Thursday, March 4, 2010

The dog-shaped hole in my heart...

From my earliest memories, I have always been bewitched by dogs. At a very young age, I was very, very determined to get a puppy and being equally persistent about voicing this desire. I distinctly did not want a baby brother or sister but a floppy-eared, wet-nosed, four-legged bundle of wiggly, yipping energy? Sign me up. I'm not sure how the decision came about that, yes, a puppy would be a fine addition to our nutty house on Romona Road, but the puppy of my dreams did indeed materialize when I was four. And almost just as abruptly, he disappeared from my life.

His name was Duffy and he was a tri-colored beagle. He was eight-weeks-old and, like all puppies, he packed a genetically favorable combination of heart-melting charm along with his sharp-as-needles teeth. I remember bouncing out of bed every morning like I had like I had a coiled spring underneath me to rescue Duffy from the cage where he slept at night. I loved everything about him, including his always searching, pain-inflicting teeth: I loved Duffy's puppy breath. I loved his high-pitched barks. I loved feeling his heart beat like a metronome on speed with my little hand pressed against him. I loved watching him sleep, messily snort up his kibble like a vacuum cleaner run amok, bounce through the grass in our back yard like he was exploring the jungle. I wanted to marry Duffy when I grew up.

My mother did not share my affection for him.

I remember her following our ever-kinetic puppy around the house with carpet cleaner, a roll of paper towels and a forehead that would grow more furrowed by the day. Duffy and I were oblivious for the most part: I was too busy trying to dress my squirming puppy in my sun hat and put him in my baby carriage. Duffy, of course, was immersed in his schedule of chewing, bouncing and peeing. My mother kept a fastidious home, though, and so Duffy became her nemesis with an unstoppable bladder. Unbeknownst to me, he was living on borrowed time at our home. First Duffy was confined to the basement. That was okay: I set up a special love den for us there with extra pillows and chew toys. Then he ripped up the couch, scratched the wood panels on our TV set (this was the 1970s), created a malodorous, widening yellow stain on my mother's new carpet. Chewing up the telephone cord was apparently the last straw. Duffy was on his way out.

One morning, through behind-the-scenes machinations unknown to me, my grandfather came to our house and picked up my sweet Duffy, his cage and toys. It was all sprung on my brother and me at the last minute. Duffy was going to "a farm" my mother explained. He would be happier there. He would have the space he needed. He would have other dogs to play with. I nearly lost my mind with grief. I sobbed and pleaded as I watched my grandfather load Duffy up into his Buick and drive away, but even as I did, I knew it was both final and futile. My mother cried along with me and my brother but her jaw was set in a certain way that let me know she was serious about excising this nuisance from her life. Duffy was in and out of our lives in about two weeks time. Every last trace of him, except the aftermath of his plundering, was erased. I would wonder about Duffy through the years, imagining him as he grew older, trying to envision this verdant farm where he allegedly went to live. I cultivated a vivid fantasy of loading up a hobo pack with dog biscuits and squeaky toys, running off to find Duffy and stealing him back at night. We would snuggle for warmth on train cars. When I imagine him now, I see him in snapshots, those bright, thick Kodak photos from the era. He's frozen in time, a puppy forever, no grey to ever creep up on his muzzle.

For years, I whined and cajoled and guilt-tripped and pestered for another dog. When I was ten, my mother bought a parakeet instead, thinking this would somehow placate me. My mother, never much of an animal person, didn't realize the extent to which I had a dog-sized hole in my heart. Chipper, the poor little parakeet, did nothing wrong except be born a bird and given to a girl who wanted nothing but a dog. Alas, he did not satisfy my itch in the slightest. He chewed on his wobbly penguin toy with a compulsive fervor, singing strange, torturous songs to himself, until his beak became warped (I say this now, fully horrified by my negligent care of him) and when he died two years later while I was at overnight camp, I was sad but quickly ready to move on. Where was my puppy?

When I was in seventh grade, my tireless campaign to get another puppy finally bore fruit. (Maybe this set the stage for me becoming an activist later?) I was told that if i got an A on our huge government test, I could choose my prize. Of course, without a second wasted, I knew what would be in the pot at the end of the rainbow: a bouncing baby dog. Not knowing anything about companion animal overpopulation or the benefits of adoption, I had my heart set on a buff-colored cocker spaniel. I trained like a triathlete and got an A on the government test and every day after, I would circle puppy ads in the classified section of the Chicago Tribune and read them to my mother. I had a list of names I kept in my notebook, and I still remember some of them: Taffy, Pumpernickel, Butterscotch. (My animal naming skills have improved considerably since then.) Finally, the day came when I could be put off no longer: we loaded up the car and drove to a house a million miles away or maybe in Wisconsin. There was the puppy for me, surrounded by his litter mates, sleepy-eyed and silky and perfect as he rested on a dog bed. I scooped him up in my arms, a million little cartoon hearts audibly popping all around my head like bubbles. This one! I would get teased for years after for naming our boy dog Buffy, but I guess I was still mourning that lost beagle puppy, by that point solidly middle aged, who had been wrenched so hastily from my four-year-old all those years prior.

Buffy. Oh, Buffy. Perfect blond, wavy locks like a canine, cross-dressing Farrah Fawcett. Beautiful, graceful profile. Sad, sweet, droopy eyes. How were we to know that under this gorgeous exterior beat an inbred heart filled with unbridled, easily provoked, unpredictable rage? Buffy was a biter, not a nipper: he was a Cujo-like creature out for blood. Buffy had to walk around the house with his leash on because otherwise he would try to forcibly remove your hand when clicking it on. Buffy also relieved himself on the carpet. No matter: I loved him. Even my mother, so intolerant of his predecessor years earlier, loved him. We just understood from the outset that he was not one of those cuddly dogs. Buffy liked to be loved at a distance. Sometimes one could forget this, though, and get deluded into thinking that he was as sweet inside as outside. Once he was lying on my bed with me and I made the grievous error of startling him with a pet: he pounced on me and pinned me down, this little thirty pound cocker spaniel, snarling and drooling and crazy-eyed just an inch from my face. The face of Old Yeller after his tussle with the rabid raccoon. I didn't dare move an inch, frozen there. Fortunately my brother happened to poke his head in my room: he threw a pillow at Buffy and he jumped off me and ran under the bed.

We learned to live with Buffy, the occasionally terrifying despot, and we forged a relative peace. Still, this was clearly not the cuddly dog of my dreams, the one I would skip off into the horizon with, the girl and her dog. He did start the chain of dogs I have lived with over the years, though, one that was largely uninterrupted until recently. After a string of fostering gigs with the shelter I worked at after I graduated college - there was Sweetpea, Marley, the brown shepherd mix I've got photographic evidence of but have long since forgotten the name of - Lenny arrived in my life with my new boyfriend, now my husband.

Lenny was The One. He was bliss and perfection in dog form, at least to us. We adopted him from a friend who saw him out on the street and had been trying to catch him for weeks. He was an adult dog, perhaps two, a long and short beagle-basset-cattle dog mix, or so we guessed, and covered with fleas. His little paws stuck out like duck feet and he had an oversized, beagle head. When we first adopted him, Lenny had somewhat of a goofy appearance because he was underweight, which made his head look even bigger; people would tell us he looked like several different dogs stitched together. His eyes were beautiful beyond description but I'll do my best: large, almond-shaped and the color of shiny, new pennies, his eyes were generously rimmed with soft, thick eyelashes he let me brush my index finger against and then accentuated again with a black outline, like an Egyptian pharaoh. Lenny would look deeply into my eyes and seem to want to talk: I think we were both frustrated by this. Even though there were limits to our ability to communicate, he still got his point across, whether he was howling with his beautiful, sonorous voice or taking in the world with his proud, regal bearing. Lenny fit into our lives seamlessly and was never like our child: he was immediately and completely an equal. He wouldn't settle for less. We took trips with Lenny, went with him to the beach, spent so much time just loving him. When I was away, even for the day, I felt like I had little wings at my feet, I was so eager to see my Lenny, my angel. He's been gone for eight years now, dying two months to the day before my son was born (also with those frequently commented on big, soulful eyes), and I miss him pretty much every day. The intensity of the grieving lessens over time but the void is still there, still keenly felt. You know how when you meet someone and it's like you've always known one another, there's that elusive, soul-gratifying connection, that instant feeling of "this is family"? I had that with Lenny. I am convinced that he was a true soul mate of mine in canine form. Mementos of Lenny in photographs are scattered throughout the house: smiling at the forest preserve, dignified near a tacky "Injun" statue along Route 66, following a scent on some long-forgotten path, and I always feel something like a magnet in my chest, wanting to pull him back here with everything I've got. Oh, Lenny. You inspire purple prose...

Buster was the second dog we adopted, overlapping with Lenny. He was the Yin to Lenny's Yang, the peanut butter to Lenny's jelly, the bitter to Lenny's sweet. Buster had a challenging early life, coming into our home as a six-month-old basset hound who'd already been turned into the shelter for aggressive behavior and housebreaking issues. Of course I was arrogant enough to assume that with my affection and superior skills, Buster's true, sweet nature would be able to emerge. Nope. He was who he was. He was eight before he was housebroken and aggressive until his dying day. I remember my son, at two, walking past Buster just to be growled at. My son came to me, sobbing, hugging me, "But I love doggy!" How can you explain this to a two-year-old, that sometimes our love doesn't matter? By the time Buster passed away, last February, my son was six and he had an understanding of the dog. Like Buffy, Buster expected you to love him from afar, although even that might warrant a suspicious growl. Buster helped to teach our son that there were all kinds of personalities out there and not everyone wants to be loved in the same way. To love Buster was to simply accept him. I loved Buster - definitely different in nature than the deep connection I had with Lenny - and it manifested more as a quiet, simple allowing of him simply to be himself with no strings attached or expectations. In other words, loving without condition. Just as my love for Lenny helped me to grow, my love for Buster also enriched my life, teaching me that it's easy to love another when there are no conflicts. The real test of my character was to love despite conflicts.

After more than a year without a dog, the longest stretch I've gone since Buffy, I am ready to love again. The dog-shaped hole in my heart that I felt so keenly as a child is still there, pounding away with its sad emptiness. We have a kitty we adopted two years ago and I am besotted with her and her little black-spotted nose. Clover has the most feminine little meow. My son adores her and oversees her education at Clover School a few times a week, even keeping a folder where he charts her progress. (It's all very cute: her schedule, which he writes on his chalkboard, is always something like Cat Recess, Cat Library, Cat Climbing, Cat Snack, Cat Second Recess, etc., with the word "cat" always preceding activities.) I love Clover but my heart also pines for the mutual affection and deep personal connection one gets with a dog (experiences with Buffy and Buster notwithstanding). Dogs are just so sanguine and physically present. My husband, the chief dog-walker and primary hold out, knows that he can't put off the tag team of me and my son much longer. Maybe this spring there will be a dog full of love and affection for us at the shelter? It'll be a match made in heaven. Maybe he'll have floppy ears? Maybe he's a she? Maybe he will wag his tail so hard - thump-thump-thump! - against the floor when we get ready to take our daily walk to pick up my son at school?

No matter what form our future dog takes shape, I know he is out there and my dog-shaped hole will be filled all snug once again.


  1. What a wonderful and visually pleasant history of doggie love. Your article made me smile.

    Jason "Dog Walker" Mahlin

  2. Ohhh...this post made me cry so much I think my eyes will be swollen for the rest of the day.

    You are such an amazing writer, I felt like I knew each and everyone of those sweet souls you've known.

    I, too, and a dog lover. And I'm lucky enough to be living with my soul mate, the keeper of my heart, the best friend I've ever had: Polly. She is a 9 year old dauschund/blue heeler mix and I've had her since she was 1.

    She literally saved my life. I had an extremely awful childhood, emotionally speaking, and at the time in my life when I met her I was 19, completely anxiety ridden, clinically depressed, totally abandoned by my family in every way but financial, and didn't really want to go on living, actually.

    She loved me, and loves me, like I always dreamed of being loved. She thinks I'm perfect just the way I am, and there is literally no other person in her life.

    Sure, she likes other people, she likes everyone, but she LOVES me. She will not let me out of her sight, won't eat if I'm not in the room, I'm never an inch away from her. She is quirky, and brave, and bitchy, and silly, and so gentle and sweet with me.

    She is my everything and I will lover her forever. I think everything in the universe every day that I have her in my life.

    Okay, off to give her a cuddle.

  3. Thank you, Jason! Very eager to have another dog here.

    Tasha, so much to say...First of all, thanks for sharing. I really feel your connection to your sweet Polly. I think that many of us who had difficult childhoods gravitate to dogs because of their acceptance and abundant love. I know this was myu case. Being able to love Lenny how I did - and receiving his love back so many times over - taught me that I was lovable. He would sometimes lie right next to me when I was trying to read, put his paws across me and stare into my eyes. It was pretty breathtaking sometimes.

    I'm so glad that you have that with Polly. I don't understand people who don't like dogs. (Not people who are afraid of dogs, because there are a lot of anxieties in the world, but just plain don't like them.) They are missing out on so much love! Polly sounds amazing, Tasha. Give her an extra kiss from me. How lucky you both are to go through this journey together. After all these years without Lenny, and missing him so viscerally, I am grateful every day to have spent the time together that we did. Polly is well-loved!

  4. Buffy was clearly frustrated at having no vampires to slay. Happy International Women's Day!

  5. Funny, Vanilla. We used to call him Buffy the Human Slayer. Happy International Women's Day to you, too!

  6. Polly is amazing, Marla! Lenny sounds like such a unique and special soul. How wonderful that you both had each other. I always remind myself that when Polly is gone (something I fret about at times) her love for me, and mine for her, will still exist. Nothing can ever diminish it or change it. Once you have love like that in your life it exists forever.

    Have you ever read Dean Koontz's book One Door Away from Heaven? It is typical Koontz in that it is a creepy adventure story, but I've never forgotten the central role dogs play in that book, and the amazing abilities they have. Really, I can't say more or I will give it away, but you've got to check it ouT!

  7. Thanks for sharing, Tasha. I think the one thing I really was good at with Lenny, and it sounds like you are like this as well, is deeply appreciating him pretty much daily. He was such an amazing soul and I realized from the beginning that we were only sharing our time together on a abbreviated basis. I have never lived in gratitude like that. You are right that the love exists forever. Like you, I am a better person for having loved and been loved by such a remarkable being.

    I will check that out, Tasha. Thanks for the recommendation!


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