My Dog Provides The Love I’ve Always Been Searching For
By Laura Bogart
I’m at work when my dog-walker calls, and she never calls unless something is very wrong. Every day, my phone pings with texts and photos from her walks with my 13-year-old German Shepherd, Tova — Tova preening in a sunhat; Tova sniffing the basil plants on a neighbor’s porch; Tova bent over a dixie cup of special doggy ice cream, her ears pinned back, snout down in rapturous intent — but this voicemail is stark with fear. I dash home to find my dog’s proud, muscular body hunched into a question mark, clenched with pain as sickness comes out of both ends. An uncanny adrenaline lets me pick her up and hoist her into my car for a blitzkrieg drive through red lights to the vet; I tell myself, with a prayerful repetition and intensity, that she’s just sick from the early August swelter, that the blanket-thick humidity has gotten the better of her.
I cradle her face in my hand as the vet runs his gloved hands over her back and belly. When he pushes a thermometer into her rear end, I coo to her that she is my sweetheart, my honeybunch, my love. The vet tells me that this is a flare-up of the Irritable Bowel Disease that has plagued Tova since I adopted her eight years ago. However, given her age, he’s concerned that its severity could indicate something stronger, more sinister. So I sit in the tiny exam room, alone, holding a slack leash, listening to the chatter on the other side of the door: staff members speaking that everyday language of adulthood, with mentions of husbands who need to put in for vacation time and children who have come to love camp. Yet, to me, it is a foreign language. My primary companion — the one who sits with me when I make my coffee every morning; who grieves me when I leave and greets me again with a full-body wriggle; and who snoozes by the sofa as I spend nights writing — is in the back room.
When the vet emerges again, his face is pursed with concern. He points to one of the organs that glow ghostly-blue against the blackness of the X-Ray and tells me that this is Tova’s liver, and that it is “massively enlarged.” He can give her a shot now to quell her flare-up, but she needs bloodwork done, and, in the “very near future,” an ultrasound to help determine if her liver has been thickened with cancer. My pulse drums between my temples. The only thing that calms me is Tova’s weight as she sits on my feet. So I rub my knuckles between her ears, her favorite kind of touch. If anything happens to her — if this really is that great, unfathomable it — then I am going to be alone.
I didn’t intend to become a pack of two, to spend my nights in the companionable silence of a sweet beast who will, in the natural order of things, die decades before I do. Louie C.K. jokes that opening your home to a dog is “a countdown to sorrow.” The type of sorrow I anticipate whenever Tova dies is two-fold. I will miss the wake-up call of a cold nose in the center of my forehead; the weight of her body as she leans against me; her soft and steady presence in the room, assuring me that I am not alone. And I will miss my identity as her guardian, being part of a true twosome — friends and neighbors know us as Tova and Laura, and often, we become Tova-and-Laura, attaining that kind of vocal fusion usually reserved for the most established couples — because, without it, I am simply Laura. I will be 34 years old, waking up in an empty studio apartment. Tova’s health, her comical infatuation with my friends’ blind pug, and her rivalry with the fox stalking the neighborhood let me answer that old chestnut of a catch-up question, “What’s new?” with something other than “work” or, worse, “nothing.”
I spend the days waiting for the results of Tova’s bloodwork and the verdict about enzyme levels that could indicate liver cancer in a constant state of steeling myself. When I think of her decline, of her dying, a wave of pain oscillates through my body, knocks my bones askew. I remember the last time I felt such a bone-rocking loneliness, back in my twenties, back when I was so desperate to answer “What’s new?” with a name and a wink. Those particular countdowns to sorrow would start whenever a man bought me that first drink or cracked the joke that coaxed my first laugh of the night.
My love life has been like hiccups — staccato bursts of uncomfortable intensity disrupting prolonged silences — but, as a younger woman, I still ultimately imagined life with a partner (even if I have always known that I have never wanted children). But these imaginings took on the loose, inchoate quality of dreams dimly remembered on the ride into work: a series of intense visuals ungoverned by logic. I had a sense of what I wanted — sweetness and devotion and above all, loyalty — even if I was never bold enough to insist on it from the men who bundled me into taxi cabs at 2 a.m., or who really liked me, “as like, a person, but you know, not, like, as anything more.” I was 23 years old, then 24 and 25, and the exhilaration of experience was thinning out into a dry, brittle feeling; I spent hours on the D.C. metro with my head sagged against the window just so I could feel the glass thrumming against my temples as Colin Melloy sang, “and if you don’t love me, let me go,” into my earbuds.
The only template I had for a dignified single life was a neighbor from childhood, a fortysomething schoolteacher who lived across the street with her two Golden Retrievers — in a house she owned, on her own. She was beholden to no one, and yet, she wasn’t alone. I used to linger outside of that house back when my bicycle had colored streamers, waiting for a glimpse of her sitting on a patio adorned with wicker furniture that had flower-patterned seat cushions; she’d laugh and throw tennis balls to “the girls,” who’d trot the length of the fence in their temporary victories. The blonde elegance of those dogs reflected something about this woman, who seemed so self-contained, so unlike my mother, who didn’t have the freedom to take long walks because she was dancing among the landmines of my father’s moods. I would watch my neighbor and “the girls” start off on those walks; the dogs’ bodies found an easy alignment with hers, and they moved together with a singular fluidity, the kind of comfort that should define a family. The love between my parents was a downed powerline, hissing and writhing and shooting sparks. But here, in this woman calmly lowering her hands to rub behind a floppy ear or receive a gentle lick, was a different kind of love — one that was returned with purity and simplicity. This love didn’t trap or abandon; it didn’t need excuses for a flare of temper or the smell of another woman’s perfume.
My neighbor would notice me noticing her, and sometimes, she’d invite me into her yard. Her dogs were been bigger than I was at the time, and they bounded up to me with such excitement. I didn’t think anyone could be so happy to see me. They were gentle in their slobbering exuberance, steadied by my neighbor’s calm commands; they didn’t jump or hurt me, but coated my cheeks with their happy tongues. Up close, I could see my neighbor’s tanned, unlined face, and I sensed that the brightness in her eyes might have to do with the coffee mug and newspaper open on her patio table, and the yard strewn with fraying tennis balls. And yet, whenever I’d come home, my mother would shake her head. “It’s so sad,” she’d say, “that, at her age, she’s still alone.” My mother’s condescending pity for the sad spinster was affirmed, of course, by everything I’d see in culture and media — from the Cathy cartoons in the paper to the sterling families on TV, the women swooning on movie posters and crooning about wanting to be loved against synth-pop beats — and, soon enough, by my own adolescent inquisitiveness.
By the time she moved away, my neighbor ceased to be the object of my fascination, replaced by James Dean and all of the boys in my high school who wanted to be James Dean. And all of the boys who wanted to be James Dean, skipping class and sneaking sips from flasks in homeroom, became the men who fell off barstools, who cooed excuses through immaculate half-smiles, and who never — no matter how much weight I lost and gained, no matter how many awards I won, and no matter how profoundly I privileged their wishes over my own — loved me, not really. Maybe that image of my former neighbor patting her hips and whistling for her girls prompted me to the shelter just after my 26th birthday, where I would find my own girl, big-eyed and skinny, with her tender, inquisitive snout and nipples the size of small dishes. At 5 years old, she’d known the harder side of life, yet she still kissed my hands with vigor. She was a breeder at a puppy mill turned out into the streets, a stray whose name meant (approximately) “good girl.”
Together, we built a life from endless repetitions of “sit, stay, come, good”; from my coaching her into a calmer, more confident dog (and me into a calmer, more confident guardian); from taking our dinners together in front of the TV, with me armchair quarterbacking political candidates and sitcom characters alike, and her harrumphing from her dog bed; and from taking those long walks where we fell into that easy stride, her head at my hip.
This life was steeped in silence, but that silence was hardly a void — away from the din of bars and the thick whispers of temporary adoration, I became acquainted with myself. I learned that I don’t actually love red wine all that much, but I do like the right side of the bed; that I would not yell at her, the way my father would yell at me, when she had an accident; that when my mind is not spent scratching that insatiable itch of “he loves me, he loves me not,” I had it in me to write essays, stories, a full novel. And when, years later, I finished that novel, and sank to the floor, crying onto a carpet coated with unvacuumed tufts of dog fur, Tova sniffed the back of my head and licked my hands. I learned what I am capable of when the love I have to give — however that love may manifest — is returned.
This is how I try to soothe myself while, after Tova’s doctor visit, I check and re-check my phone for the message, the “we’ve got good news” or the “are you sitting down?”
Then the call comes.
We’ve got good news: The enzyme levels don’t indicate cancer. A week later, the final ultrasound confirms that Tova’s liver is not actually enlarged; it’s her spleen, and it’s simply enlarged with old age. Tova returns to her usual saucy self — only in the new spate of photos, she wears a baseball cap. She sits on my porch, stalking squirrels and watching for the fox. She lays near my bedside, snoring deeply as I read. This is good news, the best news, but I am fully aware that it is only a reprieve. Someday, I will get another phone call, which will start the countdown to sorrow, the lift-off to a lifetime of mourning.
I know that I can offer, and embrace, a love without qualification or reserve. And maybe, someday, I’d want to share that love with someone who proved to be as loyal, and as worthy, as my good girl, my sweetheart, my honeybunch. And maybe that someone wouldn’t be a partner, but another dog; maybe I’ll be 40 and playing in the yard. And maybe I’ll be okay with that. More than okay.
All images of Tova courtesy of author