For the Love of a Dog

“I have the perfect dog for you,” the earnest volunteer said. “He’s an old soul dog. You will love him.”

Rufus came into our family on a mucky, cold December day. His ears were down, but he dutifully walked into the circle of humans and wagged his tail for us. “I am a good boy,” he said, as clear as anything, for anyone who can speak Dog. I am as fluent in that language as it is possible for a human to be. I am that person who meets you and your dog on the street and only sees the dog. I often retreat at parties to the room where the dog is sleeping, and we happily spend time together. I cannot help myself. My fingers reach out to scratch ears through the fences that separate us. I sit on floors, just to keep our eyes level. I accept that my neck must to lickable, if another’s head must be kissable. I will pound my hands on the floor and stick my butt up (always regretting that I have no tail to wag), if it means that a dog will experience the absolute joy of knowing a human being is trying to speak Dog.

Bernard wordA good dog, yes, but a perfect dog? I had lost a perfect dog, and waited for a year and a half before even considering another. After a horrific ice storm in Kansas City, when Conor was barely out of toddlerhood, we found Bernard in a crate of puppies at a shelter meet-and-greet in a mall hallway. He was the saddest, biggest black-and-white puppy I had ever seen, and so he came home with me. His parentage was suspect, but the shelter folk thought there might be a chance that his father was a St. Bernard, hence explaining his size, and our name for him. His father might have been many things, but not that. Part Border Collie (the stare!), part German Shepherd (the fur), part Labrador (most of his face), and part Everydog – that was our Bernard.

Maggie and Reba, our two resident Grand Dames, took one look at the pup and said, “What were you thinking?” Bernard peed on the floor that first night. Scandalous glances between the lady Labradors! This would not do! They marched him outside first thing in the morning, one leading the way, the other behind him to make sure he was paying attention. They were prodigious markers of territory, these old girls, and they spent a great deal of time pointing out all the best places to Bernard. He never had another accident. In fact, he took their instruction to heart so much that for the first few years of life, he never peed anywhere other than our backyard. We could walk him for hours through the neighborhood, past come-hither shrubs and well-marked street posts, and the dog would race into our backyard to finally get relief.

Between Bernard and I stretched an invisible cord. He could not leave me, and in the end I could not leave him. People would joke about it – his being my shadow, the way he would watch me across a room, the fact that he never had to be trained to stay with me in an unfenced yard. Bernard was comfortable, and so was I, as long as he could be with me. We inhabited the same spaces, and often I would look at him, while I was busy at some small task, and I would think that he was working very hard to speak into my head, to commune directly with me. Soul mate. I don’t believe in human ones, because quite simply we are such a critical species, so quick to judgement. But with Bernard I experienced a canine soul mate. I was loved for everything about me. He loved the way I smelled, the way I felt, the way I looked. And I found that the same reactions filled my heart. No other dog had ever been more delightfully fluffy and soft. His fur smelled amazing, and I would bury my whole face into his thick neck ruff. How perfect he was in every way!

I do not write about the day he died. Simply: the worst of days. After, my life was haunted with empty corners. I found myself being surprised daily by utter absence. I understand the concept of abyss now, and vacuum, and bereft. There is a wooden box in the bottom drawer of my nightstand, still wrapped in the white paper from the crematorium. With it, the nice people sent a card and a little plastic bag filled with snips of Bernard’s fur. They probably thought this was the kind thing to do, this abomination of fur left over, separate from the wondrous dog himself. I cannot touch it, but I also cannot throw it away.

Rufus reflection edited

Rufus sleeps in a puddle of sunlight on Duncan’s bed. We do not have a cord between our hearts, this sweet pup and I. His fur is not fluffy, but slippery sleek. I love the way that I can see the sinews of his legs through the short velvet hair. I trace the ink patterns of his brindle. When he looks up, his brow wrinkles and all the folded brindle stripes make him look so puzzled. This dog always seems to ask us questions. How far? How long? When? Now? He sighs, and puts his head back down. “The sun is so warm and delightful, you could join me, you know.” I kiss the top of his knobby head, and he licks my arm. He smells like corn chips.

Rufus teaches us about joy. He experiences it utterly, with abandon, when he runs. There is an open field near Mount Airy Casino, right before the trail enters the woods, where Rufus races. I unclip his leash, and whisper, “Run!” And his taut body springs away from me, one fluid crazy motion. Rufus runs on the veld. Rufus skims through the tall grass, graceful as an antelope. He leaps over the trail, and whirls. Again and again. Joy. I am an acolyte of joy; Rufus has attained perfect knowledge of it, my Yogi. I find myself laughing while he runs, just experiencing some small part of the ether he exists in.

And I will be taking all that away from him in the months to come.

Unknown to us, hiding from the blood tests, and unfazed by preventative medications, heart worms have mined Rufus’s heart. Born in Georgia, Rufus started life in the epicenter of this particular scourge. Tests do not detect one life stage of the worm, and so we were blindsided last week to find out that our previous negative test became a positive one over the past year. He has no symptoms of the disease. We only found out because it was time to get the new year’s supply to keep the heart worms away. Now we face treatment. A series of three shots, which are always described as particularly painful, and months of bedrest. No jumping. No running. No walks. No excitement. No joy, because joy can kill. Because a heart beating too hard can dislodge a clump of the dying worms and cause a dog to go into cardiac arrest.

“He’s an old soul dog. You will love him.”

I am a harsh critic of the human race, but I do give us credit for one attribute of the human soul. It can love, over and over, opening itself up for endless pain in the process. Perhaps it is this that dogs sense about us, when they are overlooking all our other shortcomings. It is the one common ground they have with us. Because I love Rufus, I will put him through this hell. Because he loves me, he will forgive me. He will lick my arm, my face, my ears. He will ask me why over and over, but he will understand that I’m mute, deaf, and have a very bad nose. He knows that there is a Bernard shaped hole in my heart that dwarfs any of the worm tunnels in his. And he knows that he has found the Rufus shaped space I’ve made especially for him. What won’t we do for the ones we love?

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