This is not about dogs

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The other day my dad was telling me how he finally put his dog down, how he sat up with her all night while she had seizure after seizure. He hadn't slept in 72 hours. He said at one point the previous night he couldn't keep himself from crying and the dog got up from her seizures seeming to forget what she was going through just to lick the tears off his cheeks. I could tell he was tearing up on the phone with me then. This was a man I'd once seen load and point a rifle at a dog, he was so sick of her barking all day long and eating the drywall. One time he nailed a dog into the doghouse he built for her just because the damn dog wouldn't use the damn doghouse he built for her so he just nailed her right in there. I can still remember the hollow barking of that dog from the other side of plywood. This was no man to be crying over a dog.

"It was like when you were a little baby," he said. "She was crying all night and I felt like there was something she wanted me to do for her, but she couldn't tell me what it was. Like when we first brought you home from the hospital. I was terrified by you," he said. "You and your sister. And I was even scared of Juney when we first visited you guys after she was born. I hated that feeling. It got much easier for me when you could talk." Then he continued on about the dog: "You know, she was crying like that all night long so I just sat with her but she couldn't tell me what was wrong or what I could do." Ultimately, the dog was able to communicate what she needed him to do.

"You understood her," I said.

"The final vet bill was $400 but I'd give ten times that to get her back," he said. Now that doesn't seem like so much, you might suggest, but this a pure-blooded Dutchman we're talking about here. To a Dutchman, this was the equivalent of an incredible emotional breakthrough.

* * * * *

All weekend I did not think about the dead dog. But I thought much about what my dad had said about being terrified by me.

You come into the world so helpless. And yet, you have the power to render a grown man helpless, to drown him in terror. You're this tiny little thing but you have this presence so large it lilliputs your parents in their place. You encroach more than you'll ever know. You cause your parents to speak differently, to use words they've never intended to use and discard dozens that might have been among their favorites. Even in the most ambitious you might set to steam all flames of ambition. You might change in them the very meaning of success. Even before you have much of an identity of your own, you become what they are all about. You supplant everything. You demand much. You're a total pain-in-the-ass, to be honest. But if you are lucky they will always hold you and rock you through to contentment. Even if you terrify them.

Lately I have been thinking more and more about those days when we brought Juniper home from the hospital, those days of balancing desire for sleep with the urgency of knowing that she was still breathing. As hard as those days were, there was a simplicity to her needs that I miss. It was easy to feel we were doing a good job: she only demanded that we keep her fed and warm. These days, Juniper will come to me and say, "Dada keep me nice and safe?" And I'll hold her close up against me with her head on my shoulder, sometimes for almost an hour. I miss those first days with her so deeply I'd hold her like that as long as she'll let me, drowsed by her lungs pumping against my chest. Now that she's talking so much and demanding so much more of me, I can't help but feel that I am failing her, that I am doomed to fail her for the rest of my life.

After my father told me I terrified him when I was a baby, I did not think of how hard that must have been on my mom, or consider it in the context of my own over-doting fatherhood. Instead I remembered a sleepless night at a time when I was so stricken with anxiety over how to avoid an already-adolescent fifth grader who had been beating me up before school every day, I hadn't slept for several nights. My parents must have been baffled at what to do. I never spoke about what was happening at school. That night my dad just sat next to my bed and kept his hand my head and petted and scratched my temples softly like one might comfort a dying dog. I slept that night. That memory came back to me clear as anything.