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.
Culture: Stories & Lit
On September 1, 2001, I peered into Afghanistan from the very small corridor that touches the Chinese border. Working for a student travel company, this trip along the Chinese portion of the ancient Silk Road had reached its westernmost point. Tomorrow we would retrace our path back eastward to Beijing, to board our plane back to the States on September 11. Life was following its trajectory to extreme and far flung adventure. I had been out of the country on various assignments for nearly two months – time to come home.
The next month would unfold into events far from anyone’s control. On the evening of September 11, I was packing my bags in the Beijing hotel preparing for my flight. With the time difference, we were in horror of what was happening back home on the morning of 9/11. It took another two weeks before I had finally finagled my way back to Boulder after being stranded in Beijing following the terrorist attacks and the chaotic cancelation of international flights. The following week, I was glued to the TV watching anthrax scares after all the employees at my student travel organization were laid off. The director could see the writing on the wall.
Out of all the possible ways to stay sane during those uncertain and CNN-watching times, I chose puppies. I wandered out of my house in the crisp October and into a pet store.
“How many puppies can I have with me in the puppy meeting room at one time?”
“I’ll take a Beagle, a Dalmatian and Golden Retriever, please.”
I sat cross-legged in a sterile 6 X 6 room as they were brought in one by one. They wrestled and tumbled the anxiety right out of me.
Two days later, Roy came home with me from the Humane Society. The dog I named Roy was a three-month-old Bloodhound / Sharpei mix. Yep, try to picture what that looks like. I had no idea what I was doing with my life, but I knew I needed some levity and grounding. I purchased a leash, a food bowl, and a clicker for training at the Boulder Humane Society store. The woman behind the counter said with a knowing smile, “Watch out. When you settle down enough to have a dog, a husband and kids are not far behind. You’re sending a message to the universe - I see it all the time.” It seemed a bit overreaching for the volunteer cashier, but I thought at 31 years old, with some serious curve balls thrown into my career as a travel guide, that a husband and kids might be cool.
“Roy” is a slang word in the Southern Thai dialect (where I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer) that means everything good. Food was roy, clothes were roy, even the weather or a new pickup truck. And my caramel-colored Roy with a wrinkled forehead got me away from the news reel and out of my slump. Like all puppies, he chewed my shoes, needed to be let out to pee two or three times a night and demanded my attention through exercise and socialization – all really good training if you are going to have children one day.
This optimistic, enthusiastic companion bore witness to my next 13+ years: finding the love of my life, three moves, three children and my own wrinkled forehead. He protected me from the fed-ex man and things that go bump in the night, licked the tears of miscarriages away, slept in the bed next to me when my husband traveled or when I had 68 days of pregnancy bed rest. He even kept my feet warm when I was up through the wee hours nursing and soothing my infants and stood guard next to their cribs and infant carriers. Roy is their godfather, after helping me send my message to the universe, my harbinger of life’s gifts.
For the first 3 years we were together, he was my baby. We hiked, I obsessed over his possible ailments on the internet and kept a folder with all his report cards from puppy preschool to adult behavior training. When he was two, Will and I lived in Austin. On the weekends I took him running through the wildness of Barton Creek. He ran three miles for every mile I did - looping ahead and behind, patrolling my perimeter and stopping to hump the smaller dogs he passed. Running, humping, drinking from the fresh creek: good days to be a dog. When we came back to Colorado, we lived on ten acres in Nederland and he chased the huge mule deer and roamed free without a fence. As life progressed, other human babies cornered my attention, we moved to a fenced yard three thousand feet below and I would often look over to him with guilt. I’d love a run too, I thought. How many mornings was I trying to get my three kids to school on time without losing my shit, that I didn’t even turn around to meet his watchful eyes? I’m sorry, buddy.
In two day’s time I have scheduled to have Roy euthanized in our home. I wonder at the tears that lay centimeters below the surface as I go about my day as usual – It’s the logical thing to do. He’s almost 14. He’s lived a great life. He’s suffering. He can’t stand up on his own any more. The drugs have left him a sleepy shell of his former self. Yet, today as I return from the grocery store, his tail thwaps against his dog bed to see me enter. I eat with him in his dog bed. He gets smoked salmon from Whole Foods - all he can eat. I eat my sushi. He sighs his long yogi-ujay breath. I cry.
When someone you love is dying, all the refrigerator magnet platitudes suddenly feel profound. No one else has been such an intimate witness to my life, a bridge through my chapters and cheerleader and non-judgmental friend through my craziness. There’s always some editing to what I show – to even my husband or best friends. Roy has witnessed me trying to squeeze into the too-tight jeans, lip-synching Aretha with a hairbrush, blubbering sad, saying what I wish I’d said to the bathroom mirror and the Madmen evening marathons that I explain away as being really swamped with life. He knows.
My ten-year-old daughter asks me why dogs don’t live as long as we do, why they live seven times faster. Maybe another gift from our pets is to remember that life is brief. We get to witness their silly infancy, their wild and confident teen years and finally the old age that we all might be lucky to face ourselves. All of this happens for them in a decade or so of our own life. Our time here is just a blip – don’t take anything for granted - they remind us.
I hold Roy’s white muzzle in my cupped hands and look into his clouded eyes. I am looking for a message, permission, my further life instructions. I can insert anything I want: “my message to you is _________________. “ A) Yes, I need your help to go. B) Thanks for doing the right thing because I’m hurting. C) You’ve got this, Anni. You don’t need me any more. Or even D) Please remember to wear sunscreen. Instead I just see his goodness, his Royness and maybe that’s all the life instruction I need: remember the goodness.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When the action kicks in real life, being a movie buff pays dividends
My Boxer puppy is allergic to bees.
I found out as I barreled home from work on I-580 East toward the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge one recent afternoon.
Cali—short for “California”— goes to work with me every day. One moment, she was a spry, energetic, sporty Boxer; the next, vomit everywhere, bile and diarrhea all over the passenger seat. I accelerated, crossed two lanes of traffic and pulled onto a wide shoulder just off the exit to the bridge.
Within seconds, my door was open and I was crunching through gravel to the passenger side, driven by adrenalinesoaked instinct: “Dog is sick,” “Have to protect dog,” “Dog comes before you.” I got her out of the car and put her down, watching helplessly as she just kept throwing up thick, yellow bile. She ran toward the bushes and fell on her face, grinding to a halt in dirt and gravel. Out of answers, I picked her up, inadvertently coating my Sevens and Sperry Top-Siders with dog poop. Fashion goes out the window when you’re looking at your best friend dying. I might as well have been wearing a ratty, hand-me-down pair of sweatpants and slippers.
Instinct, that quiet genius that whispers the right answers in your ear in moments of trauma, kicked in again. I called 9-1-1. Who the hell are you supposed to call? There’s no protocol or schematic. Puppy-care books don’t have a section on “What to do when you’re emotionally stranded on the edge of a highway with a dying, breathless puppy.”
One ring, and a female operator picked up.
“9-1-1, how can I help you?”
“Ma’am, my dog is dying!”
Cars piled up at the nearby intersection and pale, worried faces turned toward a man holding a limp puppy and screaming helplessly into his phone.
Turns out, the woman who picked up the call was an angel. She was exactly the right person at exactly the right time—a serendipitous turn of events that allowed her to know exactly what I needed.
“Sir, there’s an emergency vet clinic in San Rafael. I’m putting you through now.”
The phone rang once, and a man picked up. He told me the address. With shaky, uncertain, too-large-to-be-effective-onan- iPhone-keypad fingers, I punched it into the phone’s maps app. Cali’s tongue was hanging out of the side of her mouth.
And this is where the story became all too familiar. The surreal events that were unfolding in front of me were uncannily similar to the scene in Pulp Fiction in which Vincent Vega (John Travolta) races across Los Angeles with his mob boss’s wife overdosing in the passenger seat. Because I’d watched the scene at least 20 times, I knew what I needed to do. When the action kicks in in real life, being a movie buff pays dividends. I went into attack mode. This story would have a happy ending.
I screeched through a red light to get back on the highway, and drove to the vet clinic. Cali was Mia Wallace—eyes rolled back in her head, froth around her mouth and nostrils— and I was Vincent Vega, driving at breakneck speed in his candy-apple red Chevy Malibu (or in my case, an unassuming black Toyota Prius). I weaved through traffic. Horns blared.
In the passenger seat, Cali continued throwing up. Weak and exhausted, she rested her head on my outstretched arm, her bloodshot eyes rolling lazily around in their sockets.
All I could think to do was talk to her.
“Cali, you can’t die. You’re so important to me. I know it’s ridiculous, but you literally are my best friend. You can’t die. The six months you’ve been alive—we’ve spent every moment together.”
The robotic female map narrator told me to take the next exit.
As Cali continued to slip away, I sped off the exit, right into a wall of traffic and nearly into the rear end of another car.
“Cali, Cali, Cali …”
Looking over at her, I thought she had died. Her eyes weren’t registering; they were glazed over and the inner eyelid covered most of her pupil. I stuck my face next to her muzzle and could feel only the faintest whisper of breath.
Back into adrenaline mode. This dog would not die if I had anything to say about it. The Pulp Fiction fanatic in me recalled John Travolta speeding through the empty LA streets—“Don’t f---ing die on me, Mia!”—as I whipped around the corner and through the next two red lights. Traffic began to pull into the intersection, but I could tell that Cali wouldn’t have a whole lot of time left unless I got to the clinic.
The robot woman told me the destination was on my right. In a move similar to Vincent’s when he drove through the front window of his heroin dealer’s house to get Mia the adrenaline shot, I pulled into the parking lot, angling the car haphazardly across three spaces. I left the car running, picked up Cali and ran inside.
A vet tech met me halfway across the lobby and grabbed Cali, taxiing her back to the examination rooms, past a door locked with a key code. The last image I had was Cali hanging from the vet tech’s arms, her too-long-for-her-body legs swinging awkwardly back and forth.
And then I broke down. Adrenaline only goes so far, to the point at which you can finally take a breath and process what has happened. I cried like I haven’t cried in a long time. I’m the last person to throw a self-pity party, but confronting the reality of a dying dog when you’re driving home from work on an otherwise-ordinary Friday shocks you right down to the bones.
That’s where the picture-perfect similarity with the scene from Pulp Fiction came to a close. I spoke with the lead veterinarian, who gave me a rundown of the procedures and measures they’d need to take. Cali had gone into anaphylactic shock from a bee sting, which can be fatal. The cost of the treatment would run between $900 and $1,200. “Here’s my Visa. Keep it.”
I went out to the lobby to get some coffee to shock myself back to life before saying good-bye to Cali. I both thanked and apologized to the people working the front desk. They led me to the examination room to see Cali, and all I could do was fold down to her and sob. I needed comforting from her; isn’t that what dogs usually do? Our roles had been traumatically reversed. She shivered from the fluids they were pumping into her, and looked around in confusion at her surroundings. The vet, the technician and I comforted her. As she lay on the examination table, we went over the diagnosis and logistics.
This experience convinced me of three things:
One, even though I’m conditioned to be angry and resentful about speeding tickets and the CHP, I think it’s true that, for the most part, people working in law enforcement want to help. A hysterical man calls an emergency line about his dying dog, and the operator deftly handles the situation, pointing the man toward the best solution to the terrifying problem. It was the help I needed when I needed it.
Two, veterinarians and people working in animal health are amazing. A grown man bursts into the vet clinic with a wild look in his eyes, breaks down completely and they take over with both precision and grace. Within minutes, the dog is hooked up to the right concoction of medicine and fluids and slowly comes back to life.
Three, when a loved one is dying, all the mundane, ridiculous things we worry about go out the window. All the bills I have to pay and all the obligations I have to fulfill dissipate on the wind when I’m faced with a genuine existential crisis: my best friend is about to leave my life forever. For the first time in a long time, I was humbled, reminded of what really matters in life.
At the end of “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” as a kind of favor for saving her life, Mia Wallace tells Vincent the stupid joke she had refused to tell him at the beginning of the sequence: “Three tomatoes are walkin’ down the street. Papa Tomato, Mama Tomato and Baby Tomato. Baby Tomato starts lagging behind, and Papa Tomato gets really angry. Goes back and squishes him and says: ‘Ketchup.’”
Depleted by shock, Vincent only manages a crooked smile and a half-hearted laugh. After Mia turns away, he blows her a good-bye kiss.
Later that evening, I got a call from the vet saying that Cali was going to be all right. Within a half-hour, I was picking her up. And although this joke had a dark and ominous quality, I have to look back at what happened that day and do my best to laugh, even if it’s only an uninspired chuckle.
I know, I could probably ease up on the saccharine. But that day, I gained a better understanding of how precious life is. Since then, I’ve followed Vincent’s lead and blown my loved ones a kiss whenever I leave home—a tribute to Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s wife.
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