When the writer's dog died, she worried she’d never be able to open her heart again. But her new companion, struggling with her own separation anxiety, showed her the way.
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I am standing on my porch, screaming for Mina, my newly adopted Lab mix. She has muscled out of her crate and wriggled through my apartment window. I’m staring at the displaced window screens on my flat-topped bushes. My bones are wet paper. They twist and tear with each heaving cry. It’s been a damp, doomed stretch of weeks.
For most of my adult life, a dog has greeted me at the door—first, that dog was Tova, the German Shepherd, my companion of nearly a decade, my calm and steady girl, my sweetheart, my honey-bunch, my love. She would have never leapt out of a window—even a ground-floor apartment window—to a long cluster of courts and cul-de-sacs with their fair share of careless, over-caffeinated drivers. But Tova is gone. Now, Mina, the dog I adopted far too soon, is gone.
My desperation to get back to the life I lead just weeks earlier—before Tova’s back legs started to buckle and sway from something far darker than arthritis; before she looked at me with eyes glossy and bright with utter terror; before she could not get up again and I knew what I had to do—is a hot metallic taste that coats my whole mouth and singes my throat, bittersweet as blood, thick as tears. The only two words I can manage, over and over, are “come back.”
Tova first came into my life on the cusp of my 26th birthday. I phrase it this way, rather than, I formally adopted Tova a week after my 26th birthday, because I can still remember the sudden, divine insight that I had to go to the animal shelter right then, right quick, clapping over me. I was sitting at brunch with a very good-looking man who was very bad for me, and sometimes bad to me, a man who was likely using his fifth mimosa to soothe his hangover from last night’s bottle, or two, or who even knows, of wine. Let’s call him K, since he was one of those broody art boys who unironically loved Kafka. He took himself seriously, but not so seriously that he didn’t love it when, half-tipsy or just giddy with the exhilaration of being with a fellow oddball, I’d read passages of The Trial in the voices of the Swedish Chef or Jack Nicholson.
He possessed a tender, attenuated kind of masculine beauty that simultaneously magnified, and was magnified by, how ill-at-ease he was inside his own skin. I was, by conventional standards, emphatically not beautiful: fat, pigeon-toed, and prone to acne on my nose. He was my treasure, even though he’d never love me back. And he knew it. The servers in restaurants, my classmates, the people on the street, looked at me just a little bit differently—if a man who looked like K wanted to be close to me, then I must possess a subterranean value in my own right.
K kept me forever on-call, whenever he’d wrung out all he could from his current main squeeze, whenever he needed a ride home from the bar, or whenever he was lonely. I pawed and whined and bit the bars of my cage, waiting for him to come back to me. I never cut him off, never told him no. I could take it. That Sunday before my birthday, however, I asked for the check before he could order the sixth mimosa. I’m going to the shelter. Right now. The shelter was almost empty, all the available dogs taken to an adoption fair—except for Tova, probable refugee from a puppy mill, a breeder turned loose into the hot May once she’d birthed the last of far too many litters. Her nipples were swollen the size of small saucers—strike one. She was already a big girl, 75 pounds at skin and bones, expected to be nearly 100 pounds at full health; a “power breed”—strikes two and three. The adoption counselor told me that a dog like Tova would require a “pack leader,” someone who could be strong and steady, whose will could match even the most intractable animal’s.
Tova leaned into me, her body, though tired and hungry, radiating affection, even trust. I saw a honeyed alacrity in her dark eyes. As I held her leash for the first time, as we moved together for the first time, hips and legs aligning in a pace that suited us, we became a union, a communion of misfit spirits. Lost in every way there was to be lost, but each possessing an innate, subterranean instinct that kept us alive, at least, until we could be found—or, rather, until we could find our way.
The British historian Emma Wilby, who studies folkloric traditions and the history of witchcraft, describes the relationship between the witch and her familiar as a symbiosis of mutual guardianship and devotion: Wilby writes that the familiar would redeem the witch from “[her] problems … [which] were primarily rooted in the struggle for physical survival—the lack of food or money, bereavement, sickness, loss of livelihood and so on.” My relationship with K was a prolonged bereavement, a bone-deep belief that grief was love, and drinking was love, and endurance without hope or remedy was love.
How gorgeously strange it was to open the door to a creature who danced with joy, hopping from front paw to front paw with an elegance that belied her size, just because I was home. I walked her in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night before bed—the vet said that Tova needed to build up muscle, especially in her hips, which were weak and sore from being confined in an overly-small pen, stretched out only to be bred out. On our first walks, my belly ached with a low, sluicing sort of pain and my chest burned as if someone had taken a match to a mound of coal. I realized that I could be the brassy broad who matched K drink-for-drink, a real tough chick who was too bloated, too sodden to walk a block; or I could be strong enough to take my big dog, a dog who’d never smelled the damp, loamy soil near a riverbed or felt warm gravel under her paws, on adventures. But I couldn’t be both.
And I wanted the adventures. I wanted to be the kind of woman who could sit, alone, reading and writing, dreaming and thinking, and be complete. Although, of course, I was never alone. There was Tova, gnawing her bones; snoozing in her bed; resting, ever-vigilant, at my feet. Proving, with her steady presence, that love doesn’t have to a resplendent firecracker of grief. Sometimes, love is love.
Tova became as attached to my life, as much a part of moving it forward, as the fibers banding through a muscle. She was my companion when I left K and when I left the prohibitively expensive city where I attended grad school; when I started working jobs that came with health insurance and when I realized, quite inconveniently, that my real passion, my real and improbable vocation, was writing and making art. I burrowed further into my work, because work was a snug, earthen bunker—a hide-away from all the pain and pressure that comes from Other People. But Tova’s companionship was a dynamic force: I joked that she was my social director, making sweet-eyes at the neighbors as I walked her. I started little container gardens on our front porch—pink and white begonias, sweet basil and lemon balm, rosemary and sage—so we could have a fragrant place to sit and be together. The children in my apartment complex called her a “good wolf,” and asked me if I was “a good witch.”
She made me feel powerful and safe, not only because grown men sometimes crossed the street once they saw her. Tova was the “what a gorgeous dog!” that everyone who didn’t balk at her size or her breed asked to pet. Sure, her bite mass was 238 pounds of pressure, but to anyone who was kind to me, she was the rascal with “lots of personality!” in the stories I could tell (like how she once licked and kissed a full face of make-up off a local TV anchor). She made me, vicariously, more charming, more attractive, more interesting, in my own right. We were a unit: “Laura-and-Tova.” There is some truth to that corn-pone prayer “Lord, let me be the person my dog thinks I am.” As Laura-and-Tova, I grew confident enough to leave a desperately miserable day job to take a high-paying contract gig I liked and pursue my writing full-time. My personal essays, pop-culture analyses, and feminist screeds landed at dream publications. Laura-and-Tova marked an ascendant period—the most ascendant period of my life—where the measure of my toughness wasn’t how much I could endure, but how much I could accomplish: I could be a good witch, formidable yet kind, the kind of person that my dog already was.
Over eight years, Tova’s muzzle greyed and her hips clicked when she stood after a long sleep. Still, I caught myself saying “if Tova dies,” instead of “when.” Tova wouldn’t just lick my cheeks, she’d anoint my face with her tongue, her breath so hot and so close it could’ve come out of my own mouth. How could she die, when it would be the end of me as well? But one cold night, after the first frost killed the garden, she fell and couldn’t stand again. I sat on the floor with her head in my lap, and I begged God, the gods, the saints, and the spirits—whoever is out there, please hear me—to save her. But the next cold morning, the vet said there was nothing he could do. When the needle descended softly into her limb, and her heart-rate descended softly into stillness, something inside me—everything that made me feel safe and strong—descended, swift and hard, through the floor, to the earth, someplace I could never find it, where it would never come back.
I meet Mina two weeks after Tova put her head down and sighed for the very last time. The begonias are still shriveled and browned in their pots and tumbleweeds of Tova’s fur still roll over the carpet when the heat kicks on. I buy a bottle of whiskey and it becomes my dinners—along with gobs of Nutella heaped straight from the jar. Friends, including the friend who forwards me the link to a rescue group that has just taken a group of dogs from a kill shelter in West Virginia, tell me that Tova wouldn’t want me to be alone and unhappy. I am not just alone and unhappy: I vibrate with misery. I don’t throw the begonias away. I don’t vacuum. My body aches, as if loneliness is a fever that will never break. I go to my contractor job, and that makes me competent, even brave. Then, the firm loses a major client and my manager calls me into her office, and her eyes tell me that the axe is about to fall before she says the words “I’m sorry.” Afterward, I will sit at a bus stop and weep until I’m nauseous. I file my essays, even though it’s getting harder to place a piece that isn’t crackerjack analysis about the forthcoming presidential election, so I edit technical reports and craft corporate listicles. I exist in a fugue-state, my mind amber-thick and my mouth always dry. The wry, writerly part of me appreciates the metaphoric significance of taking in a black dog while in a deep depression.
I certainly don’t expect to adopt another dog so soon. But the first time I smile, let alone laugh, is when Mina squats to take a giant shit in the middle of the store as her foster mom recounts her tale of woe: displaced by a flood, caught raiding a chicken farm and taken to a kill shelter where her fate as a large, black-furred dog was all but sealed until the rescue group took her in. Even now, the foster mom says, she’s crated most of the day. Mina’s insouciant little squat reminds me of Tova’s very first minutes as my very first pet in my very first apartment: She strolled from room-to-room with the casual haughtiness of a very rich woman taking in a gallery exhibit and peed on each of the floors to announce herself. The foster mom offers gentle cautions like “hasn’t really walked on a leash before,” and “has that Lab energy,” and, “separation anxiety.” But I don’t hear them. I don’t want to hear them. I don’t want to be alone in a cold apartment with dead flowers on the porch. I don’t want to be alone with my dwindling bank account, with my fear of never writing anything that doesn’t include the word synergy, with my fear of starving.
My first weeks with Mina are a hell of clawed walls and torn-up floorboards; of her crate door wrenched off its hinges; of her paws, bloodied on bent metal, and my knees, bloodied as she pulled me down, over and over, bucking and unruly on her leash; of my skin cut and bruised because she can’t stop jumping or pawing, she is so feral with need. When I leave the apartment to go a state-mandated unemployment class or yet another unsuccessful interview, she howls and hurls herself into the crate (or, if she’s escaped the crate before I’ve even reached my car, into the doorframe). She races through my apartment with a kinetic fervor that the websites cutesily call “the zoomies”—though they are anything but cute, because I am no match for the full heft of her, running at full speed. I am wholly unprotected from her. I am wholly unprepared for her. I cower and sob that she is not my baby. I want my baby to come back.
Google searches for “what happens when a familiar dies” send me deep down a wormhole of gaudily designed LiveJournal pages and Reddit forums that share the same Rainbow Bridge poem, the same advice about self-care during grief that I’ve already been ignoring, and the same spells and invocations to help our “beloved animals’ souls transition.” At first, nothing tells me what I want to know: If a witch, without her familiar, loses her power. Then, I see images of women with shorn heads cowering in prison cells. Of grotesquely old women with hunchbacks and rotting skin. Of women on fire. Then comes that day, a surprisingly nice fall day, the day I forget to close the window when I leave the apartment. The day I come home to find the window screen on the bushes, the crate door open, and Mina, gone.
I walk the apartment complex, searching for her. My body becomes the scream, loud and shaking, a boneless echo of terror. I willed this—the car wheel that will find her on a dark road; the man who will lure her into his car with Milkbones and ear-rubs, only to toss her in a cement ring that reeks of other dogs’ blood and fear; or the rabid racoon that catches her at the throat—because I could not be strong enough, steady enough, to handle her. I beg God, the gods, the saints, and the spirits—whoever is out there, please hear me—to save her. I beg Tova to forgive my weak will and my tarnished heart, to give me another chance to be strong and steady for this intractable animal.
Then, one of the workmen approaches me with Mina at his side: He’s found her near a neighbor’s yard; she never went far. She trots beside him with a makeshift leash of soft rope, her mouth wide and panting in a way that looks like a smile. That night, I let her into bed beside me; we lay back to back, our spines touch like two crescent moons inhabiting the same sky. My own breath is tired and ragged, so I give myself over to the calm, easy rhythm of hers.
Mina comes back to me in my time of great need, so I try to understand hers. Separation anxiety is a kind of grief—a state of panic created by an absence. It’s most commonly diagnosed in small children and in animals, creatures whose entire lives orbit like tiny planets in the tender palms of their god-large guardians. Whose presence brings light and love, all manner of sustenance—and whose leaving strips it all away, like a switch flicked to darken the sun. Dogs lack the balm of language; they will never know what it means to go to work or out to the grocery store: Every absence is a cause for mourning.
I join the Facebook groups for separation anxiety, I talk to the vet, and I take notes during conversations with savvier friends who’ve been through this with their own dogs. I stand outside the front door for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes—and I return to her only after she’s stopped crying and clawing at the door. It becomes a ritual, a prayer for peace-of-mind; 15 minutes becomes 20 minutes; 20 minutes becomes a walk around the block, outside of sniffing distance; a walk outside of sniffing distance becomes a drive; and eventually, a drive becomes a few hours away. She trusts that I will return. I trust that I can lead her. We walk the same patch of sidewalk, learning how to handle the leash. We sit, stay, down; sit, stay, down; sit, stay, down, until the neighborhood children clap for Mina, who is “acing her homework.” The good witch is teaching her black dog to heel.
I teach Mina that there is more than the moment when the door closes; there is also, always, a homecoming. She comes to feel safe, knowing that I will return: When I leave now, she climbs onto my bed, fearful howls replaced by the hominess of creaking bedsprings. I come to feel safe in the knowledge that I can return, from the center of the fire (and, of course, from day jobs I take to keep us afloat, to give me some space to try and write things that matter). As we knit into our own little pack, Laura-and-Mina, I stop defining myself through all I’ve lost—my livelihood and so much money, my sense of pride and purpose. My bereavement isn’t just a test of endurance without hope, or remedy: It teaches me that power isn’t bestowed by some celestial whim. Power is, like love, a doing word. I plant another garden, with marigolds and begonias, and I place the brightest, prettiest flowers on the box of Tova’s ashes. And I remember the dream I had on that night when the first frost stole everything I thought I’d ever love: all the doors and window of the apartment open, the space warm and full of light.
- Tova and Mina
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