I cried today. That your-entire-body-shaking kind of cry. Our dog Napoleon got hurt today and seeing so him so helpless got me thinking about when he came to us after my brother died, and how he was such a big part of my grief. All that hiking I did and sitting with myself and grieving, and how Napoleon was always there. I brought him with me when I hiked in the woods of Inwood Hill Park, and he learned that whistle that still brings him running to me. When I cried, he’d curl himself by me, making sure I felt the warmth of his body next to me. When I sat and wrote, he sat at my feet, sometimes pawing at me until I picked him up and let him lie across my lap.
Today he lost a nail. It could have been so much worse. But hearing him yelping and crying, and looking at me like, “mommy, it hurts, make it stop”, just undid me.
Did I realize that my dog being hurt would trigger grief? No. Not at all. Not until I thought about how he came to us just after my brother passed, and what an integral part that beautiful dog was and continues to be in my journey. I had dogs in my childhood; a little chihuahua named Fluffy that was also an enormous part of who I was and what I held. They aren’t just companions and pets. I’m seeing that today, in such a profound way.
I don’t remember exactly when I got Fluffy, maybe when I was eight or nine, but I remember how much I loved him. I was the one who walked him. I was the one who fed him. Mom only let me give him boiled hot dogs but he got so sick of that, that when I noticed he wasn’t eating, I’d sneak him some of the meat mom fed us–some chunks of beef or pollo guisado. I fed him a chicken bone once and was so scared when he started hacking and bleeding from his gums. Thank God that was all the damage it did. I didn’t know any better then.
Fluffy was scared of everything and everyone. He was one of those rare breed of chihuahua that actually has a lot of hair. And he looked like he was always crying; he always had a ring of burgundy wetness under his eyes.
He was at the door whenever I got home. I could hear him yapping and scratching at the door as soon as I entered the building and walked the long hallway to our apartment, 1L, on Palmetto Street. He’d jump on me and lick me in welcome. This didn’t stop when I left to boarding school at 13.
One of the hardest parts of leaving home was leaving him. Who would take care of him? Who would walk him? Who would cuddle with him and give him love? Who would feed him? Who wouldn’t eat so he could?
He was always a skinny dog but he was skinnier when I returned that first time in November, but there he was at that door waiting for me when I arrived. That night, I snuck him onto the bed when mom was asleep. He cried when I left, but I was a young girl and had my own life to make so I did…but I never forgot about Fluffy.
My junior year, I went to Philly to do a three week business program at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business. When I returned, Fluffy was gone. My sister said she put him in the hallway to mop the house. “He probably ran away,” she said. “Pero Fluffy was scared of everything and everybody,” I responded. “How’s that possible?” Fluffy was a trembling coward. If I took him to the corner and let him go, he went running back to the house. Trust me, I tested this theory plenty of times.
“Or maybe somebody stole him,” my sister said. Steal Fluffy? As much as I loved that dog, he wasn’t the kind of dog people steal. He wasn’t cute like that, though he was the cutest dog in the world to me. He wasn’t an expensive breed. He was what latinos call a bira lata, a mutt, a scraggly little thing that only I loved. “Who would take Fluffy?” I asked.
“Ay, who cares? He’s gone and that’s it,” my sister said. My brother and I talked about it over the years and agreed that she probably hurt or did something to him. She’s always denied it. I don’t believe her. But as you know if you’ve read any of my work, I don’t trust my sister.
The thing is, Fluffy was my companion. I spent much of my youth feeling alone and distraught. It was Fluffy’s fur I cried into to hamper my sobs. It was Fluffy who curled himself into my lap when I was sad. He came out to the backyard with me to escape what was going on in that tiny railroad style apartment. He walked with me to El Faro, the supermarket on the corner, to get milk and ham for mom. I sometimes snuck him a slice of that ham when we were walking back up the block back home. He was my friend…sometimes the only friend I had. This was over thirty years ago and I can still see his face in my mind’s eye. That’s what lasting relationships do to you…even those with animals.
My daughter and I found Napoleon one summer afternoon as we were heading to the supermarket by our apartment in uptown Manhattan. He darted past and almost got hit by a car, before I scooped him up. He had a collar on but no contact information. This was the summer of 2012. The last thing I wanted or needed was a dog, but he was so cute and he was shaking and scared and how could I just leave him? So we brought him home and fed him, or at least I tried to. He wouldn’t eat any of the dog food we gave him. Then, that night, I caught him staring and licking his lips as my daughter and I hate the turkey meatloaf I’d prepared, so I mashed up a little bit in a bowl with some rice, and he gobbled it up quickly. The next day, it rained all day, so we kept him home with us, feeding him whatever food we ate, holding him on our laps while we watched movies. My daughter, who was then nine then, took to him right away. She pulled him up on her bed to sleep, and grew frustrated when he hopped off and followed me out of the room. Over the next few days, we put up signs around the neighborhood, but the rain swept them away. Truth is, I silently prayed that no one would claim him. He made my daughter smile, and she loved walking him and cooing at him. That weekend I had a dinner party at my crib, and my sister-friend commented, “I think he was brought to you, V.” I wouldn’t realize how right she was until much later.
I named him Napoleon because whenever we walked him, he’d walk right up to the big dogs and try to challenge them. He growled, he huffed, he pushed out his little chest. He swore he was a monster, and it was the most hilarious thing to witness. “Napoleon, that’s your name,” I said. He wagged his tail and jumped up. He approved.
I got the call a week and a half later. Someone said he was her dog. His name was Tweety. When I called to him with that name, his ears perked and he wagged his tail. Baby girl cried when we took him to his owner.
That was the summer before my brother passed.
Flash forward to the fall of 2013, four months into the greatest grief of my life and over a year after we’d found and bonded with this dog who always ran to us when we saw him in the street. I got a message from the owner that she was getting rid of him. He kept impregnating the female dog they had, and he was always fighting with his son, who they’d kept. He was a nuisance to them. He kept peeing everywhere and he would growl and bite visitors. I could have him if I wanted him, but if not, he was going to the pound. I told them to give me a few days to think about it.
I had so much going on. I was working and being a single mom. I was trying to write through my grief. I was in such a terribly dark place. I didn’t know it yet. Hadn’t yet called it that but I was in the abyss of depression. My mother had yet again walked out of my life, and I felt like I was suffocating. But I also knew that I needed to bring some light into my daughter’s life. My daughter who was watching her mom unravel. My daughter who was dealing with serious separation anxiety. Who cried when she had to go with her dad for weekend visits. Who told me repeatedly, in the saddest, most whiniest voice I’ve ever heard come out of her, “I don’t wanna go, mommy. I wanna be with you.” I’d learn later that she was scared for me. That she felt helpless and worried about her mama.
Baby girl would tell me a year later that she was scared that I was going to hurt myself…
But this was before that. This was when I was trying to decide if I could handle taking care of something else. If I could take on yet another responsibility.
Then, one day, we ran into Napoleon on the street with his owner. He ran to us, wagging his tail and jumping up and down with such joy. I saw the smile on my daughter’s entire face and I knew.
I called the next day and said, “Yes, we’ll take him.”
It took a week before we got him. He was in a home where they’d never taken him to a vet for shots or a check up or anything, so I had to guarantee that they did that first. Once I got the proof of paperwork, he was ours.
I didn’t tell my daughter. I only told her I had a surprise for her. We waited outside our building. I saw him from afar, walking down the block, and the minute he heard my whistle, he started pulling his owner towards us. She let him go and he ran right to me. He was shaking. It was like he knew his life was about to change but the anxiety over not knowing what that made him tremble.
I turned to my daughter and said, “He’s ours now.” She shrieked, picked him up and squeezed him. He in turn snapped at her and caught her on the lip. That was how he started their brother-sister relationship. Our Napoleon, showing what a loving asshole he can be. Ha!
This morning, I was up making myself coffee and about to prepare our breakfast when my daughter came in from their morning walk with Napoleon in her arms. Her eyes were wide with worry. “Mommy, Napoleon hurt himself.” I took him in my arms and he started crying and yelping. Blood was dripping from his paw. I tried to run cold water over the paw, but he screamed and snapped at me. Then I saw it: his nail was hanging at an odd angle. It was pulled out from the root.
Vasia kept saying, “I’m sorry, mommy. I’m sorry.”
I was distressed. I thought about what this was going to cost me. Another expense. Another worry. Napoleon kept crying and limping. He left droplets of blood in his wake. When he put his paw down, he yelped and hobbled his weight off of it. There was no avoiding it–I had to take him to the vet.
My daughter has said it repeatedly over the three plus years since we’ve had him: Mom, we have to take Napoleon to the vet. I knew she was right, but it just felt overwhelming. The idea of another bill, something else to pay, something else to do, sent me reeling.
Today, there was no avoiding that.
I sent my teary-eyed daughter to school with the promise that I would text her when we got to the vet and would send her periodic updates. I reminded her that she did nothing wrong. Napoleon was in the dog park playing with two big dogs (his name is Napoleon for a reason) when it happened. It was an accident. These things happen.
The good news is the nail came off easily, though he cried so loud when the vet pulled it off with one swift pull. That’s when I first cried.
What I realized was just how much I love that dog and what a big part he is of our family. I haven’t taken care of him like I should have over these years of loving him. He needs to see the vet more and may need some dental work, but today I realized (with my partner’s coaxing) that I was doing the best I could. Now I can do better. We need him as much as he needs us.
In a few weeks, once his paw has healed, we’re returning to the vet to get him the shots he needs, and we’ll follow up with the dental work too. Popo came to us a little beat up after years of not getting the attention he needed, but he’s ours now and we’re gonna keep loving him up for many years to come.
It’s been three and a half years since that fateful day in October of 2013. Baby girl now walks him every morning and evening. He sleeps with her every night, and has traveled with us to Connecticut and Maryland and Jersey and to beaches and parks. He still hikes with me, and though he’s getting old and tires quicker, he’s still my little trooper. He’ll lag behind when he needs some rest but he still comes running when he hears my singsong whistle. Get too close to me or my daughter, and he’ll shred your ankles.
I was sitting in my living room when it happened: grief sledgehammered my chest, caught my breath and made me heave. I was looking at the picture my partner took of us at the vet. I looked over at the picture I have sitting on the table of my brother and my daughter when she was six months old. I thought about how his death shattered me and how Napoleon help me put myself back together, never the same but somehow more beautiful…Napoleon has helped me become the woman my brother always said I was, I thought, and the tears came. They came in torrents. I started shaking and heaving. My partner tried to help but there was no stopping those tears. No one can stop grief when it comes for you.
Sometimes you need these reminders to remember why you love who and what you love, and why and how they love you back. Napoleon can be a pain in the ass. He’s done things that have made me shake with rage, like that time he ate an entire jar of Albolene, the grease that boxers put on their hands to avoid the skin cracking that the chalk and gloves cause. That little mutt was shooting that nastiness out of his ass for days. It was everywhere. Yuck!
Why did I keep him? Because what he’s done for me makes up for all of it and more. He was part of my healing. He’s still part of my healing. And did I tell you how he makes my little girl smile? Yeah, I don’t need another reason. That, he, is everything. ❤