Chapter One -. Christopher
The bond with a true dog is as lasting as the ties
of this earth will ever be.
Man Meets Dog
Your family is what you’ve got…. It’s your
limits and your possibilities. Sometimes
you’ll get so far away from it you’ll think you’re
outside its influence forever, then before you
figure out what’s happening, it will be right
beside you, pulling the strings. Some people
get crushed by their families. Others are
saved by them.
I don’t trust happiness. Never did. Never will.
I used to cry when I thought about the day Christopher would die. I cried when he was a two- year- old; I cried when he reached 6; and by the time he was 10, I daily found tears forming in my eyes at the realization that my time with him was running out. So obsessed was I at the thought that Christopher would one day leave me that I’d frequently log on to the Internet and look up the life expectancy of dogs, of which Christopher, a Maltese, was one.
It was love at first sight when I saw him at a kennel club show in Philadelphia in November of 1988, where my eight-year-old son and I had gone to watch the hunting dogs parade around the ring because we both love Beagles and Spaniels. The breeder wanted fifteen hundred dollars for him, which was out of the question for me at the time. I gave her my phone number and told her to call me if she ever lowered the price to something more affordable. I thought of the dog for months and hoped he had a loving home. At 9 PM on a cold and rainy night in January, the breeder called to tell me that the woman who bought the dog had brought him back. He wasn’t a perfect show dog – one ear was a tad crooked – so she had no use for him. Did I want the dog? she asked.
“How much do you want for him?” I held my breath hoping it was something I could afford.
“Nothing,” she said. Apparently she hadn’t refunded the original buyers’ money.
“I can afford nothing,” I assured her. “When can I come for him?”
“Now,” she answered. She gave me an address in Allentown, over an hour north on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
“We’re going for a ride,” I told my son, eager to get the dog before the breeder changed her mind, storm or no storm.
When I knocked on her door at 10:30 PM the breeder opened it a crack and without saying a word handed me a seven – pound ball of white fluff. We named him Christopher on the way home.
When he was twelve, I got myself in a worried state thinking about our remaining time together. The Internet chart informed me that Christopher was a 75 -year- old man. I found this oddly comforting because at one time it was thought that each dog year equals seven human years, which would have made my sweetheart eighty-four years old – and closer to death. The new calculations propose that the first year of a dog’s life is worth fifteen in the human span, the second year adds ten, and every year thereafter comes to five. By these new standards, I figured Christopher had far to go. When his heart failed in the summer of 2001, he was eighty-five years old.
In search of solace, I checked out dog memorials on the Internet to see if there was anyone out there feeling as badly as I. I spent hours and hours reading pet memorials when I should have been working.
There was a tribute to Vinny, a cat who died at 16 months, and a loving message for the late Broadway Joe, a horse. A guy named Kevin adored a Golden Retriever named Penny. And a young girl named Laura wrote a sorrowful goodbye letter to Hot Dog, a mutt, dead at nine.
I read dozens of grief-stricken tributes and felt a part of each suffering cyberspace compatriot. I eventually stumbled onto a site called The Rainbow Bridge. There are animal-lovers in the world who believe that just this side of heaven there is a bridge upon which beloved (and deceased) animals wait for their companion humans. Old and sick animals are restored to health on the bridge, and they romp around joyously for as many years as it takes for their homo sapien parent to show up. Once this occurs, the animal and human united, cross the bridge together and travel on to heaven, never to be parted again.
Somehow this was not comforting to me. For more than forty years I have been a psychology professor, clinical psychologist, and textbook author, intellectually steeped in the scientific method since my college days, vigorously trained to look for hard evidence that something is true or not. Since I don’t believe in a heaven, having discovered no scientific evidence that one exists, it was distressing to think that Christopher might be hanging around with his friends for a hundred years, searching endlessly for a chubby, middle-aged, red-headed woman with a bum knee, watching with envy as his little dog, cat, rabbit and hamster pals find their earthly people and march over that bridge, as content as they had been when they were alive.
I gave up on the Rainbow Bridge and dug into a file I kept of sympathetic animal essays and stories. I started the file when my first Beagle, Pepsi, died – in 1977. I got Pepsi from the SPCA in 1964, within days of leaving my parents’ house after graduating from college, my mother’s farewell words ringing in my ears. If you find yourself laying in the gutter, don’t call me and don’t come home.
After Pepsi’s death, I started the file with a well-known tribute written by Lord Byron, in memory of a Newfoundland the poet considered his only friend. Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man without his vices. This praise which would be unmeaning flattery if inscribed over human ashes is but a just tribute to the memory of Boatswain, a dog, who was born at Newfoundland, May 1803 and died at Newstead Abbey, November 18, 1808.
The file grew over the years as I encountered funny, poignant, and sorrowful pieces about the relationship between humans and their four-legged confidantes.
Life Without Norton was in the file, an essay that had been featured in, or all things, a Land’s End clothing catalog. It was Peter Gethers’ account of his last days with his beloved cat, who made a ton of money for his companion human, something, I’m sorry to say, neither Pepsi nor Christopher did for me. Gethers mentions “an overpowering feeling of loneliness and aloneness” in the aftermath of Norton’s death, unlikely to ever go away. My sentiments exactly.
There was the story of Rex, a bull terrier, the childhood companion of James Thurber and his two brothers. Rex came home bloody and battered one day and waited for all three of his masters to show up before dying.
The file held a story about a musician named Martin Kosins who had written about his dog, Maya, for whom he gave up his job to take care of in her final years. After his dog’s death, he wrote, “I still do not know how long it will take me to get used to living without Maya. But I do know for sure, that no rich man’s fortune could ever buy even one of my memories of Maya. They are just that precious to me.”
I discovered E.B. White’s famous tribute to Fred, his long-bodied dachshund and long-time bedfellow. Years after his death, Fred was still in White’s thoughts. White wrote, “He was an uncomfortable bedmate when alive; death has worked little improvement – I still feel crowded, still wonder why I put up with his natural rudeness and his pretensions.”
The novelist Pete Dexter contributed a piece about his blind, deaf and feeble dog, Henry, drowned in a lake. “He was with me through the hardest, longest years of my life,” wrote Dexter, “… giving me something to worry about at a time I didn’t care about anything else.”
At the back of the file I came across an old piece, my favorite dog story. It was written in 1971 by Loudon Wainwright, for Life magazine. The essay is about John Henry, half Irish setter and half Golden Retriever, who was “at least as beautiful as Ali McGraw,” an actress popular during the Nixon era. After Wainwright put John Henry to “sleep”, he wrote “That night I dreamed that my son kept calling him. The boy had a way of calling that dog. I woke. Old dogs. When I slept and woke again, it was cold half-light and I was almost sure I heard the dog’s toenails against the hall floor and his single, discreet bark to go outside. I won’t live with a lot more dogs, and I won’t live with another dog like him.”
I have kept this piece on my desk for almost fifty years and read it from time to time. Life gets to be a series of dogs. For most of my seventy-five years I have been a caretaker of dogs. More dogs than is sane, I must admit. A terrier, Sean, joined Pepsi, the aforementioned Beagle. The pair saw me through my young adulthood, the graduate school days of my 20’s, a time of Sturm und Drang. There was Elizabeth Taylor, a buck-toothed, cranky Lhasa Apso, a gift from a class of Philadelphia police officers; she took me through my early years of college teaching and into my marriage and was lost to breast cancer at 11. I had Sarah, another Beagle, sweet and loving and suddenly dead at 6. September, a German Shepherd, was a wedding gift to my husband; she died at 12 just before he died at 52. Katy was the offspring of Elizabeth Taylor; she was born the same month as my son and spent 18 years with us. I took in Sunshine, a Cocker Spaniel from a woman I met who couldn’t care for her, and found Karma, a tan Lab, on a Philadelphia highway. I got Muffin, a Shih Tzu, to help me get over the loss of Elizabeth Taylor, and she gave me two babies, Lizzie and Woody. I found Sophie, an ancient Beagle, on a Philadelphia street corner; she lived four months after I carried her home. Tess, a Bishon, was discarded by her previous owner at 6; she stayed with me for ten more years. My best friend, Howard, who died of AIDS, willed the anti-social Scottie, Francis, to me. I bought Madeline Rose, a Maltese, for a niece who lived with me for a time; Madeline stayed when the niece left. Toby had been abandoned on an army base and left without food or water for a week. He hasn’t left my side in fourteen years. There were dozens more I fostered, dogs who found their way to my house, stayed awhile, were healed, and went on to be loved and cared for by others who I scrutinized as if they were seeking work with the CIA. And then there was Christopher, the little treasure who never did get housebroken, would not eat if I wasn’t with him, lived to be carried around in my arms or sit behind me on my chair when I worked and distressed me so in his dying. In recent years there was the Maltese twins, Lily and Charlotte, tossed from a car in Georgia; Snowflake, Gilda, Duncan, and another Elizabeth. I saw a photo of Tristan on the Internet, abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, and sent for him; we never could figure out what breed of dog he was. I took in Faith after she was rescued from a Pennsylvania puppy mill, a worn out and terrified Maltese who had had litter after litter of puppies; and Duncan, who was supposed to stay for a weekend but decided to move in, and then Marlo, a Chow-Husky mix, who was the last to come; my son named him after a character on The Wire because he was dark and difficult.
How did all these dogs come to be a part of my life, actually come to rule my life, hinder it in many ways, burden it socially and financially, bring me such pleasure, and cause me such pain?
After Christopher died,, I lay in bed at night thinking about my parents, my husband, my best friend, and my life without them. Is it that life gets to be a series of dogs or is it life gets to be a series of losses and the death of a dog triggers all the forfeitures that have come before? I decided to write about my dogs, and in doing so try to come to an understanding about my life at the time I shared it with them and my life now that I have to go it alone.
I felt a good bit of trepidation when I started writing this memoir. It wasn’t the first time I began this project. Over the years, I discarded six editions of my life story for fear of offending people who deserve to be offended. Then I read a Zen story concerning life choices: A young man and his father are canoeing on a lake. The son talks about his dreams and aspirations. The father tells the boy that he should let nothing stand in his way; he should follow his desires without concern for others. Suddenly, the canoe tips and the father falls in the lake. He struggles for air and calls to his son for help. The son, oars in hand, heads to shore.
I have finally rowed to shore after being lost on the lake for so many years. I decided I owe it to Christopher, Elizabeth Taylor, Pepsi, Sean, Sarah, Muffin, Woody, Toby, all the Sophies, September, Lizzie, Katy, Madeline Rose, Francis, Tess, Lily, Charlotte, Sarah, Toby, Marlo, Gilda and the other canine children who shared my board (and bed) to tell their stories, and in doing so squeeze in details of the life I lived around these soul mates. It is because of these creatures that I even have a life: a house and picket fence life, a kid to argue with life, a bunch of friends to share birthdays with life, a job that pays money life, a chance to spoil grandchildren life – a life filled with all the joys, triumphs, tragedies, hurts, miseries, pleasures, and promise that seemed impossible the day I left home as a young woman, my mother’s parting words guiding me toward a future I could not imagine.
I visited a psychiatrist in my early 20’s after a boyfriend suggested I was incapable of caring for him or anyone else as a result of my childhood. “Is there anything in the world you love?” the doctor asked me before deciding on whether or not I was emotionally worthy of being his patient.
“Let me tell you about my dog Pepsi,” I answered.