Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Sometimes as I watch him dozing by my chair, I have a glimpse of the golden, tumbling puppy he must once have been. Sensing that I am watching, he raises his massive head and tries to look at me through his large, clouded eyes. "Good dog, good boy" I say, and stroke his head. He sighs heavily, and puts his head down once more, content to return to his dreams for a while.
I never saw him as a puppy.

It was a winter night close to Christmas, when a storm was raging and the cabin roof was leaking, and the children and I were trying to roll out ginger cookies by candlelight. I was still a little raw from the grief I felt at my father's death that September. Yes, it was a good death, as deaths go. The past two years had brought a lot of healing in that most perpendicular of relationships. He was a military man. I was his eldest child, his only daughter. I honed my rebellion and my strength on his rigidity. There were years, as I was growing up, when he was only a photograph on my mother's dresser, and others, after I was grown, in which he was simply a letter (he'd send carbon copies for a while), answered by my letters. His new wife hated me, I thought--well, I was much like my mother, after all. And my peace activism was, he thought, a direct slap at his entire life.

When he called and told me the doctors had given him six weeks to live he was very straightforward and unemotional. I hung up the phone and sobbed, and a customer browsing the literature section rushed to my side, alarmed. My customer had lost his own parents years ago, and knew the territory. "You have to go see him" he told me. I realized it was true, though I had no money for the airfare, and was worried about leaving my youngest, Gabe, whose Down Syndrome made him a particularly fragile child.
The next day I determined I'd borrow the money, and that Gabriel would survive a week or so without his mother, and called my dad to tell him I was coming--unless, of course, he'd rather not see me. That time it was my father who broke down, and cried, and said "you want to see me?"

We'd both assumed a lack of love on each other's part. In the next two years--for my father took great delight in proving his doctors wrong--we discovered the depths of our love and healed a lot of misunderstandings. He traveled, against doctor's orders, to Alaska to see the glaciers and eagles and polar bears.

And at the end, as I had told him I wished to be, I was there with him as he took his final breaths. I was holding him in my arms, breathing with him, our eyes locked on each other's faces. His last breath was so quiet I didn't know for a moment it had come, as a thunder storm raged in the New Mexico sky outside his bedroom and my stepmother, exhausted by the last days, slept quietly. There was no fear, no struggle. It was his final gift to me, I think.
But yes, I cried. And I grieved.

And back at home, as I rolled out those cookies and tried to make it a bright holiday for my brood, my heart still ached.
The loud, peremptory "WOOF" outside assumed instant obedience. We were, as P. said, between dogs that winter. "WOOF!!!"
I opened the door to the storm, and to the ragged yellow lab who came in, looked at the children, sighed and settled on a blanket near the stove. His paws were worn, and his fur oddly matted, as if he hadn't been brushed in a long while. His eyes were golden. All three of my children were delighted to have what appeared to be a horse sized dog in the middle of the tiny cabin.

Of course we let him stay the night, and the next, and...

We asked around about the dog--after I brushed him he was gleaming and lovely, a fine dog. He knew how to sit and shake hands and seemed very content to hang out with our gang, including the cats, who took turns sleeping curled up with him. Finally, through the country grapevine, word came from his first family, who said they hadn't been able to keep him--he kept wandering--and if we wanted him, he was ours. Buddy, the yellow dog. I was delighted.

It turned out Buddy had grown up in Los Angeles in a small apartment with three boys and two hamsters. This family hadn't known him as a puppy either--the mom had discovered him as a year old dog, tied up by a school, with his back leg broken. She'd taken him to a vet, and taken him in. Through some tough times Buddy had been there for her, a warm yellow back to lean again, a big dog to hug and whisper fears and secrets to.

And then the family moved north, to the woods and the wild. Somehow--I have never quite figured this out--the man of the family thought Buddy would enjoy being chained out in the woods, far from the family. Buddy didn't like this, and barked a lot. He was beaten. A neighbor--a tough old guy with a soft heart--took Buddy off the chain repeatedly, and Buddy took to wandering. (Buddy's liberator still comes by to visit him, and in fact Buddy still now and again walks far up the hill to visit that family). One day, about a year after Buddy had come to us, the woman who had found him by the school came to visit.

It was like having a birth mother come to see her child--I was so full of conflicted emotions. What if Buddy, on seeing her, pined for her? What if she wanted him back? I steeled myself to letting him go. As it turned out, although she cried, and I cried, and she filled me in on Buddy's past life, and on the divorce proceedings--perhaps Buddy wasn't the only one who got beaten--Buddy was mild and friendly but insisting on sitting by my side, his great head leaning on my knee. "He loves you" said his first woman. "I love him too" I told her. She was delighted to see how happy Buddy seemed in his role as bookstore dog and greeter of all. "You've found your place" she told him, patting him. He wagged his tail and looked at me.

So he has been with us since. That first year I released my grief and pain running with him on the dirt roads, up hill and down, heart pounding, sometimes with tears running down my face but more often, as time went on, with newly refound delight in being alive.

Dogs are very good for putting you back into life.

He's slower these days, but then, so am I. He has helped foster kittens and and tolerated puppies who bit his ears and tumbled over him. He helped me adopt our injured, valiant pitbull, Champ. He has been Gabriel's faithful friend.

Most days I take him for a walk to the local feed store, where he is well known and gets special treats. We talk to the hamsters there--Buddy is always interested in them--and to the birds. He carries back two treats--one for Champ, who waits patiently.

His golden fur is turning white now, and he sleeps more. His sight is dimming, but he can still smell very well. He follows me everywhere I go in the bookstore, as if he doesn't wish me quite out of his sight. Our customers fuss a lot over Champ, who sports a bandaged paw and a wistful air, and Buddy stands back--but then he stands in front of his favorite browsers, as if to say "Hey, good dog, here--come on, pay your tariff: you need to pat me"

Paul calls him "Buddy-satva" because, of all the beings we have known, Buddy is the most purely loving, offering unquestioning devotion and acceptance to everyone--cats, dogs, people. Even the deer in the garden. When we walk through town, late at night, Buddy finds the strays--the addicts in despair, the runaways, the shivering drunks, the lost ones. He stops, and lets them pat him, leans his warm weight against them, lets them know there is some love around, even when the universe seems dark.

Does it make sense to say one of my strongest teachers is a dog? Sense or not, so it is.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

sense or not,who cares..he loves u ,u love him,,he's more then a dog,he was a gift,and helped u heal..
u made me cry,really..thank u,i'm going to call my parents right now!!

1:30 PM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Dr O2 said...

dogs teach us unconditional love which is extinct somewhat among humans.

yet another strong post.

8:15 PM, December 20, 2005  
Anonymous m2 said...

I had 2 fresh reasons why that touched me particularly... You have an interesting life.

6:11 PM, December 21, 2005  
Blogger MellowOranges said...

I've been meaning to stop by. I too hope that the new year brings much happiness for you. I am at the bookstore still, and didn't enjoy the run up to christmas (thankfully I don't have the pleasure of working christmas eve!). But, I am looking for a change really and hopefully this next year will bring me one. I think it's a change of scenery more than anything.

I really enjoy the way you write. And I will endeavor to stop by for longer next time. Best wishes.

11:51 AM, December 23, 2005  
Blogger David said...

Great story! I'm glad that you had two years to make things right with your father. I think that many people are not so lucky. Buddy sounds like a great dog! My family had a dog when I was a kid. She was a beagle named Mitzi. I really loved that dog. I can see her in my mind's eye and hear her barking. I miss her, still.

Happy Holidays! :)

7:43 PM, December 24, 2005  
Blogger Spyder said...

Lovely post.
Powerful emotions, I felt both your father's and Buddy's story close to the heart.

8:42 PM, December 24, 2005  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

melloworanges, thanks for stopping by.
and m2, you as well--I think I know one at least of your reasons, if I am correct about your identity.
dear foulla--yes, stay in touch with your parents (and thanks for giving me Idir's name; I have ordered a CD that has the lovely song you play on your blog, plus another one).
dr o2--thank you, I have been thinking a lot about your latest post (the one with the earthquake divide)
david--yes, I was blessed. I often think how different it could have been had my father simply had a heart attack or something--we would never have known, in this life, the truth of our love and connection. My childhood cat (she was white and fluffy) was called Mitzi. Beagles are very loving dogs, and perhaps, who knows, your Mitzi is still in some way present--at least you know she is with you in your heart and memories.
And spyder--thank you.
And may we all have a happy new year.

5:39 PM, December 29, 2005  
Blogger Shirin said...

I’m so glad I found your blog Jarvenpa. So far I have absolutely loved every single thing that you have written. Unfortunately I must stop reading now as looking at the screen for too long makes my eyes hurt. I’ll be back again tomorrow.

12:05 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger a dracul said...

you are ok jarvenpa

i will get a spider plant, and if it doesn't die next year i'll find out more about pets that don't set of asthma.

but you are ok jarvenpa

it will take forever to read all the archives,

7:08 AM, April 16, 2006  

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