I grew up with animals. I was my mother’s partner in crime. We were quite the animal rescue dynamic duo; the guardians of fur, scales, shells, and clammy skin. We rescued toads from being smashed under street lights after a rain, and western box turtles from becoming street goo. We bred guinea pigs and had fish tanks.
My first fish I named Mama Cheese after Mama Cass from The Mama’s and Papas. As a four-years-old, I heard my parents discussing the death of Mama Cass. Rumor had it, she died choking on a ham and cheese sandwich. The four-year-old mind twists things according to its limited understanding of worldly things, and thus the fish became known as Mama Cheese. That is until she jumped to her crusty doom in our shag carpet. My first experience with grief and loss.
My favorite animals we had were dogs. Our first dog was psycho poodle terrier mix. Suitable puns could have been “poodle tearrier” or “poodle terror” mix because of her horrid behavior when left alone. She chewed a bloody hole in the side of her plastic crate and another through our fiberglass garage door. A neighbor found her running manically through the neighborhood with a bloody mouth and hesitantly brought her home. She also liked to poop on my dad’s magazines and smear it around. Eventually she got her way and accompanied us everywhere.
At some point, we began fostering dogs for the humane society. Much to my dad’s chagrin, we kept adopting instead of fostering. Next came Meghan, my mom’s fostered sheltie mix. After becoming a permanent member of the family, we noticed she loved snacking on poop and was an extreme barker. My dad affectionately nicknamed her “shit lips.”
Then there was the black lab mix that I adopted. I named her Stimpy after the cat on Ren and Stimpy. Stimpy liked grabbing entire loaves of bread off the counter and running around the house. Once my parents picked fresh apples and baked two pies to share with their company. When they went to retrieve them from the kitchen they found Stimpy, all fours on the counter licking the apple filling out of both pies. Eventually Stimpy’s behavior became unpredictable and she had to go to her kennel when we had guests over.
As a person with social anxiety (high-strung and anxiousy in general) and an over-all distrust of humans, having a dog in my adult life seemed to occupy a companionship void. First came Daisy, the little white pit boxer mix. Daisy was the last dog at the end of the row in the shelter. She didn’t bark and rubbed herself up against the chain-link barrier for some pets. She had floppy ears with chocolate chip spots. Currently, she enjoys sunbathing in 115-degree weather and has unattractive skin tags.
Then came Lovey, the six-month-old chihuahua mini greyhound mix. So cute and weird with her brown brindles, spindly long legs, and buggy eyes. As a puppy her separation anxiety was through the roof. She ate a crown of thorns plant and pooped blood followed by eating my new cell phone and ripping up carpet. Lovey also enjoys snacking on poop. She views poop as a delicacy and eats it with all the grace and poise of a British royal. Her dainty long legs and gentle nibbles make poop eating into a modern art form by mixing disgust with beauty and elegance. Although she is the smallest, she currently keeps everyone in order and puts the smack down in a terrifying display of teeth and dexterity. She also has terrible breath.
Somewhere in the timeline came a series of devastating losses. My brother-in-law died unexpectedly. It was beyond imaginable. About the same time, I was dumped and found myself single. Then, Lovey had to go live with my best friend in Colorado. I had to separate Daisy and Lovey for safety reasons. I was feeling totally broken so what did I do? I went to the shelter daily after work and perused adoptable dogs. Gaining a dog would provide company for Daisy and lift my spirits, I thought. Although I wanted an older dog, I kept looking at Hermes, a seven-month-old brown puppy with the cutest little face and no tail but a tinny wiggling stump. I kept talking myself out of a dog that young.
Finally, one morning in a half-asleep state, his face came to me in a flash. He was the one! At the shelter he was calm, walked on a leash well and was good around Daisy. Once at home, he ate an entire recliner, pulled a sofa across the living room, ate a computer keyboard, pooped on and ripped apart my school books, peed on my bed repeatedly no matter how many barriers I created, jumped on counters and the coffee table, ate my entire sandwich in one bite. He would tear around the yard in unstoppable circles making low grunting noises. I called it “having the spirit,” since he appeared possessed. Several times he escaped out the door and head for the hills. Chasing after him was a game and he would sprint away as you came closer. I could be observed running down the street frantically waving a loaf of bread yelling, “Treat!!!” He was thirty-five pounds when I adopted him, and the vet surmised he wouldn’t get much bigger. Today he is sixty-five pounds and his name has been changed to Puppy. At four years old, he still is very much an obnoxious puppy. Thank goodness he stopped peeing on my bed.
Then my best friend went into hospice for kidney failure due to diabetes. I can’t explain what a support and a gift he was. We had lived together and continued to talk daily after he moved out of state. We shared a terribly dark nihilistic sense of humor that’s hard to come by and I trusted him. He was responsible for sending my life in a positive and safe direction. So, Lovey came home and then there was three. Shortly after her return, I lost my friend.
I moved to Tucson and began working on a therapeutic ranch. My coworkers joked that all the stray or injured animals came to the ranch and I ended up looking after them. First came the three baby sparrows I fed syringes of liquified dog food. Then the caretaker’s abandoned Rottweiler, Leroy. The camp kids would catch lizards and frogs and put them in our fish tank. I would always set them free when no one was looking, and then entered Luna.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, I experienced another loss. I was driving to work feeling sad when I spotted a dog sitting on our dirt road. I slowed down, and the dog began chasing the car. I stopped, and the dog stood up and placed her paws on my hood. She looked directly at me through the windshield. What else could I do but open the door? Instantly the large dog jumped on my lap and began licking my face. I could not find a shelter or anyone to take her. I tried dropping her back where I found her thinking she was a local ranch dog who would find her way home, but she refused to get out of the car and whined. She came home with me and then there was four.
My friend and I recently discussed the failure of our society to properly address grief and loss. When I think about my dogs, I see they have each been a gift in the face of loss and they always know how to help you handle the grief. They might eat poop and rip up your furniture, yet they always render laughter and force you to get out of bed. They lick your face and could care less if you look ugly when you cry, and snot pours out of your nose. Your breath might be bad in the morning, but unlike a partner, they like smelly things. Dogs are the masters of grief and loss and never shy away from sadness. They are the most loyal of friends who are simple and happy to have you come home and make dinner. They will join you for an evening walk and are happy to “Netflix and chill.” Dogs always know how and when to make a grand entrance into your life. You may think you choose them, but they choose you.
Last thoughts…Leaving a trailhead for a run a few weeks ago, an old man walking his little poodle stopped me and began telling me about the death of his wife. He told me, a total stranger, a little about her life. He seemed happy to discuss his loss and tell a story. I listened, thanked him, and wished him well as he left walking his dog, heading for home. I knew he may have lost his wife, but he still had a great companion to look after him.