Read Dog Stays in the Picture Online

Authors: Susan; Morse

Dog Stays in the Picture (12 page)

Mother Brigid does not believe in SBDs.

—God was looking after the children. They needed you at home.

—Ma. I willingly gave up my career for my children. I just wanted the freedom to pop down for a night and pet a real working racehorse for one second. Is that asking too much?

—Be careful what you wish for, Susie.

She may be right. Because now I think the SBDs have found a way inside my head. I am convinced they've opened a new department devoted exclusively to Influencing Susan's Selection of Disastrously Inappropriate Pets.

Did I mention that greyhounds don't fly?

Aircraft cargo can be left on the tarmac for hours these days—something about new security procedures following September 11, and the problem is these thin-skinned dogs cannot tolerate extended exposure to extreme temperatures. Who knew? Well, actually,
did; I
warned, but I was not in my right mind at the time, and told myself no problem was insurmountable. Now the implications are starting to sink in.

I'm still Lilly's main focus. She follows me everywhere I go, waiting till I settle so she can flop down on one of her various beds. She naps with her eyes open—it's a slightly creepy, glassy-eyed trance thing some greyhounds do. I can't get over how she manages to simultaneously be unconscious
maintain eye contact. Lost in thought at my writing desk, the room quiet, I'll glance over and there's Lilly in the corner, gazing at me.

They tell you not to choose a greyhound if you're looking for a watchdog. Lilly rarely barks when I'm with her, other than a polite little yip at the door when she wants to come inside after doing her business. I do believe she'll protect the house if she thinks it's called for—she busted right out of that half-asleep trance one afternoon in my office, charging straight at the window, startled by a roofer who was checking our gutters outside—but mostly she saves her vocalizations for when I'm not around.

When the family was here, all my outings had to be pre-planned and negotiated with the support crew. It was hard to leave anyone in charge, especially the men, because all hell would break loose—nonstop pacing, constant barking, and defecation. I've learned I can't possibly stick any house sitter who has a day job with an animal in this state, so Lilly will definitely be driving down to New Orleans with me, and I'm determined to try to improve things a little before we start the long trip south. Since David went down there earlier this month
to start the season and find us a house, I've been conducting a series of experiments. There's a camera on a tripod in the family room. I turn it on just before I leave, and I now have endless videos of Lilly barking frantically, gnawing on the kitchen door, jumping up on the desk.

It's stress. The crate is useless—all that twaddle in dog-training books about how crates make dogs feel secure? Lilly despises the crate, and the minute I'm out of sight she loses all interest in rubber toys stuffed with tasty peanut butter.

I'm having flashbacks to infant feeding schedules. When I was nursing the boys and outings were timed to the last second, I kept naïvely reassuring myself that my parental responsibilities would simplify. Now I know better; if you're like me, you actually never stop planning your life around your children. I have zero regrets about giving up work to be with them at home, but after two decades it seems like I shouldn't still have to be negotiating with sitters every time I need to leave my house.

It's natural to feel suffocated by this situation. The irony is I also kind of like being stuck at home. I've always had reclusive tendencies, but I've never really had a way of indulging in them till this year. I've never lived alone. Now that the boys are gone, I miss everyone, but to be honest I'm enjoying this peaceful Lilly-imposed confinement far too much for it to be good for me.

The rescue people say she needs company. Their theory is Lilly has been surrounded by other dogs her whole life, and a second greyhound could make her feel more secure. It's a little frightening how tempted I am to try this, but what if a second dog has even more complicated issues? I have to keep reminding myself of the original plan—my job right now is to ready things for our six-month southern relocation, and make sure the SBDs don't figure out a way to wreck it. I'm not supposed to suddenly switch course and open a convalescent home for traumatized dogs.

What makes things worse is that Lilly is still suspicious of David.
(The big one likes her too much. You want him to leave.)
He's really tried, but because he comes and goes so much it's hard for them to bond. In the months before he left for New Orleans, he hit on a sort of Pavlovian technique, banging her metal food bowl at mealtime:

David bangs the bottom of the metal food bowl. BONG BONG BONG BONG BONG.

DAVID. Lilly!

Lilly appears somewhere.

DAVID. Oh, there you are, you sweet thing. Has she forgotten about you, you poor dog? Come here. You're lucky someone still loves you.

David goes to a cabinet to look for the bag of dried dog food.

DAVID. Let's see what we have in here.

Lilly sidles around to look in the cabinet too. David finds the bag.

DAVID. Oh, look at that! You lucky, lucky girl. I wish I could have this. Let me just smell it.

David opens the bag and takes a ridiculously big sniff inside the bag.

DAVID. Mmmmnn … mmmmnnn … I can't believe you get to eat this food. I want this.

David scoops food from the bag, crashing it into the metal bowl making lots of noise.

DAVID. It's too bad she doesn't care about you anymore. Thank God for me. Okay, let's get your cheese.

David, at the refrigerator, looks for the Parmesan cheese in the bottom drawer. Lilly sidles over to look in the bottom drawer too.

DAVID. Oh, cheese, oh, cheese, oh, cheese, oh, cheese …

David finds it, sprinkles lots of cheese on the dried dog food.

DAVID. This is how you know I'm the one who really loves you. I'm not stingy like her. Let's have a listen.

David shakes the metal bowl with the dog food and Parmesan cheese. David and Lilly listen. Lilly's chin quivers.

DAVID. Oh, that sounds so good. I have to hear it again.

David shakes the bowl again. Lilly jumps to see in the bowl.

DAVID. Oh … oh … I have to taste it.

He puts his face in the bowl and pretends to eat.

DAVID. Aaarrgghh, aaargghh …

Lilly's chin nearly quivers off her head.

DAVID. Oh, I wish, I wish this was mine. See what I do for you. I don't even eat it all.

He puts the metal bowl on the floor in its elevated stand.

DAVID. There you go, you lovely girl. Don't you like me better than her? That mean, mean person?

Lilly eats ravenously, scattering dried food over the floor. David, for the time being, sadly believes they are now best friends.

Tragically, just when Lilly began to appreciate him somewhat, David had to leave again, and when he returned one weekend they were back to square one, Lilly slinking to a remote corner the minute he brought his suitcase through the door.

The whole situation doesn't sit right with me. David has made a lot of compromises for his family, passing on jobs that meant too much emotional upheaval for the kids. David loves the stage more than anything, but theater was particularly taxing for the little ones because plays run for months with only one day off a week. I've always feared he feels confined artistically by his family, and now that children aren't an issue I'm very glad he's got more options. The thing is, I've promised him we'll be together. We can't let a dog (particularly one that doesn't even seem to like him much) come between us, but still I feel a responsibility to Lilly. It's not her fault I didn't do my homework about common greyhound emotional quirks before taking her on, and it's not David's fault either. The fault is all mine.

We are not kennel people—Arrow almost died after two weeks at the best place we could find one summer. Since then, we've always managed to find house sitters for the pets, but Lilly's more of a challenge. We have a problem.

My mother was raised in the country. She considers herself the authority on animal-related matters, and firmly believes in a tough-love approach.

—Get rid of it.


—The dog is defective.

Ma made sure we had plenty of pets growing up—she saw animals as essential to our education as human beings. As with everything, she delivered strong opinions on how they should be handled. Many of her edicts made perfect sense:
Dogs need company and regular walks. If you can't commit to walking, don't get a dog. If you're not home during the day, get a cat.
Other rules were traumatizing:
Too many puppies in this litter? They'll kill their mother, and it's impractical to feed by hand. Drown the extras in a barrel.
(Colette, at age thirteen, was actually given this task. She still has nightmares.)

Ma was always disturbingly quick to cull the herd of any she deemed unfit, and as a result my siblings and I each carry grudges about particular favorites. We also feel some gratitude; Ma gave us ponies, and each of us had the chance to experience the birth of puppies and kittens at home. This was both thrilling and hair-raising­. Too often she forgot to get the adoption process under way until after a litter's crucial neutering window had passed. Lacking appropriate partners when puberty struck, dog and cat siblings sought physical gratification with one another. More than once we were overrun with multigenerational, incestuously engineered canine or feline gangs.

Most of Ma's pet mismanagement happened during her Roman Catholic phase. I sometimes wonder if the pope had some influence. Avoiding birth control made sense, but how does pet euthanasia jibe with the pope's position on assisted suicide and the death penalty?

Ma insists religion had nothing to do with her negligence. She says she was pretty messed up in the head during those years for a multitude of reasons, and too distracted to pay much attention to animal management. Whatever the cause, witnessing the results of my mother's pet foibles up close was definitely a valuable education. Her practical rules about dog walking and such have stayed with me, always in the back of my mind, but her mistakes are with me too. It's as if our more unfortunate pets were siblings out of favor, and the helpless shame of not being able to intervene when a beloved family pet was not dealt with compassionately and responsibly still weighs heavily. I think this is probably one of the main reasons I feel a growing sense of anxiety about how to manage Lilly, and I've always made a point of being conscientious with family planning, both animal and human.

I'm in awe of parents we know who have teenagers and still manage to gracefully fold new babies into the household, intended or not. We discovered our limits when I had a pregnancy scare a few years ago during perimenopause—you'd think our world had come to an end. The doctor eventually explained it's not unusual to have false positives on home pregnancy tests when your hormones are going through the change. (Personally I think the SBDs were behind it. The Department of Birth Control Malfunctions, maybe? The closer we are to that golden time when spontaneous travel with David is finally possible, the more devious those nasty little buggers could get.)

There's one woman I know who took great lengths to have children late in life. Gina grew up in a large family, and wanted at least five kids of her own. Birth complications led to a hysterectomy after her second child was born. Having considerable financial means and a mutual taste for adventure, Gina and her husband decided to avail themselves of new technology: a program known as “in vitro fertilization and egg donation,” in which the ovum from a “donor” is fertilized with sperm from the intended father and then implanted in a surrogate.

I cannot stress enough how hard it is for me to relate. An
pregnancy for someone my age I can sort of understand. But on
I'm having enough trouble taking on a needy dog at this stage in my life. Gina and her husband are now overrun by toddlers. They'll be in their seventies when the last is still in college. Why do they seem so ecstatic?


Experienced empty-nester friends have warned that holidays will not be idyllic—I might not completely enjoy having everyone descend on my new peaceful, ordered life.
No way
, I thought.
I'll be over the moon when they come home.
As it turns out, the veterans are a little bit right. I'm glad to see everyone, and of course I wouldn't have it any other way, but to be honest I've kind of enjoyed my break from coordinating everyone's schedules and needs. I've taken so well to this six-week hiatus that a mass Thanksgiving invasion feels a little like—well, like an invasion. Everything's just so hectic all of a sudden.

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