This post started out as something entirely different and morphed into this. A word of warning, it might make you cry.
My mom is firmly in the dog person camp. We always had one, if not two. Always. When I was growing up, I never knew what it was like to not be greeted by a wagging tail or two upon returning home. My mom loves dogs. Cats, not so much.
When I was roughly five, I still had a firm grip on my baby blanket. It went everywhere I did. I was also a big fan of Winnie The Pooh and Tigger was my favorite character. Tigger was a cat. My mother, I suspect now, wanted me to get rid of said blanket so she offered me a trade. One cat for one baby blanket. The cat needed somewhere to sleep, you see. Quite ingeniously, I named our new feline friend Tigger. Tigger was the best cat ever. And I’m not just saying that. He even won my mom over. He was patient and gentle and very affectionate. Tigger never put up a fuss when my sister and I dressed him up in doll clothes and put him in a stroller. He was our baby. That cat lived forever. I think he was 20 years old when he finally went peacefully.
Nearly fifteen years ago, when I was barely an adult, I had a bunch of animals. I had two cats, two dogs, a rat and even some fish. I was also in an abusive relationship. One of my cats, Alsan, became very sick on Thanksgiving eve. I had just moved to a new city a few days before and didn’t know where to take him. I was going to take him to an emergency vet that night, but Mr. Abusive convinced me it would be cheaper if I waited until morning. The next morning, my beautiful gray cat with the amber eyes was peacefully curled up in a ball, dead. I cried. I felt guilty. Maybe I could have saved him if I had taken him that night.
The next week, my rat, Plague, died. She also died peacefully in her sleep. I didn’t think anything untoward of it since she was very old for a rat. She was over four. I buried her in the yard next her her feline compatriot.
Madeline (pronounced Mad-el-line, not Mad-el-lynn, after the children’s book of the same name) was a German Shepherd/Yellow Lab mix. She had the coloring, coat and face of a yellow lab, but she had the shape of a Shepherd. She had the best characteristics of both breeds. She was cuddly, smart, loyal and a hell of a watchdog. Once, when I still lived in southwest Detroit, there was a police helicopter, a ghetto bird, flying overhead, flashing a spotlight into my neighborhood. I let Maddy out to see what was what. She took flight to the fence-line, started barking and then she was quiet. I couldn’t see a thing. Suddenly, the ghetto bird flashed its light into my yard. I saw Maddy suspended three feet off the ground by her teeth which were attached to someone’s calf. Police cars rolled up the alley and asked to come into my yard. It took some doing to get Maddy’s jaw unclenched from that bloody calf. The policemen patted her head and she wagged her tail, still bloody about the mouth. Maddy got a commendation for catching a man who had just murdered three people in a drug squabble a couple blocks away. The man was armed and could have shot her to get her loose if he had had enough time. Fortunately he didn’t.
When Madeline was nearly two years old, I came home from work one day to find a tiny, shivering ball of fur in my living room a few feet away from a little puddle of pee. What the hell is this thing? I said to Mr. Abusive. It’s a puppy, he said. Well, clearly I can see that, but what is it doing peeing in my living room? Apparently, the fluffy little peeing thing was found by our neighbors on the next block. Whomever had brought him into the world had him chained up on a vacant lot with no food, water or shelter in the middle of a Michigan winter. They had put cigarettes out on him and who know what else. His fur was matted, and he was skinny and dying. Our neighbors couldn’t keep him so Mr. Abusive said we would without even checking with me first.
It pissed me off that he had taken him in without a thought to my desires, but one look at that unfortunate little creature was enough to win me over. He was barely two weeks old. Mr. Abusive named him Gregis after some misguided and pretentious attempt at Latin. Mr. Abusive didn’t know Latin, but this was before the days of the omnipresent internet. Gregis became my dog. It just worked out that way. He was half Border Collie and half Bouvier, both herding dogs and both incredibly smart. Gregis was too smart for his own good. He was not like Maddy, self assured and confident in everything. His early days of abuse stuck with him and he needed my protection and Maddy’s, too. Maddy and I shared him.
Nine months later, after my cat and rat died, I was settling into my new home. I had a job. My new life in my new city was starting to take shape. I came home one day expecting to be greeted by my dogs as usual. There were no wagging tails.
Mr. Abusive said that the dogs had gotten out. He said that the dogs had run across the street, Maddy trailed by Gregis as was his wont. He said that the dogs had been run over by a truck. He said that they both died instantly and that he had buried them in the yard next to the cat and the rat. It was better if I didn’t see them since they were a mess.
I collapsed on the floor. My legs wouldn’t hold me. I collapsed on the floor right there in the entryway and cried. I cried so hard and so long that the tears wouldn’t come anymore. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I was heartbroken. Fifteen years later, I can still barely talk about it. I am crying as I write this.
Both of them? Both dogs? How? We lived on the third floor of a three story house. There was a front door to the building that was always shut. It had a self-closer mechanism on it. It was always shut. There was a gate on the yard that was also always shut. How is it possible that both dogs managed to get past all of that and run into the street? How is it possible that Maddy, who never ran away ever, who always sat on the front porch of our house in Detroit without ever needing to be leashed up, would choose this moment to run away for the first time in her life, somehow making it through the three barriers of the apartment door, the front door and the gate?
He gave me some song and dance about a delivery man propping open the building’s door and not shutting the gate behind him. He gave me a story that only someone who didn’t know those dogs would believe. He told me an unbelievable story and I didn’t believe it. I remembered my cat dying. I remembered my rat dying. I remembered the rumors going around about how dogs were being stolen from yards and sold for animal testing. I remembered that this had happened to one of my neighbors just a few days before. It was the beginning of many lies that he would tell me over the course of the next few years.
My abundance of animals had been reduced to a bubbling fish tank and a cat. I mourned my animals. I still mourn my animals. I will never know what happened to my dogs. Now, I choose to believe his story. I choose to believe that they died instantly instead of any other way, and believe me, I’ve thought of every other way. Gregis was nine months old. He had a hard beginning and a hard end. I like to think that he had a good life in the middle. I like to think I made a difference in his little story. And Maddy, well, Maddy would have done anything to protect Gregis. At least they had each other, no matter what happened. At least they were together.
For years after, I couldn’t think about dogs. I couldn’t conceive of having one again. I felt too guilty and ashamed that I couldn’t protect them. I wasn’t worthy of having more. I mourned for them for far longer than they were alive. Every time I had to go in and buy cat food for my one remaining animal, the cat who lived to be seventeen years old (I will never understand why he, of all of them, was spared), the wounds became fresh again. The wounds are still fresh. Mr. Abusive beat me, verbally abused me, stole from me, lied to me and nearly killed me, but losing my animals was the worst thing he ever did and I can never forgive him for that.
And then, one day in April, not quite two years ago, I walked into the pet store to buy cat food and I came out with a dog. As had become my custom, I avoided the adoption section of the pet store, but there were rescue adoptions on both sides of the store that day, one for cats, one for dogs. I chose the dog path. She was sitting in a cage on the end as I walked by. She looked me in the eye. She had the same look on her face as Gregis had that day I came home to find him, but behind that, shining in her eyes was the strength of Maddy. I could not walk away. I tried to walk away, but I only got about five feet before I turned back.
From that very first moment when we looked each other in the eye, Isabel was mine and I was hers. She was eight pound of redemption. She made me realize that the guilt was not mine to bear. She needed a home and she knew I could give her one. I walked out of that store with eight pounds of amazing in my arms, which has grown into 55. I cried. I’m still crying because she has given me freedom from guilt. She is the best thing that has happened to me and I cannot imagine life without her.
Thank you, Plague and Aslan. Thank you, Maddy and Gregis, for sharing your brief time with me. You are no longer wounds that lives deep within me that I can’t talk about. Thank you, Izzy, for bringing them all back into the light.