I craved at that moment. The receptionist called Paris, no doubt trying to keep the dog from further upsetting me, the grieving customer. Paris was not bothering me at all. I understood that she had been barking for attention, not out of aggression—probably bored out of her mind in this place where all other dogs were dead and burning or about to be. She hadn’t even barked that loudly, really, and her company was comforting in a life-goes-on-and-there-are-lots-of-nice-dogs-in-the-world-sort of way. Paris gave me one more quieter bark right in my left ear, licked my face and left me to see what the receptionist wanted.
“I’m very sorry,” the receptionist said, as she led Paris into the back of the office area.
“That’s OK,” I said. “She wasn’t bothering me. Female, right?”
“Yes, she certainly is. I am sorry for your loss.”
I know she meant it as well. Expressions of sympathy for the customer would to some degree have probably been obligatory for the crematorium personnel, but everyone did seem to be personally and genuinely concerned. People doing their utmost to run a decent family-owned business with kindness and compassion. The compulsion to record all of this got the better of me, finally, and I went out to the truck to look for my notebook. After a quick scramble through the papers, books, cameras and other assorted commuter debris on the back seat, I found the notebook. Although I had not had the time to take many pictures or to sit down and write much of anything lately, a camera and something to write in are always in the car, or in whatever bag I carry, just in case a moment special to me presents itself to be stolen. Resisting once more the temptation to take the camera, I grabbed the notebook and a pen and returned to the waiting room to begin writing this.
Kind strangers have given me a few handsomely bound journals and notebooks over the years. Some, like this one, are bound in beautifully tanned and tooled leather. This one’s cover has a giant oak tree cut into it, with other old oaks on a distant ridge beyond it. The big pewter button used for tying the notebook closed with a leather thong is cast with an oak leaf and acorn detail. I am not much good at keeping a diary, or diligent about any sort of regular journal entries. My way to remember has usually been to write stories, poems or more often than not, to make photographs or drawings. I felt a little rusty and awkward writing in the waiting room under the quietly watchful eyes of the receptionist and Paris. Maybe it didn’t seem at all odd to them, my scribbling away. Probably what bothered me was my own sense of guilt over being inclined to record the events surrounding the processing of your body. Just a short time earlier I had been openly weeping while crossing the city in morning rush-hour traffic. I suppose we humans can be resilient—nearly as resilient as you were, Brigit—and as accepting of life’s unpredictably rough patches as most animals seem to be. Whatever the reason, I found I could not write fast enough in my attempt to describe the events of the day.
“Do you want to come out while I clean this out?” the kind voice of the oven-minder asked softly, interrupting me in mid-sentence. I looked up and nodded.
“Yes, please. I’ll … let me … let me just finish this sentence—this paragraph. I’ll be right there.”
“Do you write a lot?” he asked, as I followed him outside.
“Nice-looking book you got there.”
“Thanks. Yes, it is.”
I closed it, marking my place with the pen, just as he stopped and turned to me. I was standing on the same spot I had been asked to watch from earlier. “Please stay right here. I’ll shut her down and get everything. You’ll be able to see everything happening, but it is very hot now, and also …”
“Yes, ok I’ll wait here.”
As I stood still in the by-now withering heat and watched him switch off the oven and open it, I suddenly realised that there had been no muzak, no music of any kind playing in the waiting room. That was a pleasant surprise and seemed remarkable to me. The tact involved in such a choice on their part told me that they really must care.
The ovens were out behind the small, one-story building that holds the tidy crematorium office, some oversize freezers and the very pleasant air-conditioned waiting room. The property was surrounded by twenty-foot-high stacks of automobile carcasses, entire auto bodies and an enormous variety of neatly sorted bits and pieces—fenders, doors, hoods, seats, side mirrors, steering mechanisms, engine parts, dashboards, roofs, etc., arranged in row after row—apparently according to year, make and model. The sprawling salvage yard dwarfed the crematorium and its modest parking lot. Although there was no vegetation in sight, the colourful, encroaching heaps and rows of rendered vehicles almost looked like exotic organic growth, a sort of postmortem environment that seemed to me to perfectly complement the pet-burning business. The thick, lightly buzzing strands of heavy-duty power lines drooping as they crossed some thirty feet above us from one massive steel support to another only added to this entirely man-made, and remade, end-of-nature garden. Its perfume was a blend of acrid and oily-sweet, of melting rubber and asphalt, of taffy-thick black engine grease, of yellowing plastic and peeling paint sluggishly wafting upward and blending with the constant dead-fish reek of Los Angeles smog.
I had risen very early—or, rather, got out of bed early, as I hadn’t slept at all. Knowing it was today that I was scheduled to pick up your refrigerated corpse at our trustworthy local veterinary hospital and drive it out to this industrial hinterland for cremating had kept me from being able to rest. Probably I am able to write about this with a degree of detachment because your brother Henry and I have already gone through the worst of your final decay and death process together. We took you, our fifteen-year-old, completely lame and largely incontinent pal, to be “put down” three days ago. In the intervening time we had to wait for a slot at the crematorium to open up. I have been able to largely digest and assimilate the stronger surface emotions of your final morning. As much as I am and will continue to be haunted by your sweet, departing gaze when the brain-stopping serum was administered, time and the responsibilities resulting from your passing have more or less carried me away from that heartbreaking scene. I will always see your eyes slowly lose their gleam as I gently lay your head down. Will always remember your final generous gesture of rolling halfway over to let us rub your belly one last time before the doctor gave you the sedative.
I’d arrived at the back door of the vet’s office feeling like I was complicit in some sort of underworld transaction. As had been the case all week, the morning sky was overcast, and the clammy grey marine layer had only added to the death business I was now part of. Two men in overalls had come out with what looked enough like a curled-up “you” shape inside a light-blue trash bag. As I had taken the thawing bundle and carefully laid it on the towel-covered passenger seat of the pickup truck, I had looked at the older of the two men. He’d nodded, seeming a bit uncomfortable, and then had turned and followed his colleague back inside the building without a backward glance or farewell. I had been very tired, a bit teary-eyed, and had not said a word myself. Probably not the most pleasant person for them to be around. I had gotten in the car and begun making my way to the 405 freeway. Moving slowly, stuck in the usual massive commuter caravan headed north toward the Sepulveda Pass, it had occurred to me that tomorrow would mark the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb drops. Then I had thought, not for the first time when passing the Sunset Boulevard exit, about O.J. Simpson’s bizarre televised journey in the famous white Ford Bronco. I had continued in that vein for a while, my mind becoming cluttered with a dizzying assortment of images involving unforgivable murders and other perversions of justice. The ideals of compassion had seemed distant, insignificant. I’d felt resigned, passively understanding that life moves forward just as traffic eventually does. Suddenly, the cars in front of me had slowed abruptly and I had braked hard, glad to see cars in my rear-view mirror doing the same.
The bagged corpse had slid off the seat and onto the floor, and I’d tried to pull it back up with my right hand. It had been quite heavy, and I’d realised it would be a difficult and dangerous task to accomplish while driving, so I had made my way across two lanes of traffic and off onto the side of the freeway. As I had come round the front of the truck and opened the passenger-side door, I had decided I’d have a look at you to see if you were intact. I had straightened out the towel on the seat and lifted the bundle back onto it, then poked a hole in the plastic bag, now wet with condensation, where I could feel one of your frozen paws. Long black hair, long black nails. Not much like any of your paws. I had quickly felt for the body’s head, finding a stiff tongue projecting beyond clenched teeth, and then a collar around the neck. We had taken your collar off when you’d expired at the vet’s, and I knew that Henry was wearing it wrapped twice around his wrist as a bracelet today. This dog was not you. The absurdity of it all had hit me immediately as I had stood up and stared at the mass of moving cars through the poisonous-looking heat waves. The sadness of it had been suddenly overwhelming, as was the smell of initial decomposition, which I had not been aware of until that moment, like that of a dead deer that’s been hanging for a few hours from a tree.
I had never really wanted to live in Los Angeles. Here I was, on yet another ridiculous errand, feeling vaguely like I was being punished for some past transgression, marking time and forced to make sense of an oddly evolving riddle. I had secured the corpse and made sure the towel was placed so as to keep the dead stranger from touching the seat or any part of the truck’s interior. Eventually, I’d got myself turned around and headed back to the vet’s, feeling sorry for this poor dog I did not know, and for its unwitting owner. En route, I had called the crematorium and informed them that I would be late for our oven appointment because I’d been given the wrong dog. They’d been very kind, had said I should get there when I could, and that they were very sorry.
Now the crematorium is about two miles behind me as I sit listlessly sipping coffee at a Mexican restaurant. This is as far as I have got, with my new cedar box containing your remaining bone fragments and ashes. I had asked the oven-minder to please not crush your bones if that was what he’d planned on doing.
“Yes, normally we do very gently break down the bone matter so that it fits comfortably in the box or urn as the case might be. If you prefer, though … ”
“…we can also not do it and just try and place her, the bone matter—the bag, that is—in the cedar box for you. If they’ll fit—if it will fit—that is.”
“That’s ok, I can do it.”
Earlier, out by the ovens, I had been allowed to scoop up all your burnt bits from the metal tray that the man had scraped the cooling, fragile ghost-shape of your skeleton onto. I had stopped several times to carefully examine some of your more distinguishable pieces. Vertebrae, hip parts and most beautiful of all, the rounded piece of bone that I instantly recognized as the top of your skull. We have petted that part of you so often. I can feel its shape even now, in memory, feel the bone through your smooth fur, feel your warmth and your happiness. All of it had gone into the plastic bag he now held.
“Ok, sir. As you prefer.”
I proceeded to gently rearrange the bag and its contents inside the box, and then placed your crematorium nametag and the receipt for services provided on top of your remains before closing the lid with its little brass clasp.
“We would like you to consider the cedar box a gift from us due to the unfortunate mistake that was made this morning. We are very sorry about that.”
“Oh. Well … thank you …”
A woman who seemed to be the oven-minder’s boss, and perhaps the owner of the establishment, stood up and came around her desk to address me. “We are very sorry that … Brigit?… that Brigit got confused this morning.”
I almost pointed out that you had not been confused at all, being quite dead, but I resisted the temptation, knowing what she meant.
“It is very unusual that something unheard of like that would happen,” she continued. “Very unusual, and we are extremely sorry. If you prefer a larger box or don’t like cedar as a wood type… maybe an urn would be more to your liking?”
I was truly moved by her words and the generous offer.
“Is it Western red cedar?” I asked, for some reason unknown to me now—perhaps being at a loss for anything better to say by way of response.
“You know, I am not real sure about that,” she replied, a bit thrown off by my question. “I certainly can try and find out for you, if you like?”
“No, thanks. I was just wondering. Just curious, I guess.”
“Would you like to replace the cedar?”
“Replace? No. I like cedar. Smells good, looks good. Thank you.” I now felt like a complete idiot. “You don’t have to give me the box, though. Don’t have to give it… I’m happy to pay for it.”
“We insist. It’s something we want to do for you.”
“Thank you very much. Very kind of you.”
“If Brigit doesn’t fit comfortably, not being completely dust and all… ”
(“Comfortably?” Never mind… ) “No, that’s fine. She fits. I got her in there ok. And it’s a beautiful box. Thank you.”
“Me podría traer un poco de arroz con frijoles, por favor?”
“Would you like anything else with that?” the waitress replied, in heavily Spanish-accented English.
“Gracias, pero la verdad es que no tengo mucho hambre.”
She looked at me calmly, and said “I’ll bring it right out. Warm up your coffee for you?”
“Fijese: ahora que lo pienso creo que sí me gustaría una pequeña ensalada de lechuga y tomate… y cebolla, si hay.”
“Ok,” she continued in English, “and will you like some dressing—vinaigrette, ranch, French, blue cheese, or oil and vinegar—for that?”
Doesn’t happen often, but once in a while my gringo looks or perhaps my Argentine accent seem to be held against me like that. She glances at the cedar box resting on the table to the right of my place setting. I wonder if she has seen this sort of box before. The crematorium isn’t far, and maybe other people stop here now and then as I have, unable or unwilling to drive any further. Maybe they sometimes come here and get a little drunk, become indiscreet and open their boxes to look at what’s left of their animal friends. Maybe they cry and have to be consoled. I do not look at my box, just hold the waitress’ gaze when it returns to me. I’ve taken an initial dislike to her because she seems to refuse to speak Spanish with me, so I’m certainly not going to give her any more clues now.
“Will that be all, sir?” she asks dryly.
“Sí… y si me puede traer la cuenta con la comida—y un poco más de café—se lo agradecería.”
She looks at me for a moment longer, then reluctantly mutters “Por supuesto, señor,” as she turns to go place my order.
Culture: Stories & Lit
We each have our own particular way of grieving the loss of a beloved pet. Some go straight to the shelter and adopt a new friend right away, continuing the cycle of unconditional love that life with a dog perpetuates. Some vow to never, ever take in another animal again, believing that the pain of another loss—or even the joy of a new, huge love—would be too much to bear.
And some hover in the middle, craving a dog’s love and presence, knowing deep in their hearts that another adoption is inevitable, but wary of forming a new bond. I call this the “in-between-dogs” state. Not now, those of us in the inbetween state tell ourselves. Not yet. Wait until the moment is right.
My beloved Spaniel mix Chloe has been gone for almost two years, and I’m still in the in-between state. Our relationship was deep and transformative and profound—and occasionally challenging—and losing her caused me to unravel a bit. Especially in those first few months.
There were also—and still are—moments of beauty and joy amidst the grief, moments in which I experienced what I now call “the continuum of Chloe” and was able to witness the essence of my beloved friend in her non-physical form. But mostly, there was unraveling.
Unraveling: it’s the perfect word. To live intimately with a dog is to knit every aspect of your life into the life of the Other. When your Other is gone, you have to gather up all those loose threads; you once more have to figure what makes you whole. This can be a complicated process.
For 10 intense years, it was just me and Chloe, alone and together. Ours was a tightly woven sweater. I won’t say web, because a web is something you get caught in, whereas a sweater is something that keeps you warm and snug. Is it any wonder that her sudden departure left me cold?
The reweaving phase—accepting, adjusting—is in itself a tender time, and bittersweet, but it’s more open, too. Those of us in the reweaving phase are open to joy, open to possibility, amenable to allowing ourselves to be surprised.
My friend summed it up quite nicely. “It’s that phase where you transition from specifically missing your dog to missing having a dog in general.” The missing is still there, and the yearning, but instead of yearning for what we had in the past (our Best Dog Ever), we also miss what we currently don’t have: a dog. Who will, of course, become the next Best Dog Ever. Reaching this phase, my friend pointed out, is usually a clear sign that you’re ready to get another dog.
For me, however, it indicated that I was ready to start volunteering at my local animal shelter. This is, hands-down, the best thing I did to help ease myself through the grieving process.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I never volunteered at this shelter when I actually had a dog. In fact, I rarely visited the shelter at all. Sure, I supported it with financial contributions, and occasionally I stopped by the front office to drop off blankets, food and toys, but I never actually went inside. Meaning, I did not venture into the back kennel rooms where the dogs were kept.
My first lame excuse is that, when Chloe was alive, most— if not all—of my spare time went into caring for her. I actually told myself I would be “betraying” Chloe if I spent time with other, more needy dogs. My second lame excuse was that I worried that the experience would be depressing. I know I’m not alone in having this fear, or rather, this misconception.
I recently took a casual poll and was surprised, yet not surprised, to discover that an alarmingly large majority of my animal-loving friends actually avoid animal shelters. They’re—we’re—afraid we’re going to be traumatized by the horrors we have convinced ourselves we’ll witness there: rows and rows of caged animals, catatonic with fear, showing signs of physical and emotional abuse, staring at us, begging us to save them all.
Yes, this is a worst-case scenario and a stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that also, unfortunately, can be true. Witnessing suffering (and human cruelty) can change us forever. Certain images can sear themselves into our minds and implant a new pain. And, let’s be honest. Who is brave enough to carry yet more pain?
The answer is: all of us. We just need to be willing to take the first step. Thus, one morning, I found myself driving to my local shelter, prepared to volunteer. It turned out that my fears about the worst-case scenario at this shelter were totally unfounded. In fact, I discovered that not only is my local shelter not depressing, it’s inspiring. (To find out why, see “Reiki Creates a Healing Space,” Bark, Winter 2014.)
As soon as I walked into the reception area, I could feel it: a vibration of peace, of balance, of promise. The receptionist, who was speaking with an applicant, smiled and said she’d be with me shortly. I sat next to a family of potential adopters who were interacting with a loudly purring tabby. Other staff members and volunteers moved through the spacious room briskly and efficiently, busy but not harried.
Meanwhile, another adoptable cat— black, with silvery markings that looked like rippling water—wandered into the area, snaking his way through the legs of people and chairs. His relaxed movements gave the room an aura of both stillness and momentum: the moment after chaos, in which real and important changes take place.
When it was my turn, I told the receptionist I had come to inquire about volunteering. She gave me an application and I filled it out on the spot. Physical limitations ruled out walking dogs, but I could certainly help out as a dog socializer, a position that would include lots of kissing, cuddling, playing and handling.
The role of socializer is to keep the animals happy, stimulated and comfortable, and to help fearful dogs grow accustomed to the presence of a kind human being. It sounded like a dream job.
After I submitted my application, I asked if I could visit the dogs. “I need some dog love,” I confessed, “and I’m sure they could use some human love.” Fortunately, this is the kind of shelter where such a request is welcome. The receptionist pressed a pager button and requested someone to lead a “dog tour.”
Within minutes, I was greeted by the kennel manager—a calm, cool, clear-eyed woman who gave off a vibe of competence and trustworthiness. We shook hands and made introductions and soon, I was being led toward the back room.
As she pushed open the door, I mentally prepared myself, but the area was wonderful. A row of spacious indoor/outdoor dog kennels lined the long hallway; everything was clean, organized and quiet. Shelves were well stocked with food and treats; labeled leashes hung neatly on walls; and a cheerfully illustrated dry-erase board listed the adoptable dogs, their histories, their quirks and needs.
As we walked past each kennel, I was pleased to see that the dogs had plenty of space to move around, as well as huge comfy beds. And I mean huge. One dog I met that day— a gorgeous Husky/St. Bernard mix named Max—was stretched out on a fluffy pad the size of a twin mattress. Max rolled languidly onto his back when we stopped at his kennel to say hello, presenting his sizable belly for a scratch.
As we continued on, I was also struck by how quiet it was. One of the worst things about the worst-case-scenario shelter environment can be the noise: the sound of multiple dogs barking, whining or howling in pain or despair. But the only sound I heard was the pleasing, comic squeak of a chew toy being enjoyed by a young Retriever mix a few kennels down.
That sound, unexpectedly, brought tears to my eyes. My reaction was a mixture of grief—missing Chloe, who also enjoyed playing with toys by herself—and joy for this puppy, who was situated in such comfort that she was relaxed enough to play. Then I realized: the good vibration I sensed at this shelter was hope. All of these animals stood a good— no, an excellent—chance of being adopted, and they knew it. That’s why they were so calm.
I felt a full-force sob of gratitude coming on, and smiled awkwardly at my tour leader. The woman, clearly a master at managing shelter emotions, asked if there were any dogs in particular I wanted to visit today.
“Who needs it most?” I asked.
“Promise,” she said without hesitation.
And so I met Promise, a sweet, blind, emaciated, diabetic Pit Bull with silvery fur and a heart-breakingly gentle nature who had come into the shelter as a stray. To me, she looked as thin as a skeleton recently unearthed, but I was told that she had been even thinner when she arrived. As I entered her kennel, Promise whined and shivered and pressed herself against my legs, seeming to cry for things that could not be delivered: mainly sight. And an explanation of why she was there.
For a moment, I felt a sense of helplessness. What kind of comfort could I offer such a dog? Then my mind shifted to blame and anger: What kind of person would starve and abandon a blind dog? These thoughts led to larger thoughts of nihilism: What kind of world is this? How quickly our minds can lead us into despair.
But if there’s anything years of yoga and meditation practice have taught me, it’s this: in the midst of great suffering, the only thing that makes sense is compassion. And gratitude. Back when I was grieving intensely over the loss of Chloe, a friend advised me to continually “return to gratitude.” Gratitude that I was able to connect with Chloe in this lifetime. Gratitude that I was granted the privilege of taking care of her. Gratitude that because of her—and Wallace before her—I learned more ways to become a better human. And thus, as a better human, to help more dogs.
Now I lowered myself to the concrete floor, sat next to Promise’s bed, and waited for her to initiate contact.
Promise, still shivering, slowly positioned herself so that her flank touched my leg. I closed my eyes and tried to put myself into her point of view. Together, we listened to the sound of the nearby puppy with the squeaky toy, the conversation of other staff and volunteers, the thunderous roll-and-clack of the old washer/dryer (constantly in motion in this busy place). I listened to her breath and she, perhaps, listened to mine.
I tried not to think of one of my last images of Chloe: Chloe, no longer breathing, lying lifeless in the back of my minivan outside the vet’s office. I tried not to think about the fact that Chloe didn’t die in my arms because I was the one who had to drive her to the vet.
Think in terms of gratitude, I reminded myself. Gratitude that, at least, Chloe had passed quickly without too much suffering. That, even though she had not been in my arms, she had been with me, in our car, and the last sounds she heard were of me singing a mantra for her, to her: Om mani peme hum.
I now sang that mantra to Promise, and felt such gratitude that I had the opportunity to sing to a dog who was on her way back into this world, rather than on her way out. Promise stopped shivering and curled onto my lap.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When God made the sea,
— Connie Hills
Life with Dogs
A good dog’s journey:
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Boxer’s greeting is a joy to behold. They jump into the air in such a jubilee of delight, it’s as if your return to hearth and home were the most noteworthy event of the century when all you’ve done, say, is walk to the mailbox and back. Return after an hour or more and you’ll get backflips, trumpets and a procession of drum-beating pageantry befitting a king.
But this last time, my Shelby outdid herself with the circus greeting, and a few moments later, her hind legs began to falter. As she tried to recover, her front legs failed, too. She staggered about the house slamming into furniture and walls, wagging her tail all the while. Was she having a seizure? Had her heart failed to pump enough blood to her hindquarters? Or had the cancer already spread to her brain?
She was eleven years old, this big brindle beauty to whom I was not going to get too attached. I was certainly not going to let myself love her the way I’d loved the one before her. When my previous Boxer died in my arms at age fifteen, I felt as if a part of myself had died too. I emerged from the vet’s office into a black-and-white world, a world literally devoid of all color. An hour went by before my color vision returned. I vowed right then and there: Never again.
But dogs have a way of finding the people who need them, filling an emptiness we don’t even know we have. So it was for Shelby, who took all of five minutes to stake her claim to my bruised heart. At nine months, she was big and bold, bright and brash, the daughter of two champions. My wife didn’t want another dog, and my daughter, then seven, was wary of this bumptious intruder. They held out only slightly longer than I had before they, too, were summarily seduced.
As canine crimes go, Shelby’s were all misdemeanors: she had three accidents, chewed one shoe, and swallowed a single bar of bath soap. That was her entire rap sheet. At the first light of day, with an exuberance she never outgrew, she’d come bounding into my bedroom to play. My friends and associates dare not wake me before noon (“I don’t care if it’s nuclear war, don’t ever call me in the morning!”) Yet I understood the natural world and couldn’t blame my little angel for her uncontainable high spirits at the first rays of dawn. It took me more than sunbeams to get on with my day, but when I’d finally consumed enough coffee to come back to life, Shelby and I shared our invariable breakfast: a can of King Oscar sardines. She got the three biggest. Next up: Quaker oatmeal. I served Shelby hers on a plastic Ronald McDonald plate that I set just outside the back door.
On cool days, she would run fifteen miles with me. She shredded three cotton ropes a month playing tug of war. She ran down Frisbees; she wrestled and boxed with me. In hot weather, she could dive and retrieve in depths that exceeded six feet. Like me, she was at home in the water. On a visit to my mother’s summer cottage in Wisconsin, I heard a child say, “Daddy, look at that duck.” It was Shelby, of course, a quarter-mile out on the lake, swimming after a mother duck and her flock. One large, square head surrounded by little round ones; a sort of Loch Ness Boxer, I guess you could say.
When I became diabetic, and had to walk off high blood sugar readings in all kinds of weather (mostly rain), Shelby splashed through the puddles beside me, nearly pulling my arm out of its socket. Our neighbors referred to us as “the two thugs.” That was outdoor Shelby.
Indoors, she was delicate as a cat, taking great care around my young daughter. She calibrated her strength according to each customer, sensing precisely how much each could endure. We had similar tastes in people. Friendly but discriminating, Shelby liked the same visitors I liked, but merely tolerated the people I only pretended to like.
Fun and games are all well and good, but like most dogs, Shelby liked to work, too. To stave off boredom and enhance her self-esteem, I devised various duties for her, appointing her chief of security. It wasn’t until later that I would realize she’d already taken on the job of looking after me. The fact that I’m still here is a testament to how well she did it, despite all those dog IQ ratings that only place Boxers somewhere in mid-range.
I’ve read that fifty percent of all dogs can smell epilepsy and warn their owners of impending seizures. I have simple partial seizures—twitches and jerks that come on toward the end of the day. Before I switched medications and got them under control, Shelby would throw her shoulder against the back of my legs, as if to say, “Hey, pay attention!” Sure enough, within minutes, the seizures would start.
Shelby was still a young dog when, as a writer with a hot book, I got a call from ABC’s “20/20.” The producer asked me to appear on the show. He was under the impression that I had grand mal epilepsy and wondered how long it would take after I quit my medication to have a fit in front of a camera crew. Seizure dogs are trained to sit near their masters to protect them in the event of grand mal seizures. The well-intentioned producer pointed out that millions of people watch the show, and suggested I could sell lots of books. I politely declined in light of the stigma attached to epilepsy, to say nothing of the fact that I had a personal life. Besides, I was just having twitches, which I doubted would make for thrilling TV.
I was teaching in Iowa City at the time, and had just written a Village Voice piece. Having eaten a fairly small breakfast, I drove downtown to fax them a revision. The forecast called for heavy snow that day, so instead of going straight home, I stopped at the market to stock up. By the time I unloaded my groceries, I had a vague sense of my blood sugar dropping, and realized I needed to eat. It was my last conscious thought before I hit the floor in what proved to be a diabetic coma.
I’d always assumed that a coma was akin to sleep. It is not. Soaked in sweat, my teeth chattering like joke-store choppers, I was essentially paralyzed. I felt as if I were being strangled. Meanwhile, the insulin pump attached to my body was delivering drop after drop of insulin, putting me in deeper trouble. I needed sugar and each succeeding drop of insulin became a kind of poison.
As I lay there immobilized on the kitchen floor, I became aware of Shelby licking my face and bumping me with her snout, then leaping onto the couch and sounding her deep bass alarm out the window, then coming back and licking me some more. A neighbor heard her barking and looked inside, saw me lying there, and called the paramedics. Saved by my boisterous four-legged nurse, the one with the mid-range IQ.
When we left our subdivision for a house in the country, Shelby took on expanded duties. She was never happier than when she was chasing deer from our clover field. She also kept close watch on the horses next door. I was standing in the kitchen eating a sour apple one day when I spotted one of them back by the fence. I fed him my apple and after he’d eaten it, I got another one out of the fridge. It must have been mighty sour; the horse took a bite, then spit it out. Shelby, who had been standing there taking this in, suddenly took off for the gate like a brown cruise missile. She was soon a mere BB on the horizon. I watched in amazement as she crawled through the gate. She was soon standing on the other side of the fence wolfing down the sour apple. From then on, I waited till my jealous darling was asleep before venturing out to feed the horses their treats.
My life—the writing life—has its fair share of perks. It’s a stay-at-home job, for one thing. It allows me to sleep until noon, for another. And given that I like to write—at least some days—I haven’t had to “work” for a living for more than a decade. Shelby was at my side for most of those years. She watched me write countless stories, lending moral support. She rode shotgun in the passenger seat of my Saab or my daughter’s Checker whenever I drove to the video store, or made a library run. We lived our lives side-by-side, me and this singular dog to whom I was not going to get too attached.
I used to travel the world at the drop of a hat, but that, too, changed when I acquired Shelby. Book tours, visits to relatives—any trip that involved breaking out a suitcase, induced separation anxiety in us both. It got worse as she aged; the older dogs get, the more they seem to like their routine. I put Shelby on Sinequin, an antidepressant. There were times when I took it myself. It helped us both some, but it wasn’t until I walked through the front door that her sense of well-being was fully restored.
A few weeks ago, as the long, rainy, Washington winter gave way to a rare sunny day, Shelby and I drove downtown to the park. We took a leisurely stroll, then sat on a bench for a while soaking up sun. I couldn’t help but think back to the days when our “walks” had been runs. We were both slowing down. At the same time, however, we were still in sync, keeping the same, steady pace, stride for stride.
An old dog has a beauty and dignity all her own, with her graying muzzle and soft, knowing eye. Her silliness gives way to serenity; more time is now spent in sleep than in play. In a perfect world, we would die, man and dog, as we lived: sideby- side, simultaneously. No one who’s given his heart to a dog should have to walk in the door to this deafening silence. Or come upon a faded Ronald McDonald oatmeal plate. Or a chair whose cushions are forever imprinted with the shape of the slumbering dog.
But the world isn’t perfect. And so, the end came—much too soon, the way it always does. She did not succumb to her lymphoma, an incurable cancer that led to four surgeries over her final six months. Shelby’s faltering legs turned out to be a sign of low blood sugar, caused by a tumor on her pancreas. While I’ve long heard it said that dogs come to resemble their owners, I never knew it could happen to such a degree. The condition that led to my Boxer’s demise was in fact the mirror image of my own.
I am still in the early stages of grieving, still disoriented, still easily brought to tears. She is gone, but somehow, she’s still with me, her invisible presence watching my every move. I can’t open the door, or a can of sardines, without feeling her like some phantom limb—severed but still part of me, always here. As she will be for as long as I live.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Our child was wee
Scared of the dark
Moved to the desert
Where scorpions lay in wait
Sophie came to us from the pound
A big beast and ferocious
Gentle she was not
Loyal to a fault
Her tail was strong
Her tongue always ready
To share in happiness
Or just uplift spirits
Sleepovers with little girls, Ringlets and pajamas
She was in the middle of the bed
Her stocky frame occupying the bed
For she was one of the "girls"
She has seen us through crazy mornings
Breakfast and homework and teenage meltdowns
Heartbreak and joy
Sophie was there rock solid, tail wagging, tongue lolling
A faithful companion
Stood beside us she did, as we bid our child goodbye
As she entered adulthood
With tears in her eyes, her tail down
Now she is old and lame
Bleary eyed, dribble in sight
But she remains the love of my life
What will I do Sophie when you leave me alone?
Culture: Stories & Lit
One of the worst things I have ever witnessed was my dog being hit by a car. I don’t have a kid, and I imagine that would be a million times worse, obviously, but I do have dogs. I don’t dress them up in outfits, much, or let them share my ice cream, often, or call them my child, unless they’re doing something particularly impressive, so I’m not one of those “Real Housewife” people just yet.
The dog in question was named Blue, and he was an ex-racing Greyhound. He was missing most of his teeth and was short almost all of the sandwiches in his picnic basket, if I’m honest. He also had a giant ham tongue that couldn’t help but fall out of his mouth, what with the missing teeth. He was goofy and shy and weird in all the right ways; my boyfriend and I taught him to wag his tail and that not all humans were bad. Some were quite nice, in fact, and would not mind if he swiped a hot dog right off their plate in a cheeky way like he might’ve seen in a movie once if he hadn’t been living in a tiny, cramped cage and had barely seen the light apart from the few hours a day he was made to run like his life depended on it—because his life did depend on it.
We were leaving the house for our usual morning walk when the little bugger slipped his collar. This was before we knew that Greyhounds require harnesses because, quite understandably, they don’t like something around their neck being pulled, even if that pulling is ever so gentle and just so they can go out and play. They also go like a shot if they see anything exciting—a cat or a smaller dog or a bird or a shiny thing. So you need to be one step ahead of them. They’re like toddlers, I imagine.
Off Blue went, like a shot, after nothing in particular. All he knew was that he was free. From what I don’t know; he had three beds, including ours, for cripes’ sake. But I sort of got it.
I shouted his name and my boyfriend chased him around the neighbourhood. But we hadn’t had him very long, and what dog likes being caught? Even if the humans chasing him let him steal their hot dogs and sleep in their bed. It’s confusing being a newly adopted rescue dog.
Then I saw the car.
The scream I let out when I saw my dog heading straight for it was disturbing. It scared people, but none more so than myself. I really didn’t know I could scream like that. I’m a quiet, shy writer who can happily go days without uttering a word. My scream made people come out of their houses.
The car screeched to a stop. Blue had hit the car but bounced clean off like a rubber ball. I feared the worst, but he was suddenly in my arms, and alive. He was shaken up and had a little blood on his face, but seemed basically fine.
I was not fine. I had thought that was it. Game over. This beautiful, idiotic new addition to my life who I actually suspected made my life complete in some way was almost taken from me when I had only just found him.
We took him to the vet to be checked out, and everyone kept saying how lucky he was. “Maybe you should have called him Lucky,” the vet nurse said, and I said no, he’s called Blue. I wanted to tell her that he even had his own theme song, but knew that would sound weird. Nothing as strange as dog folk.
As it turned out, he was fine. No permanent damage. No aversions to soccer mums in SUVs … well, no more than he should have had.
I was not fine. The scream I let out came from somewhere I didn’t know existed, some deepest, darkest cavern of despair, one I’d wrongly thought I had visited during my teenage years and again later, after a particularly shitty relationship. But no. It seems I had never actually even peered down that particular cavern.
A few years later, Blue developed a tumor on his leg, and we eventually had to have him euthanized. Not before weeks of forcing him to take medication and watching him deteriorate daily. But we were selfish, and wanted to keep him with us as long as we could. One of my last memories of Blue is wrestling with him on the kitchen floor, trying to force him to take his meds because he was dying and I needed him to stay alive, and he just needed to swallow the goddamn pill. It was traumatic for both of us.
When he finally went, it was much calmer and quieter than that scene in the street.
I ate a lot of toast with peanut butter during those last days of nursing him, but after he was gone, I couldn’t touch the stuff. Just the thought of it made my mouth go funny. I know now that grief comes in many forms. Not a day goes by that I don’t want that happy, goofy boy back, rather than the pain of losing him twice. Which is how it felt.
Culture: Stories & Lit
IF NO OTHER LISTENER Except myself and the dogs, would I write Poems for them? Rhythmic yips and a growl, Refrain of woofs, Their names repeated twice, A high yowl sliding down a rail To a quavering whine. And they do like some arrangements Better than others, they go from fast to slow. Lots of range in the howl, And the yaps, staccato, snappy as orders, Until I can’t continue their poem Because they are standing on my chest Licking my face, adding impromptu yelps. Of course I would write for them, Would take their critique seriously, Would collaborate with them on a dog poetics Which would change of course with every passing litter. Poems about the chase, about the snap Of jaws, about doggy humping and birthing, No poems of death or poems of writing. A lot might be said of such a poetics If no one were listening, only me and the dogs. THE SOUND OF DOGS BREATHING The sounds of dogs breathing in the house, Their breaths rising and falling In darkened rooms. If late at night I pad to the kitchen Following the night lights And a vague thirst Paw pads follow me, A change in the rhythm Of inhalation, a sigh. Back to the bedroom, the breaths Relax, become regular. The night’s activity has shut down, And I am not alone. THE WOLF he can hardly walk for all the myth he’s bearing, werewolf and night marauder, bloody-mouthed killer, though we remember the wolf of Perugia St Francis made a deal with, no more eating people and you’ll be fed, and the wolf became a model citizen, was mourned at death, and buried at the city gate. lone wolf, wolf-whistle, don’t wolf your food. my father had a wolf-dog as pet, not at home in either house or pen, inside knocked over tables and lamps, at night howled outside light leaking from his teeth, until my father opened up the chain-link gate, invited him in.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A YEAR INTO RAISING OUR PUPPY, Nora Ephron, Brian and I can’t help but compare it to our experience with our first dog, Ezra Pound. Nora and Ezra, black Lab mixes, were named after 20th-century writers. Their personalities, though, are quite different, starting with their experiences and lifestyles.
Ezra was 100 percent city dog. For most of his 11 years, he lived in a duplex apartment in an 1846 brownstone. A lot of stairs to hike up and down. Three times a week, he went to doggie daycare, and the other two days, he was out in the neighborhood with his dog walker and a pack of friends. An active week, for sure, but very urban and predictable.
Nora, even in her first year, has already had more of the country life, splitting her time between a high-rise apartment during the week, where she attends Dog City, and our house in rural Hudson Valley on the weekends. There, she explores in an orchard, visits sheep and goats, and has a donkey boyfriend on the farm next door. Ernie the donkey lives in his own outbuilding. When he sees or hears little Nora, he trots down to greet her at the fence. She wags her tail. He flirts back with a kick. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next.
Nora’s first weeks were spent in a foster home on Long Island, where she lived with a group of six dogs. Early on, even when she was as tiny as a thimble, she learned to be social with big dogs. On top of her typical puppy energy, Nora is optimistic, always angling to play. And, unlike many dogs, she actually likes being held and hugged. Ezra was hit-or-miss friendly, more inclined to lean against you than sit on your lap, but Nora loves everyone: big, small, hairy, tall. Strangers—animal or human—are simply best friends she hasn’t made yet.
Then, there’s her elimination routine. Nora pees all the time. Six, seven times a day, she flags us or whines for a run outside. Not a big pish, mind you, more of a quick tinkle. I don’t think it’s a breed thing, and we’re training her the same as we did with Ezra, with a target goal of four potty trips max per day. Is this a gender thing, we wonder? Are we more indulgent when she has to go? Do we leave the water bowl down too long? Do girls just pee more?
Limiting our comparisons to the dogs, though, isn’t fair.
We’re also part of the equation. Ezra was our first dog together. Everything was new for me, from walking Ezra past skateboarders to skillfully opening the end of a plastic poop bag with one hand. With Ezra, I was nervous all the time, busy reading nutrition labels and worrying about his feelings. Both of us attended every vet appointment. Raising Nora, on the other hand, is a more casual endeavor. We’re more confident, less manic. She whines all the time and we laugh. She eats her dinner, or she doesn’t. Brian texts me about vet appointments. We didn’t even cover the electric outlets. (Please don’t call child services.)
I asked my favorite canine researcher, Julie Hecht, about gender differences. She pointed me to Bark articles on the topic as well as some hard-core research on the web. My takeaway from those sources was that testosterone has some kind of role and, yes, more research is needed.
Next, I reached out to my own pet-owner network. My friend Victor, parent to Maya, an six-year-old ex-racing Greyhound, thinks that female dogs are identical to males “except they growl less, pee more discretely, rarely step in their own poop, and that whole six-nipple thing.” Nora’s foster mother, Susan, has an even larger focus group, having hosted more than 150 dogs in the last two years. The biggest difference that she’s noticed is tension between two female adult dogs who seem less motherly when together, while two Husky-mix boys nurture pups “to the point where we have had young pups try to nurse off of them.”
I look down at Nora curled up on a blanket and wonder if she would have gotten along with her brother Ezra. I suspect that she probably would have worshipped him, and he would have tolerated her: the spunky little sister with a jackass for a boyfriend, who always, for some reason, has to go out for a tinkle.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When I tell my dog that she is my angel, as I often do, I mean it quite literally. In many ways she is more familiar to me than anyone or anything else on earth, and she has filled my life with great affection, guarding and protecting me with her love. I suppose she could be any old dog, and I’d love her back just the same. But there she is, who she is, and however I look at her, she is a major part of my life. This is by no means the first tribute I have written to her.
I got my dog Lily by chance, almost by mistake. I was trying to stop smoking and felt terrible and bereft. A good friend, meaning to distract me, suggested I get a dog. I thought I realized in a flash of nicotine deprivation that all I wanted was a puppy, that all I needed was just one. No matter that I had just moved to a new apartment managed by an uncompromising cat-owner who had made me promise I would never get a dog. I thought if I just bought a smallenough dog, no one would notice. My thinking was a bit hazy. So two weeks later I went out and bought her. She came from a chain pet store in a mall. She was very little. I hoped my apartment manager would think she was a cat. I’ve never told anyone how much she cost.
She is supposedly a purebred Cocker Spaniel, but most people look skeptical. Even the vet I took her to the next day wasn’t sure. He did say she was definitely a runt, probably from a puppy mill, and told me she had a heart murmur and a bad case of mites. He implied I’d paid too much for her, whatever the sum had been. But I didn’t care: she was mine, and that was all that mattered.
She certainly doesn’t look purebred. She just looks like herself: small and black and somewhat stout, with an unmistakably dogged demeanor. When she runs across the yard to check the compost heap each day, it can best be described as a galumph. Her long, heavy ears flop up and down, as if she were trying to take off, albeit awkwardly, into the wind. Her paws look enormous, but they’re all fur. In the fall she gathers clumps of burrs, in the winter her legs and belly are all snowballed. In the summer she is covered with mud from the pond in the neighboring field. She is always messy.
Food (and drink) is a very big deal with her. She likes to kick her dish around both before and after a meal, and she will bark vigorously at a bottle of beer. Since my daughter PanPan arrived and learned to throw her food, Lily has taken up a military pose in front of the high chair during mealtimes. She sits stock-still, looking up fervently, shifting her weight only occasionally from side to side. When she does not get the food that everyone else is getting, she assumes a sincere and sorrowful expression that makes her look rather like Ronald Reagan, but I still love her. She also very occasionally looks uncannily like Donald Duck.
When she lies down now, it is often with a small grunt; at 10 years, she is starting to be an old dog. We often sit together under the nearest apple tree, on the set of steps I moved there from the cabin’s back door when the first addition was put on. Sometimes she will lean all her weight against me, perfectly content, asking for nothing more. Other times, she likes to have her ears tugged and the furrow between her eyes smoothed down. When I do this, she groans deeply with pleasure. She is a creature, after all, and she loves her comforts.
And yes, she’s comforting in return; I lean on her often, too. Even at the lowest of times and even when I am at my very worst, Lily stubbornly, if a little dimwittedly, continues to sit by my side, and for this I thank her forever and ever. I take her with me everywhere I possibly can; if for some reason I must leave her behind, I hate it as much as she does.
Before I got her, I had no idea how to measure out my life, or how to think about what a life spanned. Or, to put it more abruptly, how to think about death. She has given me one context, though I now have others, too. Her life is part of mine; may she live many, many more good years with me.
As I write this, I am sitting with Lily on the sofa. She has clambered onto my lap, and so I use her rather broad back to rest my notebook on. Although PanPan greets her with whoops of joy and whole handfuls of Cheerios, my dog is relieved to have me to herself after bedtime. At the moment, Lily is happily chewing perfectly round pieces from what remains of an old army blanket I gave her many years ago. She spits out each piece expertly, phphtt, phphtt, onto the floor. It reminds me of smoking, which I finally did give up some time ago.
After so many years together, you might well think we could have nothing more to learn from each other. Actually, however, my elderly, small, and stout black Spaniel continues to teach me what matters, over and over, day by day. Love, ordinary love, is its own reward. And so, while I suppose she could very well be any old dog, I know she is in fact my angel, watching over me, all spirit, showing me the way.
Reprinted by permission of author, Eliza Thomas from The Road Home, Algonquin Books © 1997.
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