When I was given the direction (and I still hear it in her fierce, New Yorkish accent, “Die-Rection”) to find my “Higher Power,” I was told that I should find anything that wasn’t me. I’d been raised in the South, and consequently was accustomed to speaking of God freely, and without undue contemplation. I’d been taught that God was mysterious, remote, and Ultimately Good. I’d spoken aloud the prayer I’d first read in Salinger, spoken it over and over, Lord God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner. I’d bought the book that prayer is from, an old Russian text, written by a monk. I’d bought many such books, and I’d even read a few of them.
My New York friend had no interest in any of my semi-erudite traditions. In fact, she had little patience with traditional religion at all, and rarely allowed me to use the word God when speaking of a power greater than myself. This was, strangely enough, the woman I’d turned for help, at this time in my life when none of my knowledge seemed helpful at all. My thoughts were nothing more than entertainment, I was finding, and they weren’t even entertaining anymore. More like poorly written television serials, sometimes sitcoms, more often bad drama. Nothing about them were helpful when I needed to know how to live. But so far in my life, I’d never encountered anything else. All I had was my thoughts, my ideas. I’d thought that information could save me, that understanding would help. Now I wasn’t so sure. My latest idea was to try something new, something different. I didn’t know what I was doing.
My friend told me to just be open to the idea. Sit quietly, maybe light a candle, she suggested. Luckily, my idea of trying something new at this point wasn’t much more than simply to try to follow Die-Rections. So, okay, I would sit. Yes, ma’am, I would light a candle. In the mornings, I’d make coffee, and, filling the largest cup I could find, I would sit, quietly, cross-legged on a pillow on the floor, and immediately forget that thinking wouldn’t help. Instead, I’d think about what would make a good higher power. I’d contemplate chairs and light switches, bookends, candles, file cabinets. In other words, I’d sit, following directions, looking around the room and waiting to be transformed.
All the dogs knew is that there was suddenly a lap, where before no lap had been. I was awake, and they were delighted. Lyle, my nine-year old Viszla, who wanted nothing more in life than my hand on his neck, and Buddy, my girlfriend’s terrier, never far from the action. Both of them were overjoyed to find me there, thrilled beyond their imaginings. It didn’t matter how many times I pushed them away, how I pulled up my knees, told them to sit or stay or get away. They didn’t mind that one bit. They pummeled each other in a fit of happiness to find me, and when they found me, they stayed.
How long did it take? When did I realize that these dogs had something that I’d never had? That they were giving me something I couldn’t imagine? That they loved me, no matter what?
They didn’t care that I didn’t want them there. They were delighted to see me, and waited anxiously for my signal. All they needed was the slightest sign of openness from me, and they were there. Instantly. In my careful weighing out of relationships with others, in my careful portioning of attention, affection, and even love, I’d never given anything like what I received, daily, from these dogs.
The viszla died the first year I was sober, but not before showing me the most important thing I’d ever been able to understand: that I was loved, no matter what.
Several years later a white puppy with one brown eye and one pink one followed a neighbor home. A week later, after a fruitless attempt to find who owned her, we called her our own. Bird – named for a Kenzaburo Oe character, but also, and easier to explain, because she spent so little time on the ground – would have followed anybody home. I don’t know why it ever surprised us that she left us again, so often. We told her, Home is where they feed you. Home is where they pay the vet bills, we explained. We even tried obedience classes. Bird was great. She’d do anything we asked her to do. But the choreography of asking was too complicated, too hard to remember. We quit going to class before we flunked out. Bird was kind about this too, delighted that we’d learned about hot dog treats, patient with our calls, which she was happy to respond to, provided there was nothing more interesting happening at the time.
Within days, Bird had learned her way around. We live on a largish piece of land together with seven other households, and Bird made her home at each of them. She’d wake up neighbors in their beds, having taught herself to open the door. She’d played with neighborhood dogs until they were exhausted, then move on to the next house, where she’d play those dogs into the ground too. She played with cats, and tried to play with squirrels. She played by imitating what the other animal did, playfully yipping back at the guard dogs, licking the ears of the dowager cat accustomed to dogs who quaked and whined in her presence. She loved everything and everyone she met. And they loved her back.
At first, having established ourselves as owners of this remarkable creature, we worried about how free she made herself with the affections of others. We considered fences, we tried her on leashes. Neighbors said, We really don’t mind. It’s just Bird. That’s who she is. Occasionally, apologetically, they’d bring her home. She’d stay, until it occurred to her that she might want to go – somewhere else. And then she’d leave.
She was our teenager, the one you trust until about nine-o’clock, and then start to worry about. By midnight, you’re angry. Where is she? we’d ask. Every scratch at the door – is that her? The next morning, we’d be worried, fearful, wondering what we’d done wrong. I still don’t know how parents with real children can live through it.
Bird showed me that with love, there’s always more. There’s never too much, there’s never not enough. There’s always plenty. She showed me what it was like not to be careful with love. Love is utterly irrational; it doesn’t need to think.
Do I need to tell you that she died? Wednesday morning a neighbor carried her to us in her arms, saying that she wasn’t walking well. Within minutes, she was unable to walk at all. She began drooling, a soft, silver curtain of saliva beneath her chin. She’d never drooled in her life. On the ride to the vet, she became anxious, burrowing her head beneath the back seat, her feet stiff. We didn’t know that these were seizures until the vet saw her, back arched, eyes black and empty. She never fully regained consciousness.
Grief is private, a language shared only with the one who’s gone. But Bird was not private. She belonged to anyone who returned her love, of which there was plenty. Friends called, visited, emailed, cried. We all knew her, we all loved her, and we all lost her. Together, we dug a hole in the ground, passing through layers of weedy topsoil, root-red clay, before finally we found a place of dry, hard, rock-like sand to hold her.