Saturday, October 20, 2012

For Me and My Dog

I've written an essay about my relationship with my dog, 17-year-old Freddie. If you like it, I would love it if you posted a comment, and/or retweeted my tweet about it. In any case, I hope you enjoy it.

Love, Finally

I finally fell in love with my dog around the time he turned fourteen, about three years ago. By then, he was no longer able to leap onto my bed, and his days as an embarrassment who had to be walked wearing a muzzle lest he bite someone – again – were part of his fierce youth, now in the distant past.

We’d adopted Freddie from a shelter, a five month old half Bichon Frise, half Cairn Terrier who bore a passing resemblance to Toto in The Wizard of Oz. He was acquired to replace Sparky, cut down in her prime by a speeding car. Though when I was a child my family had always owned dogs, I no longer considered myself much of a dog person. The pets in my adult life were mostly for the kids, especially my daughter, who seemed to need a dog the way a fish needs water. To this overburdened mother with two challenging children, a full-time job and a rocky marriage, the dog was a “do I have to?” burden, becoming even more of a weight after my divorce,

True, he was adorable. A neighbor once remarked that he looked like a stuffed animal. But he bit people. More than once. Never a family member and never a family member’s friend. But plumbers and electricians had better watch out. (I always locked him away when they came.) He had a thing for men in uniform and yes, he hated our letter carrier.

He once chomped onto a disagreeable neighborhood gardener who called the cops – and then he bit the cop. He was quarantined for ten days, banished from the streets of my town for the safety of its citizenry. With a profound sense of shame – bad dog owner! – I did the tough, right thing. I bought a muzzle. We acclimated him to it by spreading soft cheese inside it, and he soon stopped resisting its placement over his mouth and nose when it came time for a walk.

When I began to take him out sporting the muzzle, I felt mortified, especially in my family-friendly neighborhood, home to dozens of dogs, all unfettered and free to lick and be petted. When kids approached, hands out for a kiss, I had to tell them “Sorry, he’s not always friendly.” Their parents looked on pityingly or disapprovingly.

I might have been able to conceal my parental shortcomings, but there was no way to hide my failings as a dog owner; my need to protect the locals from this vicious beast was obvious, My initial embarrassment at having to muzzle my dog gave way to something akin to pride; I’d had a problem, and I’d dealt with it competently. But most important, he couldn’t hurt anyone.

After a while, the censorious glances – or so I imagined them – were replaced with friendly sympathy. He was, after all, seriously cute.

With a biting dog on the premises, my homeowner’s insurance premiums skyrocketed. People wondered why we didn’t just get rid of him. But it was clear that the kids really did need him. When one of them was upset after a fight with a friend, or stressed about an upcoming test, they knew they could count on a snuggle with Freddie to make things better. So he stayed.

But I didn’t love him. Not then. I’d feed and walk him, annoyed by his whimpers signaling the need to go out at 7:30 on a Saturday morning when just this once, I wanted to sleep till nine. Or worse, the just-before-bedtime outings for one last pee in single-digit temperatures. I wasn’t totally immune to his charms, offering the occasional tummy rub, the appreciative “Good boy, such a good boy” but really, I gave him the minimum.

For years, Freddie was not allowed into my bedroom. I’d purchased an expensive set of bed linens in Paris, and no way was he getting his sharp claws into them. He alternately slept with one kid or another. But with my daughter no longer living at home, and my son spending more time at his dad’s, he had nowhere to sleep where he’d have some companionship. I relented and let him breach the barrier of my bedroom door and sleep on the rug.

But that wasn’t good enough for Freddie. The whining and the imploring eyes wore me down. And once he’d bounded onto the bed, he was there for good. For about two years now, he’s been my sleeping companion, the linens a bit worse for wear, and I don’t much care.

I became frankly crazy about this now-mellow elderly mutt. And I wonder why. Is it because I no longer worry that he’ll put his teeth into someone’s leg? Could it be that our physical proximity during the most vulnerable moments of our days – when we’re asleep – binds us in some primal way?

He’s now seventeen and somewhat infirm. A couple of months ago he experienced severe mobility problems and I feared we might lose him. I surprised myself with how worried I became and how tender my feelings were. He was diagnosed with and treated for Lyme Disease, and he’s actually a bit frisky again.

I know of some contentious marriages that suddenly shifted when one spouse became ill. A husband who’d been distant and cold became his ailing wife’s nurse, advocate, and thoughtful caregiver. No one would have predicted it based on past behavior, but there he was, messing up the kitchen for the first time in his life, washing his wife’s hair, shepherding her to and from doctor’s appointments.

Is it possible that people –and other animals as well – become both more loveable and loving when they need help, such as when they’re not feeling well? When my kids were little, I experienced an almost overwhelming surge of love for them when they were sick. I remember holding each of them in my arms during a few feverish episodes. Ordinarily, they’d allow only so much cuddling before they were ready to jump from my lap and return to play. But when they were under the weather, they’d allow me to hug and kiss them as much as I wanted to, which was a lot. And they hugged and kissed me back.

Perhaps we’re hard wired for the compassion gene to kick in when someone needs us. Or maybe, especially as we age and many of us no longer have day-to-day responsibility for children, we require someone to take care of in order to retain our full measure of humanity. And it could be that our noblest moments occur when we become caregivers to those we never much cared for.

I do feel some regret for having kept Freddie at a certain remove all those years. He missed out on my affection, though he did receive plenty from the kids. And I undoubtedly missed out on the affection he could have offered me, had I allowed it.

There exist several floral species that bloom for a single day. The evening primrose is breathtakingly beautiful, turning a buttery yellow for just one night; after its brief bloom, it withers away. So it might be might be with relationships, some designed for the long haul, others for a short but sweet interlude.

I love my Freddie with an intensity that continues to baffle me. Sometimes, near the end of the workday, I’ll start thinking about him, looking forward to returning home, where he’ll greet me, tail thumping against the floor, tonguing my hand under his nose. I’ll pick him up and carry him outside – he can’t manage the stairs too well - so he can take care of business. He now has occasional accidents inside which I matter-of-factly clean up, and which actually don’t bother me all that much.

I chatter at him incessantly: “Are you hungry, cutie? Mommy’s making you dinner right now” in exactly the same cooing tones I employed with my infant children. I don’t even think about the fact that I’m using baby-talk with someone who is ninety years old in human terms, old enough to be my father. In fact, I frequently address him as “Baby.”

He lies beside me while I read, watch TV and knit, sometimes snuggling up against me, sometimes wandering off for a bit of independence. But always, when it’s time to bed down for the night, we’re back to back and he’s right up against me. I feel him breathing, and I know he’s still with me, and I can sleep.