I have been pondering the expectations I have for myself at this point in my life. Wondering which ones stem from my core and which ones I derive from cultural norms, at least norms as I perceive them through reading, conversation, and the overall seepage of daily technological input.
I remember some kind of quiz in which you described yourself starting from the most general category. Eventually you would add more refined adjectives to give a stranger a picture of yourself. My initial category was human being. Next was woman. Sometimes I was woman first. Daughter, sister, friend. Political entity. Girlfriend, lover, wife. Mother. Caregiver. Animal lover. Intellectual, confrontational. Passionate, questioning, psychologically daring. On and on. As I think myself through all these iterations and concepts, organically I wind up separating my life into time periods. That seems logical. As we evolve there are natural age demarcations in development that go along with growth. Some psychologists measure growth by decade. Early childhood, the first ten years, then the march through adolescence and the teens and finally the 20’s and onward.
Right now I am a widow in my sixties, coming up on the famous one year mark since my husband’s death. I don’t know how that one year got to be a societal thing. Wait a year before making any important decisions. Why a year? That’s just a sliver of time. What’s the magic in those twelve months that renders anyone more or less able to think or act?
I haven’t done anything that seems to fit the cultural expectations for this first year. My doctor’s advice was to sleep, rest, eat healthy and exercise. Make no demands on yourself. Well, I exercise. I’m working on the other parts of her advice. But the journey through Michael’s illness changed the way I feel about time. The high energy level I’ve had my whole life has slowed a bit and will inexorably become even slower as I age. So I’ve lived at a rapid pace this year and though there are times when I sit and relax, my inner furnace is blasting away and compelling me to move ahead with anything and everything. I no longer feel I can count on the tomorrows that used to feel they would roll out forever. My insides say, do it now. And I’m listening.
Somehow while thinking all this through I’ve wound up pondering my life with pets. Sounds strange, but they are metaphors for periods in time. I find that as I’ve moved through life, each companion reflects what I knew about myself, what I expected within the context of the duration of their lives. Thinking of who I was when they lived seems more relevant to me than the “one year rule.” So I need to give them their due. They are windows into why I am this person at this moment. In at least a little way.
Early childhood. The expectation that it was our normal to share a life with pets.
Our home always had animals in it. We lived in Sioux City, Iowa at the time of this photo. I’m in the stroller. During those years we had a golden cocker spaniel named Trixie. I have no pictures of her. I remember her being unspayed which meant that while in heat, my mother had a lot of extra work to do. I was at the floor level with Trixie who wore diapers like me. Evidently I pushed my relationship with her because she bit me in my armpit and was given away. We moved houses and along came the next dog. King. Here I am with my arm around him. Of course, he was the family dog, but for me, that sweet face defined all my future pets. He shaped my vision for all my animal companions. The collies. Loyal, gentle friends who wanted to do what you needed them to do. Who looked in your eyes and felt you. Michael always said I liked intellectual dogs who thought like me. An astute observation. I wasn’t about playing ball and teaching tricks. I was about bonding and interacting. I remembered his gentle nature my whole life. When we moved to Chicago where we’d live in an apartment instead of a house, we had to leave him behind. My first big heartbreak with a pet. But not enough to stop the emotional risk we all take when we commit ourselves to loving someone who will likely die before us. A key lesson learned. And one which set an internal expectation of the cost of love.
In Chicago, my brother worked in a pet store and from age seven through my teens, we had a variety of critters, turtles, birds, cats and a few puppies who always outgrew our limited space. At seventeen, I graduated from high school and went off to college. I promptly got a dog which I smuggled into my dorm room. Arby grew fast and I deported her to my parents who eventually gave her away. My mom said she lost five pounds trying to walk her during the first week she was in Chicago.
I needed a pet for me. When I finally moved into an apartment, my boyfriend at that time and I went to a friend’s place where we each chose a puppy from a large litter. His was Frankie. Mine was Herbie, named for the philosopher, Herbert Marcuse. She represented my ascent to independence. I was ready for the responsibility of my own animal. My relationship with the boyfriend was troubled. My relationship with Herbie was wonderful. A meeting of the souls. We slept curled up next to each other. She was what I wished for in a pet and I believe she reflected my values, loyal, attentive, unwavering. I was acting out my relationship expectations with a canine and figuring out what I needed. She accompanied me into my life with Michael. In the photo below, she’s the one lying with her head between her paws. Her one surviving puppy Tubby from a two puppy litter, is to her left. Michael and I were living communally at the time with a total of six people, four dogs and a cat. But Herbie and I still had our private thing. One night after arguing with Michael, I went to lie in my bed. Herbie came into the curve of my body as she’d done since she was a baby. Michael came into our room to talk and reached out to me. Herbie snapped at him. He was terribly disappointed. In the end, she remained a one-person dog. When we moved out on our own, she became aggressive toward strangers and bit our paperboy. I knew that keeping her was selfish and socially irresponsible. So I gave her up. Michael took her to the Humane Society. I was so devastated, I sent him back the next day to get her. He was told she’d been taken by a farmer in a nearby community. I never really believed it. But I learned that I was growing up. Instead of having it all be about me, I recognized that I had community responsibilities. That was a leap for me. Instead of thinking only of my own needs, I was stretching out into a wider world view. I couldn’t just stay a kid, clutching my stuffed toy. I was part of a bigger picture and I needed to act accordingly. I was moving into a place I still occupy-it’s not just about me and I don’t think it should be. A new expectation for myself.
Michael had his goofy Irish setter, Harpo, but I couldn’t stay dog-less. We saw an ad for border collie pups at a farm outside of town. We drove out and were shown into a big barn that was swarming with adorable fur-balls. I sat down while they climbed in and out of my lap, romping, tumbling and sniffing. In the end, I chose the one who stayed the whole time. Loyalty, so high on my list of priorities was written all over this little one. I named her Ribeye after a debacle with steaks that I wanted to remember forever. When we drove home, she vomited in my lap. To this day, I say you never know what true love is until you’ve gotten personal with someone else’s vomit. And so began 15 years with the smartest dog I ever owned.
Ribeye lived for 15 years. As my life transitioned from Michael’s girlfriend to his wife, from random short-term jobs to the one that lasted the bulk of my adult life and finally into motherhood, she was part of our daily world. And her sensitive, responsive behavior changed the tenor of our household. She was so psychologically tuned in to us that she shook when we argued. Her distress made us modify our behavior. She was an animal who parked herself in front of you and made deliberate eye contact. Unwittingly, we were being trained for parenthood. We had to think about her needs. We recognized that she needed gentle treatment. And as we adapted to her, her own behavior was extraordinary. She could walk beside us in downtown Chicago without a leash. She exhibited anticipatory behavior, watching us for subtle messages that conveyed what we needed from her. I honestly believe that caring for her made me an aware parent. Michael’s Irish setter who also lived to be 15, died a year before her. For a time, we remained a one dog, one child family. When I was 8 months pregnant with my son, Michael appeared one afternoon with a surprise, an eight week old springer spaniel puppy he’d named Manfred. Adorable, wild and crazy. Definitely not an intellectual dog. His presence added to the general chaos of a new baby, the adjustments of our older child to her sibling and Ribeye having to handle a lively interloper. It was a lot. I was now in my 30’s which I felt was truly the beginning of my adulthood. There were many demands on my time between family, work and home. I wanted to be the best I could at all those things. As the kids scrambled through the house and Michael and I juggled our multiple roles, Ribeye advanced into old age. I saw her become painfully arthritic and realized that it was my responsibility to determine whether she was having a quality life. This was a truly grownup obligation whuch required an emotional stretch. I remember weighing the moral choices of letting her decline further or making the call to euthanize her. I wound up choosing the latter. That day was a watershed event, a true passage for me. I didn’t handle it well. And I was permanently changed by it. My priorities were shifting. My desires were no longer first. I learned what it meant to evaluate intellectually and to manage my emotions. That time was the groundwork for my future. A scant year later, Manfred died at only 3, a victim of a congenital brain lesion. Losing three dogs in three years was astonishingly painful. We decided to take a break for awhile. Our daughter had a parakeet and there were guinea pigs and aquariums. Months passed. I felt the weight of maturity. But the absence of dog sounds were loud in my head. We thought about getting a cat although I never was a feline fan. When my son was under a year old,I made a secret trip to the humane society, just to look around. Back in those days, there was a puppy room, which beckoned me despite Michael’s insistence that we continue the dog drought. When I was drawn in, despite a feeble attempt at resistance, there she was. Another collie puppy with alarmingly large paws. And I jumped immediately and went home to face the wrath of my husband who felt victimized by me making a choice alone. Sydney Rose.
She was our real family dog. My son grew up with her from babyhood into his teens. She was the pet who did it all for everyone. She played ball, went for walks and went to work with Michael occasionally. She snuggled with everyone and was smart, calm and sweet. Another dog who could sit leashless without concerns. For me, there was no “mine” with this animal. She was ours. I wasn’t needy with her. Those days were over. I was a responsible adult with dependents who required that I look at their concerns before my own. I loved her but I’d developed realism that was lasting. We enjoyed great years with her. But when her decline began, I was aware earlier and emotionally stronger. I took her to the vet’s office alone and held her in my arms, speaking quietly and soothingly as she left the world. I had taken another leap in my personal growth and my expectations for my behavior. With Ribeye, 15 years earlier, my vet said she’d be better off without my frantic hysteria. Not any more. I’d figured out how to live better, wiser and tougher.
We were again without a hairy beast. One Sunday morning I was skimming the pet section of the newspaper when I saw an ad for reasonably priced collie pups in a nearby town. Michael and my son were both doing schoolwork when I meandered into the study and mentioned that there might be an interesting pet prospect just 20 minutes away. I suggested we go have a look. I can still see the sardonic expression on Michael’s face as he said, “Right, we’ll go have a look.” When we pulled up to the address in the small town I saw a majestic collie sitting regally on a concrete stoop. This dog looked like the ones I’d read about as a young girl when immersed in the writing of Albert Payson Terhune. Lad: A Dog. The people opened their front door and a frantic looking female surrounded by her litter came running outside, looking desperate. I was immediately repelled because I knew we were at a puppy mill, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the gorgeous little things. Because I was a mom, I let my kid pick this animal. I wanted a female but he was stuck on a boy who never left his side. I remembered how I’d felt 30 years earlier when Ribeye stole my heart by being the loyal one of her litter. So suddenly we had Flash.
I was just past 50 when we got him. My daughter was away at college, my son was leading a busy high school life and Michael was preparing to start his new career as a high school teacher. Someone told me that in your life, a particular pet can be whats’s called your heart dog. I never heard of it before but I believe that’s what he was for me. My kids were past their most dependent years. Michael and I were in a stable strong relationship. I was increasingly unencumbered by caring much about how I was perceived by the world. I was ready to have this loving, intelligent companion who spent a lot of time with me. He was really loud and idiosyncratic. He needed daily walks and preferred to have his bowel movements anywhere but in our large fenced yard. Whatever he wanted was fine with me. Every morning I was as regular as any mail delivery person could ever be. I went out in all weather and felt like I was beautifying the neighborhood as people slowed their cars to call out what a beautiful animal he was. Those times together were joyous. I felt I was right where I was supposed to be. I’d fully arrived in my life and was brimming with confidence and certainty. I loved my life and was smitten with this animal who embodied the liberation I felt. When he’d tangle himself around a tree, he’d look at his leash and retrace his steps and move on. I was as proud of him as I was of my own kids. When I think of the preposterous nicknames I called him, I can scarcely believe my own absurdity. For ten years, he lit my world. Then life changed.
My elderly mother needed help and moved into our home. I retired and started caring for my grandson full time. And then Michael got sick. Eventually, Flash’s loud barking became the soundtrack to my difficult days. He drove me crazy. I didn’t have enough of myself to go around. In 2015, my brother died in April. Michael was terribly ill and beginning an experimental treatment, barely hanging onto life. Then my mother fell, broke her hip and declined rapidly. She died on July 25th. I’d realized Flash had a slight cough and 4 days after my mom’s funeral. I took him to the vet and asked her to start testing. I didn’t want to leave without a diagnosis. All it took was blood work and a chest x-ray. His lungs were full of cancer. I held him in my arms and he was gone within a minute of being administered the euthanasia drug. An era of my life ended with him. So many people had disappeared from my life. When Flash died, I realized that the losses I’d experienced had changed the way I felt about animals. I was beaten down. I didn’t expect to recover those feelings.
Surprisingly, Michael got well for awhile and in 2016, we decided to try for an animal again in this window of opportunity. After a disastrous adoption of a puppy who turned out to be congenitally ill, we wound up with Rosie, a black cocker spaniel. Michael had grown up with one which he remembered lovingly. We were told that Rosie was 5 by the humane society but she was actually 11. Michael loved her. I was indifferent to anything but what he wanted. Less than a year later, Michael died. Rosie was gone a scant month later after suffering from lung problems.
I was emptied out. But the silence of our big house felt too lonely. I started hunting for a small, manageable companion in a shelter. I knew I needed some life here, although I still felt and feel that the time of deep love for animals has altered. I can give kindness and compassion but I don’t expect to experience the passion I felt for my furry friends from the past. This expectation is consistent with the one that makes me feel like I don’t expect to love a man in a romantic way again. People tell me it’s too soon to know that but I don’t believe them. I think I know what zeniths I’ve reached in most parts of my life. So now I live with Violet, my 9 year old rescued showgirl who has secrets of a tough life I’ll never know. After a few months of hard work we’ve settled into a comfortable coexistence, two older ladies who’ve been knocked around by life and are satisfied with silence and peace.