This essay first appeared in the summer issue of Stay Thirsty Magazine. For those of you who haven’t discovered Stay Thirsty, I invite you to explore this outstanding on-line magazine.
We lost our old dog last summer. “Lost” being, of course, a euphemism for death. It was, without doubt the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and hers wasn’t the first orchestrated ending I have ever experienced. The first time was a beloved cat and making the decision that it was time to let her go was the moment I felt like I’d become an adult. But this one was different. Bonnie had been the boon companion of my revitalized writing career. You see, in my work, the focus is on the relationship between humans and dogs; the bond, the affection, the need, the service, the companionship. The love. Every single day she and I walked the town’s unofficial dog park, a massive field surrounded by pitch pine and oak bordering the private golf club, and I watched inter-dog behaviors, the play bow, the stiff tail suggesting a less amenable approach. I absorbed the rules of dog interaction and exercised not only my legs, but my vocabulary as I learned how to describe canine body language in the language of humans. Being surrounded every day by a cast of canine characters informed my work and gave me much meat to work with. Without that, I’m not sure I could have pulled off getting into the mind and heart of the dogs who have peopled, pun intended, my books.
So, when the years began to wear on Bonnie, I (and my husband) essentially went into denial. How could my muse ever be anything other than a lively, somewhat tyrannical, trickster? I never wrote about her directly, my fictional dogs always of specific breeds or breed types, always, for some reason, male, but her essence infiltrated much of their behavior. Paws dancing on the hardwood floor in anticipation of a treat. The poke of a cold nose against a bare elbow to say it’s time to walk.
I’ve written about how certain dogs come to us at certain times of our lives. The childhood dog, the practice baby, the family dog. Bonnie was classic empty nester dog, although my youngest, technically, wasn’t out of the nest that cold January day when I got the brown and white terrier mix puppy. A puppy that should have maxed out at the size of a Westie or a Parson Jack Russell. Instead she grew into what we called either a giant Jack Russell or a miniature wolfhound, having the physical attributes of both, e.g. the coloration of a terrier and the narrow frame of a hound. Now I’m convinced that she was a ‘lurcher,’ a cross between a sight hound (perhaps whippet) and a terrier. We had her for just shy of fifteen years and spent hours in pleasurable contemplation of our dog’s genetic makeup, and, no, we never did the DNA test. Somehow we never wanted confirmation. It would have deprived us of our favorite game.
We have now been without a dog for close to a year. In that time we have gone from never again! our hearts cannot take the grief, to maybe we should think about it to what do you think we should get? Purebred or rescue dog? Purebred rescue? Puppy—never again!—to senior citizen looking for a last home? So many questions, so many choices. I have collected animal welfare Facebook pages like some people collect shoes. Merrill Markoe put it best: Nose Down, Eyes Up. Who can pass by those sad eyes without feeling that this might be The One? The trick with being able to bypass these adorable and/or needy faces is that most of these rescue places are far far away, many down South or the mid-West. Not that we’re lacking any animal rescue organizations more nearby. In fact, my next door neighbor is active in bringing to our community the homeless puppies from the Caribbean and, during last fall’s horrific series of hurricanes, puppies and youngsters from Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and Houston. There are at least two of these adoptees residing on my road and I see folks everywhere accompanied by these smooth-coated black-and-white or brown-and-white dogs. Another friend of mine is a volunteer at yet another shelter nearby. This one, too, brings dogs to our community as, apparently, we produce no puppies of our own. These, however, are often dogs removed from kill shelters, last chance dogs. Harder to say no to that, but they get adopted out so quickly, there is little to no time for debating the pros and cons. Finally, there is the actual, official animal shelter, more than thirty years old, and, because of aforesaid lack of dogs born here, they rarely have dogs, but, oh boy, if you want a kitty, that’s your place and we’ve adopted several cats from there. I applaud all these doers of good.
In all of our married life, and let’s just say it’s over decades, we have never been without a house pet. From Milo, the cat who was our pet even before we moved in together, to Bonnie, we had a long history with animals. Cats, there were five. Birds, we had one parakeet and raised a flock of pigeons called rollers and tumblers. Fish, oh yes, including a betta fish given to my teacher husband for a Christmas gift by a student that lasted far longer than betta are supposed to. One iguana, briefly, thank God. There were the inevitable guinea pigs, but no other rodents. And dogs. Angus, our practice baby; Callie, who raised our daughters; and, finally, Bonnie. With her passing we are, for the first time not just in our married life together, but in our entire lives, without a house pet. (As an aside, we aren’t completely pet-less as I do have a horse. However, as much as I love her, she’s not a house pet. And, to be honest, horses are pretty self-absorbed. She does not come running when I arrive.)
It was weird at first, not having another living breathing creature in the house with me when I was alone. The silence was different. The noises were different. But now I have become attuned to the sound of the songbirds. I have become even more devoted to sitting on the deck and watching the interaction between birds vying for space on the bird feeder. The titmice and chickadees, house finch and cardinals have become my defacto pets. And have I mentioned the squirrels? One of the unexpected side effects of being dogless is having too many too bold squirrels. Little buggers even sit on my deck and stare at me. Fearless! I guess it is just part of my nature, this affinity for creatures. I sometimes wonder if I’d be like that prisoner who made a pet out of a fly, or the Birdman of Alcatraz was I to be utterly stripped of normal pets.
So, in a novel, something like this would happen: Middle-aged married couple lose their beloved, albeit spoiled, dog. Go through the stages of grief, then begin to enjoy the side effects of being without a dog—no worries about dog friendly accommodations or booking the dog sitter. Someone says, Let’s go and they do. But there is a hole in their lives. In a novel, some raggedy lost dog would arrive on their doorstep, and work its way into their hearts, teaching them that the freedom is but illusory, the companionship priceless. Because I make stuff up like this for a living, I have gone through this dogless year half expecting something like that to occur. It seems antithetical to actually go out and look for a dog. I keep expecting to be found by one because that’s how my stories usually go. So far, nothing. Why do I imagine that being deliberate about getting a dog is less worthy than having one find us? Is there anything wrong with this kind of magical thinking? After all, it’s happened to me twice before, both times in childhood. Can’t magic happen in adulthood too, or are we inoculated against it by age and experience? I’m open to letting this magical thinking continue on for a bit longer. Then, well, stay tuned. Perhaps the right dog is yet to be born and is just waiting for us wherever dog souls wait for birth. Or, just around the corner waiting to be found.