Written May 27, 2017
So today I learned that my beautiful best friend, my dog, Pajamas, has two torn ACLs and cancer. Her two back legs are lame and she has a little ball of cancer on her belly that may or may not be greater than that little spot.
She has these eyes that are like people eyes. Not like dog eyes, but human eyes. Hazel and sometimes green with black irises that, lined with black fur around the bottom edges, look like sad human eyes. She’s the most mellow pit bull I’ve ever met. She walks around with her head hung most of the time and we call her Eeyore. Eeyore, you know, from Winnie the Pooh, the melancholy donkey who ambles about like there’s nothing to get too worked up about in life.
When there is a dog park or a tennis ball involved, however, those sad eyes light up and become intent on nothing else but fun and joy.
I want to be like her. Life is as it is; no future or past. Life is as life does and when there’s fun, there’s fun! Let’s enjoy it! Let’s race around and focus on the beauty of it all. Everything else is gravy.
A Story of Two Dogs and a Divorce
When we were still married, my ex-husband and I started watching Cesar Millan episodes on Netflix, pretty much incessantly, and we became infatuated with pit bulls. That’s how Pajamas ended up in our lives, but I’ll go back a bit further to when we got our first dog.
Five years prior he came home from snowboarding and I handed him a cloth shopping bag with a puppy inside. We had been searching for the right dog online and in shelters but hadn’t found the right one. When he was on the mountain that day, I drove an hour an a half down to Santa Clarita, California after getting a feeling from a Craigslist post of puppies.
I arrived, and there were only two left. One was a gray and white spotted little thing — a stunner — and the other a beige ball of fur with brown eyes; really nothing compared to the gray and white speckled pup. But I knew the beige squeaker was ours, so I paid the $80 and drove her back up to our home in Santa Barbara. When I heard my husband coming up the drive, I realized I hadn’t planned the surprise! I leaped out of my chair, puppy in hand, and frantically grasped at a plan. An old cloth grocery bag hung on the back door, so I grabbed it and dropped our new beige fluff ball inside.
When he came in, I told him he should look at what I had gotten today and held the bag out to him. He brushed it off and told me I should give him some time to get settled in. I extended the bag out to him and urged him to look inside. In a moment neither of us will ever forget, he looked up at me wide-eyed, and we knew. This was a special moment, and a special dog for us. To this day he says it was the best surprise he’s ever gotten in his life.
Lola was our pride and joy. She was calm, affectionate, and playful but no matter how hard we tried, we could never get her fully potty-trained. The first few nights we tried to keep her in her little kennel during the night. After less than a half hour of her whimpering, Jardel couldn’t take it. He has such a soft heart for animals and she was swept into our bed, where she continued to sleep for the rest of our marriage.
Fast forward a few years. We had moved from Santa Barbara to Austin, Texas and unrelated to the move, our relationship had begun to disintegrate. It’s especially sad because we loved each other, but we just didn’t work together. Too much history, too many missteps, too many unspoken hurts. But then, the Cesar Millan thing happened.
We didn’t know at the time that our relationship was doomed. It wasn’t like we had gotten the dog as a last-ditch effort to save our marriage like some do with a child. We just both connected over this shared empathy and affinity for pit bulls and knew we had to get one.
Every weekend for a seven or eight weeks we would visit animal shelters. We must have considered twenty pitties. Puppies, older dogs, blind dogs, sick dogs. One day at the shelter we were about to wrap up our search for the day, when I noticed a white pittie with black spots being walked by the shelter worker. I was drawn to her like a magnet. I remember kneeling down in front of her and exclaiming to the shelter worker that she needed her nails cut! They were too long!
Of course, the shelter worker had a million dogs to consider and didn’t think anything of my entreaty. She mentioned that this dog had just come in but that they were closing up for the day.
The next weekend we came back to that same shelter to look again, without that long-nailed white newcomer in mind. As we perused the cages, we turned the corner to find a beautiful white pittie with a sign on the front of her kennel: “I’m house trained!”
After dealing with our 90% but never 100% house trained Lola for five years, this was the most alluring advertising we’d seen. We took her out to the play area and I remember Jardel running around with this pup gently following him around the pen. She had such a calm energy about her. Jardel must have felt it too. He ran up to me and, with a big grin on his face, said, “Let’s get her.”
I was more tepid; I suggested we run home to get Lola to make sure they got along and all was safe. As I drove back to pick up our fifteen pound soft-coated lap dog, my heart was pumping full of excitement and hesitation.
When I returned, Jardel and who is now Pajamas were hanging out in a small pen about the size of a garden shed. I trepidatiously brought Lola in, but my trepidation was baseless. The big, muscular pit bull and the tiny, fluffy terrier sniffed each other and life went on. That was it. We were going to bring this beautiful white-with-black-spots dog home with us. She was on special for $5.
On the way home Jardel was suggesting some names, but I was fierce. Her name was Pajamas, and I would accept nothing else.
We were so thrilled about the new member of our family that we drove straight to my parents' house to show her off. We have a beautiful photo snapped from that day with our new family: Jardel, myself, Lola and Pajamas, all crouched down and smiling.
In the days after, it became apparent that Pajamas wasn’t her usual self. The second night after we brought her home, she had no energy even to climb the stairs. So I slept wth her on the couch downstairs, wiping her nose when it got runny and comforting her all night.
It was kennel cough, a common infection after staying at a dog shelter. We got her medicine, and she rapidly improved. Though she perked up, she still possessed a rare calm energy. And she and Lola were quickly getting used to each other and becoming friends.
Between our next door neighbor’s chickens and our yard was just a chain link fence. I had heard stories and seen episodes on Cesar Millan about Houdini-esque pit bulls who could climb out of (or into) just about anywhere. So we were a little concerned about how Pajamas would react to the half-dozen chickens milling about a few feet away. She was so chill, just observing them without even barking.
We soon learned, however, where she drew the line regarding her calm energy. Very early on it became clear that she had accepted Jardel and I as her owners; the bond was set. Once this happened, when anyone tried to cross the line -- say, if a stranger tried to cross the threshold into the house -- her calm energy turned to fierce protection. She has never, ever bit anyone, but her snarling bark terrifies anyone.
And those human eyes…I can’t begin to express the beautiful energy this dog possesses. She submits to me completely, allowing me to manipulate her body in any way. I can carry her like a toddler over my shoulder, cradle her like an infant on my lap, grab her front paws for a dance, reach into her mouth to check her teeth and gums, lay my head on her chest as my pillow for the whole night.
As relationships do, mine and Jardel’s ended. It was sad, but poignant. We had shared a beautiful nine years, but we weren’t meant to spend our whole lives together. We had these two amazing dogs and at first, we tried to to keep them together and switch off “custody” every week; it got complicated. We both intensely loved both dogs, but at the end of the day and the end of the relationship, we knew what was best for both of us and for the dogs. Jardel kept Lola and I kept Pajamas.
It soon became clear to me that having Pajamas in my life was absolutely critical to my survival of the divorce. I look back, unsure if I would have been able to progress and persevere as I did without her by my side. She was my confidant, my protector, my dearest friend. She was the support system that would comfort me as I cried and force me to get outside on a long walk.
About a year after we got divorced, I had this flash of inspiration that I needed to travel around the world and write a book about living like I might die tomorrow. My parents were incredibly supportive and graciously agreed to take Pajamas in while I gallivanted the globe.
I missed her incredibly, so much so that I think I had to block it out. After the first few days, I didn’t ask for photos or videos. I thought of her and showed her photo to anyone who brought up anything relating to a dog, but there was a sense of detachment there. I think the feelings of yearning were too great and if I allowed myself to miss her as fully as I really did, I’d have to return home immediately. My other saving grace was knowing that my parents were growing to love her deeply, and that she was in excellent care and got to play with her two best dog friends every day.
It’s been a year and a half, and today I am in French Polynesia and learned that my beautiful Pajamas needs two new knees and has a spot of cancer on her belly. I booked the first flight home.
This story that I tell you today, I've spoken softly to Pajamas many, many times, with her cradled in my arms or with my head rested on her shoulder. I tell her this story so she understands and feels that she is loved and wanted, that she was meant to go to the shelter for this reason and not because she was cast aside.
I haven’t mentioned the heart on her butt. On her back left hind quarter, in the middle of one of her black spots, her fur shows white in the perfect shape of a heart. She can’t see it, but I know it’s there and point it out to anyone who seems interested in her. Now I see it as a reminder that like all loved animals (and they should all be loved), our pets are an expression of the capacity of love we humans possess. Sure, sometimes the love is misplaced and imperfect and I think always flawed, but I know the love I feel for Pajamas is special. I elected to take her into my life and to make sure she is always loved and cared for.
Today I must come to grips with the fact that Pajamas could die from this cancer. But the reality is, she could die any day, cancer notwithstanding. Like everything in life, my strong pit bull is fragile and fleeting. Her life, like my life and yours, will be painfully yet beautifully short.
I’ve felt certain that I want to foster (human) children in my life, and maybe this is a lesson. Whether you have biological children, or a dog or a bird or a foster child, they will come and go as they, or the Universe or God, pleases. Our job is to be an expression of love and care until that time comes. The very existence and eventual end of everything we love is in and of itself an entreaty to live fully in the present moment. Love intensely and with an open heart. Give with no expectation of receipt. Feel gratitude for this moment, for life, for love, and for the privilege to experience it all.
And for God sakes, find someone - human or animal - to love.
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