A Three Dog Life: A Memoir

Harcourt, 192 pp., 2007; $13
By Lee Harrington, November 2008
A Three Dog Life: A Memoir
Harcourt, 192 pp., 2007; $13

The three dogs of Thomas’s wispy, poetic memoir are Harry, an elderly Beagle; Rosie, a Whippet/Dachshund mix whose first owner died on September 11; and Carolina Bones, an American Foxhound so named because she was found abandoned at a rest stop in South Carolina, emaciated to the point that her bones poked through her skin.

When her story begins, Thomas had only one dog, Harry. On a night in April of 2000, Thomas’s husband, Rich, took Harry out for a walk and did not come back. Thomas received a phone call from her doorman, telling her that Harry was in the elevator. Harry had returned home alone.

Panicked, Thomas soon learned that Rich had been struck by a hit-and-run driver right outside their apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; his  skull had been fractured into innumerable shards. Witnesses said Harry had slipped his collar and Rich had run onto Riverside Drive to save him. The police, in their report, described Rich as “dead, or likely to die.”

But Rich, miraculously, lived, and thus begins Thomas’s journey of shock and recovery, guilt and loyalty, love and marriage, self-reliance and self-discovery. The damage done by Rich’s head trauma left him subject to rages, terrors, hallucinations and large-scale memory loss. Ultimately, after a series of surgeries and trial and errors, Thomas makes the decision to commit Rich to a brain trauma center in upstate New York. She sells their city apartment, buys a house in Woodstock and acquires two more dogs. Then she has to learn how to live all over again. She has to learn how to take care of herself. And to take care of a man who can’t remember the past.

Because of the title, and because this book is being reviewed in a dog magazine, we might expect A Three Dog Life to be a “dog book” (whatever a “dog book” might be). It is and it isn’t. It is so much more. One chapter describes the contents of the author’s refrigerator. Another chapter—a single page in length—lists (hilariously) all the things the author has knit in the past four years. In the essay “How to Break up a Dogfight,” we are advised, “Hire a dog trainer and then be unavailable for the next three months through no fault of your own. Make sure that for the initial visit you have hurt your back and can’t move anything except your eyes and mouth without screaming. After he leaves, remember everything you did badly as a mother and begin to get depressed.”

Thomas’s prose is elegant, witty, dazzling and infused with hope. At the heart of each essay—whether he is present or absent on the page—is Rich. Rich now speaks with an eerie lucidity that makes him come across as a sage of sorts, mired neither in the future nor in the past. His first words after the accident, when the doctors removed his breathing tube, were ¿Que pasa? (“This coming from a man who had failed high school Spanish,” Thomas notes). When Thomas visits, Rich might utter a poetic non sequitur (“The goat’s mouth is full of stones”) or he might, as often as not, read Thomas’s mind, and deliver an eloquent soliloquy that answers questions Thomas has not even voiced out loud. “I am present at a miracle,” Thomas writes of one such incident.

In that sense, one might say this is a book about miracles. It is not just that Rich lived when all thought he would die. It is not just that Thomas sometimes feels the approving presence of Rosie’s previous owner (a victim of 9/11) at her side. With her magnificent wit and eye for detail, Thomas describes, again and again, those aching moments we might call “life’s small miracles”—the things that happen on the other side of heartache, when you think there is no room left in your life for joy. Thomas describes the joy one can take from a magnificent painting or from a perfectly baked cake. The joy one can take in weeding a garden, taking your dog to the dog run or sharing laughter with a friend. In one small scene, Thomas finds, buried among the leaves in Riverside Park, a knitted wool shawl, which turns out to be her own shawl, one she hadn’t even realized she’d lost. This moment stays in my mind as a perfect metaphor for happiness itself: when you find something you didn’t even know you’d lost.

As dog people, we will take delight in Thomas’s descriptions of introducing her first dog to her second dog, and then introducing those two to the third. We will appreciate that her essay “How to Banish Melancholy” starts with the sentence, “You will need three dogs, one of whom….” And we will appreciate “Carolina’s in Heat and I’m Not” for the title alone. (This essay, incidentally, made its debut in Bark.)

I’d call this deftly written book a work of art. It's infused with humor and feminine wisdom. The essays are spare, non-linear and satisfying in the way the music of Miles Davis is satisfying: There is as much resonance in the silences as in what is actually written on the page.

Of life with three dogs, Thomas sums it up beautifully: “The past is not as interesting to me as it was when I was young … There’s nothing I want to relive—certainly not youth—and as for what’s to come, I’m in no hurry. I watch my dogs. They throw themselves into everything they do; even their sleeping is wholehearted. They aren’t waiting for a better tomorrow, or looking back at their glory days. Following their example, I’m trying to stick to the present.”


Lee Harrington is the author of the best-selling memoir, Rex and the City: A Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog (Random House, 2006), and of the forthcoming novel, Nothing Keeps a Frenchman from His Lunch.