Taking Care of Me

Soul support comes on four paws and wearing a wedding veil
By Kayt Sukel, November 2008

I did it again.

I know that I shouldn’t have. I promised my husband that I wouldn’t. But I couldn’t help myself. I have no excuses, really. I understand that to some, my crime is tantamount to animal cruelty. But it couldn’t be helped.

And yes, it involved a novelty wedding veil. I know I should be ashamed of myself.

Eleven months into my husband’s deployment to Iraq, I was counting the days until his return. The Day of the Veil started like any other. My dog, Mabel, and I were on our way out for a walk when the phone rang. It was my husband, and as I chattered about how excited I was that he’d be coming home soon, he broke the news that his unit had been extended indefinitely. He didn’t know when he might be coming home, but it wouldn’t be at the end of the month as we had planned.

Mabel, sensing that something was amiss, dropped her leash and immediately took up residence on the couch. As I sat down, wrapped in a cloud of grief and anger, she rearranged herself, put her head on my lap and remained there through a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food, a couple of glasses of wine and more Kleenex than I cared to count. She even stayed put as, still crying, I pored over my wedding album. As I fiercely sobbed, making sounds only a dog could tolerate, I explained that her daddy wouldn’t be home for a while. She looked up at my mascara-stained face with big, understanding eyes that said, “Please tell me what I can do to make you feel better.” And it was then that the idea of the veil came to me.

It was a novelty wedding veil that had been purchased for my bridal shower, an inexpensive headband with some cheap muslin stapled to it, tackily adorned with sequins in a crown formation. Why, oh why, I decided that my dog needed to don this veil was beyond me.

In the first few months my husband was gone, I had attempted, without much luck, to photograph Mabel in a variety of outfits. With each phone call, my goofy, loving husband seemed further and further away from me, so sad and matter-of-fact. I thought photos of Mabel dressed up like a ballerina or a baseball player would make him laugh. But she was less than compliant, and the photographs weren’t as funny as I hoped (mostly because she kept running away), so when my husband received the first batch of pictures, he made me promise never to do it again.

But on this night, she accepted my torture with grace. She stood quietly as I slipped the veil on her head and maneuvered it into position. After standing back to study my handiwork, I laughed and hugged her muscular body close to mine, grateful that I had such a good friend to help me face the unknown of the coming days. I snapped a photo, not to send to my husband this time, but to keep for myself.

The truth of the matter is, when we first adopted Mabel, I never thought she’d be so accommodating. Previous dress-up attempts aside, the puppy whom we had rescued two years earlier was a timid little thing, terrified of everything and anything. Back then, just the sight of that veil would have unglued her.

My husband and I had been dating for only a few months when we stumbled across Mabel at his apartment complex. We had walked together to the main building to accomplish two pressing tasks—our laundry and his lease renewal. I started the laundry and he went on his own to the leasing office. A few minutes later, he returned and motioned for me to come outside.

“Come look,” he said quietly, and curious, I followed.

There on the steps of the complex office was a small white puppy with brown and black spots. Her head was mostly brindle-colored, bisected by a sleek white racing stripe leading down to her wet, black nose. Her ears, also brindle, flopped adorably on either side of her face. She was dirty, smelled of a mixture of rotten eggs and swamp water, and was lying next to a bowl of kibble that looked entirely too large for her little mouth. But she was absolutely charming. As we approached, she cocked her head to one side as she took measure of us, her brown eyes opening wide and her tail slowly thumping against the porch. We must have passed her test, because, after taking a few steps backward, she allowed us to touch her.

“She is too cute!” I said, as she tentatively nuzzled my hand.

“The leasing agent told me she was abandoned here a few weeks back. Can you believe it?”

And with that, my future husband, obviously not thinking too clearly, left me on the steps with that beautiful creature as he went inside to finish his business. He told me later that he knew that we had acquired a dog when I walked inside a few minutes later, looked up with him with my best girlie eyes and hesitantly cooed, “Baby?”

Given my husband’s occupation, the adoption of a dog meant that the bulk of responsibility for her care fell on me. Though Mabel was man’s best friend, in our case, as I’m sure in many, she was woman’s most work. Don’t get me wrong—I loved her to death, which was why I was willing to endure those first few months, but she definitely had her daddy wrapped around her little paw.

Mabel was at her best when my husband was around. While I spent each week cleaning up accidents in the house, vacuuming up several dogs-worth of hair each day and mourning expensive footwear that had been chewed beyond recognition, my husband got to spend the weekends he was home playing fetch and curling up on the couch with the most well-behaved dog ever. When I called her in from outside, she would give me a look that said, “Try and catch me!” as she sprinted to the most distant point in the yard. All my husband had to do was slap his thigh and she was at the door. When we were on our own during the week, I kept all doors closed to prevent Mabel from deciding it was a good day to christen the guest bedroom. When my husband was home, Mabel would go to the side door and scratch to let him know she needed to go outside. It was exasperating, but inevitably, before I reached the point of no return, Mabel would do something endearing and all would be forgiven.

But over time, and with more money than I care to mention spent on training, Mabel and I finally began to have an understanding. I learned that if I expected her to comply to my commands, I needed to have a box of her favorite liver treats standing by. She learned that if she kept jumping up on the furniture and trying to cuddle with me, eventually I would be too charmed (and exhausted) to stop her. I learned that accidents in the house could be avoided by taking her a long walk each day. I learned to put my shoes away as soon as I came in from work. And luckily, she never learned how to open the closet door (though she still tried to master this skill). But, as usual, with her father each weekend, she was an angel. I came to look forward to his homecoming not just for me, but for the break I got from caring for the dog by myself.

So you can imagine my distress when we learned that my husband would be going to Baghdad for a year. I cried about our impending separation and the loneliness that would come with his deployment. I cried with fear of what might happen to him. I cried over how goddamn unfair it all was. And I am not ashamed to admit that I cried, in advance, for the many pairs of shoes I was sure I was going to lose to Mabel’s jaws as she acted out her separation anxiety. I wondered how Mabel and I would get by without my husband there each weekend. I worried that our newfound understanding could not last in a totally daddy-free environment. And so I cried some more.

In fearing the worst, I was in no way prepared for what actually did happen. Our understanding, such that it was, did fall by the wayside—that much of my fear came to pass. But it was replaced with something so much better.

No, she didn’t miraculously learn to come when she was called, but the truth of the matter was that I seldom had to call her. She was always by my side, which was exactly what I needed. As soon as I walked in the door each day, she came to greet me with a bounce in her step that never failed to make me smile, even on the worst of days. The foibles that had once made me crazy, now more often made me laugh. And my laughter worked better than a scolding to reduce any bad behavior.

Mabel took over my husband’s side of the bed, climbing up each night and placing her head on his pillow. She’d use her teeth to pull the covers on his side into a semicircle, and then lay down so that she was buffered on all sides by something soft. More mornings than not, I’d wake up to find that she’d scooched herself over to the middle of the bed so that we were just about spooning. And there she would stay until I was ready to get up, content to sleep in as long as I wanted—and on bad days, that could be quite late.

Most importantly, Mabel gave me a routine, something important that I had to do each day. I couldn’t just lock myself away and pout, I had a dog to walk. I couldn’t go out and drink myself into oblivion, I had a dog to go home to and let out. And I couldn’t cry myself to sleep each night, because every time I tried, Mabel would lick my face, tickling me until I begrudgingly giggled.

And, of course, as I already mentioned, when I was at my lowest, she let me dress her up in that god-awful wedding veil. What more could a girl ask from a dog? Only the truest friend would suffer that kind of humiliation. My husband’s deployment was not easy to endure, but Mabel helped me to carry on more than I ever imagined. What I worried would be too cumbersome to bear ended up being one of my greatest joys.

My husband was deployed again recently. Not for another year, thankfully—though that is probably in our future—but for several weeks on a training exercise. As I complained to a friend about his departure, she commiserated, and said, “And having to take care of the dog all by yourself, too, what an inconvenience!”

I was about to agree for the sake of exacting a bit more sympathy when a photo of Mabel caught my eye. In it, she’s wearing that dreadful wedding veil, gazing up at me with a look of unconditional love and sympathy. A sense of relief came over me as I realized that I wouldn’t be facing my husband’s absences alone. In fact, I never had.

“Actually,” I replied with a smile, “She’ll be taking care of me.”


Kayt Sukel has contributed articles, essays and book reviews to the Washington Post, USAToday, the Christian Science Monitor; JIVE magazine, and National Geographic Magazine.