I grew up in a house without pets and never had any animal friends, so I didn't know that I liked them until I was an adult. When I was in my early 20s I met a small Australian Border Collie named Isabel. She was a ginger like me and took to me right off the bat. I was resistant to her love at first, as I had grown up thinking dogs were dirty and smelly and ate their own poop (which they sometimes are and generally do). Isabel peed on my brand-new, silver, Prada sneakers the first time we met, so it was a rocky start, but she was persistent, and she adored me to no end. Eventually, the feeling was mutual, and I relished how easy it was to interact with another living being on such a basic level. I didn't mind how dirty and smelly she was because she was such a good listener. I could tell she really was glad I was there when we were hanging out, and she didn't want anything from me other than for me to spend time with her. We were kindred spirits (aside from the dirty, smelly bit), but Isabel was not my dog, and when I moved out of the house I was staying at with her human, we didn't see much of each other again.
A few years later, another close friend got a hamster-sized teacup Pomeranian puppy named Dutch (who was also a ginger beast), but my friend was traveling a lot, and this new baby was a particular brand of high maintenance that wasn't a great fit for her. When he was just 3 months old, he was kidnapped from the front yard by neighbor kids, and it took nearly three weeks for a private investigator to locate him. Whatever happened to him during this experience left the poor dear a bit fearful and needy, which I could really relate to at the time, so I offered myself up as the official dogsitter and brought him home with me.
I had never been around such a tiny creature before. He was so quiet and sweet. All this dog wanted to do was be held and reassured that everything was fine now, which I was happy to do for him. In some way I am sure I was doing this for us both, or we for each other. Our bond was strong and fast, and when my friend came home from her travels, I had a long talk with her about how her newborn dog and I had fallen in love and probably needed to just stay together. I said I would be happy to keep him for her if she was still feeling stressed about his needs. I think she could tell that I also had needs in the moment, namely something to look after, love, and be loved by. After much consideration she agreed that, with all the travel, it might be better for him to stay with me. I burst into tears and thanked her, my heart suddenly unbroken. Dutch spent the night with her that evening, and the next day he came to stay with me permanently.
I was living in a place that didn't allow dogs back then, but I figured that because he never made a sound, it would be fine. Of course, I was wrong. The little devil found his voice while I was at work one day just after his first birthday, and my landlord busted me for having him. We moved out shortly thereafter, into a place where he could be free to speak when he wanted, and where I didn't have to smuggle him out to do his business three times a day. This place had a yard, and he was so happy there. I spent hours upon hours watching him run around in circles amongst the trees. He was so energetic at that age, and I was thrilled that I had suddenly been thrust into motherhood. He went everywhere with me, and it was the first time in my life that I felt like I had a purpose, something to get out of bed for in the morning. Keeping this cute thing happy and alive kept me feeling happy and alive, and I promised Dutch (and myself) that from that moment on, nothing bad was going to happen to him again.
In 2005 my world fell apart, and I relapsed into a severe addiction that I had been struggling with since my teens. For the next two years I was actively using, and my world got progressively worse, as did Dutch's world (which I was responsible for). I was sick, far too sick to take care of myself, much less this small creature who needed so much. Of all the things I regret about my years of being unwell on drugs, this is the one I have the hardest time accepting.
Over the course of the very last few months before I got clean, I lost all control, and Dutch was left alone many times. I would stay up for days, then sleep for days, during which time he was on his own in the house -- going hours without food, finding himself with no choice but to use the bathroom indoors (something he knew was wrong and I'm sure was terribly traumatic for him), and receiving no affection from the only person he had in his life. There were times when I could hear him crying in the other room, but I was so far gone that I could not (or would not) move. These are the cries that haunt me in my sleep to this day. There were instances when I just left him alone in the house for days, with an open bag of food and a handful of giant bowls of water. These are the names of failures I will have strapped to my back forever.
It's awful that I hurt so many people during my unfortunate years, but the neglect and meanness suffered by this small, innocent creature who had grown to trust me after being so terribly hurt by humans is something I will never forgive myself for. I was supposed to protect him, not forget about him. I was supposed to love him, not yell at him for crying. I had terrible people around me at the time, so he had terrible people around him at the time. He needed me so badly then, and I had completely failed him. Luckily, my dear friend came and rescued him before this went on for too long. She loved him up the whole time I was in the hospital and looked after him until I was worthy of being his parent again. I have spent every minute of every day in the four years since trying to make it up to him, and I will continue to do this until his time on this Earth is through.
After we were reunited it took some time for Dutch to get to know Mommy again. I was different now -- clearer. I'm sure this change in energy was scary to him, as the change in energy had been when I relapsed. I pushed through my deep shame over having been unfit and tried every way that I could to let him know I was back, that I was sorry, and that it was safe to relax now (again). Eventually, he began to trust that I was me. I watched as his guard fell and rejoiced as his spirit came back, bringing pieces of mine back with it. His graciousness and big, deep love touched me and gave me new hope for the world at a time when I really needed some. It was a beautiful gift and taught me a lifetime's worth of lessons about forgiveness and compassion. And so, an 8-pound holy terror became my most treasured teacher.
Over the next few years we toured all over the U.S. together, and he was there with me when no one else was around. He was my connection to the outside world while I was on the road, always eager to get me out of the tour bus or hotel room so that he could mark his territory in as many places as I would allow. I got to spend most of my time with the little dude in tow, and it made the loneliness of touring not so lonely. He made me laugh, he got me in trouble with hotel staff, he made me proud, and he let me dress him up in all kinds of ridiculous outfits. It was perfect.
Dutch is 10 now, and he is officially an old man. It remains clear to me that he is much wiser than I will ever be, and much more evolved. A couple of weeks ago he started drinking water compulsively and was acting kind of freaked out. He began having accidents indoors (something he rarely does), and he wasn't taking treats (something he never does). He just wanted more and more water. His thirst was unquenchable. My boyfriend and I have taken him to the vet a couple of times in the weeks since, and I have called the emergency dog nurse at least 100 times in between my own attempts at Internet diagnosing him. This past weekend we did extensive blood work on him after he was acting very strange and not moving at all. The results came back today, and he has diabetes, so he will need shots of insulin every day for the rest of his life.
I know that my sweet boy has officially entered into his final act on this planet, though it is almost too painful to really look at. All of this regret is on the surface again, and a feeling of wanting to make sure he is comfortable and happy for the rest of his days is front and center. If I could speak Dog for a few minutes, I would tell him how much I love him and how very much he means to me; I would find Dog words to make him know how special he is, and how much I will miss him when he is gone; I would let him know what's going on with his body now so that he isn't afraid during the treatment, and I would explain why he isn't in trouble for going potty in the house since he's been sick, so that he could stop feeling bad about it; I would thank him for trusting me all of these years, and for letting me earn that trust back when it was broken; I would ask him to trust me once again through his being sick, and I would let him know that I will be here with him every day until the end so he doesn't worry.
A couple of years back I had a dream in which a woman with long hair gave Dutch to me in a basket. He was miniature, like when he was a baby, and he had a full coat of hair. The woman said to me, "He will be your guide in life and through death," and then handed me the basket. At the time I didn't think much of it other than that it had been a creepy dream, but as I look back at our years together, it takes on new meaning. Dutch really did come into my life at a time when I needed something to tether me to this planet. He waited until I was well to get sick himself, and my guess is that he will wait to die until I am ready for him to go. He has been my guide in many ways through these years and is now set to teach me this last lesson, the hardest lesson. I can't look away like I have done in the past around death, and I don't want to.
Our experience together, this relationship as living creatures who care about each other, has been one of the most beautiful things I've had the pleasure of being a part of in my lifetime. It is a great honor to be with this small creature now in his final years. I will be present with him through this new process of illness so that I might learn to be present with others through theirs. I will love him and make myself vulnerable to being hurt by his departure until he is gone. I will not pull away. I will come closer. I will try not to fear his passing before it comes, and when it arrives, I will greet it with open eyes. I will be brave in the face of death so that he can be, too. I will hold him as he goes, and I will send his spirit off onto his next adventure, thanking him for staying with me for this time during mine and wishing him well on his journey. I will remember the good days, and I will feel grateful that we had so many together... and I will love other animals in his memory, always bringing the lessons I learn from them into my relationships with people.
My advice to all of you is this: go to the animal shelter in your town and adopt a creature of your own. Your spirit guide is probably waiting there for you.
Now watch this video of Dutch doing his ridiculous trick:
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Photo credit: Xilia Faye