There are moments that make us who we are, that stay with us for a lifetime, constantly prodding us to remember, making sure we never act the same way again. More and more, these moments show up in my writing, hidden in some anecdote or as character back-story. I hope that by writing this, it will exorcise a demon I’ve carried for a long time.
This particular moments involves a little dog, a no-account stray that wandered onto our farm one day when I was twelve or so. I don’t even remember much about what it physically looked like except that it was scrawny from near-starvation and had a coat of unmemorable blah-brown. It wasn’t a big dog, certainly not one that could defend your property, and had probably been thrown out a car window because the owner had no use for it anymore. That happens a lot, and not just out in the country. It saddens me that animals are disposable. Don’t want to pay the vet bill because it’s eaten one too many socks, just let it die. New boyfriend doesn’t like cats, just get rid of it. I am particularly susceptible to those actions because of that little dog.
Like all dogs, it just wanted to be loved.
Instead, what happened was it got chained up, and I was told, or more likely I volunteered, to take care of it. For our previous dog, my father had built a beautiful dog house, a smaller version of our own house, right down to the shingles and the color of the paint. And at the time, I thought nothing of the little dog being chained up. It’s what everyone did. It was a dog’s life.
It could have been a great life, but it wasn’t.
After the first couple of weeks the newness wore off and my own personal drama took over. Two nights in a row I fell asleep angry, wishing that dog had never shown up in our yard. The damn dog whined all night, pulling on its chain right outside my bedroom window. It was only on the third night, when the dog sounded so pitiful I thought I might cry that I pulled away from my own self-pity and actually felt some compassion. For something else. What if it was afraid? What if it was lonely? I knew those feelings. My heart, the part of me that I was never able to protect well enough, opened to the little dog. That’s when I realized that I hadn’t fed it or given it water for at least two days. And because it was chained up, it couldn’t even try to help itself, couldn’t run away and find food. Or water.
I had been so wrapped up in my own problems, so self-involved, that I neglected and almost killed a sad little dog. An animal that depended on me for its life.
Yes, I ran out, in the middle of the night and filled both bowls. And yes the dog lived. But the sound of the little dog whining haunts me, keeps me from falling asleep at night. Over forty years later, I can still hear it, hear the pain in its voice.
Some people would grant me absolution, would make excuses. You were just a kid. You had a sucky life. You were living the dog’s life. But the one excuse that I abhor is It was just a dog.
It wasn’t just a dog. It was a living creature. And I hurt it. Though my own dark ego, I caused it pain.
You may be thinking that to write this I’m still that self-involved person. And you would be right. For reasons I haven’t yet allowed myself to put to paper, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I live in my head. But I’ve learned where the line is, where self-interest becomes destructive. To myself and those creatures around me.