Woman's Best Friend


I grew up with pets, specifically Heather and Misty, two Scottish-named cats who appear in photos with me in my crib. (We had a third named Rob Roy, but he ran away to the across-the-street neighbors because my little sister kept pulling his tail and he really didn't care for children anyway.) We also had dogs, but not the kind that live inside the house except on cold winter nights. 

My husband and I had always wanted to raise a dog, and about eight months after we bought our first home, we grew our tiny family. In February 2002, we brought Hannah home. She was named after a character in a Randy Wayne White novel I was reading at the time; the character herself so-named in honor of Hannah "Big Six" Smith, an historic/folkloric John Henry/Paul Bunyan type, only of the female persuasion, and living in the Everglades. I love tall tales and folklore, especially those from the American South (if you're interested in these types of stories, here is a good place to start), and once entertained the thought of a master's degree in folklore at Western Kentucky University (in my home state), but then reality set in. Not too practical, alas.

Hannah is a chocolate Labrador Retriever, and here's what she looked like in the months surrounding the time we adopted her, on our back steps in St. Petersburg, Florida, 2002. I remember she couldn't get up these stairs without assistance.

This was a significant time in our lives ... we'd been married five years, moved a thousand miles from home and not only survived, but thrived, and I have many memories of Hannah becoming our first baby. My husband took her to two sets of obedience classes, and like all Labs, she lived to please, when she wasn't eating our shoes or bouncing off the walls of our 1200-square-foot, pink and white, 1934 bungalow. About six months after she first wiggled across our doorstep, and ironically about the time she was spayed, we were gifted with a positive pregnancy test, and Hannah was very much a part of being beside me through a couple of months of feeling excited, but exhausted and nauseous. When our first child arrived, despite Hannah's puppyhood, she was gentle, tolerant, and a wonderful big sister.

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Fast forward nearly twelve years, one move even further down the peninsula, two more children, two senior Lab rescue dogs who spent the last years of their lives with us, and we decided we might be again ready to welcome a puppy into our home. I started looking online and came up with an experienced breeder whom I felt we could trust, and we began the wait for our newest family member. About a week before the new puppy was set to come home, we learned that Hannah has a fairly aggressive cancer. She's not in pain, and although she's slowed down considerably over the years, we agreed with our vet that it didn't seem quite the time to give up. She's getting treatment without side effects, and I am hanging on hoping for another "healthy" year for her, knowing that an average lab doesn't usually live much past 12 or 13, regardless of illness. 

When our baby Lab Bonnie (keeping the Scottish naming thing going) first arrived in November of last year, I felt more ambivalent than I expected. She was very, very adorable, yet I think a nagging sense of disloyalty to Hannah, should I fall in love with another dog, pervaded my thoughts. The timing was bad, as perhaps we would have put bringing a puppy home off had we known of Hannah's illness. Puppies garner a lot of attention, and I worried that Hannah would feel left behind and unwanted. She'd seen me through postpartum blues, a job loss, and the enormous transformation from semi-independent person to having my heart walk around outside my body in the form of three children.

Well, of course, I couldn't not fall in love with Bonnie. It took a few weeks, but no one with even the hardest heart can resist this:

Her ridiculously happy tail, desire to learn, and general excitement to be alive make her impossible not to succumb to. And she and Hannah have done just fine together. I should have known Mother Nature would take care of that relationship, too:

Hannah sits under my feet warming my toes as I type, and I know my time with her is heartbreakingly limited. While Bonnie will never replace this beautiful chocolate girl who stood by me and brought such love and loyalty with her, I know that continuing the cycle of bringing dogs into our family keeps this love moving forward. Perhaps the monks of New Skete, who have raised German Shepherds since the 1960s express it best, when they say that dogs make us believe we can actually someday be the person they already think we are. Indeed, it's impossible to peer into a dog's soul without seeing a reflection of the best of oneself. 

That's a rather long introduction to a book I want to share with you, a title of such beauty that it took my breath away. If you don't know Mary Oliver, she's an American poet nearing 80 who's won the Pulitzer Prize, and cites Edna St. Vincent Millay as her inspiration. I love poetry, much more now that I did when I tried to be an English major, and all the explication killed the magic, and I promptly moved a floor down in the humanities building and made American history my mainstay. I find poetry unfettered by over-analyzation more my speed. Here's a slice of Oliver's latest book, Dog Songs, a tribute to the many dogs who have come in and out of her life, with apologies for not having any copyright permissions, so please do not copy the two I've typed in, but buy the book instead:

Here is a portion of Conversation:

 

2.

I had to go away for a few days so I called

the kennel and made an appointment. I guess

Bear overheard the conversation. 

 

"Love and company." said Bear, "are the adornments

that change everything. I know they'll be

nice to me, but I'll be sad, sad, sad."

And pitifully he wrung his paws.

 

I cancelled the trip.

 

I found this one online:

And also, The Sweetness of Dogs:

 

What do you say, Percy? I am thinking

of sitting out on the sand to watch 

the moon rise. It's full tonight.

So we go

 

and the moon rises, so beautiful it

makes me shudder, makes me think about

time and space, makes me take

measure of myself: one iota

pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself

 

thinking how grateful I am for the moon's

perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich

it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,

leans against me and gazes up into

my face. As though I were just as wonderful

as the perfect moon.

 

There are many more poems in Dog Songs, some happy, some very sad, all contemplative and gorgeous. And several beautiful pencil drawings of the dogs featured complement the poetry. I hope you'll be as moved by this title as I was. Sometimes poets, when they do their jobs well, help us express feelings that seem too vast or incomprehensible or buried to put into words. The relationship between people and their pets is mystic and hard to define, but Mary Oliver does just that, tenderly and with great affection. I'm grateful for her talent.