By Margaret Renki
There’s a story my husband has been telling for nearly 15 years, since not long after US forces invaded Iraq. In a news report, American soldiers were going door to door with bomb-sniffing dogs, trying to persuade the citizens of Baghdad to adopt a well-trained pet.
Many Iraqis regard dogs as unclean, and American soldiers were making the case for rethinking that policy: Baghdad would be safer if dogs were housed throughout the city, sounding the alarm whenever an enemy tried to plant a roadside bomb in the night. Also, a dog will love you unconditionally.
The Iraqi homeowner in the story looked at the G.I. and shrugged. “Then you would be loved by a dog.”
My husband thinks this story is hilarious because it reminds him of the small-town Southerners and country people he grew up among — and also because it is so deeply at odds with the attitudes of suburban America, with its pet strollers and doggy day cares and canine pulmonologists. Iraqi soldiers would have no better luck persuading suburban Nashvillians to banish their dogs to the yard than American soldiers had in persuading Iraqis to invite a dog into the house.
As a measure of how deeply dogs are embedded in our own lives, consider what happened when Emma, our 15-year-old dachshund, died. Three friends brought flowers. One brought chocolate. One brought a homemade strawberry pie. One brought a barbecue supper and an original poem. Two little girls who loved her made candle holders. “I need some water, some glue, a jar and a lot of glitter,” the 7-year-old told her father. On Facebook, 158 people wrote messages of condolence.
The outpouring of kindness reminded me of the days just after my mother’s sudden death, when it seemed that everyone I knew brought flowers and food and sweet notes. It might seem disrespectful to compare the loss of even the dearest animal companion to the loss of a beloved mother, but it makes a particular kind of emotional sense. Everyone has a mother, and the profound grief of losing her is one most people instinctively understand, even if their own mothers are alive and well. Everyone who’s ever loved a dog knows the true depth of that loss, even if they’ve never met the specific dog being mourned.
As it happens, Emma was my mother’s dog first, and losing her has been a double grief. I miss her inimitable sandwich-snarfing, bookshelf-climbing, purse-raiding, cabinet-unlocking, smoothie-stealing, ever-grinning rascal self. I miss the way, even in her nearly blind, completely deaf, partially paralyzed old age, she wanted to be right beside me, tugging her little bed till it was directly under my feet while I worked.
I miss her, but I also miss taking care of her — rushing her to the emergency vet at least three times a year for eating everything from chocolate bonbons to rat poison, carefully dispensing her medicine twice a day, constantly pushing the chairs under the table to keep her from climbing up and launching herself off from the table’s full height. Protecting Emma from herself felt like a way to keep caring for Mom even years after Mom was gone.
That little dog caused my lonely mother untold exasperation and delight. Emma would drag Mom’s purse under the bed to a place Mom couldn’t reach even lying on the floor. Mom would get up from her chair for half a minute and turn around to find Emma in her place, lapping up the coffee she’d left on the table beside the recliner and finishing off the oatmeal too. Half the stories Mom told her grandchildren at supper every night were stories about me as a little girl. The other half were about Emma.
A dog loves a person the way people love each other only while in the grip of new love: with intense, unwavering focus, attentive to every move the beloved makes, unaware of imperfections, desiring little more than to be close, to be entwined, to touch and touch and touch. For my mother, who never ceased to miss my father and who must have felt herself to be on the margins of her children’s busy lives, it was nothing less than a godsend to be loved by that little dog.
Every time Mom went to visit my sister or my brother, she would leave Emma with me. For days, the dog would sit before our back door, the same door my mother used every night when she and Emma came over for supper. The window in that door is the only one in our house that reaches low enough for a dachshund to see through. She would sit in front of the door and wait. She waited and waited — she had endless reserves of patience and time — and three days later, a week at most, my mother always came back to her.
Two weeks after the funeral, Emma went missing when she was outside with me. That tiny, dapple-colored dog was both willful and invisible: She never once came when called, and she could disappear beneath the lowest bushes, behind the smallest fallen branch. I turned that yard inside out looking for her. When I finally thought to check at Mom’s house across the street, I found her at the back door, jumping up and scratching to be let in. She had been scratching so urgently, and for so long, the paint was chipped away from the doorjamb.
That’s what it means to be loved by a dog.