When I got a puppy, I didn’t put her photo on social media for weeks because I was afraid she’d die or I’d have to give her back.
I told hardly anybody I got a dog. I just cleared my schedule — already quite sparse if I’m being honest — and focused on taking care of this 12-week-old Great Pyrenees-Border collie mix with huge white paws that I’d picked up from a shelter just six days after I first thought, “Maybe I should get a dog.”
“There’s a lot of pain and chaos in the world right now — we decided to bring a little gentleness and normalcy into our lives.” I knew what she meant about gentleness and normalcy. I showed Shadow the tweet. She was polite about it, but far more interested in the buttered toast I held in my other hand. Like me, she loves to eat buttered toast late at night.
I’m not one to anthropomorphize animals. I grew up in rural Ireland, where dogs are expected to hold down a job or two. I live in Brooklyn now and when I’m out of town, a wonderful dog sitter stays over. As part of the service, she sends me photos and an email update each day. Last time, the email started out like this: “Hiiiiii — It’s yor dotter, Shadow!”
“Oh no,” I thought, reading the rest with dread. “This couldn’t be Shadow. Any self-respecting dotter of mine would know how to spell!”
Besides, I understand that dogs aren’t people. Shadow is not my fur baby or my wife or my best friend, she’s just a dog. A dog who happens to come across as an intelligent and good-hearted old librarian.
Shadow was never a hyperactive goofball, sliding along wooden floors and getting tangled up in laundry. She never spent a fall morning yanking me toward a handsome dog owner, leaving me blushing (perhaps in a beret) as she romped in the leaves with his equally handsome dog. Before I got her, I watched YouTube videos of dogs that could understand hundreds of words.
I felt impressed and competitive and decided that I would be completely in command of my future dog and teach her even more words. That didn’t happen either.
Even at 3 months old Shadow was a quiet, calm presence. She has never whined. She’s huge now, and I know when she wants to be petted because she silently approaches me at my laptop and places her paw on my knee, so that I will lean down and hug her. She rests her big silky head on my shoulder for a moment, which I love, sniffs into my ear, which I hate, then ambles off to sleep under the air-conditioner some more.
A dog in New York City is a portal to a different, fuzzier city. On our very first walk, a man in a white van rolled down his window to shout something at me. I braced myself, pretending I couldn’t hear him, as every woman has learned to do. But he just yelled, “Not to be weird but she’s so cute, I’m dying!”
In the overheated city park that is life today, within the grown-up playground of mental health, you’ll find me teetering on the anxiety seesaw. I can’t explain how, but this big furry dog helps me stay steady. I have a million worries, but after throwing a ball and waiting for her to bring it back 10 times, I feel better. I rest more.
My unscientific theory is that sleeping is contagious, and Shadow’s main hobby is naps. I’m from a big Catholic family where everyone feels terrible about relaxing, so this is new for me. When my sister calls from Ireland, I frantically do-re-mi before I answer but it’s not enough to hide the fact that my voice is still thick with sleep.
“What time is it there, Maeve?”
“Oh, it’s um, it’s nearly three.”
“What?” she says sharply. “Are you sick?”
“No,” I tell her. “It’s the dog. She’s so sleepy she makes me sleepy.”
Shadow is not perfect. She occasionally takes a really long time to walk around the block, stopping to actually smell every flower on every plant. She is comically bad at walking down unfamiliar stairs, and outright scared of balloons. Oh, and she gets sleep dust in the corner of her eye. Once, a child on a crosswalk said loudly, “That dog has eye boogers,” so now I wipe them off every morning, which is slightly gross.
Although even that is not so bad, because it means that I get to start my day off with gentleness, by holding her beautiful somber face and looking right into her eyes and telling her not only is she a good girl, she’s the best girl.
Maeve Higgins is the author of the forthcoming “Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl From Somewhere Else” and a contributing opinion writer.