Being a dog owner has proved to be one of the most challenging, but extraordinary experiences of my life. When I was lodged in the mud of a toxic relationship, I decided to get a puppy. Ruckus (his all-too-fitting name) became my very best friend in a way that other relationships that were held together with English and expectations couldn’t match. His destructive behavior and separation anxiety however were not only devouring my microfiber sectional section by section every time I came home, but also my patience, sanity, and the remote possibility that I could succeed at caring for something. I went through the gamut of dog training remedies and programs. I tried bitter sprays and gates galore. By 10 months he was nearly 100 lbs of pure riffraff. Every day a new dilemma presented itself and I learned to remain detached from leather shoes, remotes, and fine furnishings.
I left the toxic relationship and moved into a small rental. Ruckus needed a friend. Only I didn’t know it. A short while later skinny yellow lab showed up on my front lawn. Ruckus barked from the front balcony. Down below was our answer to Ruckus’s boredom and subsequent remodeling. I was at first adamant that this was not our dog. I sought out to find his owner, but after three months and an admission that both Ruckus and I were smitten with the scruffy stray that had wedged his way into our bed and hearts, it became official. I named him Cooper, which the dictionary defined as someone who repairs, which is what he did for us. He was the yang to Ruckus’s yin. The vet told me judging by the condition of Cooper’s teeth, he looked to be about 7 when I rescued him, which would make him roughly 11 this year.
For years we were a solid tripod of love. Then I met my husband, and became a stepmother to a 7-year-old girl. Three months after my wedding, I found out I was pregnant. Life was full. I was full of baby. The dogs knew something was developing. From that first waterlogged kick from my daughter in utero, I changed from the dog lady into a Mama with a child, who also owned some dogs and occasionally looked up from her swollen belly to acknowledge them. I was hypnotized by my pregnancy. The dogs (and everything else) became fuzzy; out of focus.
When I was about three days away from my due date with my daughter, Cooper had an episode I’ve have never fully understood. It was neurological, a stroke possibly or a seizure, but I never saw it actually happen. I only saw the after effects: leaning to the side, drooping in the face, whimpering and an overall change in his energy and spirit. I took him to the vet and they look as far as I could afford and couldn’t tell me what had happened. I can tell you with certainty something happened inside his brain on the left side. I know this because Ruckus presses his nose against that spot and sniffs it at least five times a day. A brain scan on an aging dog with dementia is sort of like looking inside the home that has been evacuated to see if the pipes are working. I was afraid I’d go to into labor and come home to find he had died. I didn’t know whether I should be nesting or planning a canine funeral.
He made it through that mysterious event but has never been the same dog since. There is no spunk left in him. He seemed to age a decade that day, and I found myself suddenly completely held hostage to the demands and trance like attention to my newborn. I was as careful as an Empire penguin when it came to keeping the dogs away from my delicate baby.
My daughter is now 21 months. Cooper is old. Mostly he searches for the soft spot, the quiet corners, and welcoming laps. He likes hands that are free of babies, telephones and chores. He is turned down a lot. Rejection, the sharp edge of aging, often leaves him standing outside the shower or whimpering at our bedside. His longing for affection is thirsty. Actually it is downright relentless, so he keeps coming back when I shove him away because he will get fur on my black uniform or because I am nursing the baby and it feels intensely intrusive to be needed by two beings so desperately all at once. He comes back and nuzzles his fierce body into an elbow opening, a space behind my knee. Anywhere that will put him in direct access to a quick back scratch.
Copper is dying. I write this more for my own acceptance than for dramatic effect. I try to say this out loud to myself as if I had any way to soften the blow, but I don’t. It looms in the background of every day like a bully at the end of the block you have to walk down to get home. Only there is no amount of lunch money that will buy my way out of the inevitable ass kicking that is losing a pet; even when it is the natural order of things.
He still enjoys his daily walk and loves to eat, although he is beginning to forget mid lunch what he is at the bowl for. I remind him, “Cooper eat boy!” Often he wanders into rooms, stares at the walls and then turns around and leaves as if he changed his mind. When my daughter was around four months my daughter seemed to take notice of Cooper in particular.
As she has grown more mobile, she has become completely enthralled with him. Patting his head and hugging him. She covers him with a blanket and points to him, “Doggie!” which was her first word. She seems to know (or I like to comfort myself with the idea) that he is sick and won’t be here much longer. It’s as if she is saying, “Hey Buddy, I just left there, it’s beautiful. Don’t be scared.” I wonder if maybe, heaven and earth have the same waiting room. I also considered that even though I couldn’t’ see his episode happen while I was pregnant that maybe my daughter felt it from inside her placenta filled palace.
When I was 8 years old, I discovered writing. At nine my family rescued a dog that would become my greatest childhood companion for the next decade. Her death was the first I would ever know and writing would become my greatest companion for forging my way through the deepest sorrows of my life. The impact of motherhood and the deterioration of Cooper, watching birth and death all at once left me frozen to the idea that I could do anything about all of these monster size feelings. But I can write. I cannot stop grief or the impending events that will surly wreak my bones and break my heart, but I can witness the beautiful and terrible aches. When we become observers of our own pain, we watch from a different vantage point. Often that is where hope hangs out.
Jennifer Albrecht can currently be found writing a poem while changing a diaper, creating metaphors while giving facials in a spa in Las Vegas and whiling together wild stories while being dragged around by her goofy Labradors. Her work has appeared in Minerva Rising’s “Mothers” issue, From The Depths, The Silver Compass and The Red Rock Review.