Relationships, Part 2: Pets
Part Two in a four-part series of relational examinations.
Part One: Parents
I can think of no purer love than that of a dog for its person. They just want to be with, and play, and interact, and protect, and just let you know they are there. They show their affection. Without speaking, their actions and behaviors say everything. Close. Follow. Wait. Wag. They are everything good wrapped up into loveable (love me back) package. We can’t help but pet. They allow us to touch.
I have been a dog person for most of my life. Many breeds, many versions, particularly with the name Bandit. We only had one dog at a time for most of our upbringing, but their had to be five or six. That seems like a lot looking back. I don’t know what happened to most.
They were mostly mutts or free giveaways. They taught me to how to take care of another. I remember once when my Mom was out and the newer dog was supposed to stay in the back yard. I was supposed to stay in. But I looked through the window and that yellow curly thing and decided that these rules of separation didn’t make sense. I toddled outside to be with her. The neighbor lady that watches over the culdesac came over and said, “You know, you’re not supposed to be outside…” I defiantly answered, “I can play with my dog if I want to.” She stayed outside the gate, watched for a bit, and then walked away. She must have understood it was the right thing to do to.
In high school, we got a black dog with white paws that we named White Sox (we did live on the Southside after all). I loved that dog. It was mine. I looked after him, and he always seemed to look forward to my return. We went on vacation one summer, most likely to Wisconsin Dells. I don’t think my Dad came. But my Mom didn’t trust my Dad to take care of the dog, so we put him in a kennel — a cost conscious one. When we returned and then he returned, he didn’t jump around and wag his tail. He approached me tenderly, trying and knowing he should but not quite having the energy or vigor. I walked over to him and touched him slowly and gently, letting my hands stay a while. He threw up an awful blob that didn’t look or smell at all like food. I told my Mom something was wrong. We took him to the vet. He had contracted kennel cough, and his insides had putrified. We had to put him down. I had to agree to let my dog die. I had to say yes to letting the being I loved most (and who I believed loved me most) go. Because I wanted to go to a waterpark.
I vowed to never love anything in that way ever again.
There were other dogs, but I was mostly away at college. I liked them and was kind to them but they weren’t mine. It’s been over twenty years since I had a dog. About a decade ago, I agreed to get a kitten with my roommate. We went to where the litter was, and we watched which wanted most to interact with us. We thought we had one pegged, but at the last minute, this runt strutted out hesitant legs and then did a full split while she licked herself. OK, cat. You’re the one. We named her Betsy.
What was cool about the cat is that she didn’t need much attention and care. She went on about her business. She understood the litterbox, didn’t chew things, and went outside whenever she pleased. She learned to communicate it. She was hot and cold in her affections, wanting to interact on her time and desires and made it VERY clear when she did not. Quite the independent lady, she only relied on us for food. Her autonomy was sealed by the fact that she hunted and ate birds…. I can eat whenever I want to.
I would say I’ve been pretty indifferent to this cat. I didn’t chase after her, didn’t coddle her, didn’t try to smother her with wants or cuddles. I let her be. I did what I wanted, as I wanted, and we mostly co-existed in orbiting circles. The only time she did get demonstrative is when she was hungry or wanted to eat. She learned to communicate and be heard. Her meows were somehow ravenous.
Should you take a bit too long to respond it became more like this:
When you gave her something she REALLY liked (like salmon skins) the noise she emitted was a threatening and protective howl. GET AWAY FROM ME. I LOVE THIS. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO EXPRESS MY JOY AND AM AFRAID THAT IT WILL BE TAKEN FROM ME.
It has since been brought to my attention that we are exactly the same. After some reflexively defensive protests, I have to agree. This is also why I claim to be so uninterested in her. I do love and care about her, but in a distant, aloof way.
I remember one time she got sick and was shaking a bit and blinking her eyes a lot. I remember looking at her directly and sternly and seriously saying, “Betsy, you better get it together. I am not taking you to the vet.” Within 24 hours she was better and within 48 she was like her old self. I wonder what I would have done had she became worse. This ‘tough love’ act I put on with her remains, but I have sat a little bit longer than I want to when she pops into my lap and wants to be warm and near (and gently headbutts me as a request for pets).
Right before my Mom found out she needed heart surgery, she got a puppy. It was a tiny dog, different than the larger guard dogs and German Shepherds that had become routine. She was half Shih Tzu and half Poodle, a Shitz-Poo, and she cost $900. ( My Dad will never read this.) This little being with he perfectly crooked teeth saved me.
There was a lot to deal with that first stint home. My Mom was my priority but it became very apparent that my Dad also needed care. He did not yet have the skills to be self-sufficient, and his health was pretty poor. I could tell he was trying not to be bothersome and needy, but his state made him behave as a typical toddler would, a toddler who knew he was paying for everything. As I toggled back and forth between them, spinning plates (why must one be so capable!), being with this dog became the best part of my day.
She was steady and sweet goodness, personified. Never in a bad mood, never demanding. She waited her turn patiently, and it was because of this restraint that I started carving out time for her specifically. I let her out of her sleep cage before I made my coffee. As she stretched I pet her belly. We played ball and tug o’ war. I starting shifting the system of her care. More water, more let outside, illegal in-the-bed time made legal because it was before anyone woke up. I secretly cleaned her messes and pointed at her with dismayed facial expressions and whispers when she pooped on pristine white carpet and peed under the kitchen table. We do these things for the beings we love. We want others to love them too.
To make it in this world, we have to love something. It is part of loving ourselves. If we are lucky, it is something that can actually love us back. Vulnerability requires care. Vulnerability asks, will you take care of me?
Part One: Parents