Monday, March 5, 2012

Dead Puppies Aren’t Much Fun, or How I Learned to Let a Fish Break My Heart

This is a little essay that I wrote for my Autobiographical Forms class. I thought it was kind of fun, even though it's about dead puppies... 

Tonight while cleaning out his bowl I nearly dropped my pet fish David Bowie down the garbage disposal. I screamed and tried to catch his little slippery body. He slipped onto the plastic cover over the disposal and I scooped him up and dropped him into a warm, safe cup of water. Tragedy averted. What would I have done if he had gone into the disposal? Would I mercy kill David Bowie by flipping that switch? Would I try to fish him out before giving up, even if that meant smashing him with my own fingers? Yes, probably. I wouldn't give up on him. I would fight for him. There is no doubt that if that fish dies because of me, I will be devastated.

As a child the death of a pet fish was nothing. When Gil died we flushed him without much thought. My mother came home and panicked. "Where is Gil?" "He died and we flushed him. We didn't want you to have to see him dead." She wailed. Gil was her fish and she had him for nearly five years. She loved him, and we were cruel to flush him.

But what's the death of a fish when you live on a farm and witness countless deaths over the years? I helped my dad slaughter rabbits and chickens and was never fazed when he used the crowbar to knock my pet rabbit senseless. I helped him pull the skin off, excited that I had come into possession of such a fine fur, and saddened when he told me I couldn't keep it and wear it as a hat. I gutted chickens, plucked turkeys, chased a headless duck into the bushes, and during one hunting season my older sister and I asked if we could keep the poor deer's brain. My grandparents said yes and we wrapped it carefully in tinfoil and put it in our refrigerator. I'm not sure if my mom realized what was in the tinfoil and got rid of it, but we soon forgot that the brain was even there.

We also had a lot of dogs, but living on a farm meant that no one dog was too cherished to shoot if he or she killed a beloved goose or peacock. I hated my grandparents for doing it, as if the life of a goose was worth that of a dog. But they had few qualms and would punish when necessary.

My parents once tried to breed Rottweilers, but failed when one of the dogs slept on her puppies to keep them warm one cold night and killed them all. My dad made my sister and me gather them up and put them in a large, empty dog food bag to take to the dump.

Dogs also knew no mercy from the farm vehicles. When six or seven or eight dogs are chasing after a truck, it was always possible for one to get caught under a wheel, especially if the truck is moving slowly. Sparky was the first that I can remember clearly, although I know there were many before her. She was a little, black, beloved toy poodle.  My mom hit her right in front of our driveway. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Rowdy was my dog. My parents saved him from the pound and claimed that he had once been a circus dog. He was little and stocky with curly white hair that would collect the snow in perfect golf balls around his feet. While slowly backing up her big red truck in a garage my grandma hit him and he died. I was crushed, but moved on rather quickly. There were ten other dogs to hold my attention.

Buster was another beloved. Short and long with rough black and brown hair, I don't remember where he came from but we got him as a puppy and had to save him from choking on his food on a nearly daily basis. One day we packed up our old yellow Jeep Cherokee with cages of chickens and headed out to the county fair where we would win best in show and countless other ribbons. It was a proud moment for all of us. When we got home we couldn't find Buster anywhere. I finally spotted him laying off the side of the road. We had probably hit him on our way to the fair without noticing. We should have brought him with us.

We buried Buster next to Sparky in a quiet little area between some trees, one of the many unexplained piles of red sandstone rocks that dotted the property. My mother again was the most distraught. When an animal died she performed her best. In some other part of the world she could have been a fantastic professional mourner. Her histrionics made me even more stoic and accepting of the fate of death. All I wanted was the mourning to end and to move on with our lives. When Sparky died I joined in on the wailings, but Buster hardened me, and I knew my heart wouldn't break again for a dog.

When I was eleven or twelve my dad brought home a puppy for my birthday. She was a brown border collie and Australian shepherd mix and I named her Bobbie Brown. She was not a well behaved dog and I didn't put the effort into training her because I was irresponsible and easily distracted, so she got into a fair amount trouble. We had to tie her up in the back yard and would bark and bark. I never gave her enough attention while she was young and troublesome, but she became a close companion to me when we both grew a bit older. She had spirit and personality and she was often the leader of the pack of our six or seven dogs that roamed the ranch. I'm almost certain she would lead them into the North Hills and go running with the coyotes. She wasn't afraid of anything, and she was sociable and kind. It wasn't too long before she had her first litter of puppies, and we had no idea who the father was.

About a week later another dog, Kylee, a little blue healer mix and who was barely a puppy herself, had a litter.  One cold dark morning in February my dad burst in the house with a puppy in his hand.  "Kylee's having puppies!" He told us how he had gone out to his truck and saw Kylee in the snow surrounded by blood. He thought she had been attacked.  Unlike Bobbie, Kylee was too young to be having puppies and we had never even suspected that she was pregnant.  We brought her in the house and Haley watched over her while she gave birth the rest of the litter.

I became the proud mama of twelve puppies: George, Macca, John, Cecelia, Yoko, Julia, Jake, Bart, Linda, Jude, Martha, and Lucy.

We made Bobbie a bed in our room and I watched as her pups grew fat and round. My favorites were Jake and Bart. Jake was the fattest puppy, the slowest and the laziest puppy I have ever seen. His fur was pale brown and I loved him. Bart had an old face and was the darkest. I was enchanted by his sweetness. Kylee's puppies lived in my sister's room and after they were all big enough we moved them into one of the empty chicken coops. Every morning I would get up and go out and play with the puppies, feed them and watch them grow. Babysitting twelve puppies was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me.

I was always a nurturer. My mom tells me that when I was five and my little sister was born I was very serious and excited about helping to take care of her. She was my baby. As she got bigger I took on the responsibility of bathing her, dressing her, and feeding her breakfast. I was just thinking of a home video I watched with my family last year. My mom had been recording Lindy playing with Xia, a Rottweiler who treated Lindy like a puppy. They were best friends, and Lindy would crawl all over that huge dog without a thought. At one point Haley and I came out into the kitchen. I was smiling and happy, indomitably cheerful. Without asking for permission I found myself a popsicle and then proceeded to fix Lindy her bowl of cereal. How many hours had my mom been up with Lindy and didn't make her breakfast? I asked her about this and she told me that I would have been disappointed if she had already fed her. I don't doubt this.

As my twelve puppies grew bigger my family decided it was time to try to find them homes. I don't remember feeling too broken up about giving them away. I would keep Bart, and my grandpa would take Jake, so I would have my favorites. We also decided to keep George. I could write a book about George. Not only did he become our beloved, but he stayed with us for fifteen years and was the best dog that anyone could ever ask for. When I was living in London last year I visited in April and was able to say goodbye to George. He lost his ability to walk, and my mother, ever patient and strong, would carry him outside and around the house and finally to the vet.  He never looked more like a puppy in those last weeks.

I didn't have Bart for long before my dad ran him over. He was just barely growing out of his puppy stage.

Bobbie had another litter a couple years later. This time they were all black and white. My dad and his friend went out one day and lopped all their tails off, except for the one we would keep: McCaffrey. He was the fluffiest, fattest, and sweetest of the litter. My mom got him with her little red Neon.

When I was fifteen we decided to move to California, and along with our house, our chicken coops and dog sheds, we had to leave four of our six dogs behind. We found homes for two of them, and my dad decided to take another two to the pound. They chose to keep George and Romeo, one of Bobbie's puppies, and take Bobbie away. I was stoic and accepted the decision, even though Romeo was not a very good dog and not one that I loved. They told me that keeping Romeo was just like keeping Bobbie because he was hers. They put her in the back of a pickup and I said goodbye. I didn't fight for her. I didn't cry or wail or hold on to her. It wasn't until years later that my stoicism, that my blithe acceptance of loss and death, finally broke down and I realized my complicity in the loss of that dog. I lost Bobbie but it wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t necessary and it could have been helped. I so desperately wanted to forget and move on with my life that I forgot too soon, I forgot about her even while my dad lifted her into the back of the truck. I would now do everything in my power to save my fish, but I wasn’t willing to do so for Bobbie. I can only hope now that someone saw her beautiful face and her kind eyes and took her home, that she was able to have a second chance with a family, with children and a warm bed and plenty of space for her play. I have to believe it because the alternative would break my heart.