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ESSAY
Loosy
Trevy Thomas

 Image © Susan Campos 

Image © Susan Campos 

I was alone in the bathroom, crying hysterically, when I realized my dog, Lucy, was sitting in the doorway watching me with her own sad eyes. The intensity of her gaze startled me out of myself for a moment, made me aware of how my emotional state was not just internal but external too, frightening in a way. As my snivels decreased and I blew my nose on a piece of toilet tissue, Lucy watched. I reached down to her level, put my arms around her sturdy torso for a much needed hug while she gently licked a tear from my face.

Six months earlier, before my husband died, he’d discovered Lucy during the New Year’s holiday. While blowing streams of cigarette smoke into the dark sky above our porch, he heard a car skid to a thud, then a dog’s scream as the car sped off. With the round spot of a flashlight, he walked down the long gravel drive into the cold Virginia night to find the dog he knew was hurting somewhere. A few minutes later, he called me. “I found her. She’s hurt but seems okay. We’re across the street by the gate to the farm. Bring the car.”

I got out of bed, slipped a coat over my pajamas, and drove my Subaru to meet them at the gate. There, folded up on the ground beside my kneeling husband, lay a short-haired hound-beagle mix. She was still and quiet but seemed resigned to whatever came next. Bill loaded the dog gently next to me in the back seat, where I’d moved to comfort her, and the three of us were silent on the short drive home.

Back by the light of the house, I could see that she was midsize, collarless, and skinny, with big round eyes. There were many dogs like this near us. During hunting season, they often appeared loose, their orange collars removed by hunters who didn’t want them. She looked weary, frightened, and possibly in a state of shock. Once home, she and I stayed in the back of the car while Bill looked for a large crate in the barn. Our two dogs were inside the house, howling and scratching frantically at the door. I sat beside her in the car and waited. She made no sound, showed no aggression, but her stillness was worrisome.

Bill took the crate into the house, and as he did, the door flew open and our two dogs came barreling past him to the car, where the passenger door was still open. Barking and pushing their heads into the back seat, I felt their anxious breath as they tried to investigate this intruder in their car, their family, their home. I did my best to block them, but already the three-dog drama had begun. My thoughts turned to the warm, comfortable bed I’d left, and I felt selfish for wishing Bill hadn’t gotten us involved.

Once the crate was assembled in the kitchen and our dogs were secured in another room, we carried her into the house and set her down in front of the open cage. She immediately ran into it and gratefully settled on the pillow inside. I offered her a bowl of dog food, which she swallowed at once.

The next morning, our two dogs sniffed around her crate. The initial excitement had dissipated, and now it was more a show of curiosity. Sadie, a retriever-pit mix, and Chip, a Jack Russell terrier, poked their noses through the bars of the crate, reaching for a better whiff of the newcomer, and she didn’t seem to mind. Dogs were familiar; humans were still on trial.

I opened the door to set out on our morning walk, and our dogs lost interest in their visitor as they ran ahead to new adventures. She avoided putting weight on her bad leg, so wasn’t ready for a romp through the woods. I kept her on a leash, and she hopped along on three legs for our slow walk behind the others. My boots crunched along cold gravel while her long toenails clicked hesitantly beside.

Bill said, “She’s got beagle in her. They roam. I don’t want to worry about a dog who wanders.”

“You won’t have to,” I replied. “We’re not keeping her. Remember? I’m going to figure out how to help her, so this is just temporary.” Already, I could see he was struggling with the idea.

When we returned for breakfast, she watched with surprising disinterest as dog food bowls were filled on the counter. I guess she’d never been fed from a bowl. But when it was her turn to eat, she devoured it as though she’d never been fed at all. I noticed when we were outside that she ate dirt, and wondered if this is how she’d been surviving. “What a life,” I told Bill. He just stared quietly.

Finally, the New Year’s weekend was over, and the vet was available to meet her. We trudged into the overcrowded waiting room.

“She’s been hit by a car,” I said, “and we want to help, but she’s not really our dog.”

The woman at the desk ignored my comment. “What’s her name?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

Her fingers tapped expectantly above the keyboard at the entry for Pet’s Namewhile a line of impatient pet owners formed behind me.

I’d never been all that good at naming pets, and now I had to do it on the spot for a dog we’d found running loose. “Lucy,” I said, thankful that at least she was female, so the name fit.

When it was our turn to see the vet, I tugged on the newly named Lucy’s leash, but she wouldn’t budge; just stared sadly at the floor. I heard snickering as other pet owners witnessed her resistance, but it pained me to see how empty she was—nothing to be happy about, no human to keep her, not even enough gumption to be afraid; just resigned to everything that was bad and cold and lonely. Bill gave me a sad look.

 

The vet treated Lucy, sent us home with deworming medication, and suggested we consider getting her spayed. Her leg was injured from the car accident but didn’t appear to be broken, so we could expect that to heal. Once home, I sent an e-mail to a friend who ran a no-kill shelter with good adoption rates and asked her if I could bring Lucy to her. She said yes, but to wait two weeks to give her leg time to heal properly before confining her to the slippery floors of the shelter. Looking back, I’m certain this was a trick. It worked.

During those two weeks, Lucy stopped holding her leg in the air. She was able to put weight on it, unless she thought she might be in trouble, and then she magically held it up again, as if to remind us of her sad past. She joined us regularly on walks, and our dog family seemed to fully accept her as one of the pack. She had some weird quirks—like a strong hesitation before crossing doorway thresholds, and a bark that sounded like a seal—but she was beginning to show happiness, trust, and gratitude. I had held firm to the idea that we could help her without being the family who adopted her, but now my resolve was weakening. Everyone else in the house wanted her to stay. How could I send her to a shelter just as she was learning that some humans were trustworthy? Lucy’s introduction to my life was sudden and haphazard, but I saw now that it was permanent. We welcomed her into our family as the third dog.

Over the next few months, she fattened up, taking first place in line at meals, howling and whining all the while. She chased Sadie out the door on our daily walks, grabbing her ankle playfully so she had to hop all the way to the path on three paws. In the evenings, Bill laughed at Lucy’s wrestling skills—positioning herself under Sadie crossways, lifting her up off the ground, and spinning around in a circle so Sadie could do nothing to redeem herself from the humiliating position but wait until Lucy’s fun was over. She recovered brilliantly from her sad start in life. She shook off her past like an old skin and stepped fully into this new world as the rightful place she deserved. How I admired her resilience. How different it was from a human approach. No long suffering, no hours of therapy, no drug and alcohol abuse. Just joy at her arrival.

 

In early summer that year, after Lucy had been with us about six months, my husband simply dropped dead. We had just celebrated my fiftieth birthday—an age he never reached—when a brain aneurysm slipped in one weekend and snatched him away. The shovel still lay in his beautiful garden, a reminder to me of the night I woke to find him sitting up in bed, his back covered in mulch. I must’ve slept through his movements up to that point, but I assume he’d gone outside to his smoking porch and had a seizure there, as I watched him do several more times that night while waiting for help to arrive. Life can change in a warningless second. This was something Lucy understood.

The days, weeks, months, and years that followed felt surreal. It had never occurred to me that I could be widowed so soon. Bill’s departure felt as sudden and haphazard as Lucy’s arrival. I crossed a doorway with her into a frightening and unfamiliar world of grief just as she—my strange new dog—had survived a horror of her own at my threshold.

When Bill died, he took the old me with him, and I observed, helplessly, as I became a different person. This change unsettled my confidence, my sense of self-sufficiency and competence. I entered a long, dark storm I feared was permanent. Grief therapists called it “the new normal,” and I hated them for that.

There was a time shortly after his death when I wished we hadn’t taken on a third dog. One afternoon, as Lucy watched my grief with uncomfortable intensity, I considered rehoming her. That temptation, much like my periodic suicidal thoughts, was thankfully fleeting, but in my darkest state, I wondered if Lucy were an omen.

Knowing the pain of being suddenly left, I couldn’t possibly abandon any of these animals who depended on me, even though I sometimes felt ready to leave the entirety of my life. No shelter, no new home, no being left to fend for themselves. They didn’t have any more choice in it than I had, but at least this time I could choose to protect them. And that’s how I saw it at first, that it was I who was protecting them.

One late afternoon, I stumbled around lost in the woods near our house, slightly loopy from too much wine. With a cold, darkening sky overhead, I had an idea of where the house was but could no longer find a break in the thick brush to reach it. The dogs had already headed home, expecting their dinner. Fear crept in and I batted away ominous thoughts of how wrong this could go, and how ridiculous it would be to need rescue so close to my home simply because I couldn’t find it. The fear surprised me too. Grief makes you feel invincible because the misery removes any caution over what might happen next. But Sadie came back for me, making certain I was safe, guiding me home. Lucy, I suspect, was too swayed by the anticipation of her dinner to think of my dilemma. Dogs, like humans, have their limitations.

The dogs’ evening meal—like the morning meal, the twice-daily walks, the adherence to routine—provided me with grounding purpose. The simplicity and familiarity of their needs and reliance on me proved just the small amount of daily activity that kept me going. While grievers want nothing but to stay in bed until it’s all over, the small activities of living are what lead us back to humanity. I read about a friend’s suggestion to a grieving woman to simply open her curtains every morning. That small task led to her getting in and out of bed twice a day to open and then close them. Soon she went out the door for a walk; then a slow return to life. The dogs made certain there was no choice involved for me. Even when I resented it, I still had to act.

Lucy made it most evident that these animals I lived with kept me hanging on to a snippet of sanity. Her keen perception, solid presence, and appreciative heart became substitutes for the company of a human in my home. I was not so all alone. Her entry into my heart just as Bill left reminded me of the familiar phrase “When one door closes, another opens.” At that time, she wasn’t the companion I really wanted, but I accepted that I couldn’t have my husband back. My place without him now was certain, but the silent loneliness in the house would have been unbearable without Lucy as the stand-in I slowly came to appreciate.

In younger years, I’d decided not to have children. This, combined with marriages that didn’t stay the course, might always return me to myself…alone. Maybe I’d been brave in this choice, some might say foolish, but there was never a strong enough tug toward motherhood to raise a child, and I wasn’t about to do it as security against loneliness and old age. Dogs seemed meant for just such a life. They could see me to the end. I could be certain, in an uncertain world, of always having a tremendous source of comfort and companionship by simply walking into a shelter and finding the next dog who wanted to go home with me.

 

None of us was faring well. Chip developed a persistent skin infection, and Sadie anxiously barked at every leaf that fell. I wondered whether grief or fear about my odd behavior was affecting them. I needed them to be healthy now; their importance to my survival was invaluable. My concern for them made me aware of how similar our needs were: companionship, giving and receiving care, joy, exploring our curiosities, hunkering down together in restful safety.

That day, as Lucy watched me cry, I saw the depth of emotion in her eyes, the understanding and compassion. This same sensitivity is what saved her from a cold, hard life in a pen. She was different from her siblings, and that difference—useless to hunters—provided her with a warm, loving life. I don’t know what she assessed of the situation, or any grief she may have had of her own for this man who saved her, but it was clear she sensed my struggle and was concerned about it. Lucy, with her own tragic past, seemed to have developed not only resiliency from her experience, but compassion for others because of that experience. I leaned on her strength many times when I needed someone to cry on, and found great comfort in her calming, solid presence.

I live now with a fear of being left again, of returning to grief, to the void that loneliness sends me. I’ve come to think of it as a kind of PTSD as a result of grieving. I’ve tried reasoning that perhaps I’ll die first this time, rather than my new husband, but there’s no swatting away this fear. Instead, I find myself planning for grief’s unwelcome return in many small ways, trying to stay aware and learning to do the things my husband does for our home, so that when it’s his turn to leave me, I’ll know how to operate the truck, unload trash at the dump, run the mower, direct plumbers to the well, know the source of the noise in the middle of the night. None of these things—as I well know—will be important to me if I’m widowed again, but I try to control what I can. While I may not always be able to share the gift of human companionship, I can count on enjoying the comfort of a dog or two by my side. This creature who’d also been abandoned taught me the exceptional abilities that animals have to cross species boundaries and support us in our shared emotional terrain.

Thank you, Lucy.


Trevy Thomas’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The Coachella Review, 2017 River Tides anthology, and Woodwork magazine, as well as at various websites. She has attended writing classes and workshops, including one led by author Dani Shapiro. Trevy lives in Virginia with her husband and four dogs.