“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Friday, June 29, 2012

Part II: Day 63: Her Way

I remember when I was contemplating getting a dog I thought at first that I would find the right one by reading up on every breed and blend and then carefully picking the one best suited for my temperament and our lifestyle . . . in other words, when I was a completely different person, I thought there was a science to finding the right canine companion.

I did worry sometimes that I'd be too much of a pushover and that the dog would not learn his or her manners and people would dread coming to my house because there would be this spoiled monster ruling the roost, jumping on the table, snatching ham sandwiches right out of people's hands, humping their legs, then chewing up their Italian leather shoes, perhaps with their feet still in them, peeing on their leather handbags, leaving her mark on the Persian rug, with me just leaning back saying, "Isn't she the cutest?"

I got really lucky with Zoe.  It took me two weeks and two nights to train her to tell me, reliably, when she had to go.  She had arrived in our home in May to a glorious verdant late spring and she relished all that time we spent outdoors during housebreaking.  After that, the only accidents we ever had were when I failed to hear her, when I didn't listen to her message, and those incidents were rare.  The rest was, I see now, bizarrely easy too.  She had sit and stay and heel down in a nanosecond, and we were soon ready for the world.  She was never a chewer, she's never taken food from low tables, or gotten into things in the house that she shouldn't.  She didn't jump on people when they arrived, and although she barks when anyone drives up to the house, she makes them feel welcome once they show her the proper respect and let her know that they understand she's in charge of this residence.

But it became clear to me early on that Zoe would follow the commands I gave her only when the intellectual rigor of these games appealed to her.  When she got bored, or when there wasn't anything in it for her (treats) she would come when she felt like it.  We've rarely been in a situation where her being a haughty, independent, strong-willed dog has been a problem.  She has never been skunked.  She has only terrified me by running into the road to meet another dog maybe three times total in our nine-plus years.  And when she wants to go a certain way on a walk, I follow.  She is always good about heeling; I think she takes pride in it, now more than ever, especially since, as a tripod, it has been harder to go slow than to go fast.

The Monks of New Skete warned against letting the dog think you're its butler, and that notion has always made me smile.  I am not just Zoe's butler: I'm also her chef, nurse, workout buddy, traveling sidekick, health advocate, and now, increasingly, I hope, her confidante.  She is my muse, and that's a lot of pressure to put even on a working dog, but other than turning away rather disdainfully sometimes when I try to take yet another picture of her, she has borne her lot in life with me with good will.

So now we're trying to do things totally her way.  I am hearing Frank Sinatra in my head: you know the song.  She said no more chemotherapy drugs and we said, fine.  Before that she said no more hippie-dippie raw food diet with Chinese herbs mixed in, and we listened.  She wanted to see what regular dogs ate and we tried that for a month.  This Monday she said no more dog food, I want only what you're having, especially the lamb, and now we just cook up three serving of meat and vegetables and try to take Sheri's advice about going easy on carbs, and she licks her plate and asks for seconds.  I should have been tipped off last week at the lake house when Pam brought us moussaka and Zoe ate more of it than anyone.  I'm still learning.

hello there, you
Zoe eating with gusto fills my heart
I don't have a lot of time left to become a good listener, but I'm trying my best.  We still start our days on the balcony, and she takes pride in mounting those stairs, stopping to look at me en route for my praise.  It winds her, and she pants afterwards, but then she finds a cool spot on the wood and rests her head on the rail and she's there.  I sit with her, I post, and I even bring my meditation blankets out here and find a spot near her to do the honors.  A little into the morning I make her breakfast, preparing the food I think she wants, and she eats with gusto.  When the sun hits the balcony, Zoe wants to retreat to the shady spots of our yard.  She picks where to be, and I sit a few feet away with my laptop or a book, but mostly I just sit.  I pet her, then I give her space.  The novel I've been revising for the past five months will be there when I'm bereft and need a new purpose in my life.  So will the books I occasionally open and consider reading.  Instead, I watch the breeze stir up the flower pots and notice when a pink snapdragon opens.  I pay attention to birds.  A lot of robins are in our yard these days.  Now Zoe and I are watching Jeff do some sawing on our deck for the construction project.  He just put in a new window that brought more light into the mud room.  She won't be here when this job is done, but the fact that she's sitting a few yards from where the work is going on helps me believe she's still having her say in how the house shapes up, and that some proprietary part of her will still be sitting out here when the work is done.

When I went to the Potsdam Humane Society in May of 2003, thinking I was beginning a systematic search for finding the right dog, I didn't notice Zoe at first.  Most of her seven litter mates came up to the end of their cage to climb up and say hello, but Zoe stayed back resting with her head on her outstretched paws just as she is doing now as I write.  She was known as the shy dog in the pack.  The mellow one.  The philosopher.  I fell in love with her at first sight, but I also thought I had to rescue her because the people visiting would be wowed by the other cuddly, vivacious pups and would not give an aloof dog like her a second look.  I found out later that two other people asked to have her right after I put down my name, and if I hadn't walked into the pound on that very day, at that very minute, I would have missed the chance to be her person.

She was a little bit melancholy.  She had trouble trusting.  She didn't make eye contact easily.  And my oh my, when she did finally look directly into my eyes, I was a goner.  And still am.

I told myself I was channeling the Monks of New Skete by picking a shy dog.  I thought it would be easier for me to be the alpha pack leader with a retiring little pup who sat off to the side thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of life.  But actually, I learned, she was simply demonstrating her independence by separating herself from the crowd.  She's not a follower.  She is her own brand.

I love being her butler, chef, attendant, nurse, companion.  Today, when I brought Zoe out a bit of Poly-MVA (known to shrink tumors, but at the least, to boost energy and the immune system; as you can see, certain old habits die hard) with a smoked salmon chaser, my husband and I were just finishing lunch on the deck.  I said, in mock culinary speak, "The dog will start with smoked Wild Alaskan salmon in a light broth of Poly-MVA" and Kerry said, "The real question is this: is the broth frothed?"  No, but the dog was salivating when she saw it, along with the tastes of pâté and goat cheese I brought her on a plate as a midday snack.

So here's where we are.  We're at peace.  We're content right now, this dog and me.  My job is to just sit beside her and listen.  That's painful sometimes because her breathing is getting labored.  She has trouble getting a deep breath sometimes, like all our human friends with asthma, but then she's okay again for a while.  Watching her breathe and listening for when it gets too hard is my only job at the moment.  The prednisone is helping open up her lungs a little, and helping her find one last blast of energy and appetite to fortify her for the journey ahead, but it won't do its magic for long. 

Right now she is watching Jeff carry out a ladder to the side of the house and she's smiling.  "This is our house," she seems to be saying.  "We're glad you are here to be part of things."

And so we sit and watch the world go by and breathe together.  She's in charge.  She's always been a dog who did best when we did things her way, although sometimes I have forgotten and imposed a few elements into her regime that I thought would help her live longer and better.  But from the moment we met, I've been her person and serving her has given me more joy than anything I've ever done in my life.

She'll be in charge of when she leaves this house and goes out into the universe.  Until then I'll keep sitting beside her watching and trying to learn all I can to do right by her.


  1. Puppy, Love.
    not the same as Eat, Pray, Love, or puppy-love.
    Friend, Love.

  2. When my vet told me to stop feeding Bird grains, that's when I began cooking for her. I cooked chicken thighs, baked yams, boiled greens. I added raw eggs and olive oil. Her favorite was a can of sardines. It seemed that cooking for her was less expensive than the really expensive fancy grain-free dog food. She loved her food and I loved being her chef.

  3. I love cooking for her too. She likes all the things you listed above, and it's really fun to see her eyes light up when I put the bowl down. Tonight she's getting a steak, some greens, and watermelon for dessert, which she has always loved.

  4. "...we don't really need someone to tell us what is best for our horse, because if we really listen hard enough, the horse will tell us anyway. The key is learning how to listen." from the introduction of Mark Rashid, Whole Heart, Whole Horse: Building Trust Between Horse and Rider (Skyhorse publishing, 2009).

    It's clear from the pictures and stories that Zoe is not worried about the future and is in the here and now, and loving her life, thanks in large part to her people. She's an inspiration. I'm thinking of you and sending lots of love over.

  5. Dear Anne, Thank you so much for these kind words and for that great quote from Mark Rashid. You are a dear. xxx