If I believe anything about dogs, it is that they have memories as weighted with emotion as our own. And, if their wagging tails and whining voices when we return home, or their contented sigh when settling down next to us, or their “smiling” face when a familiar person approaches are any indication, we have our evidence; Dogs love us.
I won’t wax poetic on this, as books and movies and poems have been written ad naseum on this topic (though I don’t ever tire of them – see Lassie, Marley & Me, Racing in the Rain, etc), however, in light of recent events, I must admit my own guilt in taking a dog’s love for granted.
Last Friday, my childhood dog wriggled her nose, blinked fruitlessly with eyes that could no longer see, and breathed one final breath. She was 16 years full; Full of a life lived, and full of parts of my life I like to forget about now, though I am certain she did not.
Our adoption of Madie can only be described as serendipitous. After begging my parents for a puppy throughout my childhood, I finally got one in the 7th grade. We had just moved into a house with an acre backyard that was the ideal setup for a dog. I promised to walk the dog every day – and I staunchly informed my parents that he or she could ONLY be an Australian Shepherd (this was a terrible idea; I knew nothing about training and I’d never met an Aussie before, but, not to be deterred, I had thoroughly read the AKC website).
One spring evening, my Mom, sisters, and I stumbled across a litter of puppies at a local ice cream shop. A stray Australian Shepherd had given birth over Easter on a family’s doorstep, and the puppies were free to a good home. This was my moment – I attached myself to a small squirmy brown pup and refused to leave without taking it home. Mom was firmly opposed, but we called Dad (who was away on business) and the next day we welcomed a half-Australian Shepherd/half-mutt dog puppy into our home.
(side note: thank goodness we didn’t name her “Belle” (my favorite Disney princess), as I had initially suggested…it would never have suited…)
Madie quickly became “my dog.” She slept in my room, next to my bed, and obeyed my commands. And she had cleanest teeth of any dog I knew due to my crusade to brush her teeth nightly.
The timing of bringing this new animal into my life could not have been better. As a 13 year old, middle school years were hard years for me (as they are for so many people). I often felt like no one liked me. I didn’t play a sport and I wasn’t popular; I read a lot of books. I most certainly did not attend dances or go on dates with boys. And you know who sat beside me while I was alone on Friday nights? My sweet loyal pup. I read next to her, played piano music with her under my bench, and taught her new tricks.
I remember multiple instances of crying into Madie’s fur because I felt lonely, hurt, excluded, weird, ugly. And I remember being filled with reassurance from this warm, solid physical presence I could cling to. I knew that she loved me. She didn’t ask me to justify my feelings, nor did she expect me to talk. She just stayed beside me, willingly and tremblingly, offering her body in her best attempt to soothe and please her human.
I have no doubt in my mind that dogs (and perhaps animals in general) are given to us in the same way that we’re blessed with human friendship. Dogs fill a gap humans (especially introverts) desperately need. Not every emotion is best resolved with words. Madie was my counselor and my friend and she never spoke a word.
As I sit now contemplating what Madie offered me, it saddens me to know I can only thank her from afar. But that is how life goes. When I went away to college, Madie became a little less mine and a little more my parents. I saw her only on holidays, and she acquired new preferences and routines. It’d be easy to be angry or saddened by this but I know that in those years she was offering her same presence to a new companion – my sister and my parents.
Over the years, Madie’s eyesight declined, her mobility decreased, and she grew grumpier (as any dog is apt to do). I continued to treasure a dream that Franklin and Madie would snuggle up on the couch next to each other in warm companionable silence. But, that was never to be – their age difference was too great: they fought and growled at each other on multiple occasions, so for my own sanity we kept them separated. Perhaps this was the hardest thing for me – to understand that my childhood dog was not perfect, and that a lot of who she was in these last 2 years was not the puppy I grew up with.
Madie was a very lucky dog overall; she was rarely sick, outlived both of our cats, had a giant yard to roam and pool to call her domain … and she frequently feasted on Cheez-Its and ice cream (thanks to my indulgent Dad).
Her mortality reminds me that death comes to all – and almost always takes dogs before their owners are ready. And yet, grumpy though she was, age had no effect on her love for her family. It still makes me smile to remember how her tail wagged when I came home the last time I saw her. She licked my face the same way she always had and curled up in my lap, seeking that massage her now-old bones so craved. It was then that I could whisper in her ear how much she meant to me, though it didn’t yet occur to me how important that physical comfort she gave me through the years was.
In many ways Madie saved my life; she listened when I was at my most insecure, when I had no words to express my feelings. And I hope to remember that though anyone can offer a body and an ear, it’s only a dog who can offer all of that with no ounce of judgment, and no demands for a reasonable explanation.
And isn’t that just like God? To love so unconditionally?
Please tell me a dog is not a divine gift.
Alas, my keyboard is wet; I still love you sweet, Madie girl. You’ve meant so much to me.
“At their best, that is what dogs do: they make us happy. At our best, we make them happy, too. That can only be true because we share so very much with them, and the foundation of what we share is our emotions.
“Dogs are emotions – living, breathing embodiments of fear and anger and joy, emotions we can read on their faces as clearly as any language.”
– Patricia McConnell