Our new dog is growling at me. Five minutes ago we were mutually in love, snuggling on the sofa, her fuzzy head on my stomach. We have had a good day, the best one since she moved in two weeks ago. We went to the park and waded in the river, and then we came home and had a bath to get the dead smells off of us and practiced our down-stays and played Kill the Spit-Encrusted Koala Bear. We enjoyed some hideous freeze-dried liver bits and took a nap on the aforementioned sofa and now I've reached out to pet her and she's growling at me. It's a soft growl, not a snarl. I don't think I'm in any danger, but who can say? It's not as if we really know her.
I have built my life around being ready for everything that could possibly happen. When I was ten I tried to teach myself Japanese from a book, just because I thought I might need to know it someday. At twelve I set out to read the entire Norton Anthology of American Literature so I could be sure of getting into college. Part of me still thinks that if I worry enough about getting cancer I will never have it. So when it came time to adopt our golden retriever (Abigail Anne Elizabeth Coulter-Sindelar, for those of you wishing to send engraved rattles), my husband and I set out to do it perfectly. First we bought her a house with a big yard and a window seat where we intended for her to bask in the sun after baths. Then we called around for someone to build a fence and learned that no one was interested in working for us a) before October, and b) for under $3,000. So we learned all about digging post holes and mixing concrete and built the damn fence ourselves, and the marriage survived. Just before Abby came home to us I bought a big cedar-filled bed, all manner of leashes and collars, stainless-steel bowls on an orthopedically correct stand. I entered PetsMart empty-handed and left with a head full of new brand names: Nylabone, Iams, Kong. Most of all, I read books. Lots of books. I made myself perfect, a perfect dog mom. And then I got an actual dog and realized I was lost.
It isn't that we thought it would be trouble-free. For one thing, her first family, friends of friends, said they had to give her up because they were moving to California. Hello? Are there no dogs in California except the ones you see in movies? Either these were the most cavalier dog owners on earth, or there were other reasons they didn't want Abby anymore. At our first meeting they spoke worriedly about her habit of stalking and pouncing on shadows. "She'll do it for half an hour," the husband said. "We've tried squirting her with water to break her of it, but she's obsessed with them." My husband and I exchanged glances that said, so she's a self-entertaining dog. What's the problem? If she was going to be our dog, she might as well come equipped with her own neuroses. Abby put on a shadow-chasing display while we were there, and it was hilarious, if oddly catlike. We were smitten. We loved her soft little face and the way she carefully put one foot in her water bowl while she drank. Her owners were up front about Abby's tendency to growl if she was disturbed while eating or resting, but swore she'd never snapped at anyone. "The trick is just to overpower her," said the husband, demonstrating by rolling Abby onto her back and holding her there by the neck until she stopped squirming and kicking. "I do this whenever I can, just to show her who's boss."
Maybe because I have violence in my past, or maybe just because I'm not a total fuckhead, I don't think much of people who brag about using force on their own children and pets. My feeling is that such people are begging for a beating from someone proportionately bigger than them. Abby's dad was small and I thought I could take him, but that might blow the whole deal. So I just smiled. "Interesting," I said.
That was my first hint that Abby was going to provide lots of opportunities for what my therapist calls healing and I call freaking out. Since then the healing opportunities have occurred almost daily. She comes up while I'm sitting on the sofa and puts her little fuzzhead in my lap and stares at me. I scratch behind her ears and she shuts her eyes, zoning out, and I think, this is it! We've made it! And two minutes later she opens her eyes, gives me a calm, level look, and growls, and I'm back in that familiar place of wondering how the right thing turned so invisibly into the wrong one. I drop her off at the insanely posh day-care center she visits on occasion, and she does the no-hands equivalent of clinging to me as I leave, and all day at work my stomach hurts. They could have them making gloves in there for all you know, I tell myself. The next day she greets the owner like a long-lost pack member — okay, like her real mother — and my stomach hurts again and I think how boring she must find John and me, what nail-clipping, detangling, on-leash dullards we are. And then that weekend there's a ferocious thunderstorm, and not even peanut butter will lure Abby out of our tiny guest bathroom, and I wonder if she thinks she's alone in this, that no one can protect her. As always, I end up standing in front of my bookshelves. I stood in front of bookshelves when I was twenty and having a tormented love affair, and when I was twenty-five and could neither sleep nor wake up, and last month when I was terrified (again) of writing. I have stood staring at book spines in half a dozen states, thinking there must be something that can do my work for me. I always walk away sulky and a little sheepish, and then I roll my eyes and do the work myself.
On the best days I think you don't get the dog you want, but the dog you need. If that's true, I must have needed someone to make it clear just how little is in my control. And I must have needed someone to love fervently even when she's behaving like — well, like a two-year-old. And I do love this oddball dog. A week after she came to live with us, I watched her bounce around the living room with her spit-encrusted teddy bear and was just terrified by how happy it made me to see her having fun. Get a grip, I told myself. Do you really want your happiness riding on the Princess of Moods? Much better to realize it's sometimes going to suck and get some joy out of that, out of the parent-ness of it all.
I know she's just a
dog and will probably never speak French. We have no plans to enroll her
in eurythmy or save for Yale, and if we hurt her she'll never tell. Still,
I'm a mother now, and not the one I feared I'd be. And there is something
to be said for loving the awful parts. Just this morning I took Abby to
the vet for her checkup, and all the treats and sweet vet techs in the
world could not stop her from crying the second she saw a white coat. We
had a wreck of a girl on our hands, alternately kissing the vet on the
mouth and snarling at her to back off. Make that two wrecks of a girl.
Part of me was embarrassed to be the source of so much trouble, and part
of me wanted to sob right along with her, and a sliver of me was thinking,
must get referral to a doggie shrink. But as we left the clinic, Abby's
terror already subsumed by the epic thrill of going bye-bye in the car,
I felt strangely confident. "I can do this," I said to her in the rearview
mirror. She had her head out the window and didn't hear me, or more likely
didn't want to be bothered with my problems, and I decided that's exactly
how it should be.
Write "Ellavon" at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released: August 31, 1999.