Borrowed Voices

Coco
I have lived with dogs for 22 years. Channing, Coco, Toby of York (Toby), Victor Lorde Riley (Riley). But I have been with Toby the longest. Like an old married couple, we are familiars; we know each other’s quirks and preferences; we are comfortably with the rhythm of our life together as the tides wash us up against each other and pull us apart, secure in the knowledge that it will also bring us back together again. We take comfort in each other’s presence even when I am writing and he is sleeping at my feet. Our nearness is enough.

Channing, Coco, Toby, Riley. I have learned so much from living with dogs. This post is all about what I have leaned form the canine companions I’ve been lucky enough to know.

Approach every stranger as if he or she was a friend, a potential ally. If they respond by throwing shade your way, hike up your tail and walk away.

Help your friends. Coco used to always rush to the kitchen door to greet me when she

heard the garage door open. After she went deaf, Toby would run to her bed, wake her and lead her to the kitchen door.

Live in the moment; don’t project your expectations and fears on every adventure. This was the hardest for me to learn/adapt. In truth, it wasn’t until my doctor started me on Klonopin that I gained the ability to live in the moment—Let he who has not needed pharmaceutical intervention cast the first Prozac—to not imagine the worst possible outcome of every adventure.

Allow no room for self-pity; be determined. Six years ago, Toby ruptured a disc in his
Toby
neck. He ended up paralyzed from the neck down. We rushed him to Penn where surgery was performed 18 hours after the rupture. We saw him the day after his surgery. I am loud; stress and anxiety make me louder. I will never forget turning onto the ward, where Toby was being exercised to keep his muscles from atrophying. He couldn’t walk or stand but hearing my voice, he wiggled on his belly moving, painfully, slowly, towards the sound of my voice. I don’t think I’ve ever cried harder than I did at the moment I witnessed him, paralyzed, doing his best to get to me.

It’s not always in the words. Because dogs are non-verbal, I’ve learned to read non-verbal cues: is he feeling unwell? does he need to go out? Is he too hot? The hardest cue they give you is when they have had enough living, when they want you to let them go. People will break your heart regularly and for various reasons; a dog will break your heart only once and that is only because he can no longer shuffle alongside you on this mortal coil.

Channing & Me
That brings me to the next thing I’ve learned from having dogs: the heart breaks; the heart heals. After losing Channing, after losing Coco, the pain was so great I didn’t think I could love another but then it occurred to me that they were each such wonderful dogs that the best thing I could do to honor their memory was to rescue another. I’d grieve for each of them whether I had another dog or not but how much less selfish to give another dog a chance while healing.

Be your best self. When we adopted him, Toby was…difficult. We were his fourth home in his 18 months on this earth. He was loud, determined, slightly out-of-control. In short, he was a canine version of me. With patience (and a very expensive trainer) he calmed down a little. About a year or two ago, a man approached us and asked what kind of dog Toby was. “Silky terrier,” I responded.
“Is he a good dog? he asked as my friend rolled her eyes.
“He’s the best dog he knows how to be.” I responded. “I can’t ask for more than that.”
I can’t ask for more than that from him and I can’t ask for more than that from myself. Thus, I try to be my best, most authentic self, every day. I am, the best man, the best writer, I know how to be. No one can ask more of me.

Never borrow someone else’s voice. What I’ve observed and what has had the most
Riley
profound effect on me is this: dogs, learn. They learn from us, from each other, from other dogs they encounter. But, they never become another dog; they never borrow another dog’s voice. They may bark at the same things but it was always their own bark, their own voice, they add to the cacophony. When I started writing seriously, I was determined not to borrow another’s voice. It is always my voice, a bit too honest, too strident, perhaps, left-leaning, and determined, but always my voice.

All of these lessons influence my life and my writing. You can read about, and an excerpt from, my newest book, “In His Eyes,” which incorporates at least some of these lessons here

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