When we lose someone dear and precious, it is if all the others who died before are lost to us again. Safely dormant in our memory this most recent death awakens and amplifies the loss of all those who have gone before. They uncoil, stretch and as they join hands the weight of all that pain and grief bows us over until we think we cannot stand or move or breathe again.
There is a vacuum in my heart shaped like a dog. His name was Ally and he was a Doberman. And if you know about Dobes, you know they are special- if you have ever had the privilege of being loved by a Doberman; you will know they are extraordinary. Ally was magnificent.
He was barely two weeks old when we met. My life was in complete and utter turmoil for I was leaving a place I did not want to leave and moving to a place I did not want to go. I knew I could not do it alone, I needed a dog. But not just any dog, a Doberman.
He was born of the Aeolus pedigree and his breeder who sold him to me said that his line had won many awards for best in show, obedience and many others. They were champions and she said this was the best litter in over twenty years- she was selling the puppies for $4,000 each.
Noticing my audible gulp, she said she had 2 males and 2 females whom she would sell for $1000-$1500 each. She recommended that I drive to her kennel so that I could meet these puppies. The breeder escorted me into a large garage type building and scooped up 4 tiny bodies, put them on the cement floor and left me alone with them. When I sat down on the floor, one of the puppies extracted himself and wobbled over to me wagging his whole body. His other 3 litter mates stayed in their ball and watched me cautiously. In that moment, Ally and I started the 10 year journey that ended the morning of March 26th, 2006.
Ally was fearless. Our first “outing” was to a Petco store in Houston – he was about 4 weeks old. He saw an enormous Rotweiler, the dog must have weighed 120 or 130 pounds, this tiny puppy “attacked” the Rotweiler- straining at his leash while barking, growling with all the attendant ferocity of the 80 pound animal he would become within the year. The owner as well as the 5 or 6 other customers in the store cracked up. Throughout his life that fearlessness would remain a dominant feature of his personality.
He was about 3 months old when we left Texas for the move to Massachusetts that I had so dreaded. We arrived at Logan airport in late November of 1995; I retrieved Ally from the dog pick-up place and as we sat in the airport shuttle I am not sure who was more frightened, he or I. I had found a house to rent with woods for the puppy to run and grow into. I could only hope that this new job and home would work for us. But I had been in Texas for close to 20 years and the move to Massachusetts felt like a move to another planet.
I worked very long hours, too long to be fair to a rapidly growing, energetic and lonely puppy. But as the days passed into weeks, we adjusted into a routine that worked fairly well for the two of us. The breeder had taught me that crates are best for growing dogs- since they were pack animals, they felt safe and the items in the house would be protected from exploring curious puppy teeth. But during the times he was allowed out of the crate, all was fair game. He was toughest to keep up during my morning workout and it must have been during one of those times that the cause of our first crisis occurred.
We had been in our new home for perhaps a month or so. At 2 or 3 am one morning, Ally was very suddenly terribly ill with vomiting and diarrhea. I called an emergency number for a veterinarian and reached a man named Dr. Rice. After explaining my situation to this man, he answered by giving me directions to the Tufts University Clinic suggesting that the dog’s symptoms sounded like emergency surgery would be required and that his practice was closed as he was close to retirement. I will never know why this good man agreed to let me bring Ally to his office at 6am on my way to work. Dr Rice told me that he had no idea what would cause such violent sickness in a dog this young and in his gentle way tried to prepare me for all eventualities. He explained what he would do and what his options were and that he would call me in the middle of the morning. I was meeting with my administrative staff about our budget challenges when my secretary interrupted us with a call from Dr. Rice. Taking the call, the listeners in my office heard only one exclamation from me: “what…pantyhose?” And my whole office dissolved into gales of laughter.
Ally had found and swallowed a pair of my panty hose. Dr Rice was astounded by the fact that the purgatives had resulted in the pantyhose being expelled without complication.He had been unable to identify anything on X-Ray and had had to rely on restoring the dog’s lost fluids and continuing to cause vomiting hoping that something would be expelled. He said that it took him and his staff a while to identify what the object was. I picked up my dog later that afternoon with effusive gratitude for this man- when I asked if he could recommend a veterinarian for me to take Ally to, he grinned and answered, you already have one.
Our very best times during those first few months were spent behind the rental house exploring the woods where he could race with complete abandon during that winter and the spring. Or those weekends when we would take a run through the quiet streets of the town. Many evenings, we would simply sit listening to music and I would talk to him about whatever was on my mind.
When John met Ally and me later that year, it took a while for them to get to understand one another. John was accustomed to dogs but dogs that were mostly outside and sort of invisible. Ally loved being outside- if I was there but he was never invisible. Once John and I got married he bought a couple of books about Dobermans so that he could learn about this dog who was truly the very best friend I’d ever had. When he finished the books he announced that he got it now…that with a Doberman you just had to realize that it was your very good fortune that they chose to live with you and to love you…but that it was their choice.
What is it about the love between us and a dog? Is it that we envy the integrity of their being or the purity and simplicity of their nature? Where too much of our lives are frequently spent doing battle with our various selves- consumed by ambition or greed, an animal is never more or less than an animal. Where the love between persons is so often conditional, the love of a dog is, it just is no matter what. I think it no coincidence that dog is God spelled backwards.
John and I talked for hours about Ally the night he died. John did most of the talking while I was doing most of the crying. We talked of his spirit- that Texas sized heart filled with an indomitable spirit. John took many walks in the desert alone with Ally and he said he would think often about what might happen if they encountered a mountain lion, plentiful in the high desert mountains. That night John said he knew exactly what would have happened. That if it had been necessary, Ally would have placed himself between John and the lion and would fight to his death.
There is a boulder on top of his grave that reads:
“Aeolus” Ally Heart and Soul
August 7, 1995 – March 26, 2006
The gift which I am sending you is called a dog and is, in fact, the most precious and valuable possession of mankind.”
When I was a very young college student, I discovered the writings of Kahil Gibran and memorized some phrases that seemed to explain the turbulence of my life as a young adult. Now as a much older adult, they come back…
“…your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain…When you are sorrowful look again into your heart, and you will see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy. Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced…”