Remembering The Things We Learned About Terra As She Taught Us About Ourselves (Revisited)

terra3

Boy, it’s been a tough two years for dogs in my (and some of my best friends’) life: first we lost our beloved Otis in September, 2008; then in Febrary, 2009, my own best friend Leroy Brown. Just before Labor Day that fuzzy-eared rascal, Trapper, went to that great kennel in the sky. And now, this week, my O.G., Terra: the one-of-a-kind pitbull mix.

Let me tell you about Terra. I first met her shortly after my great friends Elyse and Jamie brought her into their home, saving her from (at best) a sketchy life in a shelter and (at worst) the lethal injection that is so often the last indignity for ill-treated, unloved and abandoned dogs.

I know I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, but I am definitely one of those folks who is certain that a special, very soulful bond is immediately established between humans and dogs who have spent even a couple of days on death row (because let’s face it, that is the most expected outcome of the borrowed time these dogs are living on).

Terra (or T, as most of us usually called her), was in many ways a cliche. A pit bull who had been abused, probably used for illegal fighting, and discarded. When Elyse and Jamie rescued her she was a bundle of nervous energy, uncertainty and anger. And love (she was, after all, a dog). As she slowly came out of her shell she displayed a delightful capacity for mischief and play. She was strong-willed (a trait she was obliged to develop in order to survive) and could at times be a diva: she was one of those dogs who could just look at you when you called, her expression speaking volumes about her personality.

Perhaps understandably, she was wary around other people. Distressingly (and understandably) she was incapable of being around other dogs. Living in a large apartment complex, as we did, with dozens of dogs being walked all hours of the day, it was impossible to avoid interaction, however well-managed. Watching her react to her canine cousins was genuinely upsetting, because you knew where this anxiety came from (even though you didn’t really know and you certainly didn’t want to know). She would bristle, shudder, and make noises I’ve never heard another dog make. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the cultivated bravado most dogs learn to perfect (particularly smaller dogs); it was more like an anxiety attack. I share this simply to describe what destructive forces she escaped, and the long road to happiness she gradually strode toward.

As the good friend and neighbor, I was on dog-sitting duty often, and I savored the experiences (especially as I was, at the time, without K-9 companionship). We learned that other than being brought into close proximity with other dogs, the only thing we had to fear from T (the Terror) was her exasperating ability to slip out of her collar on walks. One time, on my watch (because these things only happen on your watch) she gave me the slip, contorting herself like a yoga master and discarding her leash like a string of spaghetti. She actually gave me a look that might have been a smirk before she sprinted off into the evening. I chased that rascal for a good half hour, all the time counting up the thousands of dollars of debt I’d amass once she (inevitably) tangled with some neighborhood poodle or (all jokes aside) child.

Thankfully, all she wanted to do was run, and be naughty. There were no attacks, and (as I should have already pointed out) she never had any actual confrontations with other people or dogs. But I had a confrontation with her once I finally tracker her down told her, in that voice people reserve for the times when our dogs have crossed the line, to get her ass over to me now. She was only ten yards away, but she smirked at me again, and I realized (too late) that she’d heard the fear in my voice that I’d tried to disguise. Don’t get me wrong; I was pissed off, too, but above all, I was nervous. Out of necessity, I learned a valuable lesson: the only way to get a dog to come to you is run in the other direction.

Flash forward a few months. I was finally ready (and willing) to bring a puppy into the mix. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to find friends, spouses and jobs (and pets) who change our worlds knows the genuine humility and gratitude one forever feels after making a choice that is never regretted. The only moment that gave me pause is when I realized, later that day: What are we going to do about Terra? In other words, I understood the situation and I understood it. I couldn’t fault T for the PTSD she struggled with, and I reluctantly acknowledged that perhaps we could simply never have these two dogs in the same room.

After discussing the matter, we decided the only way to know if it was possible was to try it. I can scarcely explain how full of trepidation I was when we brought Leroy over that first night: this wouldn’t just be an older and bigger dog doing damage; if T got hold of the little guy, she could easily (if unintentionally) kill him. I’m a dog person, and if you are too, perhaps you won’t be surprised about the scene that followed. Quite simply, what I witnessed told me more than I could ever hope to know about dogs and their limitless capacity for astounding us. We put Leroy (who weighed about three pounds) on the table and T immediately jumped up with both front paws to inspect and sniff him. It was love at first sight.

Not only did T not attack or terrorize him; she immediately became a big sister and embraced him (literally and figuratively). Having subsequently discussed this so many times I’ve concluded her reaction was a combination of two things. First, his being a small puppy and in no position to assert, or fake, dominance. Second, and more importantly, I believe because T knew me, and respected me, she “got” that this new pup was “mine” and she instinctively welcomed him to the pack. It was equal parts deference, trust and love. After watching (with considerable unhappiness) her inability to be in the same room, or often the same block, as other dogs, this was redemptory and awe-inspring in equal measure.

She not only accepted him, she played with him. And when they played, she would let him get the best of her. When they romped, Leroy would eventually escape to a small space: under a chair or (his favorite) inside of a four-legged cabinet, and she would get on her back and pretend to try and get to him while he took the liberty of lashing out with his puppy teeth on her ears, snout and neck. She let him attack her (knowing he couldn’t hurt her; perhaps knowing he needed that confidence) and when he got too feisty, she (gently) put him in his place. It was precious and priceless, and those months contain some of the happiest memories of my life. I feel all three of us humans learned some valuable lessons from that interaction, and for those who think dog people are hopeless saps, you just don’t get it (that you are also correct is beside the point).

Less than a year later T followed her parents to the Gold Coast: Leroy lost his big sister, and I lost my “girlfriend”. We got over it (dogs are even better than people at enjoying the moment and not lingering on the past), but we always missed her (and her parents). I was fortunate to see T every time I subsequently visited San Francisco, and I thought of her often in the painful days after Leroy’s untimely passing.

Like most dogs who have lived a long, eventful life, T started to have health issues and (fortunately) her decline was mostly slow and measured (as opposed to quick and uncontrollable). I was able to spend some quality time with her this past April and I suspected then (without foreboding or regret) that it was likely the last time I would see her. I was correct.

(I’d like to offer a special and sincere appreciation for the three people who loved and cared for T in San Francisco: Jamie, Elyse and Elyse’s wonderful husband Jeremy. I can speak to how agonizing it is seeing a pet experience pain, but as I’ve told many people, as difficult (and, ahem, expensive) as LB’s last couple of years became, he was –with very few and fleeting exceptions– in good health and spirits; he never seemed to know there was anything “wrong” with him, which was nothing short of miraculous (for me) and provides a familiar reminder about a dog’s ability to live in the unblinking eternity of now.

One of my best memories, which I consider the greatest gift the forces of fate could have given me, is from what turned out to be Leroy’s last walk: he jumped up and surveyed the neighborhood –like he always did at the end of each excursion– and let out a little bark; not nearly as menacing as he hoped but more a “sounding off” to let any/everyone know he was patrolling his hood. It was always about as cute, endearing and bratty as you may imagine. He was himself (even eating freshly baked baguette bread at my sister’s) the entire day and night before things took a quick, awful turn, and even that was relatively brief in terms of actual time (we’re talking hours, not days).

T, on the other hand, has been –like most dogs who live to a certain, welcome age, on a much slower and dragged out endgame. This is when you see what owners are made of, and I’ve never observed anything from any dog owner approaching the compassion, patience and unquestioning devotion those three extended to T. On our last adventure to Hog Island oyster farm, in April, it was an overcast day, but there was no question that T had to join us. Elyse simply covered Terra in a very stylish leather jacket while she laid on her blanket (the pic above says it all, as only pictures can). Between meds, special meals and the obligatory –and seemingly endless– trips to the vet, T’s welfare and comfort were not only never in question; the care she received extended her life, and expanded her happiness here.

Having done my fair share of caregiving and witnessing the unwelcome suffering of people and animals dear to me, I still learned a great deal these last few years. With my friends’ inspiring example, I understand more than I could have imagined about how we honor our commitments and keep faith in the relationships that, inexorably in the harder times, define the better angels of our natures.)

Terra passed away peacefully, with people who loved her, this past week.

Rest peacefully, sweet girl, and thanks for letting us share the journey.

*A post from 2010, which will be in the forthcoming collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. Two

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Every Dog Owner Has His Day

JOHN SEAN

i. Isn’t being irreplaceable the whole point?

ONCE YOU’VE BECOME an adult of a certain age, you cease to be surprised by how quickly time passes. I’ve gone from lamenting how long summers used to be to pitying the credulous kids who don’t realize, yet, how fleeting these endless days of freedom will be, especially as they get older. So it goes.

Still, I was surprised to note, this past winter, how five years could possibly have disappeared since my beloved dog, Leroy Brown, went to that great kennel in the sky. People who know me know how much I loved my dog. People also know that I’ve had dogs before Leroy Brown, making me a dog person, which meant that I would presumably want another dog, eventually. Once a respectful period of time had passed (for some friends this was one year; for others it was one day), I began hearing a familiar question: Are you in the market for another pup?

Every time, I try my best not to recite what’s become an almost reflexive response: “I can’t imagine never having a dog again. But…”

And it’s this but that illustrates where I was five years ago; where I remain right now. The but precedes the following sentiment: I’m not particularly close to thinking about another dog at this point. Indeed, the loss still feels fresh sometimes, almost unbearably so on occasion. In fact, in some ways (at times inexplicable, at other times obvious) it is harder as more time passes between today and the last day of Leroy Brown’s life. It’s not just that I don’t want to get over the loss—whatever that actually entails—but that I know I never will, and the most useful attitude going forward will be to reconcile this understanding with an appropriate sense of perspective. Plus, isn’t being irreplaceable the whole point?

Put more simply: I remain grateful for having such a great companion and am humbled I had the opportunity to share time with him for just under ten years. Also, there is no doubt in my mind that if or when another pup comes into the picture, I will love him or her without reservation. That’s what dog people do. And, if it happens that I never do live with another dog, that’s cool, too. For now I’m content to mourn the loss and celebrate the memories. If and when the right time comes, I’m quite certain that I’ll know it, and act accordingly. Just like I did in April 1999.

ii. Dog Days

I am not alone. I have a best friend, who happens to be a dog. He is really good for me, reminding me to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom and generally making sure that I get out a few times a day. He walks me whenever he gets the chance. Our favorite time is after work, when we reenter the building and the walls and halls come alive, warm with the savory smells of home-made meals (you can never smell fast food, although that scent lingers in the elevator, as if ashamed to be associated with the honesty, the effort and industry of these prepared productions).

No one sits down to dinner anymore, but all around me, people are sitting down, eating meat loaf, or some sort of roast that has simmered on low heat all afternoon. Maybe there is even a pie prepared for dessert. Maybe, inside someone’s kitchen, it’s still the 1950’s.

***

My dog is a trooper.

He’s never called in sick a single day of his life: up at the crack of dawn every day, including weekends, stretched, eager and anxious to take on the world. Or at least take a walk.

My dog takes his work very seriously, and has succeeded in making more friends than I have. He does not discriminate: men, women, cars, trees, and other dogs—especially other dogs. After all, all dogs want is other dogs (I think my dog thinks I’m a dog). People aren’t like that, which, I suppose is why people love dogs. Thanks to him, I am on a first-name basis with all the other dogs in my building, though I have a hard time remembering what to call their owners.

All of us, of course, are more or less the same: we live, we work, we sleep, we eat, we love, we fight, we forget, we try to remember, we think, we wear down and then we die. In this regard, all living creatures are more alike than not.

***

In the elevator we all become imbeciles.

If two people fall on each other in an elevator, does it make any sound? No.

I work with people and find I’m seldom at a loss for words; how hard is it to bullshit about anything unimportant, including business, sports, sex, politics, the economy, the environment, Ayn Randian apocalypse, anything? But for some reason, no matter how many times I stand there with the same people the only possible topic of conversation is the one thing we all care the least about: the weather.

Even when I consciously resist it, some gravitational force, some irresistible element, something inherent in my nature takes over and I hear myself saying those unbelievable words:

Hot out there, huh?

Or, in winter:

Sure is getting cold!

And then we panic, pause and smile nervously at each other for the remainder of the ten-second eternity until one of us escapes the steel cage. And these aren’t strangers, they’re neighbors! Why is it that I can roll with the smiles and frowns and talk smack with just about anyone I encounter: on the streets, in the Men’s room (only when appropriate and mutually consented, of course), at concerts or sporting events, even in my godamned dreams, but here, only in the elevator, I become a sweaty, stammering deaf-mute. I find myself wishing for scandalous things, like, say, situational Tourette’s Syndrome. Anything to inspire something approximating small talk.

Thank God for my dog. He is usually with me at these moments, and in his inimitable, honest (and wordless) way, he can defuse several seconds of silent agony. He lets his tail do the talking, and with the absence of agenda or guile, he conveys what humans have spent several millennia unable to imitate.

***

My dog is mad at me.

I can’t blame him.

He knows the rules: If I don’t come home, I’m in violation of the contract (two meals, a bowl at least half full with half-clean water, and a minimum of three walks a day), so he is entitled to cut loose all over the kitchen floor, or even the couch.

But my pal is a team player; he has character. He held it. For me. And, I reckon, for himself. After all, it’s his house too.

His tail does its thing; I’m surprised he doesn’t take flight, and he is happy. Dogs cannot suppress that genuine love and honesty. But then, after the walk (and a piss that would make a drunken mule proud) he recovers and reverts to character: not taking the treat (Who wants a biscuit? I say. Not me, his back says), sitting on the other side of the room. Normally this would be my opportunity, my obligation, to win him over; shower him with affection and praise, but I can’t. I just don’t have it in me. The poor guy, he probably thinks I’m ignoring him. But I’m simply too hung over to address this injustice.

Eventually, inevitably, he comes around. The little wags every time I look over, the overtures of amiability, his minuscule capacity for indignation already exceeded. He follows me into the kitchen, and as I look around—still too ashamed to directly acknowledge him—searching for distraction, the oddly recurring thought once again arises: Can I possibly be the only person afraid to utilize the self-cleaning function of my oven? I don’t trust it. I don’t trust anything that makes promises it can’t keep.

In no time my dog is all over me, drunk from love as well as the fumes seeping through my skin.

I don’t mislead him: the best I’ll be able to offer is space beside me while I doze in and out of recrimination and self-pity. As usual, he has no complaints; happy to receive whatever I will give him. Dogs, after all, are not unlike humans: they need food and water; shelter and support. But they also need love.

***

My dog punches the clock, chasing after creatures he has no chance of catching. He chases squirrels the way his owner chases women: blindly and brazenly, but with no idea what he’d actually do if he ever caught one.

***

Bang: Another day ends with a whimper and all of us respectable citizens retire to our tents and our troubles.

My dog is waiting impatiently, and greets me with his usual eagerness. If there is one utterly amenable character in my world, it’s him: he treats me better on a bad day then I could ever pay another human being to approximate.

Outside, the cold does not dishearten him and I remind myself to take notes.

A siren sounds and he howls, ostensibly in approval. Being a human, I think on more practical levels: A siren, at night, really does sound like a woman screaming. Or a man for that matter. And perhaps that’s the point.

Up above, the moon glows, brazen and bright, kept warm (from behind) by a sun I can’t see. Suddenly, my dog becomes very excited, as he is known to do, and I nicely yank him back on the leash, as I’m known to do. When I can’t contain him, and he strains to get where he just was to the point of making loud choking noises, I finally survey the scene and see what he is so enthralled with: a damn trash bag. Half buried in the filthy slush, there must be a discarded bone; I can actually see a bone. A bone that looks a lot like a skull. As my dog sniffs ecstatically around me, I look down carefully and finally understand something that used to be alive is being cruelly preserved in this frigid mound. I disappoint my dog and pull him away from his discovery, and remind him that treats await both of us inside.

***

When he was a puppy, my dog would whimper anytime I was out of sight. Throughout his infancy, all he seemed to want was to share space with me, inhale the air I exhaled, use his wet nose to flirt with my feet. As he settled into the dog-eared years of adolescence, we got into a good groove: aside from the inevitable, and understandable, teenage tantrums; he was everything I could ever have hoped for.

Once he was old enough to drive he would sometimes scold me: if I stayed out all night or stumbled through another substandard evening stroll, or when I collapsed from exhaustion after throwing a toy once or twice, he conveyed his disenchantment by setting up camp across the room, safely out of reach, to put his head between his hands and sulk. And stare. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

We helped each other through our mid-life crises; after all, what are friends for? And after a few more years, like any committed couple in a long-term relationship, we understood we were in it for the duration. As he got older (but not old, he never had the chance), I took him to vet appointments that became more frequent and expensive. What was, in the earliest days, a process of excitement and discovery increasingly became an acknowledgment of age and reality.

iii. Whispered Words

How long will it take? I did not ask, because I wanted to make every second count. It would be over quickly enough; it was already happening entirely too soon.

It’s okay, I said as I held my dog, flanked by friends and the friendly technicians who split their time between extending or improving lives and facilitating peaceful endings.

“He won’t feel any pain,” they assured me, and I knew it was the truth since this was not the first time I had found myself in this situation. Another dog, another occasion, and the excruciating decision to restrict pain by hastening death. Another time, at a place all dogs hate to go, perhaps because some part of them suspects that someday the person standing over them at the examination table will be the same one who administers that final injection.

I had already watched another small dog slowly go to sleep, just like they said he would. Barely moving when we carried him in, he snarled once the doctor reached for him: an instinctive gesture or perhaps a final, indignant affirmation (I am still alive!) and, as we covered him with kisses and kind words, the calm, considerate doctor reminded us that there would be no pain; it would, in fact, be quite pleasant. This stuff, he said, putting the needle down, would make our dog—could, in fact, make any of us—feel better than we’d ever felt, that this stuff was illegal, and expensive, on the streets.

Another day, different doctor, same drill. My dog’s heart was failing him. It was supposed to be a sluggish, gradual decline; the type you can sluggishly, gradually prepare for. But something had happened (I seem to recall words like torn and internal and bleeding) and my dog could scarcely breathe on his own when I brought him in. Seeing him, panting heavily and near panic in his tiny, oxygenated crate was as pitiful a sight I’ll hope to never endure again. I left the room so they could give me the diagnosis: it was dire and I had minutes, not hours, to make a decision. The moment my dog saw me as I rushed back into the room that default setting took over and all my own concerns evaporated.

(Stay strong, I did not need to tell myself, because I had been here before. I had looked down, yet another time, at another pair of eyes: impossibly lucid and beseeching, charging me to make sense of, or at least assuage, a kind of suffering that cannot be conveyed with words.

And once again I heard that reassuring phrase, or well-meaning mantra, that somehow articulated every hope, fear and aspiration a moment like this can contain. It will be okay, I said, smiling down at those eyes. Eyes I had looked into too many times to count, eyes that told me more about myself than anyone would believe, eyes that, until this moment, I could not imagine never being able to look at again.)

Okay.

It gets very quiet while time and place and the guarded feelings that enable us to function all fall away and you concentrate every thought into one simple, implausible objective: peace. You think it and you will it and for a moment that might be forever you become it in ways you’re never able to talk about later, even if you are inclined (and you aren’t, especially). You shiver but are calm; you are entirely in the present tense yet you are also somewhere else, somewhere deeper inside that, somehow, connects you to everything else you’ve ever known.

It will be okay, you whisper, actually believing this because it is not even your own voice you hear. You don’t know if this is you, or your mind, or the actualization of that other place (you are hazily aware) you have managed to access, understanding it is not anything you can anticipate or comprehend even though you have been preparing for it (you realize, abruptly) your entire life.

It’s okay, you say, and maybe your vision is blurred or your eyes are closed, or probably you are seeing more clearly than ever before, but now you recognize this voice and, as you look down at eyes that can no longer see you, understand, finally, that you are talking to yourself.

iv. Q&A

-Well?
-Well what?
-Are you in the market for another pup?
-I can’t imagine never having a dog again. But…
-But what?
– I’m not sure I’m ready, just yet.
-You’re not getting any younger.
– If Leroy Brown was still around he’d be twice my age, in dog years.
-Well, you have to settle down sometime.
-I don’t have to do anything of the sort.
-Do you want children?
-I don’t know…I can’t imagine my life without children.
-Then what’s the problem?
-I can’t imagine my life with children.
-I know. If we didn’t need to have jobs to pay the bills we would probably agonize every day over which job to take…
-Exactly. You just do what you have to do and have faith that it’s meant to be, you make it right, one way or the other.
-So all it takes, apparently, is faith.
-Exactly.
-So what do you do when you don’t have faith?
-You get a dog.

SEAN JOHN 2

This essay originally appeared on 8/20/14 in The Weeklings.

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You’re My Best Friend

Another post about death and dying.

Another post about the wonder of dogs.

Hat tip to my old friend Anthony for bringing this article to my attention (warning: even the most dog-neutral among you are going to have a tough time reading this without emotion).

All the way from Iowa comes this story, which at once shatters and then restores the heart, about a man wanting to reunite with his dog. On his death bed. Semi-miraculously, it happened. Here is an excerpt:

“In my 31 years as paramedic I’ve never seen anything like it.  This dog, from the moment she got in the vehicle to the time we arrived, she was shrieking and howling.  I think she sensed what was happening.  When we got to the Hospice House she walked right through the doors and led us straight to his room as if she’d been there many times before.”

Erceg says what happened next left her and the Hospice House staff in tears.

“When the dog jumped on the bed she literally poured herself over him,” says Erceg.  “Kevin was unconscious but I kept putting his hands on the dog’s head and guiding him to stroke her.  After a few attempts, Kevin started moving his fingers on his own and petting the dog.  Yurt seemed overjoyed to be connecting with him, licking his face and neck and arms and then Kevin’s eyes came open.  There was a recognition there of what was happening.  Everyone in the room was overcome with emotion.”

Read the entire piece here.

Look at those eyes. The eyes, of course, never lie. And anyone who has had a dog knows that no other creature is capable of looking into you the way a dog does. Dogs, I’ve concluded –and I know I am far from the first to make this observation– are all soul. There is no guise, no agenda. Unless being in your presence and giving/receiving love is an agenda which, I reckon, it is. A transparent, redemptory agenda.

And this story provides me with the opportunity to celebrate anothing thing I respect and cherish: Hospice. The work that these people do, and the comfort and care they are able to lend us, is as close to anything I’ve seen that actually attains the teachings of Christ, that semi-influential Socialist.

Reading about and thinking about death these past few days does not necessarily impart heavy or lugubrious feelings. When one can observe the sort of kindness and grace some of us are able to offer, and which dogs make careers out of, is a ceaseless reminder of what we can do, and should seek to attain. Or at least strive to recognize and celebrate.

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