Given the impotence their friends and family are feeling, I feel lucky to have the dog. Words don’t fail with Mr. Happy: any oogly-googley will do. He carries my heart in his Lab’s soft mouth and drops it at my feet in a continual offer to play. I can love him to distraction and he absorbs it with a smile as bright as the skyline. The tummy rubs and ear-scratchings I give him are the solace I can’t give his owners. I have the one member of the family unit who can be cosseted and loved into peace.
It’s been a hard year for loving dogs. Seven familiar faces have disappeared, among them Daisy’s first friend, Godiva, and one of her first boyfriends, Hopkins. I’ve witnessed the grief that crosses their owners’ bodies like the December wind of Montague Street, and in loving Mr. Happy over the last weeks, I’ve begun to appreciate what our dogs do – or did – for us.
We humans have enormous reserves of love and affection. Somewhere in Pack of Two, Caroline Knapp observes that the stroking, baby-talk, nicknames and other forms of doting we mete out to our dogs would oppress the most passionate of lovers and would be soon outgrown by a baby.
The concept that dogs give unconditional love is flat-out wrong. Their love is highly conditional with the single caveat that the conditions can be counted on two hands and are easy to satisfy. A cookie, a walk, a tossed ball, a belly-rub, leaving the vet’s office pretty much prove our love and earn us the privilege of doing it some more. We bend to our dogs’ wills and personalities and maybe the best way of seeing how they bend to us is how they meet their human friends.
“Miss Daisy!” Hopkins’s owner said whenever we met, sending her into a delighted frenzy. Hopkins would pull his nose away from his contemplation of the Coptic gospels and grudgingly gulp a cookie and allow me to give him a butt rub. I miss Hopkins a lot. Still more, I mourn his owners’ emptier hands, emptier time, emptier bed and emptier nonsense, and I mourn not seeing them and thereby losing one of my dog’s bright spots.
I’ve been thinking of the Pete Seeger song based on Ecclesiastes and found myself interested in what followed the “everything has its season” verses. “…[God] has set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” Along with those reserves of love, humans are cursed with memory and broken hearts and the despair of the future based on them.
The winter holidays are tinged with loss this year. But recently, Godiva’s owner boarded a larky golden doodle that made her realize it’s time to get a new dog. The golden retriever sprite that is Lila has regilded the lives of the owners who lost Maggie. The doodle didn’t know he was forcing need over memory, nor does Lila know there was a perfect Maggie who preceded her.
For the most part, there is only now for dogs. Every time I walk into Mr. Happy’s apartment, I announce, “Merry Christmas!” Life is a cabaret for this young chum. He is rarely under foot but always at hand, glad to get what he gets. Last week he, Daisy and I chatted with a friend on a stoop. He climbed behind me and rested his head on mine. Every waking movement of a dog is deliberate and reactive. The sensation of a resting paw or a head, an expression of connection, is part of the words I don’t have for Mr. Happy’s owners.
They will be back soon. I’ll leave a happy Mr. Happy to need the love they desperately need to give.
BHB columnist Frances Kuffel has lived in the Heights for twenty years. Her dog walking clients include Augie, Barley, Boomer, Faith, Gus, Henry, Hero, Panda, Roger and Zeke. For more information, visit http//franceskuffel.net, http://caronthehill.blogspot.com, or http://www.flickr.com/photos/kuffelscrapbook.
She is the author of Passing for Thin