When our family first met Mary nearly four years ago, our hearts were still bruised and healing from losing our beloved Ruby. We weren’t sure we were ready. So I sent a photo of the nervously pacing animal from the shelter to Ben. I’m a dumb sucker for the shy ones, for the pups deemed too damaged or simply too much trouble—for whatever reason, those are the dogs that speak to me. After a short spell of silence, which I knew was lingering grief, he texted back, “OK. But only if I get to name her.” A deal was struck, although I don’t know how much our long-deceased grandmothers (on both sides) appreciated a canine namesake, even if she was a great beauty.
It was immediately clear that Mary was not like other dogs.
She constantly, physically winced and jerked at normal outdoor sights and sounds, stuff like other people quietly passing by, or slow-moving cars. She quaked in fear; she seemed to be missing the chip in her brain that filters fight-or-flight experiences from fun ones. I remember wondering in those early days if she’d ever been taken for walks, or had even left the home of her previous, elderly owner. She behaved as if the regular hum of the world was a direct threat, although she did seem to relax into her new dog bed, and the safety of the family den.
Our dogs can’t speak and tell us their stories, which is their gift to us. We are instead asked to imagine their thoughts, and their histories. Loving Mary, a rescue we soon learned was somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 or 8 years old, was like caring for a slightly older, autistic cousin whose daily rituals and rules provided her with a sense of safety. We innately understood we were not to disturb her self-soothing ways. If she preferred being in the basement when the first floor was noisy with kids or visitors, that was fine. If she insisted on planting herself directly in front of the powder room door, making it impossible to enter, well, we could relieve ourselves upstairs, thank you very much. We learned to step over her slumbering form as we carried enormous baskets of laundry, praying we wouldn’t trip and break our necks in the process.
We got Mary a friend, as advised by our vet. A happy dog of the same breed, with identical coloring; he could teach her the ways of other happy dogs by example. Wonderfully, this actually worked. Petey’s good energy—so sloppily gregarious, so in love with the world and everyone in it—did transform her, although perhaps only we, the family members, could see this monumental shift. She went from being generally terrified to merely a bit too nervous, which was quantum leap enough for us. I spotted it when we took our hour-long walks together in the mid-morning sunshine, the two dogs trotting in unison once we settled into a rhythmic pace, their frames bumping and touching, and Mary’s tail—before, forever tucked between her legs—waving upward like a raised victory flag for all to see.
She forgot to be afraid. She began to enjoy the people, the slow-moving cars. She adored Petey, even if she did exert her authority around him when she thought we weren’t looking, stealing kibble from his dog dish and his Milk bones, too, sometimes straight from his mouth.
She was full of surprises like that. Gentle and timid to the point of pathology, but also fierce when she wanted to be. She told off that buzzing doorbell like nobody’s business.
Mary’s temperament might have been a result of her ill health. We learned a year or two in she was struggling with something called diabetes insipidus, a rare water imbalance disorder in the body. This required my injecting her with two hormone shots, once in the morning and once in the evening, plus giving her additional daily medication.
Once she was properly diagnosed—an arduous task, as the condition is so weirdly uncommon—and treated, her spirits lifted even further. She began licking my hands, my arms, my cheeks in seeming gratitude. She smiled, panting, in only the way dogs can smile, pleased with her lot in life. At the dog park, she pranced and skipped for us, showing off how good she now felt before begging for a treat. “Like a normal dog!” she seemed to be saying, asking us to notice. I felt in those moments how I imagine Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan did when her cherished student first learned to communicate, emerging from exiled darkness: chest-swelling, motherly pride.
For the lesson of Mary is to love a being as they are, even if they are different, or physically challenged. I can honestly say I loved Mary more because she was so vulnerable and quirky, so strange and funny and thoroughly herself. Once I gained her trust, which I never once betrayed, I understood its tremendous value. When she let me bury my face into her furry neck and hold her tightly, giving me a sweet lick back, I knew I’d earned it, and I knew she loved me, too.
Last night, quite out of the blue, Mary took seriously ill. We found her in a pool of her own stool and blood, groaning. We rushed her to the emergency animal clinic in White Plains (because these kinds of traumas only ever occur on Sunday evenings when no local vet is around). They examined our dear, sweet Mary, with so much red blood soiling her white fur, and told us her situation was beyond grave, that she would not last the night. A previously undetected and large mass on her kidney had suddenly ruptured, filling her body cavity with blood and liquid. She was suffering, and even if they could stabilize her long enough to operate, she would almost certainly not survive till morning.
There was only one thing to do: say goodbye. And bury my wet face into her furry neck and whisper how much I loved her just as she was, that I wouldn’t change a thing, that she was perfect. Ben did the same.
The vet’s assistants tried to comfort us, but did not much succeed.
Right now, I imagine Mary is with Ruby, and Ruby is showing her the ropes. And as I type this there are not one but two invisible figures sitting contently at my feet, with no other agenda than to be near me. For loving a dog is a dangerous business, and that love doesn’t simply disappear.