Friday, December 16, 2005

Drama and Trauma

Hi everyone,

I’m sorry to be out of touch for so long. It was an eventful few weeks after the last report and I wish I could say all was well but it was drama in spades. Fortunately Wyatt and I came out the other end with only a few psychic and physical scratches and hopefully a little wisdom.

First, a friend noted that mass emails are so 1999, so you can now get your fill of Wyatt at this new blog (where this and past reports are posted):

The drama began at the dog park, Wyatt’s personal Disneyland and rare refuge from his leash. Wyatt was milling about, soaking in the musky dogginess and his lofty status...

...when a friendly border collie approached. I was calmly watching from five feet away when this tail-wagging collie pounced fangs-first out of nowhere onto Wyatt. The two grappled for a few seconds in what seemed like harmless roughhousing until Wyatt was pinned to the ground and yelped in pain. I ran to find blood dripping from a one-inch cut below Wyatt’s right eye and another under his throat.

The other owners and I decided the cuts weren’t serious and the collie’s owner apologized profusely (and guessed the collie attacked to protect a smaller nearby dog), but the incident raised two kinds of stress.

The first is another common parental anxiety: the world is a dangerous place. The immediate impact was a suspension of dog park visits and a lot of Neosporin swabs, which Wyatt would frustratingly either evade or try to eat. The deeper impact was the reality that danger lurked everywhere every time I took out my intensely curious puppy. Unlike the straws and bars of soap that I can predictably place out of harm’s way at home, I can’t control the dogs, cars, and poisonous plants of the world. Worse, the more I try, the more anxious I get and restricted Wyatt feels. I’m like a Jewish mother that hasn’t figured out the right balance of freedom and safety.

The second impact was more philosophical. The attack left a small but clear gash on Wyatt’s adorable face. He still got supermodel treatment from strangers but I knew the difference and felt bothered at the prospect of an unsightly scar… and then bothered about feeling bothered.

I’m attached to the squishy, Buddhist ideal that beauty is superficial and compassion should be doled unconditionally, even though I fail this ideal so ridiculously often that I should get lumps of coal every Christmas. I know we’re all genetically and socially biased toward attractiveness; it’s a main reason I chose the Siberian breed. So of course, fate throws a curveball and I’m forced to confront how much beauty really matters. It threw another when I moved into a house with a terrier named Boston who is just as friendly, affectionate, and certainly more obedient than Wyatt, but I think most would agree is not quite as cuddly…

I feel a slight heartache every time someone adores Wyatt and ignores Boston, especially when that someone is me.

Since this report is going to be a short novel and you’re probably on a bathroom break by now, I’ll cut to the bottom line – yes, Wyatt’s looks are a source of unearned affection and pride; yes, I feel this reinforces the unfairness of life’s genetic lottery; no, I don’t know how to resolve this. For the moment, I am content to table this conflict and simply be grateful that the scar is gone and that I enjoy making Wyatt happy as much as ever.

A week after the attack, I noticed that Wyatt was eating less frequently and had lost interest in previously irresistible treats. I thought this might be due to the irresponsibly large amount of human food I spoil him with – he gets a nibble of almost every meal and has become my pre-rinse dishwasher (a nice little perk of dog ownership). But Wyatt had been eating a lot of grass, which apparently dogs do to settle an upset stomach, and I soon learned why. During a walk, Wyatt strangely stopped in a crosswalk and strained to poop in the middle of a street. As I looked closer, I was horrified to find a live worm squirming through the mess. (I took a picture for the vet but out of decency I’ll spare you poopworm.jpg.)

The vet said Wyatt was infected with roundworms and easily treated with a dewormer, but now my parental anxiety extended from the outside world and inside my home to the very insides of my dog. I had been lax in letting Wyatt eat random foods and plants on the street, but now I had to limit his intake to certifiable food; another rule to enforce. How do parents sleep at night? I found myself wondering one night if there was some SIDS equivalent for dogs where my perfectly sheltered puppy just wouldn’t wake up one morning.

I decided my wounded, infested, bulimic dog and I had a rough week and deserved a treat, so we walked to the Cheesecake Factory and I bought myself a plate of pasta and Wyatt an entrée of pork chops and spinach (clearly a parental indulgence). Wyatt surprisingly delayed gratification, going for the spinach first and only then the succulent pork chops.

One night, I decided to run a scientifically-valid experiment to determine Wyatt’s favorite bone. I bought three flavors of organic N-bones, a strand of rawhide, and a bully stick (which I later learned is made from the hanging parts of a bull), then spread them out for a deliriously excited Wyatt to taste test. The bone completely devoured first would be crowned the winner.

Wyatt expectedly indulged like a kid on Halloween night, gorging all day to the point that he would exhaustedly collapse, only to keep gnawing a bone with his head laying sideways on the ground. After hours of chewing, the chicken-flavored N-Bone narrowly edged the bully stick as Wyatt’s winner (and I needed a dumptruck that night to clean up the inevitable aftermath).

This is where I expected this Wyatt Report to end - a little drama, a little joy, a few morals, and a happy ending. The following day, I woke up and passed my roommate:

“Have you seen Wyatt?” he asked.

“This morning?... no, I let him sleep outside last night.”

“Oh… I don’t see him in the backyard.”

My blood pressure rose immediately and after I thoroughly inspected our yard, I had learned that my Siberian, born of the breed that a dozen owners had warned me have a strong escape instinct, was gone.

I can not convey the sense of loss I felt; it was more intense than any I can remember. Wyatt was not just the most playful, beautiful, and curious dog I had known; he was mine, the first living mine of importance. Only two months had passed but I had already bonded to him and considered him family. Those of you with close pets probably understand, those of you without probably don’t. I wouldn’t have two months ago.

My overactive imagination raced with terrible possibilities: Wyatt smashed by a car, Wyatt drowned in a canal, Wyatt eaten by wolves, all of them my fault. I had already seen Wyatt dig under our fence the first day I moved in, producing this perfect image of Siberian wiliness:

Wyatt had spent several days in the yard without escaping but now he had somehow done it.

I didn’t realize at the time that I was cycling through the textbook stages of grief and loss, acronymed DABDA. First, denial: I couldn’t believe Wyatt had escaped after all the measures I took. He must be hiding nearby somewhere. This is just karmic payback for the time I was three and thought it would be hilarious to hide from my mother for an hour under a clothes rack in a mall. (Mom, I understand now and I’m really sorry.)

After half an hour of checking and re-checking the house, I hit stage 2: anger. What the hell is wrong with that dog?! After all the love I’ve given him, why would he run away? I knew how irrational these thoughts were but that did nothing to prevent them. Our minds work in strange ways.

After an hour, I entered stage 3: bargaining. As I drove around and around the neighborhood, interrogating every person I found, I was brokering my deal with God. ‘God, please give him back to me unharmed and I promise I’ll be better, I promise I’ll tithe.’ 

I called Lori (Wyatt’s breeder) and my friend Kay for advice and dismissed her suggestion of immediately calling local shelters. Wyatt had a collar tag and a microchip, I said, and if anyone found him, I’d be contacted immediately. This would soon be added to my healthy-sized record of mistakes.

Three and a half hours after I learned he was gone, I received the call, an unfamiliar number:

“Hi, this is the Palo Alto animal shelter. Do you own a dog named Wyatt?”

“Yes! Is he okay?!”

I knew what was coming was a moment of truth: the expected second something of extreme importance and uncertainty becomes certain, the tipping between ecstasy or devastation - admission letters, blood test results, marriage proposals, the last seconds of air before your lungs expand or drown.

“Yes, he’s fine.”

I can not describe the relief and joy I felt at that moment, just as I can not convey the despair I would have felt had the answer been different. I now can not comprehend the suffering parents endure when they learn their child is fatally sick, has just died, or worst, been senselessly killed. I felt how there is no comparing that loss to the loss of an item, even a very rare or expensive item. Items are replaceable, and even if they aren’t, we aren’t built to bond with them as we do with the living. 

I acutely felt how relationships are irreplaceable, which honestly made me question my assumption of having children, a commitment where I would never want to endure the fourth stage of despair and work somehow toward the final stage of acceptance.

Finally, the happy ending: I arrive at the shelter (after apologizing to Kay and Lori, who are both inspirationally understanding) and find the agent who called me. She tells me a neighbor found Wyatt roaming around my street without his collar tag (because he ate it?) around 8am and turned him into the shelter. The only reason the shelter knew to call me was because Kay called shelters on my behalf despite my dismissal. Noting I could have saved myself all this worry if I had listened to Kay, I am deciding how much chocolate I will buy her when the shelter brings Wyatt out. 

Looking just like he did the night before, he leapt on me at first sight, licked me on the face with a series of kisses, then gave me a few frustrating barks as if he should be asking where I have been. I tell him he’s an ungrateful mutt and that he’s grounded for a month but that I love him anyway. Now I just have to protect him from everything in the world, especially himself.