Lessons Learned ... And Unlearned

Love and forgiveness. What else is there to know?
By Emily English Medley, October 2015

My Golden Retriever, Annie, died yesterday. So did my grandmother. God, I’m going to miss that dog.

I’ve been asked to write my grandmother’s eulogy, and as I try, I can’t help but think about these two lives and deaths converging, and the difference between the two paths on which they took me.

Annie and I walked along the nature trail together the morning of her death. I didn’t realize it would be the last time we would walk, although by the quiet knowing that shined in her eyes, I suspect now that she did. She walked along beside me as she had so many times before, without noise, never judging, her stride perfectly in line with mine. She looked at up at me with her deep-brown eyes, and I nodded down in her direction. After all our years together, even though I had never loved her quite like I should, I had begun to understand what her friendship had done. She had been here to walk me.

I took off her leash and let her run ahead, knowing she wouldn’t go far. Time had changed her puppy bounding into a slow, unsteady, gait. The sunshine sparkled through the tree leaves, and she looked like a golden friend.

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In my head, I constructed the eulogy for my grandmother as Annie lumbered down the trail, her face white with age.

Dear ladies and gentleman, thank you for coming. There was never a time that I was with my grandmother that I didn’t feel small.

Wait, that won’t work. Hang on.

“Annie, what do you think?” I patted her as I caught up to her.

Friends and family. Thank you for coming. There was never a time when I was with my grandmother that I wasn’t intimidated and afraid. I mean, people need to live in a land where they can spill!

No, that was rude. A eulogy needs to be kind, to focus on the best in a person.

For all you people who actually bought the lies, behind closed doors, with her family, where it really, really mattered, she was mean as a snake. Cold cuts served in the lobby. Peace out.

Okay. Clearly, it needed work.

“Annie!” I called out. She stopped and looked up at me as though wondering who I might be.

“Hey, girl, are you having a senior moment? You know me, silly.” I patted her on the head and leashed her, and we turned the same corner down the same path that we had taken a thousand times before.

I was raised by two of the most neurotic women who ever walked the face of this planet. I’m serious. Outside of Queen Elizabeth, like, you have never met bigger divas. My grandmother was the wife of a strict minister, but he made millions in real estate. We lived in a home where dinner was an “event,” with the finest crystal and best china; a home with white, velvet couches and plush linens and satin sheets. We spent our time learning Latin and practicing the piano and were taught that dogs would bite us, that we were “allergic” to them, that they were filthy, full of germs, that they would ruin our homes, our investments. Simply put, that only trashy, stupid and feeble-minded folks believed that dogs and cats “had feelings” or that they “could love,” or even felt the need to have them around at all. I once saw my mother kick a stray dog and say, “It’s not like it has feelings, darling.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I mean, who did she think she was? Gritting her teeth at us that way and hiring nannies to spend time with us? Would it have killed her to hug her grandchildren?

When I grew up and had my own children, I was determined to break that cycle of neuroticism, or to at least see what all the fuss was about. So determined was I that I also became a nurse. I mean, what could be more real and raw than that? I was determined to get my hands dirty in any way possible, because all the preaching and baptisms and baths just hadn’t made my soul feel clean. What would, I wondered?

I took my kids to the shelter and we waited as the workers brought out Annie. She was skinny, her ear had been cut, and her fur was dull. They said she had just had puppies, but the puppies had not been found; they thought maybe they had been thrown over a bridge. I told my kids to sit on the ground, because someone had said you can tell a dominant dog right away like that. I held my breath, and my heart pounded hard as I waited to see what this monster would do. She gently walked up to my four-year-old son, sat in front of him and bowed her head. She raised her thin paw for him to shake, so he did. Then he looked up at me and said, “This one?” because children know beauty when they see it.

I said, “You know what? I bet we could find a sweeter dog than this.”

My children looked at me quizzically. “We can, Mommy?”

And I winked and said, “But I think we’d spend a long time looking. Let’s get her!” They jumped up and down, hysterically happy, and well, 11 years later, here Annie and I were, on another walk together.

As I look back on the years, here are the things I learned from my grandmother and from Annie:

From my grandmother, I learned that environments were supposed to be sterile, that germs and smudges and dirt would make me sick. But that was only because she was trying her best to keep me safe.

From Annie, I learned that into every life, a little fluff must fall. Sweeping up after a Golden Retriever taught me that not only is life not perfect, but neither am I, and neither is anyone else. And we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be. A little dirt is good for the environment and leaves room for spontaneity.

From my grandmother, I learned that I was small and incapable and that authority should be feared. But that was only because she was doing her best to teach me what she understood to be manners.

From Annie, I learned that I was just as I should be, not too big and not too small. Whether I was at my most beautiful in a ball gown, running a marathon in perfect health, or out on my back porch crying and enjoying the occasional cigarette, Annie didn’t care. She didn’t judge or yell at me. She just sat beside me. Like a friend. Like a best friend.

From my grandmother, I learned there was one truth, and that if I questioned it, there would be no fellowship with God. But that was only because she was doing her best to guide me to be strong in my beliefs and to stand for something.

From Annie, I learned that God isn’t to be feared, and that He gives good gifts. Dogs are certainly one of them. And maybe, just maybe, the true mysteries of the universe are pretty darn simple, no preaching needed at all, because Annie seemed to get it. Love and forgiveness. What else is there to know?

From my grandmother, I learned to watch the clock, and that time was a measure of life. But that was only because she was doing her best to make me a lady.

From Annie, I learned that time passes not only in minutes, but in years, in scenes, and that we look back on them and we wonder, how did we treat one another? Did we love enough? Did we forgive? Did we accept flaws in ourselves and others? Did we allow love to conquer all? Or did it have to be perfect?

Annie trained me. Over 11 years, she trained me. She met me right where I was: not ready to love her like I should, because I just didn’t know how, no one had taught me, but ready to love her as best that I could, and it was enough for her. I did my best and I fell short, but it was enough for her, because she looked at my heart.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. We are here today to honor a beautiful, whole woman who loved and had faith. She was a once-in-an-eternity soul who was not perfect, but she was perfect for me. My grandmother. Will you join me as we fondly remember her together, this perfect hostess, this amazing teacher and friend?

When I am finished crying … after Annie and my strict grandmother have both been gone awhile … I’m going to get another dog, because I still have areas of my character that need to be refined. I still have training that can only continue be undone by a little fur on the floor and a few tipped-over water bowls. Geez, I hope there’s time.

Thank you, God, for dogs. And thank you for my grandmother. 

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 83: Fall 2015

Illustration by Jen Renninger

Emily English Medley just finished her first novel, Rent House Fire; she lives in Houston with her family and Standard Poodle, Luna.