To be honest, it was the emptiness that prompted me to let my life be overrun with chaos – namely, a puppy.
I held out for two months after my 10-year-old golden retriever had to be put down, mostly unable to come to a decision about whether to get a dog, and if so, what kind. I have shared my life with goldens for 30 years, with the addition of Irish setter genes in the first dog I ever acquired. But I wanted to see if I could make it without a dog, even the happy countenance and assumed intimacy that golden retrievers almost always embody.
I have to say, life became a lot simpler, my schedule freer, my mornings more relaxed, my evenings quieter, before the new dog moved from western Massachusetts to the woods of Maine to occupy my home. I found my days suddenly swept clean of the anxieties of being a caretaker. I had so much more time and real liberation.
And I hated it.
I tried fostering a dog for a Southern rescue organization, and failed. Dogs saved from shelters – especially high-kill shelters – quite often are strays or are surrendered by people who took less-than-diligent care of them. These dogs frequently have “issues” – health problems like heartworms, skin allergies aggravated by fleas or ticks, congenital defects from accidental, imprudent breeding, psychological complications including anxiety, fear and reticence, occasionally even aggression – some of the predictable outcomes of having been abandoned, neglected or abused by the people they loved. Mere survival takes a lot of energy and exacts a terrible toll, particularly on animals who have wed their fates to human beings.
I visited many breeders and met beautiful, happy, healthy dogs – many puppies, and even a few adolescents. Everywhere I visited, I saw worthy candidates for canine companionship, but I always stopped just shy of getting a dog, because my heart was still reverberating with grief for the one I lost.
And then, almost by accident, I read about a family in Deerfield, Mass., who was going to have a litter of golden retrievers available in a month. I called and called and called, and finally, the owner – a teacher and mother who is always busy with child-rearing or teaching – surfaced and responded.
The next weekend I went with a friend to visit the pups. I could not decide whether I wanted one that would ultimately have that blocky-headed look of certain retrievers or another, a little more petite female who appeared to be the runt, but not by much.
It took another two weeks for me to twist my mind around the idea of a puppy, because, though they are charming beyond belief, they demand a huge commitment of time and energy, training and patience. I wasn’t sure I had the flexibility in my life to pull it off.
But all the reasons I felt reluctant were the same as the ones that urged me toward bringing a new dog into my life, plus the major factor: Quite simply, I felt my days had been emptied of the kind of joy that a dog can bring, and that vacancy was too much to bear.
So, with a feeling of willingly jumping off a very high cliff into who knows what, I set off for western Massachusetts to pick up the small dog, who, by the way, is less little every day. It took a few days, but she finally got the name Cassie, short for Casco Bay. My life has been thrown into a turbulence of finding the right, good dog food (because there are many inadequate, even injurious, brands, breeders have told me); erecting crates of various sizes in several locations, including the car; making veterinary visits; setting up daycare arrangements; chasing off coyotes who showed up in the yard one night to pluck the golden bon-bon from the lawn; and getting accustomed to a puppy who prefers to sleep on the bed, and often, on my head.
I am so tired. I am so happy.
Delight is the most substantial and lasting gift that dogs have brought me, and puppies in particular. They are, in a sense, liveliness resurrected; they welcome the world with new eyes and a fresh spirit, undiminished by bad news brimming in the human world or financial burdens that have to be negotiated every month.
The puppy races across the yard, through high, uncut grass and ends each mini-marathon with a sideways somersault, a jubilant, full-throttle roll. She has selected two conifers as places to create caves, the better to hide or escape. Though she weighs only 12 pounds, she can take up the entire bed, and she has weaseled her way into a position that manifests each morning as a small, golden head on the pillow next to me.
She has not eliminated the thrumming of grief and loneliness I feel for the dog I lost; I don’t think anything or anyone ever could. But she has proven to me that the ocean of mourning spills onto a shore defined by spontaneous laughter and carefree abandon; that life, if you let it in, is fun – and exhaustingly full.
For all the energy a little dog consumes, the reminders of good and gladness in the internal landscape and the external lay of the land are worth it. I had forgotten how exciting a shaft of light dancing on leaves and grass could be; I had lost touch with the miracle of intact shoelaces.
And there’s much more ahead, I know. For one thing, she hasn’t yet even started to swim.
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: