With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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the right one and a whole half of the universe
wakes up, a new half.
— William Stafford, “Choosing a Dog”
HERE’S THE first thing you should know:
When I sit next to my dog, Abbe, right before she falls asleep, and I stroke her fine-boned head, she turns just enough that her nose nuzzles between my wrist and my sleeve. I keep my hand very still on the top of her head as she breathes in my scent and sighs. The whole house goes quiet then, everything in it just breathing: the cat and the couch, the tulips and the vase, the mirror and the broom. All of us under the spell of a dog — a puppy, really — who has known nothing so far in life but canine grace.
That’s the first thing you should know.
A MILE from my house in Bellingham, Washington, there’s a Unitarian church with white siding and the requisite signboard out front, with fine, literary sayings posted on massive sheets of paper. I have a postcard of one of those signs pinned to my bulletin board: “You are constantly invited to be what you are. — Emerson.” For some reason it’s a message I need to hear often, this permission to be myself. I’ve passed by the Unitarian church many times and attended a few secular events there, but I’ve never gone to a service.
The other day I read a notice in the paper about the annual “blessing of the animals” ceremony this Sunday at the church. And because Abbe is six months old and full of vast enthusiasm for any enterprise that involves new people and dogs, and because I’m still in that eager new-dog-owner phase where I’m delighted for any opportunity to show off my puppy, I decide to take her. On Sunday morning I gather her collar and leash, her treats and poop bags, her water bottle and bowl; I give her a quick brush-down as she turns in tight circles, trying to grab the brush’s handle in her mouth. “We have to look nice for church,” I say in that motherly tone I’ve taken to so easily, too easily, my voice a little hoarse from being elevated to such a high, unfamiliar pitch.
At the last minute I remember my cat, Madrona. Since it would not be a blessing to cart her to church, I quickly print out my favorite picture of her: resting on my improvised altar, paws tucked beneath her chest, a tiny brass Buddha in the foreground — just Madrona being her prickly bodhisattva self. She often strolls into that room when I’m sitting in meditation, brushes against the curve of my crossed legs until I pet her, then settles down on the altar, assuming her place as a deity to be worshiped. No one has to invite her to be what she is. My cat knows she’s bigger than the Buddha, that she could kick Buddha’s ass if it came down to it, and I’ve often entered this room to find that serene little statue knocked on its side, its tiny hands still forming a perfect mudra of peace.
HERE’S ANOTHER thing you should know:
I’ve had only one other dog in my life, a Great Dane named Sheba. She was tall, of course, with a smooth, brindled coat. I remember her primarily from photographs: Here’s Sheba, a puppy still, in the barren backyard of my parents’ new home in the nascent suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, circa 1960. Eventually there will be tall eucalyptus trees in the yard, and a swimming pool, and a jungle gym that will start to rust the moment it’s assembled, but for now there’s just this big, skinny dog, a newly planted lawn, and some saplings lined up by the fence.
I can’t yet talk, can’t yet walk. In the photos I’m just a blob with big eyes and a spit curl quivering on top of my bulbous head. After my father has drunk his Ovaltine and Tang and gone off to work, it’s just me and my mother and my three-year-old brother and this big, lanky dog stuck in a clean, new house, wondering what to do with ourselves.
The dog doesn’t wonder too long. She knows her job is to protect us from whatever dangers present themselves. She follows my mother from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to yard, barks at the sedans cruising up and down our cul-de-sac, cocks her head with suspicion when the phone rings. She nudges the little baby in my mother’s arms when it cries.
That baby eventually begins to leave her mother’s arms and get down on the floor to crawl, to walk, to run. This puts her at eye level with the dog, who herds her around the green shag carpet and away from the screen door to the patio. Sheba is just the right height for a toddler to pat her on the head with a fist, or walk under the archway of those enormous legs. Eventually the girl will haul herself onto Sheba’s back and squeal, “Giddyap!” and the dog will comply, moving slowly, swaying like a camel. When the girl is ill with a fever, she’ll recline into Sheba’s belly, sweating and licking salt off her upper lip.
When I’m eight years old, my family will go on a long car trip to a place like Carlsbad Caverns or SeaWorld or Sequoia National Park. Sheba is too big to go, so we leave her at a kennel. I remember watching the closed gray doors of that kennel from the back of the station wagon as we pull away.
I remember, too, that Sheba dies while we’re gone. I remember driving up to the kennel, the heat rippling up from the black asphalt; I remember waiting in the car as our father strides through those gray doors and stays gone longer than seems necessary. My brothers and I roll down the windows and whine for ice cream; my mother fans herself with a map. My father finally reappears, sans dog, his face white, his mouth set in a grim line of displeasure. He walks slowly, too slowly, back to the suddenly silent car.
But now I know this whole scene is a figment of memory. My mother tells me it happened at home: Alone in the house with Sheba, who was vomiting bile, my mother wrestled the 130-pound dog into the car by herself, sobbing and telling her it would be all right. She took the dog to the vet, who called later in the day to say Sheba had died from a twisted colon, a common ailment among big breeds. I must have come home from school — where I’d recently been admonished not to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with my classmates because my voice was off-key; where my only solace was quiet reading time; where even the games at recess had become dangerous, the heavy rubber ball bouncing at me with more force than necessary. I must have come home wanting to bend my whole body over Sheba’s back and lie there like a rag doll, allowing the memory of school to subside, and instead I saw my mother’s red face, her eyes rimmed with smudged mascara. She told me, in the way you tell a child such things, that Sheba had been “put to sleep.”
Put to sleep. It’s such a kind phrase. After all, I was put to sleep every night of my childhood with kisses and hugs and promises of a good day tomorrow. And every morning Sheba lifted her ponderous head and turned her caramel gaze on me as I woke. For those few moments — before the world rushed in to let me know my place — I existed as nothing more than an object of her adoration, a body to be loved.
LET’S RETURN to church, or not even the church yet, but the parking lot, where already there’s a certain giddiness in the air: dogs in church! For the short ride in the car Abbe has curled herself onto the Navajo blanket and gone to sleep. (She hates car rides and has learned simply to pretend they’re not happening, a skill I’ve come to use in my own life as well.) But as soon as the car stops, she’s up and wiggling in the back seat. Have I described her yet? She is a short-haired Havanese, a toy breed, with an apricot coat and a narrow, black-tipped snout. She looks, my vet says, like “a dachshund in a golden-retriever suit,” with her short, slightly out-turned legs, her triangular ears that flop over or stick straight up depending on her mood. Her eyes are dark and big and shaped like Spanish almonds.
As I clip on her leash and pull her from the car, I watch out for other dogs — the border collies and huskies and golden retrievers trotting up the sidewalk, pulling at their leashes. Everyone who sees me smiles, even those not tethered to an animal. One woman says, “It’s so nice to see who’s coming to church today.” I’m not sure whether she means me or my dog, but it doesn’t really matter — we’re one unit for now. Abbe has her nose to the ground, sniffing away. She knows something’s up, something that involves dogs and more dogs, and she really couldn’t care less about me on the other end of this leash. When we get to the front steps, I pick her up and carry her inside.
I’m shy, and when I arrive at new places, I usually avert my gaze until I know what I’m supposed to do. But with Abbe in my arms, I don’t have to worry; people look at her first. She nudges them with her nose, sniffs deeply, and finds everyone extremely worthy. In the vestibule, church volunteers with name tags exclaim over Abbe, saying how cute she is, what a good dog. All I have to do is agree. Nothing else is required. It’s as if I were holding in my arms some small, furry portion of myself, a micro-me who knows exactly who she is and where she belongs. This self radiates confidence — a word that means, in its purest form, simply to go with faith.
YOU SHOULD know, too, that for a long time, without quite realizing it, I blamed my parents for Sheba’s death. For years I kept that erroneous memory of the kennel in my head and, using kid logic, even suspected that they had brought Sheba there to die. I thought they’d grown tired of her; that there had been some kind of arrangement made, a notion I’d probably picked up from daytime television programs. It was not a suspicion I ever voiced, or even was aware I carried. My parents were gentle, loving people who would never do such a thing. But all I knew was that we never got another dog. Shortly after Sheba died, we kids were trundled into the doctor’s office and given allergy tests that came up positive for canines, cats, horses, ragweed, and dust. We became a household without a dog, the backyard empty save for the pool, the jungle gym, and the now-plush grass that rippled against the eucalyptus.
There must have been other dogs on our street, but I have no memory of them; in my mind, after Sheba died, our block became strangely dogless — as quiet and barren as a scene from The Twilight Zone. To fill the void, our parents got us a family of gerbils, one of whom bit the palm of my hand and hung there for several seconds while I screamed. Another ate her babies right in front of me. Then there were the turtles and the hamsters and the goldfish, none of whom lasted long enough for me to form any attachment.
And then there was the duck. Why we had a white duck in our backyard is still a mystery to me, but there he is, swimming in the pool, waddling beneath the walnut tree, bright orange beak clacking open and closed, webbed feet slapping the wet pavement. And always quacking, quacking, quacking, as a duck is wont to do. I kind of loved him. We named him, not very imaginatively, “Daffy the Duck.” His feathers were sleek and slightly oily, and he stretched out his neck and flapped his wings like an ungainly hummingbird when he saw me coming. I’d slide open the screen door, and there he’d be, lifting himself out of a metal washbasin, waddling as fast as he could to greet me, the curve of his bill a duck’s version of a smile. He was no Sheba, but the quality and consistency of his greeting won me over and made the walk home from school more bearable.
Naturally the neighbors complained: All that quacking! And at 5 A.M.! So one day we hoisted Daffy into the station wagon and brought him to the pond at Reseda Park. I’m sure I cried, because all the way there my father wove tales about how much fun Daffy would have with his brethren, how he would make new friends in no time at all, how he would fly to fabulous, exotic places in the wintertime. My mother nodded in agreement, but reached an arm over the front seat to pat me on the head, as if in secret commiseration.
In the back of the station wagon, the duck fluttered and quacked and drew stares from passing motorists. He seemed quite happy, actually, to be on an outing, and kept poking his cool, heavy bill over the seat to say hello to me. When we reached the park, we opened the tailgate, and Daffy jumped out on his own, ruffled his feathers like an old lady straightening her bonnet, and immediately waddled toward the edge of the water, where dozens of nondescript ducks milled about on the shore. We had brought a loaf of Wonder bread and, like innocent park-goers, threw bits of bread to the assembled waterfowl. Our duck poked at the waterline, and we watched carefully to see when he would take off swimming.
Once Daffy seemed happily occupied in his new home, we made our escape, strolling with exaggerated nonchalance to our car. “Don’t look back,” my father said — that ancient edict. But of course I looked; I couldn’t help myself. And there he was, our duck, waddling after us as fast as he could, head up high, wings splayed. He didn’t look particularly distressed, no sense of Hey, where are you going? His bill still looked as though he were smiling.
“He’s following us!” I yelled, and I stopped in my tracks. “Just keep walking,” my father said, resolutely facing forward. I know now he hated this, that we were probably doing something vaguely illegal, and that leaving an animal behind, no matter how misguided the impulse to keep him had been in the first place, was anathema to him. But he was a father who needed to take care of a complicated situation in full view of his children. And he worked as an engineer, and like all good engineers he had come up with a plan, and we needed to see it through.
I hesitated, stuck between an awkward love for this white-feathered creature and my love for my father, my fervent wish to ease his discomfort, to make everything OK. I was stuck between the imperative to move forward into the future, where a duck in the backyard no longer existed, and my desire to stay a little bit longer in the past, where a duck had feathered that empty yard and made me feel cherished. I was a child, with a child’s distorted sense of obligation, so I did both. I took a quick run back in the duck’s direction, flapping my arms and shouting, “Shoo, shoo, shoo!” Daffy appeared truly startled. He looked up at me with his bill open, wings frozen in midflap, and I knew he understood that things between us had changed. He sidled down to the pond, his waddle a little slower, and glided onto the skin of the water. I ran to my father, took his hand, and didn’t look back.
AND NOW we’re finally inside the church, with its long, polished pews, its chalice on a raised dais, its tall windows that filter the light. Abbe and I find a seat near the back and on the aisle, to facilitate a quick escape if necessary. I’m already regretting having brought her to church. She’s such an excitable and sociable dog; it’s torture for her to be bound by her leash while so much activity swirls around her. I put her in my lap, but she won’t stay there, so I place her on the floor, where she practically flattens herself sideways to say hello to the husky mix in the pew two rows back. The aisles are filled with roaming packs of kids — dogs in church! — who track down huggable dogs, and mine, of course, qualifies. One boy of about ten bends down to pet Abbe with such grown-up control and purity of intention that he seems much wiser than his years. He looks her in the eye and pets her ears, and she gazes adoringly back.
Gangs of girls hoist Abbe clumsily in their arms and pummel her with many hands at once. And although Abbe doesn’t seem to mind — in fact, she loves it — I feel a pang of juvenile possessiveness. My dog! I want to say and snatch her back. But I let them maul her awhile before I gently extract her, saying, “She’s a little wiggly today. Let’s give her some room.”
I see many familiar faces: A former student waves to me from the back row, her dog sitting docilely at her feet. A colleague a few rows over clutches pictures of her cats. Others look familiar because I’ve seen them at the co-op, or the independent movie theater, or the waterfront park. Bellingham is a small town. Last year I took some classes to meet new people and wound up seeing the same five women everywhere I went. At first I found it depressing, but now there’s something reassuring about being part of this small community.
The minister finally calls the assembly to order, or to whatever semblance of order can be achieved with dozens of dogs in church. He says that, for obvious reasons, they’ll keep the service rolling right along today — no sermon. One dog howls, and everyone laughs, including the minister, who responds, “Exactly!” There’s so much movement and noise, no one pays much attention to the announcements about the pledge drive and a church member’s upcoming service trip to Kenya. We stand for the lighting of the chalice, and the young woman on my right shares her hymnal with me for the first song; my hands are full with Abbe. Ever since my grade-school quarrel with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I’ve been shy about singing in public, but I do know it feels good to be standing with an armload of dog amid this human-and-animal cacophony. So I hum.
HERE’S THE last thing you should know:
Abbe is the first dog I’ve owned in the forty years since Sheba died; I knew she was my dog from the minute I saw a thumbnail photo of her on the Internet. And when I brought her home, my father was in the hospital. It was January 3, a Wednesday, and he’d been there since New Year’s Eve, when a guest at their party had said to him, “You don’t look so hot.” They’d taken him to the emergency room, where he’d turned out to have a blood infection.
So, while my father had antibiotics pumped into his veins — drugs that didn’t seem to work, and then they did — I focused on this new creature in my house: Eight pounds of fur and bone and eyes and heart. A dog who immediately took to sliding full tilt across the linoleum, then standing stock-still in the middle of the kitchen floor, tongue out, as if to ask what we were going to do next. A dog who slept all night in her crate but kept me up anyway just by her presence. A dog who never barked, who didn’t need to, because I was looking at her every minute. My gaze was so full of Abbe that when I left her for one hour to go to a yoga class, she appeared as an afterimage every time I closed my eyes.
I called the hospital each day to get a progress report from my father. We’d talk for just a few minutes about his condition: he’d either describe his body’s insurrection with a chuckle or take the role of the engineer, explaining the mechanics of what had happened to him. And then we’d immediately slide into dog talk. Once all their so-called allergic kids had left home, my parents reverted back to being the dog people they’d always been, and they’d had at least one dog in the house for the previous twenty years. They now owned two dogs: a stolid corgi mix — a rather odd-looking animal — rescued from a shelter, and a hyper toy poodle who’d proven to be too much for my younger brother’s family.
As my parents sat together in the sterile light of the hospital and waited for my father’s blood to come clean, we chatted with an ease and camaraderie that had never quite been available to us before. Our thoughts detoured toward Abbe, this animal we could exclaim over and love together simply and fully, without complication, and in so doing, feel that love reflected back onto each other. We talked about all those things no one else could stand: poop and pee, kibble and bones, leashes and halters and the little doggie raincoats I’d never thought I would buy. We talked about my pets’ rivalry (Madrona had yowled and swatted Abbe within five minutes of my bringing her home) and the more numinous aspects of pet ownership that can’t really be articulated, such as the feel of a dog’s paw, how you can run your hand over the pads of her feet for close to an hour. The texture of her belly and the weight of her as she falls asleep in the crook of your arm. The smell of her fur, a little like pears.
We talked about all these things so we didn’t have to talk about what might happen next for my father. That Friday the news was not good: The doctors had checked my father’s heart as a matter of routine and found several blockages, unrelated to the blood infection. They recommended triple-bypass surgery, and soon. It seemed as though my father’s body had known something was amiss and developed the infection to get his attention, put him in the hospital where he belonged.
Over the weekend I fretted over whether I should fly to Arizona and be there on Monday for the surgery. It was quite impractical, but what if? My mother said I didn’t have to come. My father said I didn’t have to come. But my brother said, in an ambiguous tone, “Make your own choice.” I thought about a trip I’d taken with my parents to France the previous June. We’d roamed all over Paris in a heat wave, my pace invariably quicker than theirs. I’d vowed to be a good, compassionate, patient daughter on the trip, but sometimes I couldn’t help it; I just strode ahead without them. Now one image flashed in my mind: my father panting to keep up, sweat on his brow, asking me in a plaintive voice, “Can we slow down for just a minute?”
On Saturday I went to my yoga class and started crying during corpse pose. (My body’s never been one to pretend.) Everyone kept saying how easy a heart bypass is these days, a quick mechanical fix, but I’d never heard my father sound scared before. He questioned whether he should have the surgery at all; there were risks either way. He was a diabetic. Anything could happen. He was upset that he wouldn’t have the chance to get his financial papers in order for my mother, just in case. He missed their dogs and wanted to go home. He and I kept changing the subject to my puppy whenever we had the chance.
And Abbe just kept being a puppy. Her tail seemed to grow an inch every day. Her ears twisted every which way, and all my friends came by to get acquainted and talk about how wonderful she was, which in turn made me feel wonderful, idiotic with joy. It was an odd state to be in: filled with happiness and beset by terror at the same time. I commented to my Buddhist friends, only half joking, that perhaps this was what is meant by the “middle way,” because even as I swerved between tears and laughter, I felt wholly present and calm.
On Monday, the day of the surgery, I talked on the phone to my father in pre-op, and also to my mother and my two brothers and my sister-in-law, all of whom asked about the dog and seemed eager to talk about her, though their voices were strained. They asked how Madrona was faring with the new addition. They asked how house-training was going. I told them of the baby teeth I’d found on the floor, like blood-specked pebbles. We spoke of small matters because the big mattered too much. And perhaps because the moment seemed so portentous, or maybe because there was another creature in my life to be the focus of our attention, they seemed to love me a little more easily, to forget whatever hurt or distance there’d been between us in the past.
My father, as it turned out, would come through the surgery just fine, and even a day later would sound healthier than he had in years, speaking with more clarity, the oxygen flowing unimpeded through his heart. But for now we couldn’t know this. Abbe lay next to me on the couch, and I stroked her belly with my knuckles as I talked with my family; the cellphone passed from hand to hand in that faraway pre-op room. I thought carefully about what words to say to my father, because no words would be enough. Then there was the one word I didn’t want to say: goodbye. I touched the puckered scar where Abbe had been spayed, a small ridge that disrupted the expanse of her shaved mauve underbelly. The dog, of course, was oblivious; she had no idea of herself as a lifeline. For her it was just another day, another good day.
AND NOW we’re back in church, Abbe and I. You can find us in the third pew from the rear, Abbe standing with her front paws on the back of the bench in front of us to get the best view possible: Dogs in church! Dogs in church! The minister begins making his way up the center aisle, hitching up his robes and kneeling as he arrives at each parishioner with a pet. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I can tell by the way he leans close to each animal that this is a private moment, not meant to be shared. The kids have taken this opportunity once again to visit as many dogs as possible, darting up and down the aisles but somehow maintaining a bubble of calm around the minister.
When I decided to come here today, I didn’t really understand how the blessing itself would be administered: this one-to-one, head-to-head communion. I’d envisioned more of a parade of animals, with each of us leading our pet toward the altar, the blessings dispensed like rain, falling on everyone at once. But this will do.
As the minister draws near, I fumble with one hand in my purse for the picture of Madrona while trying to get Abbe to lie still on my lap; she stretches out full length, getting as close to the floor as possible, where the dogs and children mingle. Even the adults in the congregation have caught the fever and begun to roam a bit, greeting friends, leaning over the pews to talk. A few rows ahead of me a teenage girl holds a tiny puppy wrapped in a blanket against her shoulder; the dog can’t be more than eight weeks old — too young, I think, to be amid such frenzy.
And then, looming over us, is the minister, a tall man with a whiskered face, his red and white robes fluttering in the breeze created whenever the children run past him. He kneels and asks, “Who do we have here?” The din in the church seems to recede, and I tell him this is Abbe, and I also hold out Madrona’s picture and tell him her name. “Good,” he says, “we’ll keep Madrona in our thoughts as we pray.”
And then he lays his right hand on Abbe’s head, which has gone still, and she looks up at the minister with the same calm gaze she gave to the young boy: tongue at rest in her mouth, eyes half closed, as if in pleasure. He says to her, in a voice low and kind, “May you live a long life of love and peace,” and some other words I can’t quite catch, because my eyes have begun to fill — I didn’t expect this — and I try to concentrate, but it’s difficult, because in this moment I know how much I really do love this dog, and this love startles me. It’s as if the minister has reached in and laid his meaty palm right on the muscle of my own heart: every animal part of me that longs to feel blessed has risen to the surface, like koi in an algae-filled pond. Sheba’s there, and that daffy duck waddling toward me, and my father’s heart still pumping . . . and may we pray in love, amen, and I croak out an amen, and a thank you, and then he’s gone, and a pack of children and worshipers rush into the eddy he leaves behind. A woman asks cheerfully, “What kind of dog is this?” while fondling Abbe’s ears, oblivious to the tears I’m wiping away with the flat of my hand.
I mumble an answer, feeling a little foolish that I’m so shaken — but what can I say, there are dogs in church! — and I gather up Abbe and her leash and her treats, and we make our way toward the back of the sanctuary. Everyone has circled up for the closing hymn. My dog and I take a place at the end of the line, the circle here petering out into a ragged spiral. I hold a stranger’s hand with my right hand, Abbe with the other. Madrona is folded up in my purse. I look around the church to see — lined up along the walls, under the windows — a hundred familiar faces gazing into the center, their voices giving blessing to all that is animal, the animals blessing us in reply. I hoist a panting Abbe onto my hip, and we sway in perfect time to a song I have no idea how to sing.