Do you know how when you read stories of mothers and fathers that explain they did not know love until they met their child, howsoever they arrived into their families? There is a mythologizing of our capacity to experience of love relative to normative family structures. Parents, children, and love. Love is valid when it is expressed in open, consensual, and meaningful ways. I am, however, torn on the idea that love is an epiphany that we experience on the other side of a birthing table. The love that we experience, nurture, and develop throughout our lives is meaningful and important to every subsequent platonic and/or romantic relationship in which we engage. The first models of what love is comes from our parents or guardians. In some cases, we experience positive models of love and in others we do not. So, perhaps the mythologizing of love comes from this so-called originary model and self-perpetuates throughout cultural ideas of love. I suppose we have Rousseau to thank for this in the rhetoric in the west, as he argued for parents to be involved in the emotional and intellectual needs of their children. Indeed, we centre the idea of love and wholeness around the relationships between parent and child. These relationships can be vital and overwhelmingly important in the best ways (or even the worst). But what does it mean when we look outside the familial or even the human? Is it important that we learn to love and the consequences of love only through loving other humans? in some constrained network of Darwinian succession? The answer, quite simply, is no.
I’d like to introduce you to my dog, Misha. She is fourteen, and we got her when I was about thirteen. I grew up with her, I went away to school, and I came home to take care of her because she was sick. Although it would be nice to wax poetic about how her life reveals my own life, I’d argue, rather, that from her and her life, I learnt how to love deeply, firmly, and unrelentingly in the face of annoyance, joy, and the fear of death. (I’m basically going to wax poetic, though.) When we first got her, I wanted all of her attention. I wanted to be able to talk to her, to be her best friend, to have our own world. Basically, I wanted to be Dr Dolittle, but without all the Doctoring. I just wanted to have a best friend. Before we got Misha, I had always wanted a horse and a dog. I would ride by bike around the neighbourhood, or, rather, I would ride my horse, Black Beauty, around the neighbourhood. He had 21 gears. Behind us, in my wildest imaginations, trailed not only my hair (it was actually greasily crunched under a helmet) and my ‘dog’ Michelle. (I should note that my baptismal name, Michelle, became the name of all my imaginary friends, including dogs. The similarity to Misha’s name is purely coincidental. Misha was named for her likeness to bears, changed from the Polish spelling misia to Misha.) I always wanted a dog, and I always wanted to run free with her.
Of course, when you’re that young, your experience of pets is quite self-centred. I wanted her for my own needs. I was not the biggest fan of having to go on walks after I got in from school, nor did I particularly love that she was technically walking you because she would pull you by the pant leg down the street. Okay, it was funny, but hard to explain to my friends who thought it was weird that such a small dog was pulling me down the street. I did/do love chasing her. I did love when I tried to train her to stay in our backyard in the winter. I love the time that I took it upon myself to get her used to wearing boots in the winter. I made her walk in circles, like a circus animal, in the snow. I, of course, made a trail for her first. I remember panicking, as a thirteen-year-old-does, because I put the boot on her incorrectly and it rubbed into her leg making it red. I remember tears in my eyes because I had hurt her, unwittingly as it had been. I remember how she patiently waited for me to learn how to do it right. Thirteen years later, we know exactly what we’re doing. Peas in a pod. Paws in a boot.
She’s always happy. As long as I can remember, she has wagged her tail happily. Only, once when she was sick (in these past few years), she had her tail down. It broke my heart. When she was younger, and her eyesight was better, she would run to people in the neighbourhood to greet them so happily. She would wait at their houses, refusing to walk further, because she wanted to stop to say ‘HELLLLOOOOOO!’. Misha has always been very stubborn. This means that Misha, thank god she is a small breed, is carried home. Hah! I just remembered that I would walk the neighbourhood with a giant dog bag containing at least ten different toys. The bag was meant to be to carry her home, but it became the means by which to stop and play with Misha and neighbours. Misha in tow in one arm and a large, lofty bag full of toys in the other. Misha has always been the source of so much joy and pure happiness in my life. I don’t know if knew the same love then as I did now. I’d like to think I did, but I know that the meanings and shades of love shifted as I grew older. I would never say that age discounts or invalidates love that one feels at any stage in their life. I can only say that my connection with love and its stakes have evolved over time, through experience and introspection.
In our relationship, she is more like a little sister than a child. Our mom is our mom. When we play, we are Cheeny Bambini (a variation of what I called myself as a child; it translates to Kat the Kid) and Misha Peesha (that one is probably easy to work out). We go on adventures late at night counting stars, skunks, and steps. I carry her in my arms in the dead of winter, which is the best time to star gaze, and sing to her that the stars shine yellow just for her. They were so yellow. Even when I was younger, I would always take her out quite late at night. I am a night owl, which is a new combination for dog story. Dog and Owl: Who is this God anyway? I went to bed quite late during high school, so sometimes I’d walk her at 1 AM. I love the streets at night and the occasional pure fog and the serenity of large trees hugging the asphalt surrounded by dreamers snug in their beds. I love the cool air. I love that Misha loves it too, the freedom of the night; she does occasionally wake me up at 4 AM to go out. We count raccoons then. However, Misha is always very naughty after late-night walks. This has never changed. I would lie down on the floor in the living room to model what sleep looked like. Surely, that’s all she needed, a visual reminder of the joys of sleep. One time when I was about fifteen, I had a tissue in hand because when I am tired my eyes tear. My hand was near my head, laying on the floor. And, all of a sudden, this bullet, torpedo, rocket is launched at my head. At the last second, it veers course in a game of nuclear chicken and steals the tissue from my outstretched hand. Well, let’s just say, modelling sleep did not work. It never has. Misha can model sleep for you but not the other way around.
When I was 17 going on 18, I left for university. It didn’t feel major to leave Misha. She had my family. I was super homesick, but I would be home at Christmas, and I would be home all summer. Most of my undergraduate and first masters went this way. I went home when I could, I would give her a bath, and shower her with love and gifts. Constantly, I left to go back to school. I always loved her during that time, but it’s what you do, you leave your family to go to school, and Misha is part of that family. When I went to England to do my M.A in History of Art, everything seemed okay. However, just as I started writing my dissertation in the summer, I was told that Misha was very unwell, and that they did not know if she would be alive when I came home. I was overwhelmed. One of my really close friends went home, and I had to ask her to stop talking about dogs altogether because I could not leave to be with Misha, and I had to work on school.
Alright, so I got home, and she was alive. *breathes* But it was very stressful because she was still quite sick. I had already decided to take time out from school to find work and just be at home because I knew that was what I wanted. As I job hunted, I took over being Misha’s full-time carer. In the beginning it was rough. Her medication made her pee a lot, so before I figured out her schedule, she would just pee during her sleep. Then she would have fits all night long, which meant I never slept. I slept on the couch for months, but that became too uncomfortable for me because my legs hung off the end, and when she choked, I had to run across a room. I moved her to my bedroom, but I couldn’t sleep vertically because she didn’t like it. So, we slept horizontally. Her on my feather duvet, me with my legs, once again, hanging off the end. Also, sometimes, Misha chooses to take your spot, and then in the middle of the night, decides she wants to go back to her spot. We played a lot of musical beds. I developed a 5-walk schedule around her pill schedule. I saw that crushing her pills was better for her. Very slowly she made progress. We cut out foods that aggravated her condition. It’s been three years. I have to say that again; my dog has lived three years longer than we thought she would.
In that time, I’ve learnt what it is to be sitting cheerfully one minute, and go into full emergency mode as you are not sure whether she’ll be okay at the end. (Also, I want to add that she isn’t being kept alive in some cruel ego-centric fashion. The issue is that her fits are unpredictable. She gets the attention and care that she needs, so she doesn’t suffer.) But, in those extreme moments, you never know. It is an emotional rollercoaster. I love her so much that it aches. And, it’s not odd because she’s a dog. I understand the reasons why humans create divisive structures of difference between ‘animal’ and ‘man’, but that construct is nonsense. Dogs dream, they remember (and they bloody-well remember exactly that you ate something they wanted for days…..and will go to where you ate that thing they wanted to remind you of it), they are happy or unhappy. Animals, like humans, are vast and complex and every single one is precious. In taking care of Misha, I’ve learnt the various capacities of love and what it truly means to love someone else in a totalizing way. Perhaps, that’s what the aforementioned parents feel. They feel the vulnerability of a being that needs your help; there has also been a lot of poop and pee and some vomit involved. I’ve learnt patience. I’ve learnt compassion and empathy. I’ve learnt to read her body language. I can hear her a mile away. I can tell by the way she breathes if she wants me to pick her up. I can tell by the way she punches my sternum (when I die, they’ll find paw prints on my bones during my autopsy) that she wants to go down to roll, play, drink, beg for food, or just get away from me because I’m breathing all the air out of the room. Humans and their big noses—eh? The most important thing I’ve learnt is how to let go of my ego in the face of doing what is best for her.
I love her, and, now that we sleep vertically, I’m always happy to let her choose which side of the bed she wants. I’m happy when she wakes up in the middle of the night and lets out a sigh because my leg is in her way. I’m just so happy.
In a very short while, I am going to be going back to school. I’ll be too far to help her. And, I don’t know when I’ll be home next. I’m afraid that she’ll miss me because we are best friends. I’m afraid that she’ll be upset that I’m gone, and that that will hurt her. I’m afraid that if she dies, she won’t hear my voice beside her, the one that comforts her and loves her endlessly. I look at her as she sleeps, deeply and full of supersonic snores, and I think to myself, ‘I wish I could make it so you know you’re always loved’. I wish I could give her absolutely everything because if anyone deserves it, it’s her, my best friend. My argument has been, throughout, that love and fulfillment appear in unexpected places. Love is eternal, even if our vessels are transient. Your experiences of love are valid, and they are significant. How you have experienced and related to other beings is part of your odyssey; don’t be afraid of the power of love. Although I feel this deeply, as others have felt love and its pangs, I repeat to myself: It is better to have loved, than to never have loved at all.
Heaps of love,