Excerpt from All Dogs Go to Kevin by Dr. Jessica Vogelsang
“Veterinarian Vogelsang pays tribute to the dogs that have played important roles in her life and professional practice . . . She writes movingly . . . A feel-good, bittersweet memoir.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“In a manner reminiscent of author/veterinarian James Herriot, Vogelsang shares stories of her canine patients and their human families with kindness and compassion…Vogelsang’s experiences as a veterinarian, dog owner, mother, wife, and friend will resonate with readers, encouraging them to join her on a journey caring for others’ pets-and to appreciate the unconditional love dogs shower on their human companions.”
— Publisher’s Weekly
“ALL DOGS GO TO KEVIN is a delightful, funny and heartwarming tale (tail?) of the many dogs that have come through author Jessica Vogelsang’s life. It also has the added bonus that Vogelsang is a vet- so she knows stuff! I laughed and recognized myself and thought of the many, many dog people I will gift this book to. ALL DOGS GO TO KEVIN is a real treat (and not the slimy kind that your dog brings into your bed).”
— Julie Klam, New York Times-bestselling author of You Had Me at Woof
Dog the Second: EMMETT
The first emotion that went through my head when my daughter Zoe was born was sheer, utter elation. That lasted about two seconds, to be replaced by a gnawing terror telling me I had no idea what I was doing but was now in charge of a completely helpless human. I quickly discovered they were nothing like puppies.
I had done as much as I could in the previous ten months to prepare, reading all the parenting books, accumulating mountains of diapers and creams and little blankets in myriad sizes and colors, certain that this pile of stuff would some‑ how insulate me from the fact that I was driving this boat blind. My parenting class, which I entered thinking it would somehow bestow upon me the Mysteries of the Universe, only served to make me more paranoid that my child would suffocate in my bed, die of smoke inhalation (despite the fact that none of us smoke), or worst of all, shrivel up into a tiny, withered, illness‑prone prune if I failed to breast‑feed for a minimum of one year.
“Your baby is very jaundiced,” said the nurse crisply on day two of my daughter’s life. “Is she drinking enough?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. Nursing was not going as intuitively as I had hoped. She watched me skeptically as I tried to get my daughter to latch on. A few minutes later, the nurse popped a bottle into her mouth and I watched my daughter relax as she actually got something to eat. “Your body,” she told me, “doesn’t want to cooperate. I’ll get you some formula samples.”
I was already a failure at day two. In desperation, I called in a lactation consultant, who prodded at my chest and hrmmmed alarmingly while she tried to determine how to coax my body into a state of production. By the time we were discharged, I had a rented medical‑grade pump complete with a depressingly utilitarian‑looking pair of suction cones, a diary in which I was to inscribe every in and out, and an every‑other‑hour round‑the‑clock pumping schedule under which I was trans‑ formed into a dairy heifer. And since it had become clear that Zoe’s liver would need a little help catching up with the bilirubin accumulated in her blood, I was discharged with a fiber optic biliblanket and strict instructions to keep her wrapped up in it for twenty‑three hours a day.
Somewhere in the midst of all of this I also had to actually attend to the baby.
Once we came home, our Golden Retriever Emmett was confounded at the transformation. For the first two weeks, I didn’t leave the bedroom. In one corner of the room, Zoe was snuggled in her bassinet, wrapped in the soft blue light of the biliblanket, looking like a Glow Worm. In the other corner, I sat in a rocking chair with my diary and a bunch of plastic bags, listening to the mechanical whirring of the breast pump when all I wanted to hear was my baby breathing in and out. I slept in ten‑minute increments while Emmett kept my feet warm.
Eventually I was able to get my daughter to nurse, but had I been a dairy cow, I would have been sent off to the hamburger plant long ago. In the meantime, Zoe had developed colic. If she was not nursing or bundled up in her swing under the heavy influence of a nuclear swaddle, she was crying. A lot. Nonstop.
As was I. To hear other women tell it, parenthood is the culmination of all that being a human was about. Joy. Exultation. Pride. I had none of this. I had a mechanical torture device sucking my chest inside out, a stomach like a deflated basketball, and a baby who, I was convinced, hated me. I hated me too. “She’s so beautiful,” visitors would coo. “You must be so happy.” What else could I do but agree? I had a beautiful, healthy daughter and I was also miserable. It made no sense. Unnoticed by everyone, sliding in through a window or under a cracked door, an uninvited guest had just let itself in.
For the first two weeks at home, I’d had help as both my husband and my mother stayed with me, but when Mom went back home and Brian went back to work, I felt my throat constrict with panic as the reality set in that now I was really on my own. Don’t go! I shouted in my head, but all that came out was “Have a good day.”
It would be another year before Brooke Shields published her memoir about postpartum depression and shed a much‑needed spotlight on the turmoil it creates. I was vaguely aware that such a thing existed for some people, but completely oblivious to the fact that it was already rooted in my own brain, wrapping it in a gray fog punctuated by shrapnel shards of anxiety.
My idyllic visions of sunny strolls every morning and afternoon followed by some baby yoga quickly evaporated under a crushing sense of paralysis. The energy required to simply roll out of bed and tend to my daughter was by itself enough to consume my day. I felt guilty about this too, thinking that every other decent woman on the planet could pull it together to at least go for a walk.
Instead of bringing me rushing to the rescue with a cheerful demeanor and a clean stack of wipes, Zoe’s cries drilled into my head like a hammer. Why do I dread my baby waking up so much? I wondered.
“Because you suck,” depression replied. “You probably should have stuck to dogs. Too late now, though — you have a baby and you’re going to be awful at raising her.”
These conversations played out in my head around the clock, snuffing out any capacity for enjoying the wonder of a new baby. Over the next month, it just got worse.
Depression, as so many who have suffered from it will tell you, messes with the rational portion of your brain that questions unreasonable lines of thought. The red flags are gone. There is nothing in your brain that says, Hey, maybe it’s not normal to casually wonder if getting hit by a Greyhound bus would be super painful, or just quick and painless. Nothing to pat you on the back and say, You are actually not the vilest human to crawl out of the muck. So you stew in it, full of despair and self‑loathing, acutely distressed that this child was cursed to have a creature as unworthy as yourself for a parent and unable to remember what happiness feels like: a silent asphyxiation of the spirit. There is no forgiveness in there. Over time, you regress to a detached state of numbness, because feeling nothing is better than feeling everything. My brain, the only thing I always felt I could rely on, was failing me.
Life’s circumstances have nothing to do with postpartum depression; it happens to people from all walks of life and circumstances. I had everything I needed: a healthy child and a loving family. Unfortunately, my awareness of my luck and the feeling that I had no justification for being depressed led me to conclude I was a horrible whiny sort of person whom no one could ever sympathize with, and that guilt made me even more depressed and ashamed of myself. It’s a long slow spiral of shame, throwing a pall over what I’d hoped would be a glorious time of bonding, and I couldn’t imagine sharing that thought with anyone.
I can reason my way out of this, I thought. I just have to keep reminding myself how good I have it. My grandparents survived the Holocaust, surely I can make it through a fussy baby. Most people accepted me at face value when I said “Everything’s fine,” because that’s what people are conditioned to do. “Every new parent feels tired,” said my family and friends the few times I mentioned feeling exhausted. “It’ll get better.” I would smile and nod, and as soon as they left I would slump back onto the couch and stare listlessly at the ceiling. The message: Don’t complain.
Humans are fairly awful at picking up on the emotional distress radiating from their fellow humans, or at least we are conditioned to politely ignore it. Dogs, on the other hand, figure it out pretty quickly. Emmett had a habit, as do many Goldens, of being somewhat pushy when it came to getting attention. If he was looking at you waiting to be petted and you did not comply, he’d lean into you, which given his eighty‑pound frame was impossible to ignore. If you still didn’t pet him, he would physically lift your hand with his muzzle, tip his head back so your hand fell onto the top of it, and wait expectantly, his eyebrows working up and down, up and down. How you doin’, they seemed to say.
Usually, this made me laugh and turn my attention to him. But lately, all I could give him was a halfhearted pat on the head, if anything at all. He’d stare at my hand as it slid back onto the couch, and try again. “Stop,” I told him over and over, wiping slobber off my hand, and eventually, he did.
Many new moms are familiar with the nursing pillow, a U‑shaped bolster that sits around your waist and gives the baby a place to rest while nursing. I had become fond of the My Brest Friend, a rigid Styrofoam version that had a little strap that would belt it to your waist so you could wear it around without having to hold on. I could stuff the pockets with binkies, a dog treat or two, the TV remote, and leave it on all day.
Constant motion was the only thing that kept Zoe from crying in her colicky phase, so around and around we’d go in laps around the house, baby in arms, Brest Friend strapped on like a flannel life preserver, and trailing behind, Emmett, trying to understand what was going on. For a time, that was his main source of exercise.
Emmett had his own anxiety to work through after the baby arrived. For the last two years he had been the big cheese of the household, the one doted upon, attended to by dog walkers, and given a daily massage. The change was abrupt. These days my main goal for him was remembering to feed him. That was also my main goal for myself.
I knew once life evened out I would have more time for Emmett, but he didn’t know that, and he began to exhibit behaviors I had never seen from him before. The box the stroller came in, suddenly spattered with dog urine by a dog who had never once had a housebreaking incident. The leg of the changing table, chewed up by a mouth long past the teething phase. And the little teal pacifiers we wielded like anti‑fuss talismans? If one of them ever fell onto the floor, Emmett would pounce upon it like a shark on a fat seal, taking out all his aggression on the blameless binky. Three chomps, and it was dead. For months I found little bits of blue rubber under the couch, wedged in corners.
He was never punished for this; one, because I was too tired to care, and two, because I knew why he was doing it. I also knew that he would make a play for any dirty diapers, given the chance.
Victims of the unending onslaught of products marketed to new parents, Brian and I had bought into the idea that a simple trash can would never suffice for used Pampers and that we must instead purchase a demonic plastic device called a Nappy Nanny. It was supposed to effortlessly whisk diapers away to a magical stink‑free land never to be seen or smelled again, but all it really did was stuff them like a stinky haggis into the receptacle, resulting in a long, slithering sausage you had to then wrestle out of the bin and transfer to the trash can. I’m not sure what about this was supposed to make my life easier, as it was by orders of magnitude more complicated than, for example, just throwing the diaper in the trash can.
The process of emptying the Nappy Nanny was not unlike performing a minor intestinal surgery: You had to undo the front hatch and excise the offending bits with a razor before putting the whole thing back together. As time consuming as it was I tried to limit the process to once a day or so. One typical morning when I put Zoe down for a nap, I collapsed on the couch to try and catch some Z’s myself while I could, vaguely aware that Emmett had plopped down next to me. I fell asleep with my hand on his chest, comforted by his body heat.
The sound that woke me up was not the baby crying, but rather the rhythmic gurgling of someone about to vomit. Bluurp, bluurp, bluurp. In my half‑awake state I wondered if my husband had come home and was plunging the toilet next to my head, but then I realized what I was hearing and snapped my eyes open. There was Emmett, still on the couch next to me, hunched over, stomach heaving.
“Get down!” I yelled, and he only had time to turn his face to the side before going full Exorcist all over the sofa.
I could only stare. My leather couch was now covered in what appeared to be chocolate pudding, sliding down the back to pool into the cracks between the seat cushions. And then the stench hit me.
I’d been a veterinarian for a couple of years by that point. Between work, vet school rotations through the pathology lab, and my time at the coroner’s office, I’d seen some bad things. Smelled some bad things. Rotting things, things pulled from rivers, things with weird gas producing gangrenous diseases. This topped them all.
So heavy and onerous was the smell that it took a minute to reach me, a gooey mass of invisible stink rolling slowly across the leather to invade my nostrils. Fans of the 1986 Jim Henson movie Labyrinth will remember the expression on the characters’ faces when they are upended into the Bog of Eternal Stench, the wail of pain that comes with a direct assault on the olfactory nerves. I had always wondered what that place might smell like, and now I knew. I recognized the stench immediately: vomit and dirty diaper, somehow combining and amplifying the yuck factor.
I spun around to take in the sight of a disemboweled Nanny. In my two‑second crime scene investigation I realized that I hadn’t closed the latch all the way, leaving just enough space for someone to nose the door open and feast on the cornucopia within while I was passed out. Scattered casings of plastic lay strewn on the floor, all that remained of the contents of the Nappy Nanny. The rest of it, of course, had found its way to the couch.
As Zoe swung back and forth in her little electronic Fisher‑Price aquarium swing like a pendulum, the minutes stretched into hours while I tried to decontaminate the furniture. And there it was, my experience of early motherhood in a nutshell. What was supposed to be the ultimate experience of womanhood, Zen‑level fulfillment, amounted to three hours of scrubbing half‑digested poop out of the upholstery while Barney sang in the background about kindness and love, a nasally finger‑wagging dinosaur reminding me that above all, remain cheerful.
As if on cue, that purple beast launched into a peppy rendition of “Clean Up,” and that was it. I felt my last tenuous grip on sanity snap deep in my viscera. The floodgates were open, the net holding my head together evaporated, and down I fell.
I passed the afternoon in a haze. I don’t remember what I said to Emmett but I’m sure it wasn’t very nice. He spent the entirety of the afternoon in the corner, watching me nervously. Sob, scrub, sob, scrub. My husband texted me: How’s it going? I replied: Dandy. If he had called instead and heard my voice, he would have gotten in the car immediately and come home, but with no hint that I was off a ledge, he simply told me he was working late.
And just like that, the demon from my dreams caught me. It reminded me that this entire hellish afternoon was my fault, and even if it weren’t, a good mother would have been fine with it and gotten on with life, not taking breaks every five minutes to feel sorry for herself and cry some more; the kind of deep, body‑shaking cries that leave you feeling like your sternum has split in two and your heart melted out of your chest. The abscess of guilt that had been festering for weeks finally ruptured, oozing guilt and anger and awfulness and confusion about where it all was coming from but certain of one thing: Wherever it originated, it was the result of my own inadequacy.
Recently Emmett had started avoiding me when I was upset, giving me time to clear my head before he approached. But this time, my distress went on and on. I was out of commission for the afternoon, my mind gone to some other place I can’t even recall, wandering on autopilot with the baby in a Björn sling, powered by an endless stream of crying jags. It was during this later period that Emmett appeared at my side, following me from room to room, regarding me. I couldn’t quite check out entirely as he would be there, nudging me back to awareness each time I paused for too long.
After a brief pause to eat, Zoe had gone back into her swing for a bit. I collapsed on the floor with my head on my knees, beyond crying at this point, blank, quiet. Then there he was, square in front of me, Emmett nose‑to‑nose with me.
“What?” I snapped. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
There, in his unblinking eyes, I saw the question reflected right back at me.
I saw it before it could hide behind its customary wall of rationalization, the shadow behind me. I was not OK. This was beyond something I could overcome with smarts or strength or determination. This was not me.
“Oh my God,” I whispered to myself, taking a breath and trying to focus through the fog in my head. “This is depression, isn’t it?” I paused, suddenly certain that it was. For one brief, hopeful moment I thought that simply recognizing it for what it was might be enough, but I knew in my heart that acknowledgment was just the first step down a long road. Still, at least there was a road I could follow, instead of just sitting there with my head in my hands.
It was and is still extremely hard to stand up straight and admit there’s a problem here you just can’t fix, but I’m really glad I did. As much as I wanted to just sink back into the couch cushions and forget this whole day, week, month, I had to do something — beginning with swallowing my pride and my ego, which clearly hadn’t been doing the trick on their own.
“I think I need to go to the doctor,” I said to Brian later that evening.
“Everything OK?” he asked.
“Yes, fine,” I said, not wanting him to worry. He started to turn back to the computer before I finally worked up the nerve to say out loud, “Well, actually, not really.”
The next day, I called my doctor — not the OB with the horrible bedside manner, I switched to someone much better now — and said, “I need help.” She booked me an appointment for that afternoon. I slouched in with my ratty hair and droopy sweats and the first wrinkly T‑shirt I could dig out of the pile of clean laundry, hoping to remain anonymous behind my sunglasses. I hope none of my clients are here, I thought as I scanned the room. All clear.
As I waited in the exam room, sitting on the exam table listening to the paper crackle underneath me, my relief at being at the doctor’s office was replaced by panic at the idea that she might not believe me, or worse yet, tell me there was nothing she could do until I actually planned to hurt someone. You got this, I said to myself. Explain to her, doctor to doctor, that you think this is more than just a little baby blues.
Dr. Whitman knocked on the door and poked her head in. “Hi,” she said.
I burst into tears.
And she smiled, not a condescending smirk or a placating grin, but the sad yet relieved expression of someone who knows exactly what she is looking at. As she talked, I began to feel for the first time as though things might actually get better.
Dr. Whitman immediately pish‑poshed my wondering if this was due to not eating enough vitamin C or lack of exercise or any of those other self‑fixes I’d read about over the Internet. “Diabetics will benefit from a good diet,” she said, “but they still need insulin, don’t they? This is the same thing. You need medication.” She paused and looked me in the eye. “I am so glad you came in.”
Salvation came in a bottle, delivered to me by a Golden Retriever. You can fool yourself, you can fool your friends and family, but you can’t fool a dog who knows only what he sees. And thank goodness for that.