It’s been a rough year.
My wonderful Aunt Yvonne was diagnosed with cancer and then passed away within the span of 6 months. My Uncle had a heart attack. My mom had a pacemaker placed. And I, for my part, ran through the tight constellation that is my family aghast with pain and panic, worrying that another bright light would suddenly blink out on us for good.
I can’t say that the specific suffering of losing a family member to cancer has much to recommend it. Mostly, because of the insidious nature of it, you wonder how it had time to steal up on the person you love so quickly and so completely. You wonder if it can do that to you too. And, as you enter and leave the sterile cocoon of the oncology ward, you fight off a rising sense of terror that there is something terribly malicious about the universe offing nice people in this way before they’ve really had a chance to fight. You pray a lot. You eat more apples.
It’s good when someone moves on to whatever is next and out of the pain. But, it’s horrifically empty for a while for the rest of us. Watching my cousin, who at 30 still seems so impossibly young to me, lose her Mama was possibly the worst thing I have ever witnessed without looking away. Watching my uncle compulsively clean the house the night of my Aunt’s funeral because he couldn’t bear the thought of her beautiful home looking unkempt for visitors was a close second.
But, I think I’ve been making a relatively good show of it. Despite a bit of compulsive working out to show my body that the recent autoimmune relapse has not slowed me down one bit, thank-you-very-much, I’ve soldiered on. Clients have been helped. Children have been educated. Christmas is bearing down upon us and presents have been procured and wrapped.
I think I might owe a lot of that shocking good will to the surprise addition of a mangy beagle to my household.
I don’t really like dogs all that much. And when I have had one, it has been a foo-foo dog. Like, if Paris Hilton could have carried it around in a purse the size of a popsicle circa 2004, that’s my jam. I still have an elderly Chihuahua that I named after a particularly violent inmate at a prison I once worked in during the early aughts. She’s adorable, but a bit like a cat. Lola won’t walk on a leash, bites fairly indiscriminately and rules the house with a tiny iron paw. I love her. I really do. But, I don’t think anyone could call Lola doggy in any real sense of that word. She’s just kind of regal and scary.
Dan and I had long ago decided that we would be “out of the dog business” when Lola shuffles off this mortal coil and heads homeward to savage the hands of small children in the afterlife. So, I was at no risk of coming home with any canine hangers-on when I took my daughter to the county animal shelter one afternoon in August. We go there sometimes to snuggle with the kitty cats because the nice people at the shelter don’t care, and the cats love the attention.
I had debated going anywhere at all that afternoon. The weather was gloomy and I was tired from a long haul at work. However, my daughter is a tiny, living version of an adorable, ruddy-cheeked doll. How can you turn that face down? Seriously. You can’t.
So, Lily Belle and I spent our afternoon cuddling a long list of really patient felines, washed our hands, and prepared to head out of the shelter. But something just stuck in my throat. I felt a weird pull. Looking down at Lily Belle with a sheepish grin, I asked her if she wanted go check out the doggies. She half-heartedly agreed, sleepy already on the heels of her adventures in catdom. We went into the kennels.
If you’ve never been into the kennels at a kill shelter, wait until a time when you’re on really solid emotional ground. I mean, unless you deeply need a good cry that day, and then be my guest. The people who work and volunteer at these centers are inevitably sweet, supportive and eager for you to take home a new pet. But, that doesn’t stop the whole place from reeking of sadness and fear. Not every wonderful animal is going to have a happy ending there. It’s palpable.
Down at the end of runs filled with friendly, eager little faces there was a last, quarantined dog. More out of curiosity than anything else, I peered into the enclosure, straining to see the animal hiding at the back. An emaciated Beagle trotted up to the midpoint of the cage, stopped strangely short there, and slouched against the wall staring at me. I locked eyes with him and felt a strange sense of dizziness and connection.
Lily Belle began to cry and demanded to be picked up, panicking in the stink and the noise of the kennels. I thought about leaving. Instead I flagged down a shelter worker and asked in a tone that attempted nonchalance about the dog on the end.
“Oh, we don’t know much about him yet. He just got here. He’s not fixed and he’s got heart worms. They think he’s pretty old—might be about 8.”
“Can I go in with him a minute?” I inquired, hoping to settle for myself that this was an ordinary experience.
Motioning me into the adjoining run, the shelter employee lifted a little door that connected it with the beagle’s enclosure. The dog stuck his head through and looked around at me, at the increasingly apoplectic toddler on my hip, and at the shelter lady waiting just beyond the door. He walked through and rested his head on my knee, gazing quietly up me and at Lily Belle. I reached down to pet his head and he jumped up with both paws. I could feel the BBs imbedded under his skin and noticed there was no fur in wide patches on his ears.
I loved him immediately.
In that moment, something in my heart seized up and exploded. I couldn’t have left him in that place if I had tried.
The next few days were a blur of bringing my other children to the shelter to visit, calling approximately every vet in a two-city radius to see if anyone would treat his heart worms for under the price of a small car, and convincing my astonished husband that we needed another dog. And not just a teeny, foofy dog, but an elderly ex-hunting beagle that probably wasn’t house trained and might destroy our living room the first night.
Tone stentorian, lip quivering, I told Dan that I was adopting this dog no matter what because I had to save him from the pound. I talked to a client of mine who is friends with a member of a beagle rescue. I planned to treat the dog’s heart worms so that he was more adoptable, even if it wasn’t with us. In other words, I had completely lost my mind. My friends and family, none of whom had experienced me as a dog person, marveled at the fever pitch of my devotion. A few asked if this might be a lingering reaction to a tumultuous period of loss.
It became clear the second that the shelter people handed me the leash when I went to pick up the beagle (who was going to be named Larry or Hunter at this point) that he was not house trained. Hunter/Larry sauntered out into the lobby, surveyed all present, and proudly lifted his leg on a velvet tablecloth by the entryway. Then, having no compunctions about walking appropriately on a leash, he unceremoniously dragged my oldest son out the door and into the parking lot.
“What am I going to do?” I moaned to my friend Laura in the car. “He’s going to pee all over the house and Dan is going ask me to take him back.”
“Just tie his leash around your waist whenever he’s out of his crate for the first few weeks,” she advised. “Wherever you go, he goes. You’ll notice if he’s going to lift his leg.”
Later that night, I began to call Hunter/Larry the name I had heard in my head the first time I saw him—Homer.
At the time, drifting around my house in tandem, I thought Homer was tethered to me. Me, his savior who had beneficently shown up in the pound to save his life. But now I wonder if it wasn’t the other way around entirely. Maybe it was me tethered to him out there in the chop beyond the breakers. And in his quiet, sturdy way he has been wholly present with me as I have tried to find the shore.
Pondering that thought at a mediation teacher training on the west coast a few months later, I asked a fellow teacher what she made of this lunatic proposition.
“Oh,” Karen said with a conspiratorial, half-lidded smile. “When an animal is your animal, they call you in. He called you, and you went. He was always supposed to be yours.”
I considered this silently, pushing a half-eaten piece of fish around my plate in the incandescent noon of a Southern California day. Walking back into session that afternoon, I felt a bit lighter and oddly contented.
Even now, Homer is snoring quietly as my feet as I write this. We aren’t tied together literally anymore, but that doesn’t seem to matter. He’s my shadow and constant companion. Lola bites him on the face sometimes. It’s just what she does. And, Homer, for his part, surveys her Buddha-like before allowing her to snuggle up into his side anyway.
Here, my friends, is the public service announcement that you must have known is coming:
If you’re going to get the gift of a new pet for the holidays, please adopt.
There are so many wonderful shelter animals just like Homer who have a tremendous amount of love and value to bring into the lives of the humans who rescue them. When you adopt, you are not only saving the life of the pets you welcome into your home, but also saving the lives of other animals that can now move into the space opened up in the shelter.
Beyond the obvious benefits to the animals, pets of nearly every persuasion positively impact the emotional and cognitive health of just about everyone. An exceptionally creepy 2016 study looked at (and found) the benefits of “insect therapy” for elderly people. It involved crickets. Crickets, y’all. I’m pretty sure you can adopt those from your back yard for free. Just don’t bring them to session with you.
I hope that each and every one of you has a wonderful holiday season full of love, laughter and togetherness with family and friends (both human and furry). I’m looking forward to seeing everyone in a dynamic 2018.
Would you like to process a loss that has changed your life? Want to figure out how to move on with grace and self-patience in the new year? Have photos of your elderly dog to share? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.
Your Partner in Healing,
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