Maisie is resting beside me, her front paws and chin in my lap, her hind legs curled under her, with her tiny body pressed up to my legs. There is a fire in the wood stove and we are sitting on a brand new, whipped-cream colored sheepskin pelt, a decadent welcome home gift we have bought just for her. I’m not comfortable, in spite of the fire and the sheepskin. There is nothing to support my back and in spite of my attempts at a semi-regular yoga practice, my legs only reluctantly move into a cross-legged position, just to let me know, soon enough, that this is not a good idea. But I don’t dare move. Our living room is full of people for the house concert we are hosting and our guest story teller is about to begin her second set. Maisie has only been here two days and I am nervous and unsure of how this is impacting her, nervous about the effect she may have on the event. Maisie shuffles a bit and, worried about the distraction, I whisper in her ear. When the guests look over at us, I say by way of apology, “She was unplanned. I didn’t use protection when I went to the shelter.” Everyone laughs, I pull her closer to me, and our storyteller begins.
Earlier in the week, when I show up at the shelter to volunteer, I am also uncertain of myself. My grief from the loss of our dog Henry and cat Bella five weeks prior, six days apart (yes, that is a story waiting to be told) is still coursing full force through my veins. I know my husband does not think volunteering is a good idea, for so many reasons, but I have convinced myself that I just need some fur time, need to be of service, need to be around animals who are vibrant and healthy and not breaking my heart all my waking hours and most of my sleeping ones. I know we will have another dog someday, but I also know right now I am too painfully raw, too exhausted, too broke from a month of vet bills that was more than double our mortgage.
I take a deep breath. I ring the doorbell and knock on the door but no one answers. The shelter does not officially open for two more hours, but I have let them know I will come early to walk the dogs, so I peer through the window in the door. When I see someone walking around in the back, I trudge through the snow to the back door and knock on the window. A young man in knee high rubber boots, his sleeves pushed up past his elbows and a mop in his hand, comes to the door. I tell him I am there to volunteer and that Dawn knows I’m coming, and he lets me in. “This is my first day,” I tell him, waiting for something, some validation, but he just looks at me. Do I expect him to pat me on the head or say something akin to what one says to a kindergartner on her first day of school? I am nearly 50 years old, but all I want to do is disappear into my bright blue down jacket, melt into my purple snow boots. I remove my gloves and shove them into my pockets and say, “I thought I could walk the dogs, but I’m happy to do whatever needs to be done.” He says, “I’m just about done cleaning, so you could do that.” “Clean?” “No, walk the dogs,” to which I silently add for him, “you moron.” He is a man of few words, so I just nod and head in.
I am already overheated and sweating profusely. Pretending this is all old hat for me, I walk into the kennel area to assess the dogs: how many, their sizes, breeds, and activity levels. And she is right there in the very first kennel, the first goddamn kennel, a light brown and white Corgi-Spaniel mix, with feathery, disheveled ears and caramel colored eyes traced in bold, sweeping eyeliner like an ancient Egyptian queen. She looks up at me and makes a bee-line into my soul with those eyes and my first thought is, oh shit. She is by herself, but the handwritten sign says Jenny and Jerry, like they are some kind of folk duo or Vaudeville team. When Mr. Quiet walks by with his bucket, I try to tamp down anything that might resemble interest, try to fein mere professionalism, as I ask him which one she is, since I haven’t yet determined if she is male or female. “Jenny. Jerry is getting neutered today.” Once again, I just nod and walk past Jenny’s kennel to see the other dogs.
I say hi to Moose, a big, beautiful, deliciously rich copper-red-brown pit-bull mix with eyes nearly the same color as his fur, who has been there since I first went in to find out about volunteering. “Hello, Luna,” I say quietly to the sleek black lab, who it turns out is not Luna, just looks like Luna, both of them black labs but Luna has been adopted, all of which I learn when Mr. Quiet says, no that’s Charlotte. The cacophony of the small dog chorus pierces my ears and my nerves as I round the corner to see who’s there. There is a sweet pug-terrier mix named Rosie who seems to have inherited the worst physical traits of both breeds, her face pushed in and wrinkled, her fur a dull, wiry grey; little Georgie, the beagle-jack russell mix who I will decide later as I walk him probably also has rabbit in him; and the circus dog runaway, a min-pin mix named Clark. Clark is not only barking in one of the highest pitched voices I have ever heard from a living being (coloratura sopranos included), he is jumping to heights easily twice his own, closer, really, to three times as high.
I know it’s these little dogs who will challenge me, with their barking and clamoring and squirming. I know I will be a little nervous walking sweet Moose, because no matter how many times I hear it’s not the breed, it’s the way it’s raised, I’m nervous around any kind of pit-bull mix and, besides, he is worthy of his name. Charlotte is calm and steady, like most labs; I know her size, know her temperament because Henry was closest in breed to the labs of the world, so I think she will be a breeze (she is not). But I am the most nervous with Jenny. She is small, but she doesn’t bark; she is eager but not aggressive; she could pass as a lapdog (something for which I started to pine away after months of carrying an ever-weakening and unwieldy Henry up and down the stairs to our house) but she isn’t prissy. And her eyes completely hook me in.
I don’t even realize how little I am breathing until I go pick out a leash for Jenny. Every step is a whisper, every movement hushed, even though I am alone in the small closet. I am afraid to disturb Mr. Quiet as he does his chores, afraid of the tiny opening in my heart, as expectant as the dogs in their kennels, but much more guarded and hesitant because I am cursed with reason and logic. I pick a smallish pink leash, because she is smallish and because they have given her a pink collar and because her name is Jenny and everyone I have ever known named Jenny seemed to be, well, a little pink. I grab a few treats for her and head back to her kennel, blocking the doorway when I enter. But she is more interested in me than she is in escaping and she jumps up on me, tiny paws landing on my thigh. She smells the treats in my pocket and tries to shove her nose in to steal one. I let her have one, put on her leash, and we head out of the kennel, down the concrete hall, past Mr. Quiet, and to the back door.
Jenny wants to play. She jumps, she grabs the leash, she is undisciplined and excited, but when I say no, she sits and looks up at me, her tail wagging. We take a few steps like this, her jumping and grabbing the leash, me saying no, rewarding her with more treats, and then realizing very quickly that we cannot go on like this or I will quickly drain my stash. I will drain my stash and she will get very fat, which suddenly is a real concern, a concern I shove aside when I consider its meaning. So we switch to pets and ear rubs when she is good, when she sits or walks without jumping or grabbing the leash.
It pierces my heart when she grabs and tugs the leash, flinging it and herself around, back and forth, just the way Henry would do. For such a long time after he was no longer a puppy, it was the one thing that he didn’t seem to learn not to do, the thing I eventually gave up trying to train him not to do, just bought a stronger, tougher leash, one made of climbing rope, the leash he would have for over a decade, a now dusty red leash, faded but unmarred by his play and still hanging in the closet, his collar and tags still attached, like they are waiting for him to come home to go for his walk, waiting to be grabbed and pulled at and played with, even though he hadn’t done any of that for so, so long. Even though he is never coming home.
I try not to acknowledge the obvious, try to pretend I don’t want to bring this dog home with me. It is a perfect, perfect day. The bitter cold wind that has blown relentlessly for months is now only a hint of a breeze, the sun is brilliant in the blue Iowa sky, fresh snow damn near blinding me as we walk, the temperatures close to 30 degrees warmer than they had been over the weekend, and so it feels like spring might actually be on her way, like the deathly grip of one of the hardest winters might be loosening just a bit. I am laughing when we walk; we run a little and we play, and I remember what it is like to be with a dog. I remember how much they lift your spirits in spite of yourself, in spite of the way your own humanity gets in the way. I remember how Buddhist they are and how much they can teach us about truly staying present, because no matter what, they live right in the moment, accept life as it is, whatever that looks like, however hard it might be.
I return Jenny to her kennel so I can walk the other dogs. I have to walk past her every time. Sometimes I look in, her face always turned up to me; sometimes I don’t, her gaze just too intense. Each dog I walk, I attempt to recreate my walk with Jenny, telling myself it’s just being with a dog, any dog, and not her. I attempt this but fail and so all the while I’m having a conversation in my head with my husband. About taking some time off from pet care and vet bills. About being free to travel whenever and wherever. But mostly about putting the time and energy, our hearts and our lifeblood, back into our music, which has somehow stayed afloat these past few years, but certainly has not been thriving. All the while I’m saying, we said a year, we said a year, we said a year.
The truth of the matter, though, is that he said a year and I went along with it because it seemed like the prudent thing to do and, what the hell, maybe I could try prudence for awhile. I went along with it because I love my husband and I missed our music and I longed for some ease and some peace, something that had been so lacking in our lives with Henry’s long, slow decline.
As I walk the last dog, I make the decision to put prudence aside (it never would have been a good fit for me anyway) and instead dig for courage. Courage to admit I want this little dog in my life, to tell my husband I want this little dog, to recognize that loving someone doesn’t always mean wanting the same things they want, and to somehow find a way to navigate the waters when desires collide. Before I leave the shelter and head home, I go back to Jenny’s kennel, kneel down and rub an ear with one hand while I whisper into the other, don’t you worry, I’m coming back for you.
* * * * *
So, dear readers, how did your animals find you? Did they catch you off-guard? Is it true that we don’t choose them, they choose us? How long did you wait after a beloved pet died before you welcomed a new one into your home? Or are you still waiting? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.