My daughter says I must write. She knows that when I don’t write for too long, I begin to freeze up. I get confused. Everything gets too hard. I can’t decide what to write about. I seem to have both nothing and everything to write about. Images and ideas tumble through my brain in a kaleidoscope of color and action, but nothing coheres. It’s all a blur.
She’s been texting me from school. My daughter, that is. “Mama. Write. Write today.” “Mama, write! About anything, Daisy, (your son), your hopes, your fears…”
Since at this point no subject is better than any other, I will take her first prompt and go. Daisy. Daisy it is.
Daisy is our golden retriever. She is seven years old. She is the second golden retriever I have owned.
When I was in eighth grade, we got a golden retriever. My younger sister Karen got to name her because she had the best grades of the four of us that semester. She named the puppy Taffy.
Yes. Before Daisy, there was Taffy.
Taffy was a tiny, fat ball of yellow fluff. When I put her down on the sidewalk that Christmas morning after presents, she nearly toppled over. She tripped behind me as best she could as I ran to my friend Erika’s. Unable to climb the curbs because they were too high, I’d scoop her up with one hand, set her down, and off we’d go again. She gave her all to keeping up with me, her slightly confused brown eyes never leaving my retreating back.
She was the best dog, of course. She was a golden retriever, after all. She was smart, gentle, and devoted. At first, she belonged to everyone equally. One day, however, she pooped on my bedroom carpet. I was really mad, and I “disciplined” her. After that day, she was my dog, solidly and completely. She followed me everywhere. I fed, walked, and trained her. She slept on the foot of my bed every night. We were pals.
I grew older. I grew up. I left my parent’s home when I was 17, a junior in high school. I had several jobs. I was a candy girl at Piedmont Cinema. My boyfriend was Scott Graham, a short, broad-shouldered guitar player who liked to call me by my whole name. We’d slink up the stairs to the still-unmolested balcony to make out while the movie played. I saw “Out of Africa” dozens of times and could recite the first few couple dozen lines for years.
In those days, yes, the balconies of these beautiful theaters were still whole. They had not yet been carved up into tiny theaters. We’d pick an especially dark spot in the back row after the opening credits and kiss and touch and explore. Sometimes Dave, the other usher, a schizophrenic Vietnam vet, would encounter us. I think he came looking for us. “You guys should come downstairs,” he’d intone.
But Rick, our zoo-obsessed, trumpet playing manager, never seemed to mind. He’d decked out his tiny bathroom in the apartment he rented above the theatre marquee in zoo prints, images, and themes, to the hilt. The walls were zebra-striped. The towels leopard-print. There were all kinds of weird little details.
He was a young (I now realize — at the time, he seemed ancient), lonely man who liked to play his trumpet on the theater stage after the last patron of the night had left, in front of the blue velvet curtain that hid towers of plastic-bagged popcorn, towers that rose a full story high or higher and were stacked several rows deep.
They were always there, these hideous piles of yellow popcorn stored behind the movie screen. We’d knock a couple down and drag them through the aisles to the concession stand where we’d slice open the tops and pour the yellow, “buttered” popcorn into gnarly heated bins encrusted with salt or some facsimile thereof. We’d fill the “butter” canisters with yellow grease (I have no idea what that was, but it definitely wasn’t butter). We’d say, “Extra butter?” People would say, “Yes, please.” Sometimes, someone would ask, “Is it real?” Sometimes we’d say yes, sometimes we’d say no. We didn’t care.
I had several other jobs on the same street: Piedmont Avenue. I was a waitress at Barney’s Burgers, where I constantly fought off the advances of my middle-aged Persian boss. I waitressed at Cafe Valerian briefly, but I wasn’t very good at it and didn’t last too long in that job. I pulled frozen yogurts at Yogurt Delite and cappuccinos at Cafe Gaylord’s.
The cafe job lasted a couple of years. I had a crush on Katie my co-worker with the cascading blonde hair, emerald eyes, and a husband named Damon. I had a crush on the middle-aged sculptor who always came in after his swim, his dark curls dampening the collar of his jean shirt, to order a chocolate chip cookie and Earl Grey tea and flirt mildly with me.
A paramedic had a crush on me and would stop by most nights as I closed, sitting protectively by the door in his uniform and big black work boots while I counted money from the register. Arun, the brainy Indian with the heavy accent, had a crush on me and would talk to me about math and computers on weekend afternoons. I was bored to death, but I still remember his voice and his bright eyes perfectly.
Mr. Gorgias, the elderly German Jewish man with the Greek name who’d survived the holocaust had a crush on me. He’d been a substitute teacher in my high school. He’d been laughed at and ridiculed. I felt sorry for him and befriended him. His grand daughter worked at the cafe with me. She was a scary looking punk rocker chick with black makeup ringing her eyes. She had frizzed-out hair, blood-red lips, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and a deadened, sardonic gaze. She gave me the chills. I liked her grandfather though.
One day, he invited me to his apartment which was near Piedmont Avenue. I followed him in to encounter a living room divided by towering bookcases into aisles like a library. All of the shelves were full, every single one. When I began pulling the books from their shelves, I saw quickly that every tome I touched or could see was about the holocaust. There were hundreds of them.
That was also the day Mr. Gorgias planted a wet, hairy kiss on my mouth. He had a rather voluminous white beard. I fled. But, I missed him later, and I didn’t fault him particularly for that. I wonder about him sometimes. I wonder why I didn’t ask about his life. Why I didn’t know what he’d experienced or endured. I remember his sad eyes, his baleful expression. He exhaustive intelligence. His crush on me.
Although I was only 17 and was still a junior in high school, I lived in a studio apartment with unpainted redwood plank walls above the garage of a classmate of mine. Her mother knew the story of the flamboyantly alcoholic mother I was fleeing and took pity on me, I suppose. She gave me the place for just a few hundred dollars a month.
One weekend morning, she burst into my apartment unannounced and surprised me and Scott in bed. She was horrified and called me all kinds of names. She chased him out and expressed shock on all kinds of levels. I was mystified, for the most part. I couldn’t understand why she was surprised. She wore preppy crewneck sweaters in pastel colors and a pageboy haircut. I guessed my lifestyle and that of her protected daughters were rather different.
I found a new place, a room in a house down the hill on Moraga Avenue. I lived with a dark-haired photographer (a man), a belly dancer, and another adult whose occupation I don’t recall. I had a sunny room with a wood floor. I had a tall, blue-painted dresser that came with the room. I felt pretty good there, although everyone was quite a bit older than me.
But, when I had to house my sisters there for a few weeks when our mother got more out of hand than usual, my roommates took none too kindly to it, and I was out again.
This is all a long way of saying I left Taffy behind for a while. I was out and about, deflowering my young boyfriend, my first virgin, Scott, whom I adored. Working most of my waking hours. Sort of going to high school when I felt like it. Weathering difficult years worrying about my sisters, frantic about my mother and her hell-bent pursuit of self-destruction.
It was in those days that she swiped the three trees growing on the street near my new house, leaving deep gouges in the bark that remains to this day. Every year, they are more rounded, these gouges. Every year, the trees absorb more of the scars. One day soon, I think only I will know they are there. Only I will be able to see them still.
That was the accident where my two sisters simply left our mother wailing in the car, confused, shaking her head, caterwauling as the police arrived. My sisters simply slipped away and walked up the hill, home, leaving their mother there. I’m sure she went to jail that night, and it wasn’t the first time.
I didn’t think about Taffy much. I couldn’t go home to see her.
But, later, after our mother’s liver finally gave out, I returned to a very happy and elderly golden retriever as devoted to me as ever. I moved into the “garden room” — a room at the front of the house with many windows covered by narrow, white-painted shutters, where a leggy and tender-leafed ficus tree stretched over my bed dropping the occasional leaf into my covers.
Taffy was an old girl by then. We took long walks in the hills. Sometimes, I’d have to carry her back up from the canyon in my arms.
One day, she wasn’t well at all. I took her to a vet I didn’t know. Ours was closed or something. I don’t remember. The new vet said she needed to be put down. He said, “This dog isn’t having any fun.” Somehow, I let myself be persuaded, something I regret to this day.
He got a big syringe out, filled it with a blue liquid, and shot it into the top of her paw. She took a deep breath, laid her head down on her paw, and shut her eyes. I regret it to this day.
It was one of the most painful experiences of my life.
Which brings me back to Daisy. Daisy girl. She is our new golden retriever. I had vowed never to get a dog again. I knew no dog could match Taffy, ever. My daughter, from the time she could formulate the word, began asking for a dog. She asked for nine years. I finally caved, and I got her a dog. She wanted a little white fluffy barky thing. I said no, never. I would never get any dog but a golden retriever. We found a breeder in some far-flung community — Campbell?. We drove out one day to pick Daisy.
The smallest, fattest puppy was Daisy. My son liked her. The breeder said another family had adopted her, but then decided they wanted a boy and brought her back that very morning. That story saddened me. She’d been rejected. We chose her.
Once again, I had a puppy that couldn’t make it up the height of a curb, only this time it was the stair in front of our home. We had to lift her up where she balanced on our hands with her tight, round belly and set her inside the threshold of her new home. The neighbors came over, and we took pictures. Everyone oohed and aahed. My daughter made a kind of coat for her with a piece of plaid wool blanket. We snapped more pictures.
That night, she slept in a cage beside my bed. The cage was covered by a blanket. She cried a little at first, but when I soothed her with my voice, she quieted. In the morning, I set her down on the lawn and said, “Go potty,” and she squatted, and then she changed the angle of her back and pooped. My daughter was watching too. She said, “Mama, when she pees, her tail curves up. When she poops, it slants down.” She was right. That was true. And it was helpful. We had to track her “business” so we could avoid accidents in the house until she was fully potty-trained. I don’t recall a single accident. She was trained in no time.
She was out of the cage in no time too, but I managed to keep her off my bed. Of course, my daughter whined and pleaded ceaselessly for her to sleep in the bed — her bed, my bed, any bed. I held the line, miraculously, and am proud to report I do not sleep with a big, hairy, middle-aged dog every night.
No, she curls up like a good girl every night on the grey army blanket I have folded for her beside my bed. If it’s hot, she stretches out. I worked from home for the last ten years (before taking a job that requires me to commute three days a week), and she was always within four feet of me, tied by an invisible umbilical cord to my side.
Sometimes, I didn’t think she was there, but sure enough, I just had to glance under the table or around the corner of the couch and there she was. I’d check the distance, and sure enough: roughly four feet. When I changed rooms, she’d pad behind me. Sometimes immediately, sometimes a few minutes later, but pad she would. She’d be there. Always.
Walking her of course is a constant joy. She is the happiest girl, and she makes others happy too. More than one passerby has stopped to comment on her “smile.” Sometimes people say, “She should be a therapy dog!” I’ve often thought if I had time, I’d do the training and do just that. Because she has a gift. She does.
Here’s the thing. I tried not to love her. I held her off for a good two years. I pretty much ignored her. I did this for two reasons. First, she was my daughter’s dog. I wanted my daughter to have the joy of having her dog. She’d asked for the dog; I wanted the dog to be devoted to her. Second, I never wanted to feel the pain again that I had felt with Taffy. I was sure of that.
I was successful in holding Daisy off. I really did pretty much ignore her for at least two years. But then, something happened. I’m not sure what or when. I’m not sure if it was gradual or sudden. I just know it happened.
When we walked together, and I took her off-leash and she trotted ahead but looked back over her shoulder at me every few seconds to check on me, to make sure I was still there, my heart swelled. When she sensed I was awake in the middle of the night and would get up and check on me, pushing her cold, wet nose into my hand or burrowing it under my arm, my heart clenched.
Again, I held her off the first few hundred times, but when your dog literally checks on you without fail every single time you wake up in the middle of the night, every single time you find yourself ruminating or doing calculations in the middle of the night, well, it does something to you.
So, Daisy. What’s there to say about Daisy? A few years ago, a gifted therapist I know said, “Take a few minutes every day and lie on the floor with Daisy. Dogs are healing.” I was particularly low and anxious in those days. I took his advice. I lay on the floor with Daisy. Within moments, she had me laughing. She’d look so consternated at first, nosing me, checking on me. Then, she’d begin to play, gripping the bottom of my pants leg in her teeth and pulling me across the floor as I laughed. We’d play tag. I’d chase her around the dining room table. Creep up on her from behind the couch. We played. We had a ball.
We still do.
She’s seven now, and I think more than I should about the fact that she’s probably about halfway through her life. I know I may have to endure that ordeal again. I wonder what I will do the next time. Will I refrain from visiting the vet? I know I will wait longer at least. I know I will do everything in my power to give her my time, energy, presence, and devotion for those last months or even years if need be. I will not rush her out. I will “put her down” only if she is really in pain, not because some vet tells me to, not because she’s become an “inconvenience.”
I swear on all that I treasure that this will be so.
I will miss her acutely.
What is it about the love of a dog? It’s that unconditionality. It doesn’t matter whatsoever what I do or don’t do. She loves me. She will always love me. She respects me. She wants my praise. She senses my emotions. She helps me. She’s gleeful, energetic, sprightly, warm, attentive, and protective. She’s my baby. And I’m hers.