The story ends
By Lee Harrington, May 2009

For the past few years, readers have been asking what happened to my “Rex and the City” columns, and, more pointedly, asking what happened to the dog we called Rex (his real name was Wallace). Well, the truth is, he died. Almost six years ago. His death was sudden and tragic and traumatic and I cannot write about it in detail because it is too sad.

But, long story short: After five years of marriage, Ted and I finally divorced in 2002. It was the right thing to do, and we still love each other, but apparently Wallace did not think it was the right thing to do: He died the day after I moved out.

Ted and I had agreed upon joint custody of the dog, and the plan was that I would take Wallace for the first two weeks after my departure. I’ll never forget the sense of both sorrow and excitement I felt as Wallace and I drove off to my new cottage in Hyde Park. I remember looking at him in the back seat and telling him that we were starting a new life, in a new house. “You’ll love it,” I told him. “We’ll be happy together.” But that didn’t happen. We arrived at the cottage late at night, and in the morning, Wallace died. I hadn’t even unpacked.

I have since heard many stories about pets dying—suddenly, mysteriously, and/or unexpectedly—shortly after their humans separate. Who can explain this? Did he not want to live without us, his trinity? Did he feel his job on earth was complete? I still don’t know. All I know is that I felt that not only had I lost my dog—I’d also lost the only pure love I’d ever had in my life. Dogs are Love, period. Love on four legs. I cried every day for two years.

The sense of loss was all-consuming. For months I sank, crying during the day and even in my sleep, for I dreamed of Wallace constantly, sometimes seeing him maimed, sometimes believing he was alive again. Then there was the guilt I felt for not protecting him, and the agony I felt at the fact that Ted totally blamed me. There was the anger at the man who had killed him—an anger that turned into an obsession as I contacted lawyers and plotted all sorts of revenge. But none of this brought Wallace back.

Meanwhile, readers, editors and agents kept asking when my next “Rex” column would appear. Believe me: I wanted to continue to write about Wallace, because it would mean that, somehow, my beloved dog would live on. But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be witty. I couldn’t write lite little stories about his cute doggie antics and comic dog-in-the-city episodes. Maybe next month, I kept telling my editors and myself. Maybe next month I would be “ready” to write about him again.

The columns had covered only the first six months of Wallace’s life. There was so much I hadn’t yet written about: Marrying Ted, spending five years arguing with Ted; watching the dog get sick every time I tried to leave; and then, finally, leaving. Then the accident; calling Ted; Ted arriving at the scene, sobbing; Ted falling to his knees before Wallace’s body, saying “My boy, my boy.” Ted refusing to allow me to touch him. Me telling Ted I was sorry. Ted saying “Get out of my face.” Ted later refusing to let me have any of Wallace’s ashes. Me eventually stealing a small portion of the ashes, which Ted still doesn’t know about ’til this day.

No, I could not write about any of this.

For time had stopped somehow. Sorrow, fear, and guilt kept me trapped. At one point I was so distraught that I consulted an animal communicator. I guess I wanted someone to tell me that Wallace was okay somewhere, and that his death wasn’t my fault. She said this, and more. She said Wallace had come forth to be my helper. She said he had also come forth to learn two lessons: One was that people can be mean and the other was that people can offer unconditional love. (Boy, did he help me learn this, too.) She also said—and this is what gave me the most hope—that Wallace would come back to me. As another dog.

Thus, I began my search. I began to spend hours on the Internet, trolling through dogs on I had a few set criteria. The dog had to be a rescue and he/she had to be either a French Spaniel (what I believed Wallace to be) or an English Setter/Springer Mix (what Ted believed Wallace to be). But anyone who has ever put the words “Spaniel” or “Setter” into the search engine at Petfinder knows that hundreds of images will come up. On any given day I might see 324 Cocker Spaniels, 276 Springers, a handful of Brittanys, one King Charles mix and four Clumbers. “Setter” brought up hundreds—English, Irish and Gordon. I wanted them all. I would search until the sun had set and the house was dark and there was nothing but me and a blue screen and 798 Spaniels. I felt, in many ways, like some kind of porn addict, trying to find true connection in a lonely world. But for months no connection came, and I remained dogless. And empty.

Rumi once wrote: “Do not grieve for loss, because everything you lose comes back to you in a different form.” The problem was, back then, that I wanted Wallace to come back to me in the exact same form. Every night I looked into the eyes of a thousand dogs and asked, “Wallace, is that you?” This can be an obstacle if you’re trying to adopt another dog.

Plus, how do you choose a new dog? Especially if you believe your previous dog was perfect and irreplaceable?

There were a couple of near misses: Polly, the sweet, half-blind Pit Bull mix who had been found stabbed and starving on the roof of an apartment building in Brooklyn. Arnold, the droopy-eyed Bassett I met at a shelter in Hyde Park, N.Y. Café, an actual French Spaniel who had been relinquished by his guardians, a young couple who had divorced; neither wanted to keep the dog because he reminded each of the other. I never met Café—he was being fostered by a breeder in Montreal, Quebec—and yet to this day, he stays in my mind. I’m pretty certain he was meant to be my dog. And it would have been good karma to pick up a new dog right where my old one had left off. And yet I could never manage to “find the time” to drive up to Canada.

In 2003, I came very close to adopting an English Setter who looked exactly like Wallace, but my application was denied. (It took about six months to recover from that rejection.) I once even found a dog named Rex! Rex was being fostered at the very same shelter at which I had found Wallace years before. This Rex—a Great Dane puppy—had mischievous blue eyes, and I immediately wanted him. But a young couple from the city had already expressed an interest. I watched them as they discussed whether or not they should get this Rex. In my eyes, they were Ted and me all over again, trying to figure out whether to follow their minds or their hearts. I sent them a silent blessing and drove off.

Around that time, I was approached by an editor who wanted to publish a book version of the columns. I was thrilled! Publishing a book had long been one of my dreams. So I spent months writing an expanded version of the columns, carrying the story through my divorce and Wallace’s death. “Umm, there’s a problem,” my editor said. “We want a happy ending. We want you and Ted to be married, and we want Rex to be alive.” She asked that I end the story—my real life story—in a different place, namely, at the moment Ted and I got engaged.

This felt wrong. “I wanted a happy ending, too,” I told my editor, “but it didn’t turn out that way. Are you saying I should just pretend that the bad things never happened?”

“No one wants to read a book about a dead dog,” she said. (This was two years before Marley and Me.)

And so, because I did not trust my own instincts, and because I wanted to trust my editor, I agreed to cut my life story in half. It took several months to write this half-memoir, and in that time I stopped searching for dogs on Petfinder. Part of the reason was that I was living in an area that had no Internet service. Part of the reason was that I felt icky about not being able to write the truth, which made me feel like a bad person, which made me feel I didn’t “deserve” another dog. But I think the main reason was—and it feels shameful to admit this in a dog magazine—I had started to enjoy the freedom of not having a dog.

This is what I did in my time “between dogs”: I traveled. I spent six months working as a decorative artist at a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado. I spent one summer at the Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock, and another glorious summer at Edward Albee’s artist colony in Montauk, a hip seaside town that has no leash law. Every morning, I’d ride one of Albee’s rickety three-speed bikes down to the surfers’ beach and watch dozens of dogs frolic on the shore. (I called this “getting my dog fix.”)

Back in the city, I went on countless dinner-and-movie dates with friends. In my dog days, I’d have skipped the movie because I would have felt guilty about leaving Wallace alone in the apartment for so long. But now, I was “free” to a certain extent. I didn’t have to get up four times in the night to take my diarrhea-boy out in the middle of a snowstorm in February. I didn’t have to risk getting poop on my hands if my plastic bag happened to have a hole in it. I didn’t have to worry about smelling like dog drool, or my dinner guests finding white dog hair in their food. All I had to do now in life was take care of myself. I definitely had more time on my hands. I could stay out for six, eight, ten hours. But to what end? What price freedom? I still had no love, and no warm body weighing down the bed at night.

I missed having a dog most during my morning walks. Wallace had introduced me to that best of life habits, and I am happy to say that I kept it up. But it always felt wrong. How could I walk without a dog when there were so many dogs out there in need of fresh air and exercise?
Eventually, I left New York and began a new dog search in earnest. Oddly, once I began trolling through Petfinder again, my Wallace dreams resumed, and I would wake up sobbing every morning. I finally consulted a therapist, who advised me to consciously replace the traumatic images with happier ones.

Here is the image I chose: It was a sunny day on Cape Cod, just a few months before Wallace died. We were walking on a deserted beach—with a sky so blue and sand so white it hurt your eyes. I hadn’t officially left Ted yet, and the question of whether to leave or stay weighed heavily on my mind and heart. But Wallace seemed beyond that question. For hours, he leapt into the surf, frolicked in the waves, and barked at the inert shells of horseshoe crabs. When gulls flew overhead, he’d spring into the air, trying to catch them, and when a tern came along he tried to catch that, too. The tern, unperturbed, zipped and zoomed low along the shoreline, its wings positioned like those of a fighter jet.

Wallace delightedly pursued the tern at top speed. The funny thing was that, instead of flying off to safety, the tern continued to zip back and forth along the shore. It seemed to be playing a game with my dog. This went on for hours. I’ll never forget the sound of Wallace’s paws splashing in the wet sand, or the look of pure joy on his face as he chased his friend the bird. He seemed to know that I was unhappy, that I was on the verge of making a life-changing decision. Both he and the bird seemed to be telling me the same thing: Joy is the means, not the end. I remember thinking on that day that Wallace had never looked so completely and jubilantly alive. I remember thinking that everything would be okay if I left Ted.

So this is the image I held in my mind. Daily. Soon I began to cry less and laugh more. Soon, I was even able to say the word “dog” without sobbing. Mostly, I began to forgive myself. I began to remember that, to his dying day, Wallace knew I loved him. And I knew he loved me. No life can be more complete than that. To love and know love.

Fitzgerald once wrote: “There are many kinds of love, but never the same love twice.” He was talking about a girl, of course, but I believe the same applies to dogs. I also believe that, just as we change, our idea of the perfect dog can change, too. I now know that I can never replace Wallace, but I can expand upon the lessons we had learned together.

So I am happy to report that I have found a new love: a French Spaniel mix named Chloe. She is perfect. There’s a long story behind how I found her—or rather, how she found me—but I shall save that for the future—my dog-filled future. And, even though it is hard to say goodbye to Wallace and goodbye to my column “Rex and the City,” it must be said and it must be done. For saying goodbye to one love is the only way to open up to another. So: Goodbye, dear Wallace. And hello, dear Chloe. Perhaps this is the happy ending my editor wanted. It was there all along.

Lee Harrington, author of the critically acclaimed memoir Rex and the City: The Rescue Dog Who Rescued a Relationship, is a long-time The Bark contributor; her serial columns, “Rex in the City” and “The Chloe Chronicles,” were reader favorites. 

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