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.