The puppy look
The puppy felt so right in my lap. I looked down at her and couldn’t believe this was real. Years later, I’d recognise this look as the way a few of my friends gazed at their shiny engagement rings, like they are about to start their lives, like their adventures were about to begin.
That’s how I’d felt with the dog in my lap, looking into her marble eyes traced by tiny eyelashes.
They always fit in our laps
Of course, Gizelle wasn’t aware she was nearing the size of a La-Z-boy chair. In her mind she was no bigger than Yoda (a chihuahua). She would army crawl under short coffee tables to take a nap. Inevitably the table would tilt up over her head. She was our resident bulldozer, spilling coffee and knocking over frames with her tail. And if my sister and I were snuggled on the small two-person love seat in the living room watching a movie, Gizelle was blind to the fact that there wasn’t space for her, too. She would always make room, stealthily placing one paw up and then another paw. Then a graceful launch of all 100-something pounds of her right into our laps. Crushing our thighs and bellies, blocking our view, and pinning our arms to our sides, she would open her mouth to a light, smiley pant, almost as if she though: They do not even know I am here.
…I took the leash off, and we ran.
We ran next to each other. A mini stampede. We were completely in sync, and not thinking about much but the present moment. We ran as fast as we could as the trees whooshed by. Gizelle came up to my hips, but she never tried to jump in front of me or nip at my feet like a lot of dogs would. Her jowls flapped in the wind and her long pink tongue flailed happily out of her mouth as she ran next to me. Like a protector. Like a friend.
Eventually Gizelle came to live with me in Knoxville. We’d run through campus together at night, trotting down Sixteenth Street, past my old sorority dorm, and onto Volunteer Boulevard, where the campus sidewalk sloped upward into a grassy hill near the library. Every time we approached this spot, Gizelle began walking with purpose, picking up speed, tapping her front paws on the concrete with excitement. “Ready, girl? Ready?” I’d unhook the leash.
There weren’t many students out, but the ones who were would always stop in their tracks, books in hand, struck by the sight of the huge dog on campus running through the shadows. As she ran up the hill, she always turned her head around to make sure I was following. I’d chase after her, and together we’d dart into the grass, side by side underneath a sky full of stats.
“You got this, girl,” I coached. We walked across town on Forty-Third Street to Bryant Park, and much to my surprise Gizelle did have this. Gizelle didn’t duck away from Manhattan; she merged onto the sidewalk, which was more of a freeway of people, and remained by my side. Her hips shifted as she walked. She didn’t stop and stand in place. She wasn’t distracted by the motion and noise around us. Gizelle walked on casually, no paying attention to anything or anyone, like a true New Yorker. Gizelle? How are you doing this? I though, wishing she’s give me pointers on how to look more city girl.
So far it seemed as though Gizelle could handle Manhattan, but it didn’t take long for me to start wondering if Manhattan could handle Gizelle.
When we crossed Forty-Third and Broadway at Times Square, Gizelle scared Batman. As we approached, Bruce Wayne pulled his bat cape around him and tucked his pillow-stuffed muscle chest behind a guy dressed as his thug rival, Bane. “Aw shit! That’s a big-ass dog!” Batman cursed. Gotham was in serious trouble.
People loved telling me that Gizelle was anything but a dog. One guy outside a deli on Eighth Avenue tapped me with one finger to let me know, politely, carefully and with utter assurance, “I would like to let you know, that is not a dog. That is a Tyrannosaurus Rex.”
It was clear that he was trying to help me out. He wanted to make sure I know I was actually walking a fierce carnivorous lizard from the late Cretaceous Period so that I would take the necessary precautions.
Big dog and a girl in a big city
But, for a girl, having a big dog people called Cujo had some advantages. Maybe we could still kind of escape.
It started with Central Park at night, a place I never would have considered going without my dinosaur at my side. …
When we passed through Columbus Circle and reached the trees, I would look at Gizelle and say, just as I used to in college, “You ready? We’re here! There’s grass! Look at the grass!” I’d unhook her leash, and we’d disappear into the park. My feet softly swished against the grass and Gizelle’s paws dug in to make a a careening turn. And even though it wasn’t Smoky Mountain silent, when I listened to our feet and paws against the earth, I felt relaxed.
We jogged through the trees, onto the sidewalk, and sometimes we’d cruise all they way to the Literary Walk, where I’d stroll with my head propped toward the bright sky. I’m in Central Park! At night! With Gizelle! I thought.…
I felt so safe with my gentle giant in the park at night: she came up to my thighs, had a broad chest and a powerful, confident stride. Strangers would never know my dog with the head the size of a basketball was actually afraid of basketballs.
… when Gizelle and I ran through the park together, my fears disappeared. I knew I wouldn’t ever be lonely as long as I had her.
Making a CV
I knew exactly what I needed. Buzzwords. I needed buzzwords. Words like:
Excellent communication skills. Okay, this one was true. My best friend wasn’t human, and yet I had just effectively communicated with her.
Problem solver. I did live in Manhattan with a dog the size of a Mini Cooper. You do the math.
Strategist and team player. Raising Gizelle required coordinating walks with Kimmy, and working with an array of free trustworthy babysitters.
Great public speaking skills. I’d presented in front of large groups of tourists in Times Square, delivering speeches like, “This is Gizelle, she is about a hundred and sixty pounds. Yes, that’s around seventy-five kilos. Yes, her coat is called brindle. No, you may no ride her, sir. Yes, English mastiff. No, not a Cane Corso. No, not a Chihuahua, either. Yes, Photos are fine…”
Learning focus from a dog
I tucked those fears away and set my mind on a career the way Gizelle sets her mind on a slice of dollar pizza, if one happens to be in my hand. She stares up at it with both desperation and determination, as though if she looked at it long enough, she could will it to miraculously become hers.
Things to love
“Want to hear something I wrote in statistics today?”
I nodded. “Sure.” She pulled a ripped-up green spiral notebook from her desk and flipped past some notes until she landed on a page. Then she cleared her throat, jokingly. She went on to read me a weird and wonderful list of things she loved: sharing a planet with the octopuses, the way roses look after rain, black holes.
Rebecca kept silly journals the way I did, writing everything down so life didn’t get away without her documenting it.
Half a kilo of rib-eye steak…
… we hadn’t decided whether we should cut the meat up and feed it to Gizelle in bites or give it to her whole. We went back and forth, but then we imagined Gizelle in the backyard thrashing the full piece of meat in her mouth, ripping it apart piece by piece, savouring its juiciness as it it were a wild animal dangling from her massive jaws. Let’s give it to her whole.
The audience stood and held iPhones and cameras in front of their faces. I dangled the eighteen-ounce rib eye over Gizelle’s head as she opened her mouth, her brown eyes so wide the whites peeked out.
“Okay, girl!” I beamed. “Here it comes…” I released the meat from my fingers, and like a pebble dropping into a well, the steak disappeared. Gizelle swallowed it like a Tylenol, without one chew.
We stood in silence for a moment, and then Gizelle’s audience slowly lowered their cameras. Rebecca tilted her head curiously, squinting at Gizelle. I imagined the steak floating in her tummy like an inner tube down a winding river.
Gizelle looked up at us with concerned, eager eyes, as if to say, “Can I have another bite?”
Addiction as a disease
“Does it help you to see Mom like she has a disease?” he said, staring down at his cards. “You know—maybe a little like the one Gizelle has?”
It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard addiction referred to as a disease. But it was always hard to see my mom as truly sick. Over the years I’d watched her struggle in countless ways—through rehab, DUIs, broken promises, jail, halfway houses, therapy, doctors, AA meetings—but the addiction had always won. I’d heard all the promises—“I’m better! I’m fine! I’m going to meetings! I’m going to visit you! I’m going to teach aerobics again! I’m going to volunteer at the animal shelter! I’m going to move to California! I’m going to visit you! I’m going to visit you and Gizelle!” But she never did any of these things. I never believed her anymore. It was too hard to have a relationship with someone who seemed to lie about absolutely everything.
But what if, deep down, she wanted all of those things to be true but just couldn’t figure out a way to make them true? What if she really was sick, lost in her own mind and unable to get out? What if drug addiction wasn’t embarrassing at all? What if I could try to see the struggles my mom was facing and rather than add to them, try to see her with empathy and compassion—they way we view people who are plagued with sicknesses?
On one level addiction is so self-indulgent, so it’s tough to see it as a disease, but I also know it takes more than willpower for people who struggle with it to get better.
It made sense that Mom was sick.
Like cancer, addiction had side effects, side effects that morphed her body into someone unrecognisable and prevented her from acting normally. Like cancer, it was confusing to understand and heartbreaking to watch. Like cancer, some got better. Some didn’t. Like cancer, maybe it was okay to just be sad about it. Maybe it was okay to accept that there was nothing I could do to change it.
Many people argue addiction isn’t a disease, that it’s a choice. Even some alcoholics say they don’t want to be called someone with a disease. But I think that if addiction were a choice, my mom would be better by now. I don’t think my mom wants to keep picking the drugs and the alcohol over me. I think she is lost within the depths of her own struggle and can’t get out.
Dogs and heartbreak
I guess when you bring a dog into your life, you are setting yourself up for heartbreak, aren’t you? Sure, you will most likely have to say good-bye and it will be the saddest day ever, but it’s so worth it, isn’t it? To have a dog. To learn from their unconditional love.
One of my hands rested on the floor next to Gizelle’s paw, and the other I kept on her head, stroking her softly. I watched her get very sleepy. Her breaths started to slow and her whole body began to look heavier, impossible as that is to imagine, as though she were sinking into the floor. Her eyelids began to flutter. Just as I thought she would fall asleep and never move again, she picked up that big head of hers and placed it on the palm of my hand, and there it stayed, some part of her always having to touch some part of me. I unraveled. My whimpering turned to tears and I wept. I was holding her whole, big heavy head in my single hand, the weight of it pressing against my fingertips. “It’s okay, Lauren, It’s okay.,” I bet she’d say. I could feel her breath in my palm, moistening my hand. Her breathing got slower until I could only feel a light wave of hot air in my fingertips, disappearing but then reappearing again like the ocean to the shore.