I had this great idea for a post today. I was going to write about the restorative feeling I get walking our three dogs every afternoon, about how it is a meditative process. Then they went and proved me completely wrong by being general jerks to what felt like every single dog within four blocks. This culminated with them literally dragging me across the street to be especially obnoxious to a small poodle. There are few things as embarrassing as having to apologize because your dog is an being an asshole. Now multiply that by three.
Look, I love my dogs. I love them almost as much as I love Melissa. At this point they are my surrogate children. So you can imagine my internal dread as I realized that I could not hold all three back while they barked, howled, and generally clawed their way across the street to corner this terrified poodle.
Thankfully, we were all able to get away unscathed. But it has left me shaken and questioning what has been becoming my early evening respite. My alternatives are now to stop, go at a different time with fewer people out, or break up my cerberus-like trio into separate trips. Time will reveal an answer, but until then I think I need a day or two off to let my back recover.
With that story out of the way, let me tell you about the importance of dogs in our life together. Melissa and I had six dogs in our fifteen years. Sahja, Gypsie, Libby, Daisy, Laika, and Betty. Each dog holds a special place for us. Each dog has its own personality. Its own story and quirks. We are dog people who became animal people, who eventually became cat people too. The cats are a story for a different day.
I took Melissa on our first date to Oregano's in Tempe. We talked about school, our families, our lives. Eventually our conversation turned to dogs. She had two at the time, Sahja and Gypsie. I didn't have any with me in Tempe but my parents had labs, Maggie and Nasa. I also relayed the very strong memories I have of growing up with our spaniel, Mac. Short for Mac'n'Cheese, my favorite food when I was six.
At the end of the night I drove her home. When we got to her house she suggested we take her girls for a walk around the neighborhood. For any of you that knew Melly well, this was a huge step. Melissa had some worries in her life, principle of which was a fear that our animals would get free and lost. I didn't know it at the time, but for her to offer to let me walk one of the girls was tantamount to our first "I love you".
As I found out that night, Sahja had a serious tumor on her jaw. She was at the tail end of a long summer that included experimental chemotherapy in Colorado and a few surgeries to try to keep the cancer in check. This had all left Melissa tens of thousands of dollars in debt. She thought nothing of putting her financial future at risk to rescue this sweet and beautiful dog. It was a decision that would lead to years of heartache, but a decision I think she would have happily made again.
Sahja died about a week after Melissa and I declared our love for each other. 15 years ago this week, actually. I was out of town when it happened. Just outside of Toledo. I learned the news on a payphone on a hot, mosquito laden, night in a cheap motel parking lot. The pain in her voice that night was more than I could believe. Sahja had lost her long battle to the inevitable, Melissa was devastated and alone. That I wasn't there to hold her that night is a regret.
Over the years we gained and lost other dogs and cats, but that hurt of Sahja was something that I think stayed with Melissa and drove her forward. Sahja was a watershed for her the way this summer is for me. It made her more introspective, more concerned about the well being of others. She had to make sure everyone was accounted for, that everyone was ok.
One of the things that I heard several times in the weeks after July 5th was how often Melissa would chastise others for taking perceived risks with their health or well being, while ignoring her own advice for the sake of adventure. That sense of adventure never went away, but her experiences with Sahja, then later Gypsie and our cat Carl, may have dimmed her risk tolerance a little.
There is a scene towards the end of No Country for Old Men where Sheriff Bell is talking to Ellis about his doubts about the world. Sheriff Bell asks Ellis about revenge and Ellis says that there is no point to it, that "all the time you spend trying to get back what's been took from you, more is going out the door. After a while you have to try to get a tourniquet on it". If ever there was a line that could sum up her change after Sahja, that is it.
My afternoon walks may become late evening walks. I think that they will continue. They take me back to that first date, bringing me closer to her. Even when the dogs are being obnoxious I still feel better when I get home. Grief seems to take you many places. For her it took some of the explorers spirit away, replacing it with compassion and a sense of place. It is too soon to say where it will take me. All I can say is that it made her a better and more interesting person. I can only hope for the same.