What happens when you’re not a dog person, but you are left with a dog?
It wasn’t until my dog, Flip, was 15 years old that I realized I loved him. After my divorce, 5 years ago, I would jokingly say to my sons that Flip was my husband now. But the truth was that I had only just tolerated Flip for much of his life. I didn’t fall in love with him until he had a bad case of fleas: not the first time, not the last time, but the in-between time.
Although constant and caring, I was so detached in my relationship with Flip that until last year I believed he was a Yorkshire Terrier, even though he weighed 20 pounds. Watching a youtube Animal Planet video one night it dawned on me that Flip wasn’t a Yorkie at all, despite his bill of sale. He was a Silky Terrier. The giveaways, besides his size, were how he had always lifted up one paw in a quizzical manner when he looked at me, and how one ear often was up while the other flopped down (hence the name my younger son gave him).
In addition, I woke up one day and realized Flip was a year older than I thought. I had been so caught up in other things in my life – things I can’t reveal, except for my husband’s infidelity, which became pretty obvious – that I had lost track of Flip’s age, which was at the far end of his breed’s lifespan.
I should mention he is a handsome, dapper dog, who attracts attention even though he has an enlarged liver that makes his belly look as though it needs to be reined in with a waistcoat. I’ve always thought he should be wearing a Sherlock Holmes cap and ruminating on a small Calabash pipe, which would fit neatly in the space where he is missing his two lower front teeth. Like most dogs, he is on a mission when he is on a walk, looking for aromatic cues and clues and behaving accordingly. Everyone stops to admire him. But I never felt proprietary about his looks or charm. He was sort of a legacy pet. Mine by default. Or so I thought.
We had trouble bonding because it took so long to potty train him. We failed at crate training because he barked so much that his saliva pooled on the floor of the kennel and made it slippery plus rusted the metal grate he attacked for hours. He shredded pee pads. I had to take him to a pet therapist because he wouldn’t stop peeing and pooping in the house. He relieved himself next to her desk as she was asking me what the problem was. Although I had some success in training him with treats to go outside, which he expects every single time he potties to this day, my husband’s strategy to save our wood floors and carpeting was to train Flip to void in the concrete basement of our home. I never went down there.
A family dog for the first 10 years of his life, bought for our 10-year-old son, Flip ran around the grassy common area of our suburban home, a blur against the tree line, swing sets and sandboxes. He was so lively that he jumped back and forth, straight up like a young goat, over Magic, our lame black lab, who sat calmly for Flip’s stunts. Sometimes if Magic was off-leash (it seemed unlikely he would move far since he dragged his back legs on the ground when he tried to run), Flip would spirit him through the woods into the next subdivision or down the railroad tracks. Flip came back while Magic usually ended up in a ditch until someone called thinking he had been hit by a car and we picked him up. Once Magic died, Flip became more aggressive with other dogs so I really couldn’t let him off the leash too often to fly around our big yard.
While I fed Flip and let him in and out all day, he took long evening walks with the man of the house. I appreciated the break from doggie care until I found out that those leisurely walks with Flip were an opportunity for my husband to talk on his secret phone with his girlfriend.
When we separated after a 35-year marriage I decided to move away from my Midwest home and start over in the small Florida town where my younger son had relocated. My soon-to-be ex had no desire to be burdened with a dog while ironing out his relationship problems with the other woman. Drained and empty, I didn’t know if I could afford to take care of Flip either financially or emotionally. I thought about putting him up for adoption. But with behavior problems and, of course, his inconsistent pottying how could I be sure he would not be mistreated by a stranger?
In the end, I packed him in the car along with the few things I was taking from my old life. For the first few months, Flip and I had a gypsy existence. First I stayed on a farm in Georgia while I helped an author write a book. Because there were a number of rescue dogs running around the house, all female, which made Flip want to constantly mark his territory, I spent the days with Flip tethered to my belt as if I were Mother Superior and I had a very long rosary dragging the floor with a dog at the end of it. Then I stayed with friends and family whose allergies or own pets made it imperative to board Flip at different kennels.
Back on the road, Flip was my steady companion in a changing landscape. We were on a journey together and he rose to the occasion, holding his bladder during an interminable traffic jam outside of Atlanta, and not barking when I left motel rooms to search for food for us.
As I was cobbling together a new life in Florida, Flip had a terrible bout with fleas. I’d never met a flea and suddenly they were crawling all over my animal. I was more worried about me getting fleas than about Flip having them. I got rid of them, but saw Flip as a flea carrying host whose silky hair was a golden meadow for creepy things I didn’t want close to me.
The next time Flip got fleas was less of a panic. I knew it was normal in Florida. Against my space being contaminated by a chemical bomb that might exacerbate my asthma and his panting and wheezing, I chose to comb and bathe him faithfully, with the addition of dog flea pharmaceuticals. Every day I spent hours attending to the little devils that hopped around in his hair making him bite himself. I was as devoted to grooming him as any ape, chimp, or monkey mother. As an old dog, age 15, his skin was covered with benign tumors under his hair and I had to be careful not to scratch their surface and make them bleed. I felt so sorry for him I gave him little massages, listening to him groan, sigh, and cluck like the gray squirrels on our morning walks.
I had been attending a monthly Women’s Soul Connection get-together in my town at a place called The Red Tent, where a medium channeled the Higher Self of anything living or once alive. Having gone through all the other members of my family, including my ex, with whom I had fought in many lifetimes, I wanted to know if Flip had a message for me.
“You think you haven’t loved me,” said Flip’s Higher Self or spirit or whatever energy came out of the medium’s mouth. “But you’ve loved me deeply. You just haven’t had the space or opportunity or even the wanting to recognize it. Your life has had many irritations, and of course I was on that list. And yet here you are.”
Which was true, of course. I had not abandoned my responsibilities. I may have considered leaving Flip – I’m not even a “dog” person — but I stuck with him because he was family and we had a history. Maybe at first it was because I was angry at my husband for throwing me away because I was getting old and he wanted someone with a smooth, slim neck, who did not mind his snoring.
But Flip had come with me to a new world. He had put up with my crying every day and dragging myself around like a ghost. Then he tolerated my endless chatter to him since I didn’t know many people after my son moved away. He could be annoying, but what companion isn’t? I appreciated his stability.
At age16 now, Flip has outlived his breed’s lifespan. He has cataracts and is deaf. He actually never pottied in the house again after my husband moved out so I guess that problem was perhaps due to emotional stress. But now his Cushings Disease causes him to drink so much water that he has started peeing in the house again. It’s a nuisance, but not so hard to wipe up and steam clean my tile floors. He bumps into things occasionally, and sometimes falls down with his weakened muscles. As soon as I decide it’s time to take him to the vet and have him put down, however, he wakes up happy and spry, with a spring to his step, his bearded chin held high. Neighbors come out to watch and cheer his renaissance.
“He must have heard the rumor he’s on death row,” says my son.
I love the little tufts of hair that sprout haywire over his eyes, the way he only looks at me sideways, and how he sleeps with his eyes a little bit open, like life itself is a dream. Sometimes he yips in his sleep at night as if we are alone around a campfire and I am playing a mournful harmonica.
Our walks are shorter and sometimes I carry him the last 100 feet or so. One time, he put his paws around my neck and I realized I hadn’t been hugged in a long time.
Worried that I was driven solely by duty, my son kept asking me over the years if I got any pleasure at all out of Flip, who after all was supposed to be his dog. “Of course,” I would say, annoyed that he couldn’t tell that just taking care of Flip as a family member was satisfying enough. Now I tell my son that I love Flip. He’s my guy. We eat together, he sleeps beside me on the throw rug next to the bed, instead of out in the hall like he used to. Once in a while he still dances on his hind feet when I walk in the door.
He has gone the distance, walking me home many times over. Maybe that is what love is: walking each other home til the end, appreciating fighting fleas.
Note: Flip went to sleep in my arms at the vet’s several months past his 16th birthday.