By Piper Bayard
This weekend, I celebrated seventeen years with my husband, the sanest man on the planet. Some years have been hard years, but all of them have been good years. Houses, children, occasional vacations, and lots of mutual support. But, as Antonio Banderas says in one of my favorite movies, The 13th Warrior, “Things have not always been thus. . . .”
I lost my first husband 21 years ago to mental illness. A terrible limbo where everything was over, and nothing was over, and I was left to find what resolution I could on my own in the passage of time. This is the conversation I had with myself every morning for months at each waking. . . .
Me: “He’s gone.”
Time isn’t the only thing that warps in periods of extreme grief. Air, itself, thickens to the consistency of jello, and pain resonates through every fiber of creation. I struggled to breathe.
Myself: “Life is a lot of trouble. It’s not like there’s anyone left who’d miss you.”
Me: “Yes, but I didn’t survive cancer to off myself now.”
Myself: “Sounds like you’re chasing your money, and that’s never wise.”
Me: “True. So it’s an even split. . . . But who would feed the dog?”
That thought always tipped the scales, and since I had to get up to feed Bear, I went through the motions of living one more day. Eventually, the day came when it wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I opened my eyes, and, eventually, I once more had reason to get out of bed. Besides Bear, that is.
Bear was a chocolate lab/Australian shepherd cross who wouldn’t let another human within five feet of me unless she thoroughly vetted them through long exposure. The reason it had to be me who fed the dog. She was pretty picky about who she let into her pack, and most never made the cut. They would try to pet her against my advice, only to receive warning growls, and even snaps. They would try to buy her with steak, too. That was always fun to watch. She would take it and snarl twice as much, offended that they treated her like some cheap, two-bit lovehound. She was like a Fairytale Questing Beast that determined the pure of heart who could seek the chalice, and, being rather anti-social at that point, myself, I liked her that way.
Then, two years after my personal apocalypse, I began dating David. We met through mutual friends. I actually asked him out first, which is a good thing, since he is a shy engineer. (Think Zoe & Wash from Firefly.) I invited him to meet me at a museum with the idea that, if I didn’t like him, I would at least get to see the museum. You know. Multitasking. But things went well.
And then came the second date. . . .
David invited me to go cross-country skiing. I’d never been before so it sounded good. But did he take me to a nice ski area with groomed trails? Noooo. He took me to the top of Cameron Pass and kicked off up a trail through the forest, with almost no instruction in how to place my feet, or what to do with the pointy sticks.
What do you know? I fell. There I was, buried three feet in snow, my body downhill, with my feet still attached to skis up on the surface above me. Did he come back and help me up? Noooo. (I know now he didn’t want to insult me by assuming I couldn’t handle the situation on my own.) Once I finally struggled upright, I said, “You know, maybe we should stick to that snow packed road over there.”
So we went up the road. Going up wasn’t so bad. He gave me a few tips. Then we started back down. This was me. . . . Sliiiide, whap! Fight back to vertical. . . . Sliiiide, whap! Fight back to vertical. . . . You get the idea.
Then I made a mistake I have never made again with David. I asked for help in Girlspeak. “You know, I seem to be having a lot of trouble, and I don’t want to slow you down. You go on ahead if you want to.”
His response? “Ok. See you at the bottom.”
Yes, really. And yes, I married him. You’ll see why. Just bear with me. . . .
I was mad. Stuck up alone on that mountainside, falling every five feet, I made up my mind right then and there that I wanted no part of this jerk. In fact, I was going to introduce him to my dog, and I hoped she bit him.
I participated in polite, but minimal, conversation on the trip home, all the while savoring the moment I would subject him to the Brown Blast of Savagery. Finally, it came.
“I have class tomorrow so you can’t stay long, but would you like to come in for a minute?” Hehehehehe. Release the Kraken!
David was still in the living room when the Bear descended. As expected, she burst in, fangs a-blazing. “Grrroowwww!”
Then, she did something I never would have believed. She stopped short, sniffed David’s ankle, and ran to get her ball to play. It was like she was saying, “What the hell took you so long?” I decided this man was worth a closer look, and he definitely was.
Bear with her true love and her first puppy, 1996
Bear wrote David many love notes over the years, trying to get him to ditch me and run away with her, but David isn’t the ditching kind (except when skiing). So she tolerated my presence in their relationship. When we anxiously introduced her to our first child, she knew right away that our son was her puppy as surely as if he had fur. She welcomed our daughter the same way, and trained both of her puppies in proper pack lore and behavior. And she never once showed aggression toward the children, though she did go after the cat a few times when she was irritated with puppy play.
Bear grew old with us, shepherding her little pack, and always putting our interests above her own. By the time she was fourteen, she couldn’t see or hear very well, and her hips began randomly failing. Her mind started slipping, too, and she frightened easily, striking out at anyone around her. She became dangerous, and, sooner or later, she was going to hurt the children. Something she would never want to do. It was time to say goodbye to the dog who had saved my life and found me so much reason to live again.
Many people envision angels with wings. To some they are white or made of light. To me, they will always be brown, with four legs and fur. I am forever grateful for a dog who knew more about what I needed than I did. This anniversary, as with every other, we toasted to Bear.
Our last goodbye, February 24, 2001
What special pets have you had? How did they change you or your life?
All the best to all of you for a week of knowing something out there knows more than you do.