Tuesday, March 26, 2013

my little dog

My little dog - a heartbeat at my feet. --Edith Wharton

I keep looking for her, thinking I see her out of the corner of my eye. I keep listening for the sound of her nails clicking on the hardwood floor, of her sighs as she settles down into her bed to rest. I keep waiting for her to walk over and curl up at my feet as I sit at the computer and type or edit photos, as she has done night after night for (nearly) as long as I can remember. I baked buttermilk biscuits yesterday, and one fell off the pan when I pulled them out of the oven. I waited for her to swoop in, eat it up, wolfing it down with steam curling up around her whiskers. 

But she isn't here. And she never will be again. 

What is left? A little bag of fur I've been collecting all week, hoping to craft it into some memory of her that's more fitting than a hairball. Memories. Lots of them. And photos. Many, many photos. I am so thankful right now for my love of photography, so thankful that I have spent years documenting every little thing we did. I am so very thankful that a friend suggested I take some photos of her before she died - and that I asked my husband to take some photos of us together. I didn't want to - the house was a mess, my hair was a mess, I'm out of contacts and was wearing my glasses. The kids were barely dressed - Dora was wearing hand-me-down SpiderMan underwear (for boys) and Oscar was wearing a t-shirt and a diaper. The blanket Murphy was lying on had stains on it. But I am now so in love with these photos of our goodbye, so thankful to have them. I will cherish them forever, cherish the memory of how much we loved her, and how much love we showed her and each other even at the very end. 


Murphy came to me so long ago, 16 years ago (give or take). I was single, just returned from studying photography abroad in Scotland. I was about to leave for a photojournalism internship in Michigan. I didn't have any children. In fact, though I knew I wanted to be a parent someday, children were less than a twinkle in my eye. She was one of my first three pets that were mine exclusively (though that would eventually change), and my first dog that I adopted myself, that I chose and took home and made my very own. I had loved and lost countless dogs (and cats, donkeys, hamsters, and bunnies) as a child. But this was my first dog aquired and loved as an "adult". 


She lived with me in a tiny one-room studio in downtown Athens, in a two-bedroom college apartment on the campus of WMU when I worked nights at the Kalamazoo Gazette as a photography intern. She lived with me in a farm house on Vore Ridge Road, where my housemate would get up in the middle of the night and paint the toilet pink, or smoke from a bong made from a teapot. She lived with me at my parent's house, when lack of money or failed relationships sent me home once again. She lived with me in my little house on Lorene Avenue, first with two wonderful roommates, and then with a guy who turned out to love animals as much as I do. She came to the party we had after I married that same guy, snuggling with us on the couch in our formal clothes. 

She actually played a part in picking said husband. Early in our relationship, we went for a hike at Strouds Run. I brought Murphy along, having long ago decided that pets are excellent at helping make decisions about which people to keep in our lives. Not only did they hit it off instantly, when we sat by the edge of the trail about halfway through the hike, my future husband stroked the ears of my little dog and said, "she has the softest ears I've ever petted." He said later he knew then that he wanted to marry me, in part because he just loved my dog so much. 

She slept on my bed - usually under the covers, spooning with me, with her head on my pillow - for years. Countless nights I cried myself to sleep with my face buried in her yellowish-red fur, terrified or sad or just lost, with only the love of my dog (and my two cats) to carry me through. She went on every trip with me, and the one time she did not (our honeymoon), we spent all our time in the car repeatedly looking into the back-seat, forgetting she wasn't there with us. 

She was imperfect, too. She hated kids (except for mine - she tolerated them). She once barked fiercely at an old woman crossing the street with a walker. She terrorized patrons at our yard sales if they didn't suit her taste (meaning basically everyone but us). She and my female cat had an interesting relationship. She loved to clean out the cat box. She got car sick, and always found a way to throw up in the most inconvenient place possible (i.e. down into the gearshift, or into the little slots on either side of the parking brake). She adored rolling in something dead, preferably something old, dried out, and intensely stinky - like a flattened, caramelized frog carcass or a fragment of garbage. She loved to kill innocent little things, including baby birds, moles, and crabs at the beach (earning her the nickname "crab-killer"). In her younger years she rolled over onto her back and peed with excitement when someone new entered the room, or when we came home from work or school. Then she would wag her tail, splashing pee around. She even did this once when being examined by a well-to-do canine orthopedic surgeon, who had the audacity to examine dogs wearing an expensive shirt and tie. We showed him.

I loved her though, intensely, and she loved me back just the same. She was my perfect, loyal, short, blond, beagle-barking, table-scraps-eating, loving, ever-present companion. My life will never be the same without her, but it was (and is) better for having had her in it. 

I love you with my whole heart, Sergeant Murphy, and I shall see you again one day. I shall never forget your cuddles, your unending love for me, your excited frenzies in the backyard, your soft, sweet ears. My love for you goes on and on, and I'll be holding you in my heart forever. Thank you for giving me more than I ever could have given you. Rest in Peace, Murphy girl. 

Visit me in my dreams. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


When you travel home - or to a place that you lived long enough for it to be part of your mosaic of home - the memories are there waiting for you, almost as if you never left. They're like rowdy guests at a party, pushing and shoving each other, trying to get to the front of the room where the band is playing, or the keg is, or the food table awaits. Different ones arrive at the front of the crowd, with no pattern, rhyme, or reason. The long walk in knee deep snow when you thought you might freeze to death. The spooky man who jumped out of the woods and scared you and your boyfriend, sending you running down the other side of the street in the darkness. The night you drove home from a party the back way, on tiny two lane roads through the countryside, when you really shouldn't have. They don't appear in order, either. Shopping with your mother at Martings at age 7 appears right next to holding the infant son of your first friend to become a mother, completely awed at the thought of producing something like that straight out of your body.

I spent this past weekend in Ohio, traveling home for my aunt Erma's funeral. She was 83, the widow of my mother's brother (who's funeral conjured this blog post). Aside from attending the funeral, the entire trip was designed around visiting other family, seeing a friend here and there, and eating at a couple of my favorite places. I stayed in Athens Thursday night, at my dad's house, snuggling into the bed of my childhood with both kids. Friday morning, before leaving for Cleveland, I ran 3 miles on the Hock-Hocking Adena Bikeway, a place that holds so many memories for me it could fill an entire book: riding on the back of my dad's bike some 35 years ago, back when the trail was only 3 miles long. Rollerblading with my dog Murphy, a spry little thing in her youth at the time, now old and dying of kidney failure. Riding my first purchased-with-my-own-money bike all the way to Nelsonville and back on my first day of ownership, putting in about 30 miles in one day after having not ridden a bike AT ALL for about 10 years. I couldn't move the next day. Biking from my house to Clippinger to the hospital to visit my mom, when I was juggling graduate school, a new marriage, and the illness and impending death of my mother. And the walk through knee-deep snow? That happened there, too. 

On that path, I contemplated my life so many times. I pondered decisions. I ruminated on relationships. I wondered about boyfriends - all of them, even the last one, who ended up being my husband. I rode and walked and bladed in sun and rain and shade, trying to get away from the past or get to some unknowable future that surely, somehow, would be better than the life I was living now. I walked that path with Murphy every single day the years I lived on Lorene Avenue, cursing the Army Corps of Engineers for turning such a beautiful river into a drainage ditch, even though I walked the path every day, watching the birds, soaking in the sun.

Friday morning was frosty, and the first mile of my run was painful - I didn't think I'd make it. But I have a 5k on Saturday - my first - so I had to complete the run. By the time I got to the golf course I felt good, and by the Ping Center I probably could've kept going, but we had to get on the road, I had to get home.

As I ran, I thought about how time skews our perception of place and events and narrative. It even skews our perception of people, frozen either innocent or guilty in the tar pits of our minds. As I ran, I felt so in love with that place, felt so nostalgic for living there. I thought about moving back, about picking up an ANews and looking for a job, about buying a nice house on the East Side, having Saturday morning coffee at the bakery, running on the bike path three days a week. Dinner at Casa. Hikes at Strouds Run. Basketball games at the Convocation Center. It would be like...coming home.

The question of "where is home" is as complicated as the question of "who am I", except it doesn't show up in your face quite as often. It's more subtle, more rare, but just as profound. You know a place is in the mosaic of home when you're in it, no matter how long you've been away, no matter how short a time it actually was your home. It's familiarity is unexpected, physical, etched inside of you. You think you're over it and then, bam, you spend one night there and you feel the magnetic pull again. It's like running into an old lover on the street, one you haven't seen in years. You can remember right away what it was like to be in their arms, what it was like to lie in bed watching them dress, a few drops of water from the shower still clinging to the skin on the small of their back.

How do we reconcile the question of home, when so many considerations rest on these decisions? Logistics, friends, jobs, family, schools, housing, opportunity. The list goes on and on. I love Asheville and yet, the ghosts and memories of my other home pull at me, make me question my undying loyalty to our (current) home. 

On this trip I also took a tour through many favorite albums of my youth, using the search function in my husband's Rhapsody account like a digital tour-guide of my past. Cyndi Lauper. Edie Brickell. Sting. Elvis Costello. U2. Dave Matthews Band. The soundtrack to Pretty in Pink. Some of it sounded great, some of it sounded absolutely terrible. I hadn't heard a lot of the songs in years, and I still knew every single word. Just like being home, these songs turn out to be some deeply ingrained part of me, so deeply part of my memory that even after not hearing them in years and years, the words still spring right to the front. Like home, I've romanticized them, idealized them. I absolutely loved Elvis Costello's "Spike" in high school and it sounded contrived and tinny today. I'm not sure this trip down my musical memory lane really solves anything, but it certainly serves as warning. Flipping through memories like album covers is a cozy, if bitter-sweet, way to revisit the past. But if you really delve in - really get in there and listen to every single song - you see it maybe isn't so great. The question of home is just as complicated, and can't be answered with a quick perusal through the slideshow of memories conjured in a day. If I ever do go home, I'll have to go beyond the nostalgia to coming to terms with all of the memories, and the ghosts, - good and bad - and decide whether or not we can coexist.

For now, I'll take my runs along a different river - the French Broad - and let those memories go back to a less-rowdy party, where they don't have to fight to get to the front of the crowd. They can float in and out, perhaps visit me in my dreams, be familiar and nostalgic like flipping through album covers, but not tested like listening to every song. Home isn't going anywhere. Just like "who am I", it's a question that will contentedly wait for it's next opportunity to surprise me, to jump out of the woods in the darkness, to trudge through knee-deep snow, to run into me on the street like a lover I haven't seen in years.