Guest Post: Sumo in the Time of Covid-19

Love is blind.  I know this to be true because Sumo-Pokey (his hyphenated name derived from his physique as well as his general demeanor) is our blind and mostly deaf pug.  At

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Sumo enjoys the sunshine.

nearly 14 years old, he is becoming more and more like a pillow.  Soft and placid, content mostly to stay in one place most of the time, except around 5 p.m. when his internal alarm clock tells him it’s approaching supper.  It’s then that he begins to pace around the kitchen door, politely (and sometimes sassily) reminding us that another day has slipped by … a day when working from home has meant grading projects submitted remotely by my students, planning (and praying) for their continued online engagement in learning, and helping my wife herd our two granddaughters, Louise and Margaux, as they ride bike (Louise, age 5) and balance-bike (Margaux, age 4) relentlessly back and forth circling the alley behind our house.

Sometimes Sumo accompanies them, resting on the small patch of grass tucked between cement slabs that flank the alleyway, much to the pleasure of Margaux, who calls him “Sumo-Puppy” – an ironic moniker, but one that still holds its own form of truth, because to Margaux this old, blind, deaf pug is still a puppy who patiently receives her hugs and withstands her other boisterous attentions as she attempts to share her enthusiasm for life with him while he rests his oversized head on the memory-foam pillow he seems to love more with each passing week.

When Sumo is not patiently enduring Margaux’s attention, or sleeping on that beloved pillow, he’s usually at my feet while I attempt to work from the dining room table at

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Sumo turns a box into a pillow near the dining room table.

home.  That’s nothing unusual for him, or for me, since teaching duties don’t disappear when the students board their yellow buses every afternoon.  But somehow there’s something more comforting than usual in his regular presence there these days.  He’s a reminder that, despite the growing tumult of the pandemic, and the closure of my school building, the world is still going on in its usual, regular, normal pattern for some.  Indeed, the world will go on in its usual, regular, normal pattern whether or not I eventually contract COVID-19.

Watching Sumo-Pokey snore, his head on my right shoe as I try not to move my foot and disturb his slumber, I am reminded that there have always been diseases, and somehow the world has continued rotating every 24 hours, circling the sun every 365 days.  There’s no need to let anxiety about work or the collapse of the stock market or even the possible

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Sumo relaxes on his family’s deck.

loss of loved ones cause undue sturm and drang in my daily existence.  What will be will be.  I’ll have to be more intentionally like Sumo-Pokey, if the expected symptoms someday arrive.  If he can take Margaux’s poking and prodding without complaint, and wag his tail in the process even without being able to see her adoring face, I should be able to do the same should the coronavirus come calling at my door.  Sumo is a comfort, a living pillow whose patience and affection are offered without expectation of recompense.  I find comfort in his presence.

Author Bio

Smokey and Mr. G-S 1-6-2014Before becoming a high school teacher, Michael Goodrich-Stuart wrote and directed writers professionally for more than 20 years.  His first career was spent working as an advertising copywriter, copy chief and creative director in Michigan, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Virginia.  During his advertising tenure, he received numerous industry awards, ranging from Addys and Tellys to Caddys and Echos.  Today he draws on his career experience in the classroom – combining a love for the English language with a past that paid him well for using it.  Michael is a graduate of Michigan State University, where he wrote for The State News and earned a degree in Journalism.  Sumo is his second pug.  He and his wife, Jill, have had Bundle and Smokey as well.  He also has four accomplished children, all of whom love pugs, their other pets, and their parents.

Want to share a story about your dog(s)? I would love to read it! To learn about submitting your own story, click here.

Call for Submissions: Write About Your Dog!

It’s probably pretty obvious, but I’ll say it just in case: I love writing and I love dogs. My dogs, Jack, Sadie, Nacho, and Soda, have inspired me in so many areas of my life–including my writing life, and it occurred to me recently that that might be true for a lot of you, your writing, and your dogs, too. So, in honor of my love (and yours!) for my dogs and for writing, I invite you to submit your own original piece of writing for consideration as a guest post on this blog. Before writing and submitting your own piece for consideration, I recommend reading this post as an example of the types of work likely to be accepted. Please do not feel like your submission has to focus on the pandemic; to the contrary, I welcome submissions about any way your dog has ever helped you see the bright side of things, lifted you up, taught you a lesson, cheered you up, kept you going, or made you smile. Posts will be accepted for consideration until 11:59 PM June 16, 2020.

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My dogs have proven to be extremely inspirational to me. Above, Soda and Nacho take a break from paddleboarding on the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Submission Guidelines

  1. Writers certify that they are 18 years of age or older.
  2. Prose submissions should consist of 250-550 words and poetry submissions should be 24 lines or fewer.
  3. All submissions should respond to the prompt: Write about how your dog/dogs has/have been a positive presence and influence in your life.
  4. Submissions should include a short bio of the writer, ranging between 50 and 75 words
  5. Submissions can include up to three photos of the dog(s) written about.

    Guest Post Soda
    Soda relaxes on a beach along the Potomac River.
  6. Writers agree to allow their full name, submission, bio, and photos to appear on this blog and the associated Instagram account, as well as on other associated social media accounts.
  7. Writers of accepted submissions agree to spread the word about their guest post on their own social media, including by sharing a link to their published piece on their own social media accounts and/or websites and by tagging the Mind the Dog Writing Blog Instagram account.
  8. All submissions must be original and true.
  9. Submissions may not have been published anywhere else at any time.
  10. Writers retain all rights to their work but are asked to acknowledge Mind the Dog
    Guest Post Nacho
    From the sand, Nacho watches his daddy paddle back to shore.

    Writing Blog as the original publisher should the piece be published elsewhere in the future.

  11. Writers will not be paid, but will be featured on Mind the Dog Writing Blog and the associated Instagram account, including with links and tags to their social media accounts and/or websites.
  12. To submit a piece of writing, your bio, and up to three relevant photos, email your submission to MindtheDogWritingBlog@gmail.com by 11:59 PM June 16.
  13. Please allow at least three weeks after submitting your post for a response.

Don’t like to write or have a dog, but know someone who does? Please share this opportunity with them!

Have questions? Feel free to comment here, DM me on Instagram, or shoot me an email at MindtheDogWritingBlog@gmail. com. I can’t wait to read what you write!

They Really Keep You Going: A Personal Narrative About the Littles

A year ago today, Matty and I saw Soda and Nacho (then Scotch) for the very first time. It would be another month before we saw them again, and before we got to actually meet them, as opposed to just seeing them on the other side of their kennel bars. Because both dogs and writing are extremely therapeutic, and because I love both with an unrivaled intensity, it seems fitting to share here, today, a piece I wrote about the role Nacho and Soda have played in my emotional and mental well-being in the last year, but most particularly, in the last few months. Below is that piece.

It is a quintessential April morning. The air smells faintly of lilac and cut grass, silky-sweet, soft, and verdant. The laser-sharp but soothing call of cardinals cascades down from the trees around us, the birds themselves hidden amongst boughs whose leaves are just emerging, ready for their summer’s work. Normally at this time of the morning, I am at school, helping a group of teenagers work on the yearbook, watching the clock as lunchtime approaches and my stomach clenches.

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Soda lounges on the back deck while I work from home.

But schools shut down a month ago, so today, after calling students to check on them and sending them digital copies of next week’s assignments, I am walking my two eighteen-month-old dogs, collectively known as The Littles. They’re a pair of littermates we adopted back in June—back when we could still hug our parents and travel and go to the beach without a second thought about our social responsibility or personal health. Back when things were still normal. Before Covid-19 and its swift sweep around the globe.

I am deep in these thoughts when a neighbor stops his riding lawn mower as we walk by and says to me, “Those two really keep you going, don’t they?” He nods toward Soda and Nacho. I look at the two of them, 15 pounds combined. Their dark brown eyes meet mine, joyous, expectant, eager. His words hold more truth than he knows. I have lost count of the times I have told my husband how lonely I would be without them during this experience. Deprived of my routine, my students, my colleagues, and many of my friends and family members, my daily walks with The Littles are one of the few activities that feels normal, their company the only constant companionship I have during any given day. They are my purpose and structure.

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Nacho rests on the back deck while I work from home.

My two small dogs have helped me become aware of the small pleasures of social distancing, instead of dwelling on the inconvenience and deprivation. Jarring alarm clock wake-ups have been replaced by slow wake-ups occasioned by snuggles and nuzzling noses. We go outside together and sit in the sun because it’s out and we can be, too. They are not confined to the crate; I am not confined to the classroom.

And although small, The Littles have cultivated a big appetite for adventure since I’ve been home. Unable to while away the hours shopping, going to movies, staying after school for meetings, or running errands, we have found time to explore secluded trails we didn’t know existed, often traipsing much longer and farther than I thought their short, little legs might carry them. We have stopped and stared at great egrets, blue herons, water snakes, turtles, deer.

We have also found time for learning. While we work together as they learn basics like “sit,” “stay,” “down,” “come,” and “leave it,” I learn to slow down. To give myself and others grace. To digest one day at a time instead of flipping through the pages of my

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The Littles, Soda (left) and Nacho (right), relax after a morning walk.

planner to August, and realizing every single weekend is booked until then. To be flexible in the uncertainty—because things are pretty backwards now. I used to make every effort to keep Nacho and Soda out of their crate; after all, they spent enough time there while we worked during the day. Now, we conduct near-daily “crate practice” to make sure that someday, when I start working somewhere other than the couch again, they will remember that the crate is a safe place, and that I will be home. I manufacture reasons to do this—to leave the house so The Littles can practice being without me. Sometimes I go for a jog or ride my bike, sit in the sun with a book, stroll a route The Littles aren’t fond of. They have given me this gift—permission to engage in soul-nurturing activities, time to relish the solitude I rarely had time for before. And when I get home, and crate practice is over, I am so glad it is not an empty house I return to, but one filled with the contagious exuberance and affection and companionship of two tiny dogs with two enormous spirits.

The gentle rumble of my neighbor’s idling mower brings me back to the present moment. I stand on the sidewalk. He looks at me expectantly from his seat, probably glad to speak to someone new for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. It takes me just a second to remember he is waiting for my response. “Those two really keep you going, don’t they?” he’d said.

I smile at him. “Yes,” I say. I smile at them, the little dogs who make staying home better, and give me reasons to get out. “They do. They really do.”

I invite you to share in the comments how your own pets have helped you stay positive–now or any time.

 

 

One, Green Row

Writers, at least those of us with a desire to share or publish our work, need a thick skin. There are always people with ideas pertaining to how we could improve our writing. Some of them are right. Some of them are not. There are always publications that will

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My record of 2020 submissions thus far

reject our writing–many more than will accept it. For years, I have kept color-coded records of the work I have sent out into the world in hopes of seeing it published. Red indicates a piece has been rejected, white indicates that its publication is still pending (Read: I haven’t heard anything back–yet), blue indicates that it has made it through some initial phase of the acceptance process, and green indicates it has been officially accepted for publication. Consistently, red (in other contexts one of my favorite colors) dominates my submission spreadsheets. So far, 2020 hasn’t proven an exception to this seeming rule. Above is my submission spreadsheet for 2020 thus far. You will note a whole lot of red. And one–one–row of green.

But that single row of green means everything–means more than the over a dozen red rows. That single row of green means the one piece that I most wanted to find a publication home, did. The original version of this piece, “A Search for Meaning in the Face of Loss,” appears on this blog. An abridged version, retitled “Always With Me, Still,” will appear in an upcoming edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs, available at bookstores on July 14.

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The cover of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs, available in bookstores July 14. A story I wrote about Jack, which also features Sadie, will appear in this book.

The piece, the third about Jack and Sadie to appear in a Chicken Soup book, details the many ways in which Jack is still with me, leaving me signs (usually socks), comforting me, communicating with me, making me smile. Though I initially wrote this piece about a year ago, signs from Jack have not stopped materializing, and I am near-to-tears happy that the story of his ability to stay by my side will be able to reach thousands of readers around the world.

Ever since I submitted the piece in November 2019, I have held close to my heart the hope that it would be accepted. As the January 2020 submission deadline approached, I became increasingly eager to hear whether it would be included. My husband has probably lost count of the number of times I earnestly voiced my hopes, but as he shared them, he was patient with me.

Yes, I am disappointed about the pieces that, so far, remain homeless–but I will continue searching for their homes, and in the meantime, the red rows on my submission spreadsheet pale in comparison to that one, green row.

 

 

Vote for my Essay about the Littles in the Petco Foundation Holiday Wishes Grant Campaign People’s Choice Awards!

Those of you who follow me on Instagram in addition to reading this blog have already met The Littles, at least virtually. They’re two precious chihuahua-terriers we adopted from the Richmond SPCA in June. They’re littermates, and just celebrated their first birthday on November 17. Nacho is our little man, and Soda is our little lady.

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We adopted Nacho (left) and Soda (right) in June 2019. The essay I wrote about how they brighten my life will earn between $5,000 and $100,000 for the Richmond SPCA. The amount will be revealed at an event on December 20 at our local Petco. The essay could earn up to an additional $25,000 the shelter if it places in the People’s Choice Awards! Please vote for us here. (Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots)

A few weeks after we adopted them, and knowing that I teach English and write a considerable amount (in April, I held a book signing to raise money for the shelter with Jack and Sadie’s story in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog), the shelter reached out to ask me if I would write an essay and submit it to the Petco Foundation Holiday Wishes Grant Campaign in an effort to earn funds for the shelter. Always eager to write, especially about my dogs and for a worthy cause, I gladly accepted, honored to have been asked.

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In November, I was notified that my essay about how Soda and Nacho brighten my life is a winning essay! I almost cried. At the time, the Littles weren’t even a year old, and they were (are!) already doing great things. On December 20 at 10:30 am, at the Petco in Carytown, the amount of the grant that will be awarded to the Richmond SPCA will be revealed (as will the amount of the Petco shopping spree The Littles and I will get to enjoy).

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We adopted Nacho (left) and Soda (right) in June 2019. The essay I wrote about how they brighten my life will earn between $5,000 and $100,000 for the Richmond SPCA. The amount will be revealed at an event on December 20 at our local Petco. The essay could earn up to an additional $25,000 the shelter if it places in the People’s Choice Awards! Please vote for us here. (Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots)

Between now and then, though, we have another opportunity to earn money for the shelter! Right now, my essay and the Richmond SPCA are in the running for the People’s Choice Award. The shelter stands to win up to $25,000 in addition to the grant they will already receive. To read and vote for my essay, click here–and please please please spread the word!

One of the most fulfilling things I get to use my writing to do is serve worthwhile causes and benefit worthy organizations. Your vote for my essay can help me do that!

Then and Now

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One of two scenic overlooks on 64 East in Virginia. I stopped here on my way home from a college visit when I was 18 years old, and again last week, 17 years later, on my way home from a Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) meeting.

The last time I stood here, I was 18. Half my life ago. I was headed home from an overnight stay at James Madison University, that cliched feeling of youthful angst clinging to me then the way fog and drizzle cling to the mountains now–that cliched angst I can describe only with another cliche: I was a caged bird ready to fly. I might even have gone home and written a poem about it.

Standing at that scenic overlook on the side of 64 East, I had no idea who I was, where I was going, or what I wanted. That’s how I felt then, standing at a crossroads: James Madison or Michigan State? Eighteen and in the spring of my senior year, I didn’t know yet. I do now. I’m 35. That time has passed. Those choices have been made. I went to Michigan State, became a high school English teacher. Things have been pretty stable since then.

And yet, here I am, standing where I stood 17 years ago, somehow unsure again, somehow on the precipice of something new and unknown again. I stand at the threshold of a new chapter, one I’ve dreaded for a long time–a chapter without Jack and Sadie at my feet, by my side, on my path. I have little idea who I am, where I am going (if anywhere), or what I want to do next.

I listen to the hiss of cars on the highway behind me, their tires slicing through rain puddling on 64 East, and wonder–who am I without these two dogs? Where do I go? What do I do and who do I do it for? Why is it possible for my life to keep going when it revolved around them and they’re gone?

And I’m still here.

Matty knew Sadie before he knew me. I knew Sadie before I finished college. Before my first day of teaching. I don’t know adult life without a dog. I’m not sure I know myself without a dog.  A line exists somewhere between “then” and “now.” Sometimes it’s blurry, but sometimes, it’s crystal clear, marked by a move or a graduation or a marriage or a child. Or, in this case, a loss. My time with Jack and Sadie, so recently “now,” has become “then.” We will talk about it in terms like, “When we had Jack and Sadie.” Use it as a reference point for stories we tell or memories we are trying to recollect more clearly, put into some sort of context.

The rain has soaked through my hair, and after a minute or two, I get back into my car

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Another scenic overlook on 64 East

and drive away, outrunning the rain for now. Three or so miles down the road is the second scenic overlook. It’s not raining here yet, and I pull over, step out into the sun. I watch an orange butterfly balance on the purple bloom of a thistle. I read names and dates scratched into the stone-and-wood fencing at the edge of the parking lot. I watch large, white clouds drift across a blue sky, their shadows sailing along underneath them, skimming across green fields. The rain looms to my right, creeping across the few miles that mark the difference between sunshine and clouds. I know it’s coming, but it hasn’t reached me yet, and I think about how people have told me it will get better. They promise. Time heals all wounds. But this time that heals all wounds also takes me farther away from Jack and Sadie.

I snap a couple pictures. Feel the sun on my back while it’s still out, before the clouds reach us. Remember the 18-year-old girl who stood here 17 years ago, whose questions I now have answers to. And I get back in the car.

As I pull out of the parking lot, the sunshine dims and the rain, like time, catches up to me.

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A Search for Meaning in the Face of Loss

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Jack and Sadie on a trail along the James River at Pony Pasture Rapids on April 11

April 11

It is a Thursday afternoon, warm–but the kind of warmth easily defied by the shade. The tall, thick, green grasses along the James River have just begun sprouting up out of the newly awakened earth. Jack stops every few feet to snack on some of the young blades. Bluebells hang their pretty little heads all along the paths that parallel the river at Pony Pasture Rapids. Some delicate white flowers–I don’t know what they are–join the bluebells along the trail. The wetlands are soggy and stagnant, but haven’t been that way long enough to accommodate mosquitoes just yet. The day is quintessential spring, and I am grateful to have this afternoon to take Jack and Sadie adventuring. We don’t get very far; not too warm for me is slightly too warm for Jack and Sadie, always wearing fur coats–but we spend close to an hour wandering around the woods, watching the river race past its banks, swollen with spring rains to the west.

April 13

I sit in the lobby at Veterinary Referral and Critical Care (VRCC). It’s cold, over-air conditioned. Jack is somewhere in the back, having his bladder emptied. He began shaking as soon as we walked into the clinic, but not because it’s cold. Because he is scared.

I look around the lobby. A wall of windows behind me. A wall of windows to the left of me. Magazines scattered on every flat surface (who can read a magazine in a time like this?). A TV endlessly playing cooking shows–but once, a wildlife show. I like the wildlife show better. The reception desk is straight ahead. Two industrious women sit in swivel chairs with wheels and answer phones and take payments and file folders. Above them, perched atop a door leading into what looks to be a file room, rests a hand-painted wooden sign. “Be Kind,” it reads, in bold, black lettering. It’s adorned with red and pink hearts on a white background. I assume it’s a gift from a grateful client whose dog (or cat) is happy and healthy again. I like its message. I find it somewhat comforting.

April 15

Last night I promised Jack I wouldn’t take him back to VRCC to have his bladder emptied again. He has been on new medication for going on three days now. It should kick in any minute.

It is a little before 11:00 PM. I have to break my promise to Jack. He is in the back at VRCC again. I am sitting in the cold lobby with a plastic cup of water in my hand. A competition cooking show is playing on TV. One of the contestants is cooking plantains. The receptionist behind the desk under the “Be Kind” sign tells me she doesn’t like plantains. I don’t like plantains either. I stare at the clock. It is a Monday night. I am tired. Jack is tired. We get home sometime after midnight and fall asleep together in the family room.

April 16

It is a Tuesday afternoon, warm–but it started out chilly. I have shed my coat and sit beside Matty and Sadie in the backyard grass with Jack, leaning against the sun-warmed brick foundation of our house. Jack doesn’t want to come inside. He lays in the grass or makes a nest in the moldy dust under the shed. The sky is robin’s egg blue. When the wind blows, yellow clouds of pollen dust drift through the air, taking flight from the tufts of white pines’ needles. The dogwoods are almost done blooming, their white blossoms giving way to green leaves. A pair of robins build a nest in the bushes to our left. New life is everywhere.

The medication is not doing its job.

I text our sister-in-law, also our vet, who gave Jack a home until he joined our pack. I fill her in on the latest details, ask for her honest professional opinion.

“I think it’s time,” her text tells me.

I put my arm around Jack and cry, my hand shaking after I text back, “Okay.”  Jack stands beside me, squinting in the sun, wagging his tail.

Less than an hour later, I squat on the floor of Room 5. Jack is lying like a sphinx on a cold, metallic table draped in a plush, blue blanket. The hairs of other dogs and cats are stuck in the fibers. Matty, Sadie, and my mother-in-law are there. Jack is trembling. My face is level with his front paws, my hands on his shoulders. I talk to him. I sing to him. “Shepherd Show Me How to Go” and “On Eagle’s Wings.” I tell him not to be scared; it’s okay. But I am scared and none of this is okay with me. I sing again. I am amazed at my ability to sing and not sob. How am I doing this? After a shot the shaking starts to subside, and his eyes grow drowsy, though he is fighting sleep with all his might. I lift my face to look into his eyes. He meets my gaze. His eyes hold mine as I sing, until they glaze over and he gently lowers his head. He is asleep. I rest my head on the edge of the table. After a moment, I stand. I press my face into the fur on the back of his neck and inhale deeply. I will miss this warmth, this softness, this smell.

When we turn around and walk out–I am the last to leave–I can’t shake the feeling that I am abandoning him.

April 19

Jack and I used to go for a walk every single morning, no matter what. He and Sadie would eat breakfast, I would eat breakfast, and then Jack and I would head out, Sadie joining us on occasion if it wasn’t too dark, too early, or too cold, by her standards.

Now that Jack is gone, my morning routine feels disjointed, inefficient, disturbed. I am awake, I have eaten, but there is no dog waiting to go for a walk with me. Sadie is snuggled back up in her bed. I hold up her harness and dance around and sing and try to convince her she wants to go for a walk. She looks at me and lowers her head, resting it on the bolster of her bed. I decide to go for a quick run. I lace up my shoes and step out into the cerulean morning.

Alone.

I am about half a mile away from home when the sight of a black sock on the shoulder of the road stops me in my tracks. The sense that Jack is with me, leaving me a message, is overwhelming. Every morning when we woke up, Jack would stand patiently in front of my dresser, waiting for me to take out a pair of socks and give it to him. Then, he’d run around the house with the socks in his mouth until I had his breakfast ready. Every afternoon when I got home from work, Jack would root around in my gym bag or work bag until he found a sock (or shoe) to parade around the backyard with. Matty and I were forever finding missing socks and shoes out in the backyard, where Jack had deposited them. In this moment, in the quiet predawn with the birds singing, when I would normally have been out walking with Jack, it feels like he is with me.

April 20

The next day is a Saturday. Matty, Sadie, and our four friends (two humans and their two dogs) are at the Northern Neck. It is the first weekend we have come here without Jack. Last time we were here, just weeks ago, he was here, too. I am walking Sadie with my friend, Ashley, and her dogs, Gryff and Ellie. I look down to my left and a slight, delighted gasp escapes my throat. I feel elated. A well of emotion springs up in my chest. “Look!” I say. There, on the sidewalk, is a single green sock.

April 22

Yesterday was Easter. Ashley and I don’t have to work today, so we decide to take our dogs to Pony Pasture for an afternoon adventure. It is the first time Sadie and I walk these trails along the river without Jack. Eleven days ago, he walked them with us. Eleven days. A week and a half. Last time we were here, Jack was here, too.

We are almost to the trails in Ashley’s white Dodge minivan when something catches my eye on a tree to my right. It is a white sign with pink and red hearts. “Be Kind,” it says in bold, black lettering.

April 23

It has been one week since we said goodbye to Jack. I am half a mile from home on one of Jack’s favorite walking routes, out for a quick run before work. In the grass along the sidewalk, in the half-light of morning, I see a brand new, unused dog-poop bag. I stop running, bend down and pick it up. No sense in leaving it there to litter the neighborhood, especially when I could use it on a future walk with Sadie. The bag bears some kind of cutesie pattern, but I can’t really see what it is; it’s still fairly dark out.

When I get home and turn on the light in the mud room, I can see the bag’s decorative pattern. It is a white bag, adorned with tiny, little, green alligators in a repeating pattern. Some of Jack’s (many) nicknames were Alligator Face, Alligator Mouth, and Chompy-Chomp, because when he was really excited, really happy, or really trying to get me out of bed, he would smile and gnash his teeth like an alligator trying to snatch an unsuspecting gazelle from around the watering hole.

Instead of adding the poop bag to my stash in the mud room, I tie it to the handle of Jack’s red leash, still hooked to his black and gray, reflective, skulls-and-crossbones harness.

April 27

In January 2015, I wrote a diary entry about a walk I took with Jack and Sadie in the Northern Neck. It morphed into a blog post, which morphed into a submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, which morphed into a story in the book. Over a month ago,  several weeks before we lost Jack, I  scheduled a reading of the story and a book signing at the Richmond SPCA to raise funds for its dogs and cats. Jack and I had had a fulfilling experience completing three or four levels of agility classes there, so it seemed an appropriate venue and beneficiary. After the reading, as I sit in the lobby with Sadie and Matty, I look up to my left. There, above the reception desk, is the same sign I saw at VRCC and Pony Pasture: “Be Kind.”

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One of the many “Be Kind” signs I began seeing around the Richmond area in key locations. This one hangs at the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed several levels of agility classes and I held a reading and book signing to raise funds for the shelter.

April 28

This evening brought my most intense bout of regret yet. People talk about our pets crossing the rainbow bridge and waiting for us while they scamper and play. I don’t know what I believe, but tonight I am tormented because popular belief says Jack crossed the rainbow bridge; Jack was afraid of bridges. Jack was afraid of bridges and I left him while he was asleep and didn’t stay for his last breath like I always thought I would and what if he was afraid to cross that bridge without me?

May 4

I am just blocks away from my dad’s birthday brunch when my car strikes and kills a bird. I slam on my brakes and peer down at his little broken body–just in case. Maybe he’s not dead. But he is dead and I am as crushed as his delicate bones and I arrive to lunch a wreck. But as I approach the door, I see a stone with a dog painted on it. A dog that looks like Jack. And, instead of feeling more sorrow, I feel slightly comforted. And then I walk inside and on the floor is a mat bearing the same canine likeness. And in the bathroom, a sticker on the paper towel dispenser.

 

After I order my food from a waitress who discreetly supplies me with extra napkins (I don’t even have to ask her) to blow my nose and wipe my eyes, I glance around the restaurant and there, just above the mirror at the bar, hangs the sign: “Be Kind.”

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The “Be Kind” sign at Millie’s

Eventually, my sobbing subsides and I am able to eat most of my food, though I hardly touch the virgin drink I ordered. My dad, mom, brother, and I pay, and they walk me back to my car. As I get in and close the door, I look up to see the back of my dad’s T-shirt. “You Should Know Jack,” the lettering says.

And I did. And I am so glad I did. Jack and I shared a bond that, for a while, I took for granted as the bond all dog owners form with their dogs. It took me a long time to realize that Jack and I were a special pair. It was not telepathy, not really–but we had an understanding that transcended words. We communicated with each other through a look, a slight gesture.

An emergency vet I took Jack to several years ago in the middle of the night when he was suffering from pancreatitis commented on how in-tune he and I we were with each other. Strangers sometimes approached me to comment on the way Jack watched me. Matty was always telling me, “I have known people with dogs all my life, and had dogs all my life, and I have never seen anything like what you and Jack have.” If any dog could find a way to reach me, to communicate with me beyond my ken, I know Jack would be that dog. And there is a skeptical side of me that says the socks and the signs and the subtle little hints are just coincidences, or would have been there but gone unnoticed if Jack were still with me. But I prefer to believe that’s not true. I prefer to believe Jack is with me, somehow.

A few days ago I was out for a run when I came across two of my neighbors walking their dogs. I stopped to chat and pet all the dogs. In the course of conversation I heard myself say, “When Matty and I were walking Jack and Sadie earlier–” I stopped. “Well, Sadie,” I corrected myself. But as the conversation wound down and I resumed my run I said aloud, “But maybe Jack was there, too.”

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I love you, Jack. Forever and ever, my whole life long.

 

The Lucky Ones

Those of you who follow us on Instagram or know us personally probably already know: Our pack of four lost an integral member a week and a half ago, leaving behind three grieving members. I am not ready to write about it yet, at least not in any sort of meaningful, comprehensive way, though I have been writing about it in a very personal, rather disjointed way in my diary just about every day. I am still processing. (If processing this is even possible, which I am not yet convinced it is.)

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Jack and I in our backyard one hot October day a few years ago

What follows is a narrative essay I wrote about Jack in 2011, when I was about halfway through my graduate degree in creative writing and Jack had been part of our family for close to four years.

I should mention that since this writing, we learned Jack was actually closer to two years old when he joined our pack, as opposed to the not-yet-a-year detail mentioned in the essay below. He was roughly 14 when we said goodbye last week.

Lucky Dog: A New Leash on Life

It is 4 o’clock in the morning. November. Just starting to get cold outside. Feels like the middle of the night. Yesterday, my husband brought home a new dog. We already have one. A little beagle. Sadie. She likes to sleep later than 4 o’clock in the morning. But this new dog, Jack — he doesn’t know any better. He bounds up, wide awake, as soon as he hears me stir. I open the bedroom door to step out into the hallway that leads to the family room. Jack bounds out ahead of me. He stops in the center of room. Looks at me. I look at him. He is a cockeyed sort of dog. One of his eyes has a brown spot around it. The other eye gazes out at the world through short white hair. His nose is crooked. His back is crooked; he stands in a sort of “C” shape most of the time, looking a little like a cocktail shrimp on a plate. One of his ears stands straight up when he’s listening; the other one flops over no matter what. Just as I begin to think how endearing this inherent asymmetry is, he suddenly bends down slightly, bracing himself. I wonder what he is doing. Then he begins to pee. A lot of pee. Right there on the family room carpet, in the middle of the floor. It is four in the freaking morning. I don’t know how to potty train a dog.

I clap my hands. He looks at me blankly. Cocks his head slightly, wondering, probably, why I am applauding his piss. I clap harder. Maybe the noise will startle him into not peeing. Maybe it will distract him.

“No!” I say. “No!” As if a dog that just last week was a wild dog  picked up by the dog catcher in the foothills of New York has any idea what the word “no” means.

He continues to pee on the carpet. I swoop down upon him mid-stream, scoop him up into my arms, and rush him to the back door. I set him down outside. He has stopped peeing, but I can tell by the way he is sniffing around he isn’t actually finished. I follow him around the yard for a while. It is not fenced. Jack makes a break for it. Down the driveway. Down the road. I am chasing him in my pajamas in the dark in the cold. Luckily, he is distracted by something he smells in the bushes of my neighbor’s yard. He stops to sniff. He lifts his leg. Pees some more. I wonder if this adventure is going to make me late for work.  

“Good boy,” I say, hoping I am reinforcing the concept of pissing outside and not the concept of running away. When he is done, I pick him up and carry him back home.

***

It took Jack a while to learn that he was now, actually, home. We had to teach him how to sleep under the covers with us at night. That he didn’t need to be afraid of towels or of walking across bridges. How to take a treat from our hands without taking one or two of our fingers with it. How to pee outside, and that the fact that the family room was outside the bedroom did not qualify it as outside. How to walk on a leash, and that while he was out for a walk on his leash, he no longer had to eat road kill and trash off the street to survive (we are still working on that). He even knows how to smile now, though he won’t on command – only when he is genuinely happy. When Jack first came home, he had a lot to learn. So did I.

A few days before Jack came home, my husband Matty and I had an argument about whether or not we should add a second dog to our household. We were just starting out in our careers and were pretty poor (some things never change). And dog supplies can be costly. A second dog would mean buying double the food, double the treats, and paying double the vet bills. Today, three years later, I am Jack’s human of choice and whenever he feels jealous, Matty likes to remind Jack, “Mommy didn’t even want you, buddy. Remember who brought you home. Daddy had to fight Mommy to bring you home. You’re lucky Daddy won.” While this isn’t entirely true (it was never that I didn’t want Jack), I am glad that though he tries, cocking his head from one side to the other and lifting his mismatched ears (we call the ear that never lifts up his “broken ear”), Jack cannot understand what Matty is saying. There are, however, many words and phrases Jack can now understand. This is a list of them: sit, stay, wait, leave it (selectively), down, doggy practice, ride, walk, dinner, breakfast, dessert, treat, up, jump, here, Jack, daddy, mommy, who’s here?, hungry, and outside.

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Jack and I at our local Petco (now torn down and rebuilt), Jack having completed one of his many “doggy school” classes

***

My sister-in-law is the one who essentially saved Jack’s life. She was working as a vet in the hills of New York when the dog catcher brought him in to be spayed and get his shots before going on to the pound. Jack was a little, emaciated, big-eyed wild dog that had been living off acorns (which to this day he carries home and drops on our deck after autumn walks) and dead things. He wasn’t even a year old. She couldn’t let such a sweet dog go to the pound and, lucky for Jack, told the dog catcher she would keep him. Jack spent the next several months living between the vet’s office and a crate at my sister-in-law’s house while she tried to find a suitable home for him.

During that time, Jack learned very little. The problem was this: The first thing Jack did when he got to my sister-in-law’s house was climb to the top of the stairs, squat down, and poop. She already had a black lab, two cats, a husband, and a toddler. She didn’t have the time or energy to potty-train her son and Jack. Thus, Jack was relegated to a plastic dog crate – the travel kind with nothing but a caged front and little holes in the side that usually spell out something like “DOG TAXI” and serve as ventilation. There he stayed, except for a couple potty breaks a day, while home after home fell through for one reason or another. Then one November day, Matty drove up to New York. When he came home, Jack came with him.

***

It wasn’t long before we knew something was wrong with Jack. I came home from work one day and, as usual, Jack and Sadie came running to the door to greet me, Sadie howling and barking and Jack wagging not just his tail, but his entire body — wriggling around the way a worm does when a curious child pokes at it with a stick. Then, suddenly, Jacky’s little eyes were stone and his body, stiff. He tottered for a moment, back and forth, and then, he tipped over. Sadie sometimes had seizures, and while this episode wasn’t quite the same, I thought maybe it was a seizure. I did like I do for Sadie. Knelt down beside Jack, rested his head on my lap, talked quietly to him. After a minute or two, he stood up, shook it off, and went about the rest of his doggy day. I didn’t think much of it. But then it started to happen more and more frequently. Sometimes multiple times a day. Jack quit eating. Quit playing with Sadie. Eventually wouldn’t leave the bedroom at all. Matty and I had to carry him to the backyard to go potty and carry him back in again when he was done. We frequented the vet’s office, setting appointments for every two months for over a year. No one knew what was wrong with Jack. They put him on meds that made him vomit. They took him off. They put him on meds that would work for a few months, and then lose their effectiveness. We drove to the vet over and over again. Each time, Jack would curl up in the passenger seat, a look of heartbreaking resignation in his puppy eyes. I would stroke his back with my free hand as I drove, praying and praying and praying.

Everyone always likes to talk about how lucky Jack is. Really, I think, I am the lucky one.

After maybe five or six months, the vet told me Jack may need to see a canine cardiologist. That his red blood cell count was low and perhaps there was something amiss with the valves in his heart, as well. After paying several hundred more dollars in vet bills, I got in the car with Jack and drove quietly home. About halfway there, I called my husband. Told him the grim news. As we talked, I looked down at Jack now and then. When he was awake, he would look up at me out from under his sleepy eyelids. So much trust in those eyes. He had implicit faith in me. I couldn’t imagine a world without Jack in it. I was prepared to do anything to keep him here. I would spend any amount of money, go to the vet every day if I had to.

But that wasn’t working. Months and months and still not working. Still the tipping over. Still the lack of appetite. Still the gums in his mouth too white – indicative of anemia. Still the sadness. I prayed. I prayed every day for Jack. I prayed with Jack. I read him pieces of the Bible while I stroked his velvety, mismatched ears.  I held him always in my thoughts.

Then, he got better. For several days, I came home and waited for him to tip over. No more tipping over. After a week or two, I learned to stop expecting it. I started taking him on short walks with Sadie again. He regained his energy. He was more playful. He was eating. I took him to the vet for one more regular, two-month check-up.

“Jack,” the vet said after checking his gums, taking his temperature, listening to his heart, “you are a mystery. And you are one lucky dog.” She took him off the meds. Before long, Jack could join Sadie and me on our regular, longer walks. It was as if nothing had ever been wrong. The vets still don’t know whatever was.

***

Matty likes to say I am “at least 60% happier” because of Jack. He is convinced that since Jack came home, I am in general a cheerier person. I can’t really dispute this. Jack makes me smile more times a day than I otherwise would. He gets up with me every morning at 5 and romps around the house with a squeaky toy in his mouth, wide awake and energized – ready for the day. Without his shennanigans, I can safely say I would not be smiling at 5 every morning. But with Jack chasing me around the house wagging his tail and chomping on a toy, how can I not crack a grin? He looks at me with his goofy, cockeyed ears, and how can I help but smile? And one of my favorite feelings is Jack curled up against my stomach in bed every night. When I am away from home overnight, I get cold without his fuzzy warmth beside me and I miss him. When I return home, he is there – where he has been all along – waiting for me with love and joy and the ever-enduring faith that I was coming home all along. It just took me a little longer this time.

***

It is January. About 4 in the afternoon. A Friday. My mom and my brother’s dog Baxter, a furry husky/akita mix, meet Jack, Sadie, and me at the state park near my house for a late afternoon hike. The dogs have been cooped up all day while I was at work. Their energy and exuberance is evident in the way they spastically sniff and cry and tug at the ends of their leashes like they’ve never walked on a leash before. Sadie, in fact, jumped around my little car the entire ride here, hopping from window to window, seat to seat, front to back.

We walk, stopping now and then to let the dogs sniff and to listen to the quiet that is the woods on a cold Friday afternoon when most everyone is either still at work, or keeping warm inside. We talk about our days, the family, weekend plans. When we come to the old mill site, we cross over the bridge where once, Jack fell into the creek and I had to heft him back over the side of the bridge. We walk up a steep hill with trees to our left and a drop off down to the creek below to our right. As we round the corner to the boardwalk that will allow us passage through the wetlands that surround Beaver Lake, my mom says, “He really is lucky.”

“Who?” I say.

“Jack. He might not be around anymore if he hadn’t ended up with you guys. Whatever he had would’ve killed him.”

“Yeah,” I say, still unable to imagine a world without Jack.

After about an hour, we have walked the entirety of Beaver Lake Trail and it will soon be dark outside. Mom loads Baxter into her car and he curls up to rest on the back seat. I tell Sadie and Jack to “go for a ride” and they readily hop into my car. Mom and I hug goodbye and head home, she turning right at the park exit and I turning left. I smile as Sadie assumes her habitual position behind the headrests of my backseat where she can watch the road behind us peel away and stare at the drivers of the cars that follow us. At times, in my rearview mirror, I have seen such drivers wave at Sadie, even talk to her sometimes. They are always smiling. I look down at Jack, sitting up in the front seat like a little man, looking out the window. My whole heart smiles. That night after a late dinner, Matty stretches out in bed to my left. Sadie jumps up and pushes her way under the covers at his feet. A heartbeat later, Jack is standing at my side of the bed, looking up at me. I lift the covers up. He jumps up on the bed beside me, curls up at my belly button, sighs. I rub the space between his eyes. Everyone always likes to talk about how lucky Jack is. Really, I think, I am the lucky one.

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Sadie, Jack, and I at a Strut Your Mutt event held by Fetch-a-Cure in Bryant Park one October day

My Writing Buddies have Four Paws

It all started on a walk with my dogs. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, as every day starts with a walk with my dogs. We eat breakfast, leash up, and head out. Every day begins with a dog walk–and so do many of my essays, poems, blog posts, and book chapters. One of my essays, about to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (in bookstores April 9), was not only inspired while I was walking my dogs, but is also about walking my dogs. It tells the short tale of how letting Jack take the reins (or should I say, “leash?”) and determine our walking route one morning led me to a beautiful view–and taught me a valuable lesson: I don’t always have to be in charge.

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The view I was treated to when I let Jack decide which way we should walk one January morning in 2015.

The essay had humble beginnings. It started as a January 2015 diary entry, penned after returning home from our walk, and eventually morphed into a blog post on my now debunked, little-read personal blog, where it sat for several years, largely unnoticed. In 2018, while scrolling through a Freedom with Writing e-mail (if you’re a writer and you don’t subscribe already, you should), I learned that Chicken Soup for the Soul was accepting submissions for several upcoming books, one being Life Lessons from the Dogs.

I remembered my diary-entry-turned-blog-post, and, after a few revisions, submitted it. Almost a year later, I received one of the most exciting e-mails of my life to date. The essay I wrote, at the time called “Northern Neck Dog Walk,” had been shortlisted in the selection process for the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog.

Radio
Kat Simons, local Richmond radio personality, was kind enough to have Jack, Sadie, and me into the studio for an interview this afternoon. We talked about my upcoming fundraisers for two local animal shelters and the soon-to-be-released Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, in bookstores April 9.

Trying in vain not to get too excited, I started a group text including my parents, three siblings, in-laws, and half a dozen friends, and texted out my happy news, complete with far too many exclamation points and smiley face emojis. I e-mailed all of them, too–to make sure they got the message. Though it was difficult, I did manage to resist the urge to post my good news to social media, in the event that, in the end, nothing came of it.

Then, I waited–telling myself it was a big success to have made it even this far.

A few weeks later, I received official word that my essay had made the cut, and would be featured in the book, a fact I quickly plastered all over my Facebook and Instagram accounts.

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Sadie and Jack pose with a few copies of the book they’re in.

My complimentary copies of the books arrived last week, and I have been busy setting up fundraisers for Richmond Animal League, where my dogs inspired me to volunteer in their honor for roughly five years, and the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed (and LOVED) several agility classes.

If I don’t already have enough to thank my precious little dogs for, I can now add publication, book signings, fundraisers, and a radio interview to the list of experiences they’ve given me.

 

Go for a Walk: A Poem

In case you’re expecting some deep meditation on the practice and value of going for a walk, or an extended metaphor about life as a walk–or anything like that, let me warn you: This isn’t that kind of poem. This is just a rambling, silly little rhyme I composed in my head yesterday afternoon while I was, well, walking my dogs.

Every day when Mom walks

through the door

walk poem V
Virginia Capital Trail, Four Mile Creek

we know she’s gonna ask

do we wanna go for…

 

a walk.

Go for a walk.

 

And you know it’s true

that we always do

take a walk.

 

Go for a walk.

walk poem IV
James River Wetlands at Pony Pasture

 

Whether hot or cold

new route or old

we take a walk.

 

Go for a walk.

 

Whether through the park

or our own neighborhood,

walk poem
Our neighborhood

whether Mom’s day was bad

or whether it was good

we take a walk.

 

Go for a walk.

 

Mama didn’t raise no fools

and ‘dem’s the rules:

We take a walk.

Go for a walk.

 

Rain, sun, or snow–

we can wear our coats.

We walk in all weather–

walk poem III
Point of Rocks Park

we can wear our sweaters.

We take a walk.

Go for a walk.

 

A walk never fails

to make us wag our tails.

Let’s take a walk.

Go for a walk.

 

Whether long or short

Mom gives Dad a report

about our poops and our pees

(it’s a little embarrassing)

walk poem II
Potentially Pocahontas State Park, but possibly the James River Wetlands

 

At age 12 and 14,

we know the routine:

We take a walk.

Go for a walk.

No matter the season

and here’s a good reason

to take a walk,

go for a walk:

We’re both puppies at heart

because each day we

finish and start

with a walk.

 

Go for a walk.

walk poem VI
Dutch Gap on the James River