My friend Marcia Carter once said to a group gathered around her at a cocktail party--I hope when I die that I come back as one of Marsha's pets."
There was laughter. I laughed. Yet, this seemingly throwaway remark went to the deepest core of who I was, who I am, and why.
I'd gone into analysis--five days a week on the couch honest to god psychoanalysis--shortly after the premature and unexpected death of my father, who had died at sixty-five.
I spent my inheritance from my father on psychoanalysis, a long process that I always try to explain as having all your mental bones broken and put back together. It saved my life. Of that I'm certain.
During our sessions, my analyst and I dwelled for hours on end about my relationships to dogs. One day he told me that people treat their pets, particularly their dogs, the way they wish they had been treated as children.
Unconsciously one takes on the role of both the parent and the child in the relationship with the pet.
The first dog I chose--a real commitment, this decision to adopt--was an Airedale.. I
named her Rosie. (Dr. C explained that actually I was Rosie, and Rosie was the child, was Marsha as a child.
I purchased her from what I learned was a puppy mill, though when I drove an hour outside Houston to pick her up, I'd never even heard the term "puppy mill."
As I drove into this dog compound, I saw one Airedale leaping up and down, up and down in a fenced in area. Alone, leaping. Later I'd learn about animal psychosis, the pacing of the polar bear in the Munich zoo, the listless and sad gorillas, pacing just as I imagined POWs do/did in small enclosed spaces, boredom eating away at sanity.
I chose Rosie, the puppy some man brought out from a dark stable where it turnrf out she had been kept in the dark for the first four months of her life, a life that was almost about to be terminated because she had an overbite.
Poor Rose. That was the least of her health problems, but the teeth were what were gonna get her killed--they couldn't "show" her in competitions with teeth like that. It also turned out that she was allergic to dairy, which is in all puppy food. It took awhile for the vet to figure out her digestive problem and in the meantime--and then for the rest of our time together, I spent a lot of time cleaning up after her. (I'm sorry to gross you all out--but one awful early episode took place while she was up on the twin bed in the guest room, a room I'd just had wallpapered. That night--as well as many nights to come-- she had projectile diarrhea, which scared her so much that she began to pinwheel on the bed, speckling the room with her shitty spin art! Oh what a patient mother I was, NEVER shaming her, always consoling her as I cleaned up the mess.
I had been a sickly child. I was allergic to everything and also had a stomach that when under stress is quite eloquent.
It was no surprise to my analyst that the dog I chose that day at the puppy mill was not only allergic to everything, but had a slight overbite (as do I, which men seem to find somewhat charming, or so they say) but also had spastic colitis--as do I. Under stress Rosie and I felt it in our guts.
Airdales are notorious for "poor impulse control," as am I. Rosie and I attended four different obedience training workshops and we never graduated, never received a graduation certificate. It was usually by the second week that Rose's stomach began to turn. The somewhat sadistic trainer told me--in front of the whole class--that there was nothing wrong with the dog, but there was a great deal wrong with the owner. She didn't think I was authoritative enough to make Rosie obey. So more than a few times this bitch took Rosie from me to use her as an example to the class, putting her through her paces--See, the trainer would gloat, as Rosie sat, stayed, came.
Then she would walk back to me and hand me the leash, and I'd stand in the lamplight of the small park, crestfallen; I was the failure. Therefore Rosie and I were flunking obedience school.
One night she took Rosie by the leash and walked quickly toward a tree. Rosie went on one side of the tree and the sadist went on the other.. Not good. The evil trainer pulled with all her might (she was a huge woman whose butt you could have piled plates upon) and slammed Rosie's head against the tree. That ended up costing me about five hundred dollars--not for a concussion (Rosie had a hard head) but Rosie's week-long bout of diarrhea.
By two years old, Rosie had such severe arthritis in her hips that the vet suggested putting her down. I researched a rather controversial treatment--adequan--a drug injected into the knees of racehorses--much like WD-40--and after Rosie received weekly injections for a couple of months she was fine.
I didn't really like my analyst's theory that Rosie was my opportunity to re-do history, or correct the past, to become the nurturing mother to a sickly daughter. (I'm not saying my mother wasn't loving but she was somewhat unskilled in nurturing, in soothing, in enveloping one in a sense that all was going to be fine.
Yesterday I went to the "transfer station" --or as we all call it, "the dump," as I often do to look for objects to put in my collages. Piled on top of and under old strollers, doors, broken window panes, fertilizer dispensers, weathered awnings and moldy insulation were about twelve volumes of "Psychoanalysis and the Development of the Child." I picked up one after another of the handsome books, flipping through the pages, looking at the table of contents.
Years ago, right out of grad school, I'd been accepted for training as a lay analyst (since I didn't have an medical degree) for psychoanalytic training in the Houston Psychoanalytic Institute. It was an awful experience for all sorts of reasons, but I was in classes long enough before I resigned to learn about the developmental stages of humans from the time "they," or we? are fetuses to our young adulthood. This knowledge--about object relations, separation-individuation, plasticity of the brain, bodily integrity, personality development-- was invaluable a few years later when my nephew came to live with me, leaving behind his abusive parents, who were my brother and his wife, whom my brother had met while both were in the same mental hospital.
The afternoon at the transfer station (the dump) I stacked the leather-bound books carefully on top of an old wheelbarrow.
I looked at the pile of dark blue books with gold print and wondered at the mystery of them. Did someone who was a child psychiatrist die and did his or her children throw away the books out of anger? They could have been donated to Goodwill or a used bookstore. Did this child psychiatrist die childless and did strangers throw out his or her library? Or had the psychiatrist lost her faith, thrown them out and become a Jungian? Who had owned them? How, why did these books that were clearly books that had represented something or other in someone's office or study--they would seem to declare to whomever entered the room where they were shelved--I've read all these; I'm smart and capable and ready to help tackle your problems, these books are proof of my expertise. How did these symbols of a particular specialization end up here, scattered around my feet along with torn out rusted toilets, chicken wire, walkers and portable potties? They were proof of someone's life's work, now a few hours from going to a landfill.
There is a story here, I thought, as I looked at the publication dates--thirty years too old to be relevant. Yet they were amazing historical tomes.
Yet I remembered too well how difficult it was to slog through books like these--why can't "they" all write like Judith Viorst, the author of Necessary Losses. Why can't they or won't they write like Freud, known for his elegant prose? The psychiatrists who write these books, who write journal articles, invariably write in the jargon of the profession, using (they would say "utilizing") an insider language written in stilted formal boring prose.
Going back to the subject of my pets. I won't tell you about the fourteen puppies born under the house when I was seven, puppies that mysteriously disappeared. Or about Penny, my beloved mutt of a Boxer; my parents had boarded her for the week we went to Florida. On our return, I begged my parents to go pick her up before we went home. My father relented, drove out of the way after a long, long day of driving us from Florida--my mother and me, my brother and sister Jan. He went in to get Penny but then walked out without her, and his expression was grim. Penny had died!
And Rosie? Rosie lived a great life, living to be fourteen. So loved by me, and even so loved by the neighbors, that when she died they gave her a big wake, a farewell to one of the sweetest most stubborn most sensitive dogs I've ever known. I'd learned the term "soft dog" when trying to train Rosie. To be a soft dog is to wilt into utter shame when reprimanded. She'd get so disturbed when told NO that I felt it just wasn't worth it.
She had I LOVE LUCY curls and she made me laugh. The description of the Airedale breed in the American Kennel Association book says that they are "willfully disobedient" and "clowns." I believe that these are two qualities that I share with the breed.
I left the books stacked somewhat respectfully, abandoned them to their certain fate, unless some soul with unresolved "issues" decided to give them a "forever" home.
I left those books and went home to my two dogs, and three cats. Rescues all. Though I'm pretty clear that I'm the one these animals have rescued. In psychodynamic terminology it's called reciprocity. Regular folks speak of it as grace.