Sometimes it’s in the act of saving something else that we save ourselves.
Which I was newly reminded of this morning when Baby Rae nuzzled me awake. Baby Rae—or just plain Baby—is the Australian cattle dog I rescued when she was a sick, battered puppy—oh, and bald except for a dark Mohawk that started strong at the top of her little head and ran out of gas just before segueing into a tail that had been too crudely and recently halved.
Her skin, where it wasn’t an open wound, was tough to the touch but wrinkled like crumpled paper. Her eyelids were matted shut, blinding her: she was a study in absolute misery—and was being kicked around the Tecate, Mexico plaza by a federale when, without thinking, I’d taken off my sweater, intercepted a kick, and hustled the dog away, all eight pounds of puppy-misery swaddled in wool.
But then I couldn’t hold onto what I’d just saved; she was too covered with bleeding sores and cuts. I couldn’t reassure her with my hands. She was too damaged. We couldn’t bond.
To complicate matters . . .
I picked the puppy up from the emergency animal clinic, which had been my first stop back on the US side of the border, and my two other dogs disliked her at first sniff (sick dogs are instinctively shunned by a pack, so my sick one would have to be carefully watched), and my husband, and my veterinarian, had looked at me as if I’d just sprouted a second head, for bringing home this thing.
I am not naturally impulsive. I had no non-emotional explanation for sneaking Baby Rae across the border.
Heart sinking, I gazed at the tiny, wrinkled, wounded creature sleeping in the basket I’d made up for her and thought, Well, I can’t love her, she’s unlovable, but I can’t take her back, there’s no return policy. Second thought was, I’m just gonna have to suck this one up. Third thought was, this is what I get. . . .
BC, or before crises, the shape of my life was determined by a craft—writing—and my discipline, exercise, and the joy of family, friends, and dogs. I’d say I felt a semblance of inner harmony back then—but, oh, how easy it is to be at peace when nothing is asked, nothing is tested.
But then the “tests” rolled into town: cancer hit my family, then deaths, and I lost friends, even certainty. I couldn’t wrap my head around it all.
At the time I found Baby (or she found me), my family was still recovering from a terrible fissure caused by my parents’ long illnesses. I was sad; a to-the-bone kind of sad. I’d stopped exercising, and begun eating and drinking junk, and as a result was tired all the time and not the least bit hopeful. I rarely wrote. I wasn’t as social. I was adrift on an island of misery—and the island was mine, all mine. An “investment” in carefully nurtured hopelessness, so of course I didn’t care to give it up.
And then came Baby Rae. A horribly beat-up, wrinkled mess rocking my island, causing me to stretch awake and step outside myself. Dang—how utterly inconvenient.
Surprisingly, life took on a certain, steady rhythm.
Though, for the longest time, I only picked Baby up in a towel or wore gloves. Her Mohawk began to grow, and she graduated from the basket at the foot of my bed to a bassinet at the side of it. She followed me everywhere. I so much as lifted an eyebrow and she was front and center, studying me for clues, for expectations (how could she have known I had none?). If I closed a door behind me, she was there waiting and smiling when I opened it again (and, yes, cattle dogs not only dance–see my Sept. 20th post–but they smile too).
Her wrinkles filled in, and her sores smoothed into thin white lines. She began coaxing me to play, bowing and nipping at my heels. Actually, being a natural-born herder, she was trying to herd me, and that’s what got quickly nipped. One day it occurred to me that she was actually happy, and that she’d not only begun a real healing, but was well into it, miles ahead of me—and that’s when something stirred in me, finally: a humongous admiration for Baby, for where she’d come from and where she was now, and pride, and even a small, warm burst of hope, because if Baby Rae could survive immense cruelty and pain and still be so dang happy, there had to be hope for me, too. For the first time in a long while, if even just a second, I felt a smidge of the old inner harmony, and I couldn’t help thinking of the adage, “When you give another being joy, there is the peace.”
Eddie Murphy eyes—and a blue coat is black hairs distributed fairly evenly through white . . .
On a morning shortly after this, I bent over and touched Baby. Really touched her. I caressed her and crooned love words. I’d finally fallen for her. At almost 35 pounds, she was nearly an adult. Her coat had grown in, masking her scarred flesh. Who could’ve known she’d be blue? I marveled, thinking of the miserable bald puppy she’d been not so long ago. A beautiful midnight-blue. I ran my gloveless hands along her well-muscled body, relishing the thickness of her glossy blue fur. She turned just her head and looked back at me—and her eyes are huge and dark, ringed by thick hoops of white sclera. I call them Eddie Murphy eyes—and they are soft. It was a pure, overwhelming, uncomplicated love they conveyed.
I heard my own soft intake of breath.
Because it was at the precise moment of this truth, of understanding that Baby’s healing had begun the very second I’d picked her up in Mexico, that something inside me loosened further, quite literally working its way free of me—and then, like that, the heaviness was gone. Gone. I stood up, shoulders and back straight, feeling strong again, and my breathing felt easy, each breath satin-smooth.
I looked back down at Baby and smiled, and her skewed tail thumped the floor a million miles a minute, because–and I could read her by then–she knew I’d finally gotten the message that was at the core of her being, the sole reason for her sudden appearance in my life that day in Mexico: It’s the second that counts, stupid. Stay with the seconds.
And then there was that grin again.
I take another giant step outside myself and I see us:
I see Baby pass her contagious joy off to my strong, reinvigorated self and I see myself running with it, like I ran when I first grabbed her in Mexico, but this time it’s a sweet run, made sweeter by what came before it—the pain, the sadness, the giving up—before our sudden, unexpected save.
Then the win: the realization that in the process of saving Baby, she’d saved me by taking me out of my pain and into hers—and then she’d taught me how to live well again, joyfully, in the now, by example.
It’s eleven years later. I’m still structured, which is my basic nature, but nowhere near as wary of spontaneity. I’ve been back to writing for some time. My novel, The Angry Woman Suite, will soon see light of day (it got a great review from Kirkus Reviews, “World’s Toughest Book Critics,” which is a link on this blog).
Baby Rae—resting at my feet while I wrote this—is just up and at my side, rubbing her forehead against my arm. It is time for bed, she is telling me; for closing another day of writing with a blue dog who dances and smiles, and still, despite aches and pains, those inevitable harbingers of advancing age, finds joy in every second of our life together.
And I’m reminded yet again: every being has purpose and everything is connected. I feel Baby’s peace—it is mine, too.