The Canine Cure for Commitment Phobia
I am a bolter. The kind of person who gallops away at the first sign that something might gel into permanence. Open a friend’s drawer and you will find an engagement ring — because I could not bear to have it — gathering dust, a testament to the vacillation that helped end one relationship among many others.
“You run the other way,” one would-be paramour complained. I’ve tried to moderate myself. Lope the other way, meander the other way, creep the other way. Still, the direction stayed the same.
Lately, I’ve been determined to change. A good middle ground, a testing ground, between a man and no man is a dog. Loyalty. Affection. The building blocks of commitment that someday, in the human world, might lead to a third date.
But dogs are serious business. Relationships can last as long as 15 years, I hear. So I decided to start with a senior dog on the theory that the window of commitment would be shorter.
Oreo is his name, but he is neither black nor white. He’s in that gray area of dotage, neither friendly nor unfriendly, present nor absent. He has cataracts, is almost totally deaf, has a bad hip, and is so arthritic his tail won’t wag. It points straight down in the 6 o’clock position.
He is 14 years old. Adopting him would be like marrying Hugh Hefner’s older brother. And it’s not even a commitment. Not yet. I’m just fostering … so far.
The people at the animal rescue knew just how to work me. They trotted out the requisite phrases: He was an “old gent” and a “love bug” with “nowhere to go.” “Owner-surrendered,” a term that evokes an image of an owner raising his hands and backing away slowly. Depressed and abandoned, Oreo wouldn’t get off the floor in his pen at the Lancaster Animal Shelter, and he was about to be put down before the rescue group came in and saved him.
I was full of determination when I drove from Santa Barbara to North Hollywood to pick him up. He was a sad sight indeed, stiff and old and suspicious and displaced. But I was ready. Ready to possibly commit someday soon to a 14-year-old dog.
As we drove home through the darkness of the 101 highway, with the ocean lying flat and dark to my left and the mountains to my right, I became more and more convinced that this was destiny. "Do you want to come home with me forever and be my dog?" I asked.
Fortunately, he is too old to sense my ambivalence, and I think I hid it well through enthusiastic conversation. "Good boy!" I shouted at him. "You ate all your dinner! You like chicken and rice, don't you, old boy?"
His bottom eyelids drooped down and made his eyeballs look like they were rolling. I’ve run into this before. The rolling eyes.
In the darkness, his eyes must have rolled.
On Monday, I bought him a bed. Maybe I shouldn’t have rushed into it, but I did. I also bought some glutamine tablets for his arthritis, 40, no — to hell with it — make that 60 count! I used the phrase “my dog.” It felt substantial and weighty. It sounded definite. Was I definite?
I remember when that aforementioned dusty ring was given to me, on a beige sofa in Venice. “Yes!” I said. It sounded definite, but the sound took all the definition for itself and left none for me.
Tuesday morning, I awoke to a large puddle of urine on the floor and what I kept delicately referring to all day to the rescue group as his “bowel problem.” A bowel problem in the same way that Krakatoa was a “mountaintop problem.”
So intent on cleaning it up before my conference call, I didn’t realize Oreo had never come back from the yard. I went out and the gate was open.
"My old rescue dog, too ancient to move, had somehow run away."
Rescue people are not a calm breed.
“He’s gone?” they gasped. “Oh, my God! My God!” (Translation: You must be a complete idiot.)
“The gate was not totally secure,” I admitted. (If you leaned against the gate, it would open, but I didn’t think Oreo had the get-up-and-go to lean against anything.)
Two hours later, after a frantic search, Oreo was located. A very kind woman around the block had found him wandering in the middle of the street, and she and the other good souls of Santa Barbara surrounded him and got him into her house.
I found him ensconced comfortably in her workshop. He looked at me as if to say, “I found a better place already. Within a block, no less.”
“Why doesn’t he have a collar?” she asked. (You are the worst owner in the world.)
“I didn’t have time to get him one yet,” I responded. (I am the worst owner in the world.)
“Oreo,” I said. “You crazy dog. You had me scared!"
“He’s not crazy,” she remonstrated.
“That is a term of … that is a term of affection.”
“He is so sweet. I wish I could take him.”
“Can you?” I asked treacherously.
Oreo regarded me gravely.
I slunk back home through the rain, Oreo trudging next to me on a leash. I was a failure. And if I couldn’t even commit to a 14-year-old dog, how could I even hope to commit to a man? Sure, different species, different circumstances, but my lifelong ambivalence toward relationships clearly wasn’t evolving at all.
I decided to tell the rescue people I couldn’t do it. I traveled too much. It just wasn’t the right fit. They’d find someone else. Not it, not it.
Over the next 24 hours, things got better. A diet of chicken and rice got him over Krakatoa. He seemed calmer, happier. "Good boy!" I shouted in his ear when he peed on the grass.
"Good boy! Good boy!"
Today, I looked at Oreo, lying near the back of the property in the warm California sun, and I realized that at one time, he had been able to give so much. He must have been so beautiful. I imagined him in his youth, loyal and smart and alert and playful. A blur of motion, a streak of black and brown and white. Only the sky could keep up with him.
Someone took that glorious dog home and in doing so promised a lifetime of love. And then when the years passed and he was old, and somehow the ratio shifted and he had to take more than he could give, the promise was broken. That commitment to love and honor all the days of his life, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health — maybe that’s why he lay at the pound for two days and wouldn’t get up.
I’m sure he had kept up his end. His tail was alive back then, pumping out an Olympian amount of glad-to-see-you adoration, thumping against the wall, the floor, the plants. Everything.
He never even conceived of a life that did not include that same person who brought him to that high-kill shelter and drove away, leaving him alone and now without the tools to attract another human — the wagging tail, the shiny coat, the bright eyes, and healthy panting faithfulness.
It was a violation of the promise of love, the anticipation that, when you are old and your looks and health and even presence of mind have faded, someone will remain by your side, committed to making an art of pure giving.
"That commitment to love and honor all the days of his life, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health — maybe that’s why he lay at the pound for two days and wouldn’t get up."
That tail has done a lifetime of wagging already and should not have to wag again. And yet it did. Because that frozen tail was but one of many things that kept him from being the dog I imagined.
Go ahead, call it a stretch, but every man I ever dated has had a frozen tail of some sort. One I thought I could cure by simply going on to the next man. That’s the main reason a ring, half finished, beautiful, is glittering in a drawer somewhere.
The rescue people called me back, and with that weary resignation rescue people grow, they easily accepted the fact that Oreo, like so many dogs, was unwanted again. “You can bring him back,” they said, “if it’s too much for you.”
I had changed my mind. I told them I thought he should stay here longer. Just so he can see that pet acupuncturist who is supposed to be miraculous. Just so he can have a little more continuity.
It’s nighttime. Oreo wanders into the room. "Hey, Oreo," I say, making conversation as well as I do in the human world. "What are you doing? How's it going? Good boy! Good boy!"
He accepts a pat on the head and then flounders away to wander through the house like an old man who has perpetually set his glasses down and then forgotten where they are.
I brought him a stuffed bunny today from the drugstore. He didn’t know what to do with it. I don’t know if he’s ever had a toy.
I’ll never know a thing about his past. It is beyond remembering. It is a love story that fell onto its side.
Later tonight he will fall asleep under the dining room table. He sleeps with his eyes open. His legs kick out. He is running in his sleep.
That’s the thing about love. That’s why it’s so frightening. It is not convenient. Love lives past the stage where giving and receiving are in balance.
If I could learn to be here in the end, could I not be there in the beginning, in the middle? Call me, Hugh Hefner’s older brother. Heck, his younger brother. Oreo’s got me imagining a lifetime that’s more than 14 years.
Update: Kathy Hepinstall did manage to commit to a man and is married and living in Austin, Texas.