On our most faithful, silent companions
I’ve always loved reading the acknowledgement sections of academic books – it’s interesting to see academic connections, of course, but the personal acknowledgements can be so touching. One of my favorites is from Joshua Goldstein’s Drama Kings – he says simply: “This book is dedicated to those who struggle with love to stay awake.” Research can be such a solitary activity, so necessarily selfish at times – and those who struggle with love to stay awake do deserve as much praise as we can heap on them.
Last month, a dear friend (and steward to two of my favorite dogs in the world) made a short post that wiggled its way into my brain, and I was reminded of it earlier this week while looking at other academic acknowledgements:
The other day, while rereading my advisor’s latest book, I noticed for the first time that he had dedicated it to M– after his passing. That put a smile on my face, even as it made me tear up a little.
Yup, somewhere in the venerable catalog of Harvard University Press, there is at least one book dedicated to a simple, sweet little dog. Family members and spouses are recorded in public documents, but the true identity behind this dedication would be lost without those who were there to know, care, grieve, and memorialize.
Alas, such is the injustice inflicted upon some of our closest companions.
I think most of us have indulged in some sweet navel gazing, thinking of who we will put in our acknowledgements – of the dissertation to start, and then hopefully memorialized in some university press volume – and I always knew I’d have a line dedicated to the silly, sleek pit bull who has been part of my life for nearly 10 years. I just assumed she’d be there to see the project through, just as she’d seen so many other things in my life through: most of college, breakups, new relationships, several moves (including several where I was gone for long periods), most of grad school. She was there when I drove from San Diego to Phoenix, where my grandmother was dying; she charmed the nurses at the hospice. When my grandfather died in his sleep 24 hours before my grandmother’s death, she charmed the EMTs and police officers who streamed through their apartment. She was my only companion on the drive back from Phoenix, the loneliest drive I ever made. Papers, teaching, conferences, oral exams – I knew no matter what was going on, I had a big black dog waiting for me at home. She was my constant companion – dogs can’t, of course, complain about their lot in life, or refuse to move, but she was always cheerful and ready for whatever my life threw at her.
I got her when I was 20 and she was just turned 2, an adoption from a private owner who could no longer keep her. I had no idea at the time I would be ping ponging across the globe in pursuit of a PhD. I later felt guilty – somewhat frequently – that my career of choice left her in the lurch. She lived with friends and family at various points, and in fact was still in Virginia with my mum up until now. We were finally in a position to bring her to California, and had planned that she’d be coming in January. My solace is that she was always, always loved, no matter what household she was in.
I got a call today from my mum that she was gone. A sudden, severe medical problem came up last night, and diagnostics today revealed a terminal problem. It was decided to euthanize her, and my mum was there stroking her head as they administered the solution. She was fat, and happy, and very much loved all the way up to the end. I was sorry not to be there for her, but glad someone else who loved her – and who she loved – was there with her.
She tolerated my many foibles and failings as a pet owner, all the missteps I made along the way with her, my very first dog that was mine. I was not always the owner she deserved to have – and yet, she never held it against me. She was the most wonderful introduction to a most wonderful breed – my mom’s first reaction was “A PIT BULL?!?!”, but when I brought her up to introduce her to the family, she said ‘You know, she really is like a Boston Terrier on steroids.’ We did obedience classes & she passed her CGC – I wanted to make sure I had one of those awesome representatives of the breed, and I did.
She put up with having a stray cat brought home, and when that cat turned out to be pregnant, dealt with being a canine scratching post/jungle gym for the kittens with grace (see above). She shared our (her) bed with me and foster dogs, putting manners on the young rambunctious ones and being a perfect matched pair with the older, mellower one.
When I got to grad school, she integrated into life in the department along with me. She came on our camping trips – I will never forget having to drag her into a tent at 11 PM (bravery not being her forte, especially when it came to small, dark enclosures made of nylon), or having to figure out how to get her up a series of boulders when we got off the path during our gentle walk (having opted out of the strenuous hiking group). Figuring hauling up 50 pounds of pit bull over a rock that came up to my shoulder was not going to happen, I patted the first rock and told her cheerfully to jump up. She looked, and she leapt – and made it easily. One of my professors let out an impressed ‘Wow’ – she was lazy, but surprisingly athletic when she needed to be. She was not a boxy, muscle bound pittie – a mix of some type, I’m sure, but she was long and lean and wasp waisted, athletic and muscular without working at it. I thought she was beautiful.
She came up to campus with me when I had to go up late at night, went to parties and office hours. She was laying on the floor of our grad lounge when I got the email notifying me I had been awarded a Fulbright-Hays, and leapt around with excitement as I shrieked and my friend hugged me, as one of his undergraduates looked perplexed at this sudden, uncharacteristic display of a grad student’s extreme relief and joy. And occasionally went even to lecture, where she was better behaved than many students. My apartment in SD didn’t have AC and could get unbearably hot, so I once brought her to our 200 person lecture class, forgetting that we had a pop quiz to pick up. She was delighted to see 200 undergrads streaming towards us from their seats, absolutely convinced, I think, they were there for her – and there were tummy rubs in the offing, her very favorite thing.
Even after two cross country trips, she hated riding in the car – she spent 12 hour days in the car standing up, only to collapse when we would arrive at our destination for the night. But she tolerated it because coming in the car meant she got to come with me and see people. She was so well behaved she was welcome everywhere I was. We had a lot of fun in San Diego – I used to joke that people just wanted to hang out with me so they could hang out with the dog. She snoozed at bars and made the round at parties, and came to coffee shops to hang out for hours. I think she enjoyed grad school more than I did, and made friends wherever we went.
I don’t know what I would have done without her. I don’t quite know what I’ll do without her. For all the changes that have happened since I was 20, she was the one constant. She would’ve been twelve in two months. We had almost 10 years together & I’m very thankful for that. She was the very best dog I could’ve asked for, and was more than I deserved.
She deserves more than a little line in a dissertation or a book, but she’ll get that at the very least – and a permanent place in my heart, saccharine as that sounds. I hope she’ll remind me to be grateful for our long-suffering companions, whatever their species, who are so patient and loving and struggle to stay awake.
This dog only, waited on,
Knowing that when light is gone,
Love remains for shining ….
And because he loves me so,
Better than his kind will do
Often, man or woman,
Give I back more love again
Than dogs often take of men, —
Leaning from my Human ….
Mock I thee, in wishing weal ? —
Tears are in my eyes to feel
Thou art made so straightly,
Blessing needs must straighten too, —
Little canst thou joy or do,
Thou who lovest greatly.
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “To Flush, My Dog”