Archive for the ‘My Real Life’ Category

Family of Choice, or How a Little Dog Brought Us Together

October 27, 2010 2 comments

The Bride holds him tightly, a 20-pound ball of course tan fur, some of it tan but a lot of it white. He’s wrapped in a polka dot blanket we bought years ago at a big box discount store, a blanket that he long since adopted as his own. Grandmom stands next to the Bride, tears appearing from behind large glasses and streaking down her pale face. The Bride’s eyes are swollen and rimmed red from crying for the past two days, when we started to understand what we needed to do. I stand next to her, my hand shifting from her arm to his tiny body, his once-black face now mostly white poking out from the blanket. His name is Elliot, and we are waiting with the last few moments we have with him.

* * *

The Bride and I met on the Internet. Yes, we did. And we did it long before and everyone else started talking about Internet dating. We met when it was considered weird and creepy. She traveled 2,600 miles to be with a guy with two kids, an ex-wife, and a litany of issues he wasn’t ready to deal with. The culture shift was huge. Massive. Words can’t do justice to the change from the Left Coast to Appalachia, the buckle of the Bible Belt. She has everything that matters to her shipped here, an 8′-by-8′ crate containing more than 30 years of her life and decades before of family history. But Elliot she has sent out on a Sunday, the only day apparently the airline ships pets. He’s a pug. I have no clue what a pug is. They’re small and flat faced, like they’ve run repeatedly into the wall.

She loves this little dog in ways that I can’t comprehend at the time, but we drive five hours to North Carolina in a crappy VW Golf with various and sundry handles falling off the doors and find the spot in the airport where this dog is. They open his crate and he bolts out like a coiled fawn spring, and in that moment I think he might be the funniest-looking creature I’ve ever seen. He’s beyond the pale happy to see the Bride, though, and we take him and his crate and walk him outside where he proceeds to potty two minutes longer than Austin Powers. I swear I hear three planes land in the time he has his leg in the air. It’s dark and rainy on the drive back, and we stop at Popeye’s for dinner and leave him in the car and from our table we see him, staring out the window as if to say “I flew all the way here and THIS is what I get?” We save a few bites for him, and he devours them happily.

* * *

Elliot is 15, which is well into the doggy AARP range. The Bride got him as a rescue more than eight years ago, where his first owners had him as a show dog, until they died and he was taken by another family, and they kept him outside and he had to fight with other dogs for food and by the time he’s rescued he is covered in scabs and infection and he smells to high heaven and his breath would repel attackers. The Bride loves him and spends a small fortune to get him healed up and he becomes her constant companion. When he’s here, I have no clue what to do with him. Never had an indoor dog. Never had a dog sleep in bed with me. Never had a dog that owned his own clothes. He has jackets and sweaters. The Offspring (the children from Marriage Uno, not the 90s proto-punk band) don’t know what to do with him, either. He is driven by nothing else but love. He loves the Offspring, who are scared to death of him for months, though there reaches a point where the Elder Offspring wants her picture with Elliot in his sweater. In the picture’s she’s obviously tentative, and she’s squatted about two feet from Elliot, but they’re in the frame together, so technically it’s a picture of them together.

* * *

The Bride tells me she thinks it might be time for Elliot. As hard as it might be for me to think about it, I know she’s devastated by this. We know we’ve been holding this off for a while now. Elliot has a degenerative disc issue, and as he’s aged his spine has become more and more arched, his walking more difficult and more painful. He was on one med for a long time, until it stopped working, and then it became a stronger med, and then one day he can’t stand on his own, and the vet gives up another med and he says this might help but at this point everything we do is delaying the inevitable. That’s fine. Neither the Bride nor I are really wanting to rush the inevitable.

There are other issues, though. He slides across the hardwood and tile, so we create a path of carpets and rugs for him to walk on, a hodgepodge of runner rugs and carpet samples. His sight has been iffy for years, and by now we know he is basically left with shadows and movements and that’s about it. He gets lost easily in our small apartment, sometimes finding himself facing into a corner and unsure or unable to get out. But it’s easy to live in denial since he still eats, he still moves around, he still makes his opinion known with little problem. Ignore that new tricks have to be developed to get him to eat (add peanut oil, add wet food, set his bowl in a particular space and place). Ignore that his movements have been more and more painful, and at bedtime there was sad groans that we can’t decide are from pain or just from him struggling to get comfortable. Ignore that he’s losing bladder control. Ignore all of these things, and he’s great, and when the Bride mentions this to me, I go into complete denial mode. Just because I’ve had the same thoughts doesn’t mean I want Elliot to go. The Bride’s talked to Grandmom about it, and she agrees that maybe it’s time. This is when I know it is, indeed, time.

* * *

The Bride is walking Elliot in the neighborhood one random Friday when the woman we’ll end up calling Grandmom sees them as she stares out the window of her hair saloon, with her under the dryer waiting for her perfect little blonde bouffant to dry. She gets insanely excited and tells the saloon owner she HAS to meet this woman walking this pug. We know the hairdresser, and he says sure, he’ll introduce her to the Bride.

Grandmom is maybe five foot, on a generous day, pale as buttermilk, with gold sparkles in her hair. The Bride is six foot, tattoos, Wonder Woman meets Betty Paige. Grandmom is married to a retired state politician who’s now reached his gentleman lawyer phase of life. They never had children, only the children from Granddad’s first marriage. From one of his sons is where Grandmom’s pug love initially blooms, and when she sees the Bride and Elliot, she’s thrilled. A friendship builds between the Bride and Grandmom. Eventually we end up invited over to their home, the Bride and myself and Elliot, of course. Dinner are had. Copious cigarettes are smoked. Stories are told. Time passes and at some point, I can’t remember when, this little woman and her almost-as-diminutive husband tell us “Just call us ‘Grandmom’ and ‘Granddad.'” When the Bride and Grandmom go out together, Grandmom tells people the Bride is her daughter. Eyebrows cock so high it’s almost audible.

We find ourselves at their home for holidays, random dinners, no particular reason whatsoever. We begin to reach that strange ether where everyone ceases just being friends and becomes family. For the Bride, who lost both of her parents, and for myself, who doesn’t have contact with parents by choice, this is a mysterious thing. We can’t figure out why this couple, a couple who are notoriously private and protective of themselves, open so wide their arms for this ragtag set of orphans and their funny little dog. That little dog snores happily in front of the fireplace one winter night as we stretch out on the couch and Grandmom and Granddad sit in their chairs and we all soak up the warmth and, corny as it may seem but God it’s true, we soak up the love.

* * *

Elliot sees us at our best and at our worst. He watches as we battle, we spend years going back and forth, the Bride struggling with culture shock and becoming a stepmother and a wife, me remaining stubborn and bull-headed and refusing to relent an inch, no matter the tears, no matter the emotional damage. Another pug appears, another rescue, when our vet calls and tells us about one who needs a home.

Tallulah Belle comes home in December, and within a month both the Bride and I have to get tetanus shots for dog bites after we each have to separate Lula and Elliot in their own battles to be top dog. Time continues to tick on. The Bride goes into recovery, gets sober, and I continue to ignore that I have any issues. There’s a period where we’re both jobless, and the only reason we have food is because Grandmom shows up every Friday with fresh supplies, milk and eggs and potatoes and hamburger. Things gets better before they get worse. We both get duly employed. Things continue getting worse because I can’t say I’m got a problem. Then the Bride gets the email that forces me to admit I have a problem. Fighting it tooth and nail, I get help. The Bride and I find ourselves in recovery together. We work to rebuild things. Grandmom and Granddad encourage us along the way. Elliot watches with his quiet sense of authority, Lula with her whiplash energy, and eventually we add Peyton, who most closely resembles the buzzard from “Bugs Bunny” cartoons.

In December, Granddad goes to the hospital. He’s lost weight, he’s tired, he wants to know what’s wrong. He’s told he had an inoperable tumor in his lungs. Two weeks to two months. With struggling breaths he says the Bride and me to keep on working on our marriage. “It’s worth it, kids,” he says. “Love each other. It’s worth it.” One week after the doctors tell him about the tumor, he’s gone.

* * *

Words really fail to describe Elliot’s spirit. The Bride has always said she pictures him in little goggles, a cap and a scarf, head hanging out the window of a Mini Cooper. He has always possessed this beautiful dignity that’s indescribable. This is why we know that it’s time. We make the arrangements with the vet’s office. We take Elliot to Grandmom’s and let him have a run through the yard. Years earlier, when he could run, Elliot OWNED this yard. He did perimeter walks and left his mark everywhere he could. Who would dare venture into this yard? The baddest of badass dogs had been there.

At the vet’s they lead us into one of the examination rooms. The Bride holds Elliot while Grandmom stands beside them and I crouch down and consider grabbing him and taking him home and not doing this, he’s OK, he’ll make it. But I know how quiet, how peaceful he was on the ride over. Somehow we know he knows. It’s quick. The vet gives him a sedative and we can almost feel him relaxing into the inevitable. We cry uncontrollably while Elliot sighs contentedly. We have our final moments with him, and the vet returns and there’s another injection, and in less than a minute he’s gone. He lies there peacefully and we gather around him and we cry. We cry not just his loss, but our loss, the loss of a special little spirit, a furry, four-legged soul who helped bring us together for this final goodbye.

* * *

The Bride introduced me to the term “family of choice.” It’s those people you draw close to yourself, who you opt to share your life with. I think of this when I think of Elliot and the people he helped bring into our lives. We are a funny family, the Bride and Grandmom and myself, with Lula and Peyton at our ankles and staring up with loving eyes. We’re not a group you’d ever put together for any particular reason, as seemingly random as one of those teams they always assemble in movies for a final mission.

I find myself increasingly grateful for this family of choice. The pain of losing Granddad, the pain of losing Elliot, is met with the joy of dinners with Grandmom and being met at the top of the stairs by yipping little dogs. It’s a fortunate thing to have people you love, and it’s always amazing when you consider where they come from.

In this, they came from a little dog, one for whom I will always be grateful, and who I will always miss.

Thanks, Elliot. We love you.

Categories: My Real Life