After the last of our three dogs died in March 2020, I felt their absence in my body. We adopted them when our twins were in middle school. We were a family of seven for 14 years. Now everyone in New York had to take refuge in their homes, and my husband and I were locked up and our grief felt all over the house.
Our sons, who are now in their twenties, left their homes in the city to stay with us in our wooded suburb. You helped ease my grief. Every now and then I would talk about adopting a new dog – I didn’t want to be without one – but my husband compared the idea to getting married within a few months of losing a spouse. It was an act of betrayal.
I told myself to wait, be patient. I told myself that with so much suffering on the news, some of which was raging, we had what we needed. I cooked and cleaned for my family. I worked, corrected evidence for a book about to be published, and danced on Zoom to take advantage of the joy.
My husband didn’t want to work anymore. The indoor tennis facility where he teaches was closed. He spent most of his time on the phone, wondering what to do with his father, who had dementia and lived in an assisted living facility in Los Angeles. Since such places became hot spots, he wanted his stepmother to bring his father back to her house. She refused. He died of Covid-19 in April, and we joined the thousands of others who couldn’t sit with a loved one and say goodbye.
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His father was also a dog lover. When he lived in New York he would visit us on the weekends, so happy to see our dog at this time, a mix of German Shepherds as he should see any of us. He was in his seventies then, tall and slim, and he would get down on his hands and knees to kiss the dog on her bed. She was aggressive towards most people, but with my father-in-law, she closed her eyes and licked his face, reflecting one of his strongest qualities, loyalty.
The love for a dog is as pure to a dog owner as it is incomprehensible to a non-dog owner. Perhaps because, as Sigrid Nunez writes in her novel The Friend, dogs “know us better than we know them in their silent, unfathomable ways”.
We had adopted the shepherd from a North Carolina animal shelter where we were newlyweds. I brought into the marriage an oversized Yorkie, an impulsive $ 100 purchase in a cat store – the shopkeeper was selling his dog’s litter. My husband chose the shepherd, who was around 10 months old, because she reminded him of his ex-girlfriend’s dog. I ignored the why. I wanted a second dog, although I would have picked the one that happily ricocheted off as we approached.
The shepherd lay quietly in her cage and later crept through our garden to wear her beauty without a glimmer of confidence. She didn’t warm up for our friends, and once we left her alone with our Yorkie, she tore a hole in his throat.
Years later, when she bit one of our 18-month-old twins, everyone thought we were going to get rid of her, but the bite was superficial and we, the fairly new parents, were concerned about the dog’s fate. We have advanced with extreme caution. We kept her away from the boys until they were old enough to respect their place and they fell in love with them like magic. But we never left her alone with our Yorkie again.
After his father died, my husband became quieter. I hoped he might be ready to save another dog. I flooded his inbox with photos of shelter puppies and within a week he gave in. Puppies were asked what was positive for rescue organizations. I filled out several applications, always late for the dog we wanted.
Late that night I received a notification of two new pups in Texas, but I was too tired to fill out the application. My husband offered to do it. They were older pups, sisters in a Bandera County animal shelter. In a video at the rescue center, the two girls looked shy, one hiding behind the other. It was believed that they came from an undesirable litter at four or five months old, the mother a black Labrador, the father a great Pyrenees.
The next morning we were surprised to receive a call from the shelter confirming our willingness to take both. My husband said yes. I said yes, just to ask myself out loud: should we really get both? You are so big. Yes, said my sons. It’ll be fine when you’re here, said my husband. Since he looked calm – and I longed to make him feel lighter – I put my doubts aside. When we found out that all transports to our region had been booked until June, I was worried again: the longer a dog lives in an animal shelter, the more difficult it can be to knead hard behavioral knots. I thought of our shepherd.
We have more than two hectares surrounded by a deer fence and two years ago we had gardens. The gardener had only been to our house a few weeks before the new puppies were due to arrive. There were flowers in abundance like colorful fairies, grasses like silk feathers. We also have meadows to be curated where hundreds of black-eyed susan began to bloom. The puppies would have room to roam.
In early June we drove an hour to the large parking lot of a closed shopping mall. Several ambulances came and went while we waited for ours. My husband and I watched families collect dogs of all ages and sizes. Everyone wore masks, only the eyes registered anticipation and joy.
After our transport arrived, a woman led two tall, skinny black puppies out of the van. They were scared and one of them tried to hide under the van. The woman put on the collars we had brought. When the two of them didn’t get into our car, my husband picked one up while I picked up the other, thinking how light it was for such a large pup. I sat with them in the back, where they laid their heads on my lap, exhausted.
They came by the names Secret and Sadie. We kept Secret’s name. From the start, she was friendly and confident, while Sadie (who we renamed Ila) was more concerned. Secret has the profile of a Weimaraner, a smooth head, a long body and a chest marked by a small white star. Ila also has a long body and legs, but her head is shaped more like that of a Labrador and her chest is marked by a large white spot.
Ila’s insecurities quickly became apparent. She rarely wagged her tail and barked at our friends when they visited us. She was tied to me and growled at my husband once as he got closer. Amazed, he said he was a little nervous that she might bite him. His fear increased as the pups got livelier, prancing and galloping like ponies through the gardens and meadows. What did we think? I asked friends. How could I have forgotten how puppies behave?
I suggested building a dog pen, an unexpected expense. In the stable, the pups dug holes and dug bottles, golf balls, stuffed animals, and a host of unidentifiable objects. They discovered a damp area to poke around, and I was sure they were going to dig up the skeletal remains of a deer or fox. After a tiny spring shot from the spot one afternoon, I imagined an underground stream giving way to a sinkhole.
Ila was the more unpredictable of the two, and my husband and sons said she was out of control. But they’re puppies, I told them. We have to train them. I found a trainer in our garden who was willing to create social distance from us. Knowing that private sessions would add up, I found a puppy class. The cost of the rescue, I thought. Fortunately, we can do it.
We walked the dogs to and from the stable and on paths in nature reserves. They pulled on the leash. Sometimes I stumbled, unfamiliar with their strength – they were already 60 pounds and only seven months old. My husband, who is over six feet tall, almost tripped over. He said I’m too old for that. I said: you are not that old, but I thought: we should have taken a dog, we are just too old for two.
During the day, I was too distracted to write anything that made me feel like someone I didn’t know. At night the pups slept in separate boxes in the kitchen. Both were afraid to go up the stairs to get to our bedroom. One evening when our sons carried her up to surprise us, they were sleeping on the bed. Such new big creatures. Rolls around and presses her warmth against us. It’s too early, I thought, and I’ve missed our three dogs. I felt disloyal to them.
In mid-July the friend of one of our sons came to us for two weeks. Did I know the Great Pyrenees are bred for protection? Yes, I read that, and Ila wasn’t surprisingly good at it. She barked at our son’s friend when she came into a room. At least she’s wagging her tail – that’s a good sign, I said, which didn’t reassure the friend.
The barking drove us all crazy and my husband and I fought. After the friend left, calm was restored. One morning when the pups were lying nearby, I said to my husband: isn’t it something we can give these two new lives in all this darkness? He still stared at her and finally said yes.
A few months have passed. The dogs felt comfortable in their new life … in our new life … the one we could never have predicted. We saw Secret transform into a sock collector who moans softly while waiting for food. (Yes, both learned to sit and wait.)
Ila is always wagging her tail and has a knack for finding a place to lie down with a pillow. And she loves my husband. He didn’t get nervous when they chewed up the bench pillows and trampled the rest of the gardens after we – after I – decided to let them run around. It was the last days of August, after all, and autumn was just around the corner.
A dog can feel a rapid heartbeat, smell fear. A dog can be a barometer of our equanimity. As the dogs continue to reveal themselves, after so much isolation we also see small changes in our own behavior. Today we planted daffodil and tulip bulbs in the gardens amid the flattened hostas. We still need to plant a lot more.
For some reason, the job that I never enjoyed brings me to a place of hope. My husband digs the holes, I drop the lightbulbs and cover them up. Not a fair share of work but we are relaxed, work together and so far the dogs have left the onions alone.
They lie quietly on the deck and keep an eye on us.
I think of Anne Carson’s poem The Glass Essay, in which she refers to Emily Brontë as “Whacher” (Brontë’s spelling):
Whacher is what she was …
She whipped eyes, stars, inside, outside, current weather.
She whipped the time bars that broke.
She shook the poor core of the world
They are beautiful animals, Secret and Ila. They watch us emerge again.