My dog, Daisy, is getting on in years. She’s about eleven, with white around her muzzle, a semi-healed, torn-ACL-gimpy knee, and copious, very-nearly-enormous fatty tumors under her arms and on her belly and spine that seem to grow with each passing day. Even though she’s a mutt and a rescue, she hasn’t been the heartiest of health, mostly prone to broken nails and ear infections. But she’s been strong; after all, she’s an athlete, a tennis-ball chasing, Frisbee-girl. Tall, long, black, with curly “flow” around her neck that any lax-bro would envy. So long in frame, she has to beep when she backs up. Well-loved, she’s taken on the “youngest child” role in our family, insisting on being the center of attention, demanding playtime, providing comic relief. When my sons and I homeschooled together, Daisy was an essential part of the experience. She joined us on our daily walks, field work, and explorations through meadow, wetland, and forest, enjoyed our family read alouds, and took on the starring role in an integrated Dog/Early Man/Evolution Project that had the boys taking her measurements and pictures. She performed quite ably as a woolly mammoth in a video they made.
Daisy takes up a lot of space in the family. And I mean that in the best way possible.
This past summer, during a particularly hot and humid spell that lasted about two weeks, she suddenly couldn’t get to her feet on her own, and when she did, with help, she very nearly fell back over again, before slowly making her way like a drunken soldier across the floor, or grass, to bob and weave and stumble. She kept getting herself stuck in all sorts of strange places: behind the toilet, behind a bench, under the house. Bizarre. She wasn’t eating much. Clearly, something was terribly wrong. Even the cat was concerned, staying with her in the cool basement and washing her face with sandpaper kisses. The vet thought it was something neurological, gave her a bunch of meds, and sent her back home. I think she expected to get a call from us within the week letting her know that we had decided to put her down. Boom-pow. An unimaginable sadness took hold, but also a determination to make her better.
At the time, our household was heaving and sighing with a crush of impending transitions: my older son was heading off to college for the first time, far, far away from home, and my husband and I were separating and starting the process of extricating ourselves out of a 23-year marriage. Not only that, but he was moving to California at the same time my son was to head to Minnesota for college.The stress was numbing. My younger son would stay with me, and our furry girls, Daisy, and our 12-year old cat Mischief. We would figure it out, but my heart was breaking.
I knew that if anything happened to Daisy, my younger son, especially, might not be able to withstand the gale winds of change blowing about him. So, I had a chat with Daisy. It’s not time, I told her. We need you.
Somehow, I think, she heard me, and bit by bit, she started to regain her strength. Over the course of several weeks, of focused attention and care, she started to come back to us. We might never know what had been going on, or where she’d been. A stroke? Her anaplasmosis (tick-borne illness) making life miserable for her? A tumor pushing on a nerve? A sudden, systemic reaction to the family upheaval? Whatever the case, she slowly grew strong enough to the point where I could think about taking her to work with me. I didn’t want her to spend too many hours alone at home. She still had trouble getting up, after all, which meant she might just chose not to, and grow dehydrated and stiff. I knew that for her to make a complete recovery, I needed to be able to keep an eye on her.
The first day I took her to Oak Meadow, she rode up on the loading dock elevator, the loud banging and sudden stops making her shake. I had to reassure her, “It’s okay, Daisy.” Once she found the courage to step over the slight gap in the floor (you know how dogs are) and onto the old wooden floor of the Cotton Mill, she relaxed, and slowly made her way down the hallway and around the corner. Those first few days, I had to give her lots of direction and encouragement. “You can do it.” “This way.” She was still not herself, and tended to get easily confused, but was excited to be in the Cotton Mill, and when she first entered our office space and saw that there were people there, she had a hard time containing her delight. Tail wagging, a little hop and skip in her step, she made her way around the office, greeting everyone and wondering who might have the treats.
Daisy still comes with me most days to work at Oak Meadow. She looks forward to the ride in the car, the company, the stimulation of something new, and our lunchtime walks through the cemetery behind the bread factory. She takes the stairs now, but still needs encouragement. “Way to go, Daisy. You did it.” Once she hits the second floor, she winds down the hallway, and door open, rushes into the office, eager to say hello to everyone. After all, she’s made friends with my office-mates, who have been wonderfully gracious in welcoming her into our space. And she has her favorite spots to hang out: Biz’s rug, where she can settle in and listen to Biz call her Sugarbear throughout the day; the kitchen table, where she knows people will eventually gather and offer a hello, a dropped bit of sandwich, thank you; and anywhere that Deb happens to be, for gifts of tennis balls or ear-rubbing sessions. Daisy is so much better for it–happier, healthier, younger. And I would like to that think we all are, too.
Dogs–and children–have long been welcomed into the Oak Meadow offices, after all. We bring our kids into the space when we need to, to play or rest in the space that’s been designated and outfitted for just such a thing, to skip and fly airplanes and ride skateboards in the wide, wooden hallways just outside our doors, to eat their snacks at the kitchen table, to bring a sweetness into the space that helps remind us all of our students and families scattered far and wide. Dogs, too: to slurp from their water bowls, greet visitors, crash on the rug. Our Executive Director brought her dog, Mabel, in when she was just a tiny, rambunctious puppy, providing some fun comedy and sweet affection. Our Marketing Director had a crate by her desk for her puppy, Ellie. It’s great to be able to take puppy breaks. The office has often been aflush with the soft, warm presence of a dog, Cabota, Nina, Eddie, Jessie, Benny, Django, Daisy…
I’m not sure what I would have done over these past few months if I hadn’t been able to bring Daisy with me. I am certain she would not have rebounded so completely. Her time at Oak Meadow has filled the space that my older son and husband created when they left. I can tell it has warmed her heart, and offered her reassurance that everything will be okay. She’s part of something again. Not left behind, but included. Part of the gang. Dogs need that. We all need that. Her vibrant outlook has, in turn, given us great comfort at home, emboldening us to greet each and every day with an open heart.
She’s chasing Frisbees and tennis balls again with her old sense of joy and gusto. She has a pep in her step that I haven’t seen in years. She eats heartily. But, I can tell that she’s having more difficulty as her tumors grow, and she limps a little, still needs a lift to get into the car. I have no idea how many more years, or months, or weeks, or days we have together, but I am grateful beyond words to still have her in my life–for me, and for my boys. Maybe one day I will be forced to make that horrible decision, and let her go, spreading her ashes in our woods and gardens so that she may become a part of us, to cycle through, again, or turn her memory into a plush toy for some physical comfort, to fill the widening, hollow space she’ll leave behind.
But for now, to be able to take care of family–and she is family–is an essential piece of the balance of work and kids and home. I feel a deep appreciation to my colleagues at Oak Meadow for their willingness to make space for Daisy in our office space and rhythms. We’re both happy that she’s now part of the pack. And my son and I have been able to take comfort from her warm presence in our home, and transition through a bumpy fall with much more ease because of it. Thank you.
Your Turn: Do you have a dog? How does your dog (or other animals) provide comfort and joy in your family?