I clenched a fat pill between thumb and forefinger and shoved it into a slippery hunk of hot dog. This method worked until Red learned to extract them. He'd roll the hunk around his mouth and then, proud as a coed tying a cherry stem with her tongue, spit the pill onto the floor before swallowing the meat. I slicked the pills with butter, cream cheese, gravy.
Salami ultimately proved best. Early mornings I'd sandwich the pill between two fatty slices. As its solution dissolved into his soft dog insides, I'd open the cabinet and take my own smaller pill.
I put my dog on Prozac. Or rather, Reconcile, the aptly named canine version of the drug. Truly, it demanded reconciliation with some unpalatable truths, the least of them that I would end up the sort of woman to put her dog on Prozac.
A year earlier, my girlfriend had had a headache. A month later, she still did.
"I can't breathe,"she said, pressing her hand to her forehead. Air hunger, we later learned it was called. I started to feel it, too. Every breath was part gasp.
Her joints began to throb. She was tired and dizzy all of the time. Her skin hurt, she said.
"Where?" I asked.
Her diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease brought relief and a new nightmare — battles with the insurance company and treatments whose side effects rivaled the symptoms of the disease. I was 30 years old and we had been together only one year. I wasn't prepared to take on the role of caretaker. Who ever is? But there was no other choice that I was willing to make.
Red kept close watch on her, fastidiously licking her hands and feet — the couch cushions or his own paws when alone, as if to smooth the disarray our lives had fallen into. I taught my college classes and tended to the administration of our lives. Instead of crying, I went for ten-mile runs through the verdant hills of Central New York. I fell asleep numb, wishing myself better able to face what was happening.
Sometimes as my girlfriend slept, I would lift the blanket to look down at Red, tucked in the cave of our bodies' heat. He'd shift, dragging the nictitating membrane of his eye up just enough to glimpse me, then sigh back to sleep. There is an animal in my bed, I would think, still stoner-stunned every time. A 70-pound beast.
He was beautiful, coated in red fur whose softness people often admired. Skin puppy-loose, it slid over his muscled body in movement. His paws smelled nutty, like Fritos, and every day, I pressed my nose to their cool pads and inhaled. I marveled at him — so alive, so himself, so mine. Why couldn't my love for humans be that simple?
I'm sure I missed the first signs, but I remember when he started following me out of bed in the morning. At eleven years old, he had long been sleeping later than me. Suddenly, he was poking his worried face into the shower as I lathered at 6 a.m., bumping into the back of my knees as I poured my coffee and assembled lecture notes. He was so reluctant to let me out of his sight that I had to push him out the back door to pee before I warmed up the car.
One morning, when I opened the door to let him back inside, he refused. Planted at the far end of the yard, he stared me down, the milky scrim of his cataracts glinting, ears trembling.
"Red!"I snapped. "Come!"He only trembled more furiously. Winter in Central New York comes early and it comes cold. The leaves were frozen together in a crust of dew that crunched underfoot as I marched across the yard. I snapped my fingers inches from his face.
"Come!" Still he refused. I dragged him across the yard by the collar, both of our feet slipping on the icy leaves, my lungs burning.
The next day, the same standoff. When I went to get him, he lay down in protest. I knelt in those frosted leaves, knees throbbing, and dug my arms under his torso — its finely furred belly smudged with wet and dirt — and I hoisted those 70 pounds of him against my chest and carried him in the house.
My girlfriend's treatments progressed, but it was impossible to tell if she improved. The illness had reduced our relationship to its management. On some level, I was glad. It meant that I didn't have to face what else I felt, or no longer felt. I ran for longer and longer stretches, and reacquainted myself with an old eating disorder. This was a rough patch, I thought. I just had to get through it.
One afternoon, I arrived home from school and found a confetti of wood chips on the indoor welcome mat. A concave had been dug out of the wooden door, rimmed by the clear gouges of teeth marks. I touched the ragged splinters, panic in my chest. Red whined and nosed my back. I turned and grasped his head, warm dog breath washing my face.
"What did you do?" I asked. He leaned his head into my hand.
The next morning I dragged a sheet of warped plywood up from the basement, hands chafing on its edges, and leaned it against the door. This required me to slither out, then reach my arm back in to drag the plywood over the doorknob. When I got home that afternoon, my girlfriend watched me snake my hand through the cracked door and heave the board aside.
"This is ridiculous," she said.
"There's a drug called Reconcile, and I think Red would be a good candidate for it," said the vet. He explained that the active ingredient in Reconcile is fluoxetine hydrochloride, the same as Prozac. We left with the soothingly aquamarine bottle and a low-dose prescription for Xanax, which Dr. Nickel had advised for particularly "high stress" situations.
I knew that there were people who put their pets on psychotropic medications. I just never thought I'd be one of them
I knew that there were people who put their pets on psychotropic medications. I just never thought I'd be one of them. These were people without the strength of character required to accommodate the needs of a voiceless animal, I'd presumed, feeling superior. The kind of people who left "wee-wee" pads by the door when they left for work and dressed their dogs in sweaters, but never bothered to train them. People too self-centered to face the reality that loving well is inextricable from self-sacrifice for the needs of the beloved.
What I hadn't realized was that the needs of our beloveds are not always what we expect, and despite love, we are not always equipped to meet them.
A few weeks later, I reluctantly broached the idea of my taking antidepressants. My therapist agreed that it might be a useful experiment. It seemed like proof that I had failed at my life in some fundamental way. Weren't people born with depression, real depression? I didn't feel very much of anything. I had always gotten by, no matter what. But something had to change. "Where are you?" my girlfriend had started asking. I had no answers. If a pill was the answer, I would take it.
Did it help? I couldn't tell. My hands were drier and I suddenly became a person who napped. I still felt a caving in my chest when I thought about the possibility of going on as we were for an indeterminate future.
Red, however, began to show marked improvement. Though I still had to corral him inside before leaving for work, he began sleeping later. He ate, though reluctantly, and I started feeding him by hand. Donning a medical glove, I'd sit cross-legged next to his dish, scooping handfuls of ground dog food and holding them under his mouth. It was the fastest means of feeding him, but also a satisfying act. Such a direct form of nurture eased the pain of all the ways I could not fix him, or her, or myself.
As my girlfriend's symptoms finally began to recede, we decided to move back to Brooklyn. We missed our community, and the worst part seemed to have passed. I quit my job and we packed the moving van as soon as she was well enough to drive it. I drove the car, Red's velvet head tucked under my arm the whole seven hours. I didn't realize that the pill bottles — both mine and Red's — were gone until the movers finished unpacking the truck.
The vet's office mailed a bottle of Reconcile overnight, but it was the Friday of a holiday weekend, and my doctor's office was closed. For the next three days I waited for a panic greater than that I already felt to seep in. Nothing. I waited a week, then two, and saw no difference in my mood. With relief and disappointment, I understood that whatever my condition, it would not be cured with a pill.
Two months later, I kissed someone else. It was a coward's end. In order to avoid abandoning her, I had stayed. In order to avoid admitting my fears, I had detached from her, and from myself. But experience has taught me that what the mind refuses to face, the body eventually will. I ended up hurting her worse than my honesty would have. I hope it was the last time I ever hurt someone that way.
The day she moved out, Red and I came home to the emptied apartment. We lay on the sun-warmed floor, and I wept for a long time, with heartbreak and relief.
In the months after she left, I watched Red closely. He looked for her every time I walked in the door, but he did not go mad again. At night, he and I curled into each other, two sad beasts, and I stroked his ears, feeling the edges of that new emptiness.
A few months later, I weaned Red off the Reconcile, with no change in his disposition. It was tempting to see his affliction as an extension of my own, to make him a symbol. And I do think that my inability to hold my own grief gave him more to carry. The animals who love us are mirrors, and they do share our burdens, but they are not symbols. They are whole worlds whose edges overlap ours. To love well we must face this truth, and so many others. It is an old truth and a withstanding one: that to care for ourselves equips us to better care for our beloveds. And that means admitting the hard thing. Sometimes, it means saying goodbye.
Two years later, when I said goodbye to my boy, I brought him to the same animal hospital where our family dog had spent her final moments. My mother knelt beside me as I held his head in my lap, both of us sobbing. The kindly woman vet loaded her syringe and asked if I was ready. I pressed my face into his velvet neck and knew that this would be the great heartbreak of my life. I nodded.