A Pup Is Born
This winter we had to say goodbye to Betty. It was absolutely the hardest thing that I have ever had to do. She was a month shy of turning fourteen and lived her life to the fullest. I often think of all the random people that Betty made smile during her life. It was literally thousands. I know that almost everyone feels that his or her dog is more "special" than anyone else’s is. That’s how it should be. In this case, it was no different. For me, and for many of the other people in her life, she was the best dog that ever was.
I had rehearsed "that" day hundreds of times over the past fourteen years. I’m not sure what benefit I had hoped to gain from it. I suppose my rationale was that if I could somehow imagine how difficult it would be, that it might hurt less when the time came. I was wrong. It didn’t help at all. There are certain experiences in life when the actuality is much different from the mental images that we conjure up before. It is the emotion that simply cannot be "fabricated" before the event occurs. This is true for highs - one’s wedding, birth of a child; and as well as lows - the loss of a loved one.
It has taken me a while to be ready to put these words down on paper. It may sound cliché, but I lost a part of me when she passed. To this day, I miss her even more than I thought that I would. These next few columns are dedicated to Betty, my first-born pup, the one who will forever hold a special place in my heart...
From the day that she came into my life, just two days after she turned seven weeks, Betty made me incredibly happy. I found her in a Boston Globe classified. She was born in a gritty, coastal North Shore city. Of all the cities in Massachusetts, this one is either considered the armpit or the asshole, depending on which way you place Massachusetts’s head. Her "breeder" listed the ad as "Black Lab/ Springer Spaniel puppies." I put the term "breeder" in quotes, because typically, breeders don’t breed mutts. And as we’d later find out, Betty wasn’t the mix she was sold as. Her vet later surmised that she was probably a Black Lab/Gordon Setter mix. It was also possible that she was a Heinz 57 dog - a mix of many breeds. None of this mattered to me. In reality, while I love my goods designer, I prefer my dogs mutts. And if Betty were a designer dog, she would be the Birkin bag of dogs. She was the proverbial pick of the litter.
We met on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May of 1999. Joan, the "breeder", replete in a poly-blend housecoat and curlers under a kerchief, sat smoking her Virginia Slim 120s on a metal lawn chair on the sidewalk in front of her stoop. As the nylon straps of her lawn chair stretched towards the sidewalk, I could hear them crying for mercy. She beckoned one of her kids to get the puppies. Between drags of her cigarette, she reached for her Big Gulp of her high-fructose corn syrup laden beverage from under the chair. Along came a slew of six puppies, all of them deliciously adorable. There were four girls and two boys. I wanted a girl dog. I’ve always been fond for female animals because I think they can be more gentle and maternal. This probably sounds strange coming from Mr. Mom, but it’s just a feeling I have, not necessarily based on any fact. I watched Betty. She was playful and spunky, swatting at the woman’s Big Gulp with every chance she got. My boyfriend, Matt and I agreed that she was the one. We had been on a streak of not agreeing on many things, so it was a refreshing change.
We got into the car and I held Betty on my lap. She cried when she left her littermates. I cuddled her closer, thinking about how confused she must be. I promised her that I would do right by her and give her a good life. I then turned to Matt and said, "I think this dog is going to enrich our lives." He made fun of my waxing poetic. It irked me a bit. I was, however, right. At the time, I didn’t even know how right I would be.
Right off the bat, Betty turned out to be a smart dog. She had a thirst for learning and was eager to pick up new tricks. By twelve weeks, she could sit, give her paw and high five. She was also a feisty gal. We had planted marigolds in the garden. Betty would hover over one until you made eye contact with her. Then she’d rip the entire plant out of the ground and run circles around the garden, thoroughly pleased with the reaction she had elicited. It was hard to get upset with her.
Betty also helped keep me fit. She demanded exercise and I was happy to give it to her. She was my first dog and I wanted to develop that bond that I heard so many speak of. We would go for walks and go to parks two or three times a day. During the day, she went to doggie day care so she would get socialized with other pups. While Betty loved to be around other dogs, she was truly a people dog. I’m fairly certain that she believed herself to be human. She had her core group of peeps that she simply adored. All that it took was the mere mention of a name and she would go into a flutter of excitement that included both this "I can’t control my excitement" whimper and a dance. The dance was done sitting on her rump and then tapping with her front paws. At first, I thought that I could train her to do it on command. Shortly after, I realized that it was pure emotion. She could only do it because she felt it. That was part of what made her and her dance so special.
A few months after getting Betty, it had become clear that my nearly three-year relationship with Matt was coming to an end. We were fighting more than the Real Housewives of New Jersey, minus the real furs and fake boobs. As things worsened, we’d sleep in different rooms. Betty always followed me. This put some proverbial salt on the wound. When I decided to move out, I had come to terms with the need for us to break up, but my biggest concern was keeping Betty. I wasn’t going to give her up. I had envisioned scenes from both "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Not Without My Daughter." It never came to that. Matt said he thought it best for me to keep her. I was relieved and grateful.
Betty and I moved into the Italian family compound. She and I shared an apartment on the third floor of the house. When I’d go to work, I’d leave her downstairs with my grandparents. It was good to know that she and they had company while I was at work. She would start her day watching the morning Mass on TV with my grandfather. When he stood, she stood. When he sat, she sat. Genuflecting was a bit tricky, but her intentions were always good.
My grandmother did what Italian nonnas do - she would try to sneak her food whenever she could. I referred to her as a loose Vegas slot machine. I wanted Betty to be a well-trained, healthy dog. I begged them not to feed her table scraps and never to feed her at the table. It was harder to train them than it was to train her. Having seen the effects of portion control on my parents’ twenty-two pound, morbidly obese cat who liked not to be patted, but instead whacked on the ass like a horse, I knew I needed to be firm. I conditionally agreed to let them give her bread as a treat - after dinner and never from the table. As a result, Betty grew a penchant for not just any bread, but old world crusty bread. If you tried to give her a piece of Wonder bread, she would literally spit it out and walk away. Her palate was more refined than that of many Americans.
For the next three years, Betty and I searched for Mr. Right. Along the way, we kissed more toads than either of us cared to remember. Essentially, if there were a closeted homo or a drunk within a seventy-five mile radius, they would flock to me as though I was the Piped Piper playing a tune. The worst was when the two would come together. That was the perfect storm. I remember one tragic queen who considered himself not to be gay, but to be "a guy who likes guys." Mary, here’s a newsflash for you... Do you know what they call men who have sex with men? Gay. Now march your ass over to therapy. Stat. I updated my profile to include a clause on being out of the closet and not attached to a bottle of vodka as if it were an IV of life sustaining fluid.
I was also perfectly clear in my profile that Mr. Right had to love dogs. I met this one guy for coffee who apparently failed Reading Comprehension 101. When the topic of Betty came up, he said, "Yeah, I can tolerate dogs." Tolerate? Oh. No. He. Didn’t. I have a different sense of toleration. I can tolerate watching a baseball game. I can tolerate Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Well, barely, but you get my point. But Betty is my dog-child. She does not fall in the realm of toleration. I don’t have an absurdly long list of non-negotiable items. There are two, however, that are very important. First, you will adore this dog as much, or even more than I do. Second, don’t ever bring canned pasta or jarred sauce into my home. It gives me hives like shoes made in China. OK, so three things. But who is counting? And so back to my online dating site I returned. They weren’t all horrible. Periodically, I would find someone who had potential, but ultimately, the dating game is one that can be exhilarating as well as exhausting. As I rode this wild roller coaster, I realized one thing. Throughout it all, I could always count on Betty. Always. She was by my side through thick and thin. She listened, didn’t judge, she was dependable and was perennially ecstatic to see me. One day, I got to the point in which I was ready to put the whole "find a man" business on hold. I had just convinced Betty that we should swear off men and take our vows on becoming celibate lesbian separatists and it happened. I met Greg...