Love is Patient

“Wait a year until you let him off leash. Wait until he really knows you’re his people.”

So said Tasha, the owner of the sled dog kennel where we adopted our big beautiful sled dog, Swirl.

He follows us through the house, looks back at us when we’re walking sometimes, not very often, comes when he’s called at the dog park his own way which is running toward us and then past to let us know he heard us but wants nothing to do with us, a lot like our kids when they were teenagers, never really taking off but never under control either.

We spent the weekend at our cabin on Lake Superior. There we were with the sand and the lake and the bluest sky, the one that only exists up there in the north, and we ached to let him go. Watch him lope along, no leash, no harness.

But we did what Tasha said. She hasn’t been wrong so far, we figured. She was the expert on all things dog.

Later in the day, coming up the driveway to our place, we saw a red fox leaping high in the beach grass, flying across our property like a swooping eagle. It was breathtaking. For us and for Swirl and had he not been at the end of a leash I was holding he would have torn after the fox and gone wherever the fox decided to go.

It wouldn’t matter if we called him back. He wouldn’t have come. We’re his people. We know that. But we love him more than he loves us. He loves chasing the fox he’s never met more than he loves us. And it’s going to be that way for a while.

Maybe a long while. That’s fine. We’ll wait.

Walk Away

We had a red cocker spaniel named Rusty. We had this dog for a long time, from before I was born until I was nine or ten. And then she disappeared. My dad said she just walked off. She was very old, he said, and that’s what dogs do, go off somewhere to die.

That seemed strange to me and I wondered why no one was looking for Rusty. We lived on a dirt road, in a working class suburb of Detroit on the edge of a farm field which would catch fire every so often and we’d all have to run over there with our shovels to beat down the flames and ashes.

So I envisioned Rusty mindlessly leaving our yard and walking across the farm field, maybe all the way to the creek where sometimes I went to sit in a cave I found, just an indentation in a little hill with an overhang thick with moss and tiny ferns.

When my dad said Rusty had wandered off to die, it had a finality to it that I couldn’t argue with. After all, he knew Rusty a lot longer than me although I never heard the story of their meeting. My dad wasn’t a dog lover so there must of been something special about Rusty. Maybe my mom wanted her. I knew that Rusty had had puppies and that she and her puppies were put in the window of my dad’s auto supply store where people in our small town gathered to watch. What is cuter than a dog and her puppies? Nothing.

No one was ever mean to Rusty in any way, so don’t go thinking that my dad tired of her in some way and put a pillow over her face or dropped her from the car on the far outskirts of town knowing her cataracted eyes couldn’t negotiate her return. He wasn’t like that. He was too busy working to be mean to anybody, even a dog. He had decided it was futile looking so we didn’t. None of us.

I don’t remember grieving about Rusty. We might have. Or maybe not. My folks had a fatalism about them that was contagious, working its way around the dinner table faster than the mashed potatoes. She was there one day and the next she was gone and that was all there was to it.

The Next Day

Of course, I come in my office, sit down at my desk, and there are two Milk-Bones sitting here.

I’m waiting for the Cardinal to appear in the tree outside. Or a row of pennies leading me down the back steps. Not really.

I don’t believe in signs, angels, spirit animals or any of that stuff. Other people do and that’s fine. Who am I to say?

My dog died yesterday while I held her muzzled head. The muzzle was a precaution, a needless one probably, this dog was never a biting dog, but she didn’t like folks messing with her legs and, well, that was part of the deal. The vet listened to her heart not beating and then she reached over, unbuckled the muzzle and slipped it off. She told us to turn out the light when we left.

So we left, just minutes later, and that was that.

I gave myself the day to feel pretty bad about it and the day is just about done. I figure there will be days and weeks of missing her, thinking she’s coming up the stairs to sit with me here, coming for those two juicy Milk-Bones.

I’m thinking of doing a dog wall with all our famous dogs – Davey, the Doberman-Husky puppy bought right after we got married, Jack, the regal Samoyed I got as a graduation present and a consolation prize, having just found out I couldn’t have any more children, Tiny, the crazy, furiously loyal blue-eyed Australian Shepherd-Collie who was the last dog at the Humane Society, BowWow, the pugnacious, profane Bichon, brought home by my husband for a ‘sleepover’ that lasted 13 years, and, finally, Minnie, my son’s sweet dog who grew too big for efficiency apartment living and turned up here one fine afternoon. “Mom, can you take Minnie?” “Sure, for how long?” “For a while.” It turned out to be a long while.

I made the mistake of anthropomorphizing the last two dogs, giving them personalities and voices in a series of Minnie and BowWow conversations published on this blog. It was fun but made them seem more than dogs so letting them go was much harder almost like I’d not have been surprised to have them actually utter dying words to me.

In thirty-five years together, we have had no more than two or three months without a dog in the house. And a couple of those months were dead of winter months of great unhappiness, hollowness, that were made better, mended, healed, by the joy of a new dog.

So now we’re without a dog but we aren’t unhappy or hollow but our house is empty and rambling with just us but it will soon be real spring and time to start over with a new dog. That’s what we do in spring, yes, start over. It’s what life expects of us.

Unbeknownst to Me

My dog has a dent in her head about two inches long and an inch wide and I never saw it before the vet pointed it out this morning.

“She has partial facial paralysis,” he said, adding that was why her left eye was red and oozing. She couldn’t completely close her eye so it was dry and irritated. The facial paralysis meant that the unused muscle on the left side of her face had atrophied, hence the dent.

I’ve lived with this dog for 14 years. She lies near me pretty much wherever I am. I talk to her, I pet her beautiful head, I hold her face in my hands. I never saw her dent.

Is this how it happens?

You think everything is fine, life is okay, adequate, maybe not spectacular, but fine, and you meet up with someone who hasn’t seen you for a long time and they right away notice the massive dent in your head?

I’m afraid to go out.

Dog Days

Today was a better day with my new dog, Romy. I didn’t get head-butted putting on his leash. I can still feel the result of yesterday’s crash if I move my fingers along the bone under my eye but there’s no bruise. So it can stay our little secret.

The task really is to tame him. At first, it was to give him a home. Then it was to keep our older dog from being hectored to death. Now it’s to civilize him and help him find his place in the world order. We can’t let him be a crazy shit dog because we feel sorry for his poor beginnings because, who knows, maybe he was born in the backseat of a Cadillac and ate poached eggs every morning. I’m not going to assume.

He was a decent citizen today, good for long stretches of time, sometimes even sleeping in the same room with the ancient Minnie without going after her hind legs. But then a switch flipped and he ran like a deer through the house, leaping from the stairs, jumping high enough to look me straight in the eye. We went for our second walk then where he immediately found a half-eaten sleeve of Ritz crackers (yesterday it was a champagne cork) and carried it like a small mouse for half a block. He will give things up which is amazing. I figure if his world order includes me as the pack leader I need to be in charge of what goes in his mouth. So far, he’s agreed.

I’ve never really thought about any of this stuff before. We’ve had five dogs and they just sort of lived here, driving us crazy and then getting old. We yelled at them not to do bad stuff which they did anyway until they got bored with themselves and then they just laid about unless it was time to go run on the beach. This dog is different. I have to out-think him. He is too intense and smart for a laid back upbringing. We’ll wake up one morning and find he’s taken the keys to the truck and gone back to Alabama which we have kind of wished for but not really.

99 New: It’s a Dog’s Life

As grief-stricken as she might have been, our old dog, Minnie, also seemed liberated by the death of her long-time companion and frequent oppressor, BowWow. For years, BowWow, a smaller dog by half, exercised his dominance over her as the alpha dog. He stood over Minnie as she rested on a bed or a blanket or a space of earth on the planet until she got up and moved to another spot. It didn’t need to be a prime spot, an especially cushy or warm spot, it only had to be the spot she had. His mission was to make her move from her spot. For no reason. Just because he could.

I tried to intervene. I yelled at BowWow and told Minnie to stay where she was. Stand your ground! I shouted. Sometimes I grabbed the smaller dog by the collar and took him to another spot to lie down, a nice comfy bed on the other side of the room. But BowWow returned within seconds and continued his silent, oppressive standing over her until she moved, a big dog slinking off to find a cold spot while the smaller dog curled his satisfied self into a ball on the warm spot she’d just vacated.

When BowWow died, I watched Minnie shake off her learned inferiority. She slept wherever she pleased. Because she was old and stiff, we often threw a big comforter on the floor of the living room for her. We turned the TV on when we left the house so she wouldn’t be lonely and soon seemed to replace her regular meals with snacks from the cupboard and our plates. She took to sleeping in, sometimes needing to be rousted at 9:00 am, a sign that she’d left the days of BowWow-mandated early rising behind.

You know where this is going, right? Romeo, the new dog, spent an hour in his new home being sheepish and deferential, well, maybe a day or two, but quickly grew into his 13-month old balls. He has perfected the warm spot steal and is working, not very subtly, on muscling in on Minnie’s food bowl. Minnie stands back now from the stairs if Romeo is going down or up, doing that standing aside and looking at her nails thing that women do when they want to convey their superiority in an environment where they are being trampled, like, oh, I meant to stop here in this nice out of the way spot so all the guys could hurl themselves down the stairs.

Don’t let this punk intimidate you, I want to tell Minnie but she has already gone back to the land of deference. We intervene to try to teach Romeo decent manners and to keep Minnie safe, mostly she steers a wide berth around him, finding spots that he doesn’t want to claim as her own. She is a big, old sweet girl, precious to us but no revolutionary. She has no interest in living up to our feminist dreams for her. She’s just going to keep living her dog life the way she has for twelve years, doing whatever it takes to have some peace in her world and get a decent nap. That’s her right, I guess. Or her lot.

99 New: Bama Hound

Our new dog is from Alabama.

For some reason, things didn’t work out down South and he was shipped up here to Milwaukee. With mange. It doesn’t reflect well on that part of the country, sending their mangy critters up to us Northerners to adopt. The shelter here treated him for it and swears it’s not contagious but still.

His name is Romeo but we rarely use his name. I always call him Buddy, Honey, or Sweetie – the same names I used for my other dogs and sometimes my kids, never my husband though, he hates terms of endearment. So we are working on using Romeo but it might be shortened to Romy. Three syllables seems too much for a dog’s name.

Romeo was in the last ‘cell’ on the right at the Humane Society. Lying in his bed on the other side of the room, he raised an eyebrow and his tail, what there is of it, wagged. When he decided we weren’t leaving right away, he came over to wag closer. He was small – just 28 lbs it said on his rap sheet – wiry, tan, and white, with a most abbreviated tail like it had maybe been lopped off by a hoe or a truck door.

In my mind, I had him living in a pen outside down South with a lot of bad barking companions, eating and eliminating happening every which way. I thought of all our new rugs at home, bought after our dearly departed BowWow’s diabetic-inspired peeing left new paisley patterns everywhere. He doesn’t know how to live inside I decided. Of course, they don’t tell you any of this stuff at the Humane Society, you basically have to create a narrative for your dog. Mine was that he was practically feral, that’s how I feel about the South, I guess, which is terrible but true.

As it turns out, Romeo has manners, a lot of them. He is attentive and pretty obedient, cheerful and uncomplaining. He is also, at least for the moment, profoundly grateful, which adds to his charm no end. He is mindful that there is, in our house, a ‘resident dog’ as the Humane Society calls her and he is properly deferential without being a wimp. It means that they can sleep on the same blanket, if only for a bit.

He is a dog who seems delighted to be alive. And he is young, only a year old, so he could be alive a long time. I forgot that calculus in my fascination with his wagging stump of a tail. He could very well outlive us or not. We don’t know.  Or care, not right now anyway, there’s no point in thinking ahead.