September 14, 2011
When I was obsessing about a dog, I was concerned about my son being a singleton. I wondered if perhaps being alone with parents wasn’t such a great thing, that he needed a buffer–someone with whom he could conspire, even if the conspiracies were fantastical and impotent. Someone playful, didn’t nag. Liked to chase small objects endlessly, joyfully, unlike me.
When I was obsessing about a dog, I was busy, torn many directions. I had begun writing after a long hiatus, simultaneously caring for my son when my husband worked long hours, which was often. I cooked like I was going to open my own restaurant, slowly burning myself out with the intensity of my developing skills and the expectant look on my husband’s face who couldn’t wait to see what showed up on our plate.
When I was obsessing about a dog, my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was dying in front of me, and I navigated mortality for the first time with the one person who had made me confident in who I was and what I chose to do with my life. When I was obsessing about a dog, I was unwillingly rising as the matriarch, more responsible for my family’s well-being. Responsible for making sure my father had the death which he deserved: one surrounded by love and laughs and an absence of melodrama.
Under these conditions, something had to give.
I had discovered in Stanley, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, my perfect dog. What I also found was my husband’s antithesis: a muscle on four legs with huge jaws, a gigantic appetite and a high likelihood of drool. He probably smelled very much like a dog. He might even be a crotch sniffer, or worse, a dog who displayed affection with a giant tongue in the face. In Lars’ eyes, I could not have picked a worse candidate.
Reluctant to get a dog of any kind, when he noted the feverish glow of obsession and the depth of heartache Stanley inspired, he realized that he was cornered: he would have to help select a dog he could live with so that he wouldn’t be forced to live with his own worst nightmare. When my heart bled giant pools where Stanley was supposed to be, he stopped ignoring the links I sent of this pup or that pooch.
One dog looked directly in the camera, staring with his nose pressed almost to the lens. His ears rested flat against his neck, folded back like he was apologizing for something. He was small, red, and short-haired. Looked like a large dog, but was only 11 skinny pounds, a large dog run through the dryer too many times. Not a chihuahua, not anything else. Oddball. Lars agreed he was an option and so we went to meet him.
One couldn’t escape the fact that he was absurdly cute. His legs were long–so long that they looked like they belonged on a fawn, spindly and knobby. His tail was a tightly curled corn chip, wagging with fury. And his ears, folded back in contrition in his photo, were more like Gizmo’s ears, the gremlin from the movie of the same name: expressive, upright and twitchy, they moved like radar dishes with every sound. He really liked us, he sniffed us without shoving his snoot in our crotches, he clearly wasn’t a drooler, and while his legs were too long to call him a pocket dog, he was certainly slight.
Lars didn’t hate him.
When we took him home, it was difficult to deny a certain fit with us as a family, especially when we opened up the vet files we received with his adoption packet: “[Moxie] was found in an illegal trap, where he was kicked by a mule four times.” There were so many layers of mystery in this tantalizingly vague description of Moxie’s history that even Lars couldn’t help but sing Elvis’s hit “Suspicious Mind” to him (“Caught in a trap, can’t get out…”).
Moxie–who had plenty of it–was the fastest dog we ever saw. An Italian sports car at the dog park, we dubbed him “The Rabbit” because he led a chain of dogs behind him, all trying and failing to catch him as he bobbed and weaved with agility we envied. Lars admitted a grudging pride in his sheer athleticism. I took Moxie to obedience classes where he was a fast learner and eager pupil; I had to make this dog the best dog in the entire history of dogs because Lars was so grumpy about the whole canine thing in the first place. I was grateful that Moxie was up to the task.
Moxie, for his part, learned that I was in the position of training, love, beef lung treats and general go-to dog attention, but that didn’t stop him from identifying Lars as someone who he would force into loving him by sheer persistence. On the sofa Moxie lay his head in Lars’ lap, mooning with devotion, as Lars cursorily pat his head while rolling his eyes. Moxie followed him around the house like a shadow, Lars would trip over him, bark “Dammit!” and Moxie would dart into his crate. But a couple minutes would pass, and Moxie would delicately follow in his footsteps again.
And, in the way that siblings are both a blessing and a curse, Moxie kept Milo company, even when Milo didn’t want it. When Milo sat on the sofa, Moxie sat on him. When Milo forgot our advice: “Put your toys away or Moxie will eat them,” sure enough, just like a sibling trashing your favorite action figure, Moxie would sneak off with the Star Wars AT-AT Commander into his crate, leaving behind little but a foot and a disfigured helmet. A peacenik, he’d disarm Nerf guns with dexterity and sharp incisors.
Moxie was about to graduate Pupper School, Level 1 when I had to pull us out. Dad’s health declined dramatically and he was being subjected to radiation treatment every day. There was suddenly much less time for day-to-day life. I scrambled to take care of my son, was still writing, and was now caring for Moxie. He was fairly low maintenance, but demanded one solid full-speed run a day, and general love and attention which became more difficult to fit into a packed and depressing calendar.
Lars was obviously not the ideal stand-in, but finally it was impossible for me to do what Moxie needed, especially after my father collapsed in mid July, and I moved into his house for the final weeks of his life. Lars, knowing the situation was inflexible, was left to keep the home fires burning.
While I unwound the hours with my brother Chris and Dad in my father’s house several miles away, Lars was fortunate for a couple of weeks. His work schedule was light and he could hang out with Milo, partake in summertime events, trips to the zoo, walks in the park when Moxie wasn’t a terrible imposition. But after I had been gone about three weeks, Lars got bombarded in a hail of competing clients. Not only was he at the mercy of recording industry deadlines (which naturally have no concern for the needs of a family dealing with a mortally ill loved-one), but our son was soon caring for himself with video games. I made play-dates for Milo from Dad’s house, trying to help Lars raise our child from afar, but it was a band-aid to stanch a gushing, jagged wound.
One of the few times Moxie came to Dad’s house, he jumped on his hospital bed with magnetic certitude and curled up in a ball to sleep. While Dad was charmed by this instant affection, he was also too frail to appreciate even a small dog leaping upon him, and so I left him across town with Lars.
Moxie became a real burden. He was unwelcome. He demanded time which was nowhere to be found. Our neighbors graciously walked him when they could, but it wasn’t enough. Lars began using Moxie as a babysitter by focusing a streaming video camera at Moxie’s spot on the sofa: as soon as Moxie leapt to attention, Lars knew Milo was either awake, the house was being robbed by ruthless criminals, or a conflagration was soon to burst out, and he would leave his studio in our garage to check on the boy. But beyond this, Moxie was a cigarette burn on his wrecked nerves.
Things across town were predictably grim, though Chris and I did our best to help Dad down to the shore with levity and gallows humor. We had a film festival which included such titles as Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“I’m not dead yet!” we yelled in chorus) and Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton unleashing the finest performance of an undead used car salesman in the history of cinema). But Moxie was not a part of our routine, and Lars was stuck with the care-giving for the youngest, perkiest, and shedding member of our family.
We expected, after Dad’s initial collapse, that he would be dead by morning. Dad was as surprised as anyone when he woke up the following day, bright-eyed and bedridden.
We kept thinking he was going to die any minute–all of us. But one day passed, one week, one month: bed-bound, one-way ticket acquired, hanging onto the shreds of his body with no food, little water and a wicked sense of humor providing the only fuel to keep the engine running.
Lars waited five weeks for me to come home. Five weeks of half-assed child-care between clients, eating out because he couldn’t teach himself how to cook, five weeks of caring for a dog he resented.
He really, really began to hate the dog.
When Dad could no longer defy logic or the inevitable, I moved back home. Lars and I were shell-shocked, having suffered personal wars separately. Lars couldn’t fathom my experience during Dad’s final days, and I couldn’t fathom the pressures of our home over the summer with a child who Lars uncomfortably allowed to raise himself in front of video games, my husband walking a dog he begrudged, and constantly reminded of my absence in Moxie’s endless eagerness for affection and time.
Milo began first grade two weeks later. We dropped him off at school that first morning, two diligent parents saying good luck, we love you, we’re proud with a kiss on each cheek.
The sky was overcast, fall dropping on Portland like a blanket. We got in the car.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t put in the form requesting a class transfer,” said Lars. Milo was placed with a kid we weren’t sure was a good fit for him. “I think I’ll try to get him moved anyway.”
“There’s always going to be THAT KID in his class,” I said. “He’ll have to just learn how to deal with kids like him. It kind of doesn’t matter which class he’s in.”
Lars turned to me. “I really think I’m going to request the transfer. I know a spot opened up in the class opposite him.”
“Why? It’s meddlesome. We should just let be. He likes that kid anyway. He just gets his heart broken every now and then because he’s so damned cool.”
Lars’s face hardened. “You know what? You’re right. I’m just going to fucking cave because you’re railroading me. Again. You fucking railroaded me about the dog, and I caved then too. You asked, but didn’t care. ‘I don’t want a dog,’ I said, over and fucking over. ‘I DO NOT WANT A DOG.’ But you didn’t give a shit! You got your fucking dog! And now I have a fucking dog I didn’t want!”
I was shaking. Lars and I don’t argue, but this was a fight. It was clear, in a moment, what Lars’s summer looked like: walks with Moxie every single night, resentful, steaming. No time even for his own son, and the person who had forced upon him a pet he had not only no interest in, but had told numerous times he didn’t want–she was gone. Abandoned to a responsibility he hated. Those walks must have represented a massive failure in our partnership.
I said we could get rid of Moxie, wept that I was sorry, I don’t know why I wanted a dog so badly, I said, we’ll find him a home where he’s happy–not a burden. I cried for over an hour, Lars bitter and scowling, me contrite and demoralized and embarrassed about my thoughtlessness.
“You don’t have to get rid of Moxie,” he spat.
I told him I would ask friends if they would like to take him.
“No, you don’t have to get rid of him,” he said, “because despite everything, I actually like him.”
I told him we could think about it, but I would ask around for the perfect home.
A few months back in the swing of life–school underway, estates broken up–things normalized. Lars and I were joint parents again. I walked Moxie all the time, but asked some friends if they would possibly be interested in taking him at some point. They were intrigued; they had been his dog-sitter for a few days, and they loved him dearly. I encouraged them to sit with it for a bit, and let me know.
I told Lars I had found him a potential home, but since I came back from the River Styx, Lars had the luxury of not having to think about Moxie except for a couple of moments on the sofa with his head in his lap. This was preferable to being sole caregiver for a pain in his ass. He dissembled about deciding whether to move Moxie on, though I had made my peace with whatever happened. I felt I owed Lars flexibility, if nothing else.
Finally, Lars and Moxie found a mutual understanding: as my cooking gave way to complete burn-out, Lars was scrambling to learn a few things in the kitchen. One thing he learned was that he loved rotisserie chicken from the store, but that he couldn’t eat one by himself. Moxie’s eyes would follow him with feverish chicken-inspired adoration, and after Lars had eaten, he would share some of the leftovers with Moxie as a symbolic olive branch, man to dog.
It became their thing, Moxie and the Chicken Man.
“I’m so sorry about the dog,” I said on our porch, about nine months after I had come home.
“I know you are,” he said.
“I still feel really guilty,” I said.
“Thank you, Chicken Man.”
My brother came to town a couple weeks ago, and we reviewed the Great Dog Debacle.
“I kept myself so solid, so pulled together to help Dad navigate his way through dying. I was taking care of him, me, Milo, and Lars. The dog obsession was this funny displacement, something my subconscious created to deal with this unbelievably painful, stressful experience. And I was sad Milo was on his own. I really did want a sibling for Milo.”
“What about Stanley?” Chris asked me.
“Stanley was my dream dog. He had nothing to do with Milo or being his sibling. I imagined writing with Stanley, this big lug, keeping my feet warm. He was the dog who would love me unconditionally when Dad was gone. He was my booster, my future Dad, who would love me no matter what I did.”
“So you wanted the dog for yourself, but instead got the sibling for Milo you said you wanted in the first place,” he noted. “Because they really are like siblings.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I guess that’s right. Stanley was for me, but Moxie is Milo’s dog.”
“So it worked out?”
“I guess so,” I said. “No thanks to me.”
This is Part 3 of the Delusional Dog Chronicles, an exploration of what happens when displacement becomes the rule rather than the exception. It ends happily, though very easily could have been a marriage-defining disaster.
Sometimes a thing is just a thing, and sometimes it’s some other thing altogether.
Photos by Chris Moone, my brother and all around mensch.