Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Fur Freak

Animals never judge.  They don’t care what jeans I wear, whether I have a nasty pimple, or if my hair is flattering to my face shape.  They care about being warm and loved, and so do I.  They care about being curious and having fun, and so do I.  They care about food and shelter and playing and moving around, and so do I.  As a kid, I felt misunderstood by, well, everybody.  I got those notes sent home, things like “She is clearly not living up to her potential” and “Her squirrely behavior is disruptive and prevents her from focusing on the task at hand”, only to be given punishments and abuse by my parents, who were sure that would cure me of the behavior issues, and then ignored or worse by my siblings, who were pissed because now mom was in a bad mood and cooked crappy food for dinner.  So animals (later animals and music, and even later, animals, music and drugs) became my refuge.  Strays, baby birds, turtles, frogs, ants and crickets that I caught in the yard and kept in jars with twigs and leaves, the family dog, they were all part of my empathic experience.  I admit here that insects were not, in general, part of this empathesystem, as I call this little world of comfort, but there was always room for ants and crickets.  No elaboration. 

So how strange does it seem that the first dog I ever took responsibility for outside of the bounds of childhood, was found at City College of SF, where the cops had her tied up with a thick orange nylon rope, feeding her plates of spaghetti Bolognese.  She was a lovely golden mix, with a soft white stripe down her snout and eyes the color of roasted hazlenuts, about 6 weeks old.  They’d found her on the streets near the campus, and were hoping some softie would bring her home.  I promptly complied.  She rode the MUNI 43 home with me, her black nose and curious eyes poking out of my backpack, as I carried my books.  She had the softest ears of any creature I’d ever met.  Softer than the silk baby blanket I’d sent to my friend Jennifer for her new baby.  Softer than pussywillow buds.  I fell deeply in love with her.  She shat on my carpet for 2 days, until the diarrhea passed, and then I took her to the vet.  They ran cultures on her blood and stool, poked her with thermometers, jabbed her with vaccines, and pronounced her fit for adoption.  She still had no name, I had several favorites that I was trying out - Layla (Clapton fan), Bertha (Deadhead days), and Gertie (Gertrude Stein - big heroine) were the top contenders.  The next morning, before I made it out the door, the phone rang.  The vet, pronouncing that the puppy’s blood showed signs of cocaine.  I swore up and down that it wasn’t me, and they told me what to be aware of (diarrhea, nipping, fever), because she would be going through withdrawal for a few more days.  She was obviously Casey Jones, and like the next decade of life, we got through it together.    She (and I) graduated from Berkeley, enjoyed countless collegiate parties, was known far and wide along Telegraph Ave, throughout the Haight, and most of my of the classrooms by students and professors alike, who all enjoyed her company until they forgot she was even there. We hiked the Long Trail together, and many mountains, shared blankets and burgers.  My dad finally had to put her to sleep when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a ripe old lady of 88.5 human years.

I was 30 when my daughter was born, a chattery little creature with curls and sticky-outty ears.  Before she was one, we had decided on a house to buy and a town to live in, but my life still felt, well, there was a hole in it that neither husband nor child could fill.  He was undemanding, yet there were many times that I felt judged, and pronounced lacking, though he would argue that furiously.  She was growing into toddlerhood so quickly, and I wanted for her, as I’d had, that refuge of unconditional love that an animal offers.  I could see it already; though I would never repeat all of my mother’s mistakes, this little daughter of mine was going to rub and push me until we both bled.  We both needed a dog.  The week we moved out of our rental and into our new (to us) home, I went and picked up a dog.  He was a mix breed, marled, tri colored, soft eared and doe eyed.  He and the baby grew up together, but - as I knew he would - he stopped growing after a few months, while she continued to grow and change.  They always had each other, licking, pushing, playing, fighting over balls and squeaky toys for the first few years, later over the window seat and steak.  He was her pal and confidant, and he was mine too.  He never chose, he shared himself equally between all three of us, really, and when our son was born (and the dog was now quite mature), he gave that boy as much of himself as he had to offer.  He nipped his heels to keep him in the yard.  He fetched balls long after running made his arthritis throb.  He chased neighborhood cats out of the backyard sandbox and ate every scrap of food thrown (to him, across the room, didn’t matter).  This dog too accompanied us on river trips and woodland hikes.  He came on boats, road trips, and long neighborhood walks.  His downfall was his instinct to hunt little animals, which consistently broke my heart, as well as the heart of a brave little ten year old girl, whose rabbit he ate while we bunny sat their furbaby.  Not a good situation.  But he also did something profound and powerful with kids we knew.  He brought them out of fear and into love. 

We were part of a babysitting coop, a brilliant idea wherein we dropped our kid(s) off at someone’s house, prearranged, and traded them beads for their time.  It also meant that the same happened at our house.  One day, a fat baby girl of about nine months and her big brother, about five years old, came over to ‘play’.  It was a beautiful Summer day, warm and bright.  The bigger kids were outside in the backyard, playing on the tire swing, and my friend left, her baby snug in my arms, bag full of baby accoutrements over my shoulder, and a kiss for her well-occupied son, to return newly coiffed in an hour.  Scratch scratch at the screen door told me that the dog wanted in on the action. I brought the baby up on the deck, plopped her bag onto a chair, and opened the door for the dog.  As Zami ran out, I brought the baby inside and laid her on a blanket on the floor with baby toys to explore.  Suddenly, from outside, I heard a high pitched scream, the kind of scream that all mothers dread and respond to, regardless of the child of emanation, the kind that indicates evisceration, appendicitis, or possible missile attack.  I ran back outside, slamming through the door, my bare feet hardly touching the floor.  Into the yard, across the field of acorns (many of them broken open by squirrels), leaving blood in my wake as the acorn shards cut my feet to ribbons.  There, under the old Oak, was my daughter, looking at the boy she had just been happily playing with, who stood stock still, screaming as if staring into a nightmare.  And there sat the dog, directly in front of him.  The dog raised with kids, soft black ears pricked, gentle eyes waiting for this he child to do something smart with that ball, and stop all the racket.  I picked up the boy, who squirmed as high up on my shoulder as he could get, and talked him back into the relative calm that comes with hiccups and heaves.  

I pointed out the ball.  I pointed to the dog.  I asked my daughter to bring the ball to me.  I handed it up to the boy.  And here, just before he chucked it like Cy Young, something profound happened.  This boy loved balls, and so did this dog.  Around this concept, the two bonded so firmly that within a few months, they had a dog of their own.  Once the two boys were happily throwing and fetching, I went back inside to the baby, who was gurgling happily, collected her and her toys, and went back outside to call Mom and fill her in. “Oh,” she said when I’d told her what happened.  “Yeah, I might’ve forgotten to mention he’s deadly afraid of dogs.  His daddy’s family live in an area with ferrel dogs, so the fear of the devil is put into all the kids there to stay away from dogs.”  Ah.  Right.  “Well, he’s enjoying the dog play now, so just be prepared for whatever fall out may occur, no need to rush back.” 

This happened with other kids too.  Zami (short for Zamboni) was so kind, and enjoyed playing so much, that he broke down barriers for kids who were truly afraid of dogs.  And then he got sick.  His arthritis got so bad he could hardly walk.  Every winter, we assumed it would be his last.  That lasted for 5 winters.  At some point, we put him on meds that helped control inflamation and pain.  Another newer med at some point, and added another later on.  By the end, he was over 100 human years, deaf, mostly blind, and could hardly walk, stand, sit, or play.  It was time.  Losing him, for me, has meant losing a friend, a child, and a therapist, all in one swoop of death.  For my kids, it means losing a brother, pal, and confidante.  All the trite sayings apply - he is missed, he is remembered with every tennis ball, each time we walk in, or out, of the kitchen, see the empty little two-seater couch we bought for him from a garage sale (to save our own couch), or go for a ride to the river, knowing he will not swim out to fetch sticks.  It’s disarming, crying for what seems like no reason.  Except that my daughter, now a teenager, is also crying tears that means she was in love, that her friend meant more to her than her own happiness, and that she will surely, one day, open her heart again to the love of a furry friend.  Thank god.