If there is a god, he/she/it is the closest when I’m outside walking. My feet touch the earth, my eyes go to the horizon, and I feel a bit like a god myself. Powerful, fluid and present – I am me, but also something else: an observer of secret magic, where a plain suburb becomes a holy place. From the cinder block walls to the dried weeds, we become divine together.
These are also dog walks, where I get yanked around on a leash and pick up poop. And sometimes, I take pictures.
I lost Cooper, my walking companion of 15 years, the day before Valentine’s Day, 2021. To say she was the love of my life is not enough. There was an evolved being in that small, shaggy body, and she knew exactly how to sit serenely in the heart of my photos. Together, we discovered a million sacred places and I had the honor of her as a centerpiece.
In the weeks after her departure from this existence, I sat in the big soft chair we had shared, crying and lost. There was no question that I needed another dog immediately, along with the consistent bookends of morning and evening walks. I needed a needy thing, to force me out of bed and into the world.
I’m a small dog person, and initially I sought another small dog. But it became clear very quickly that small dogs are snatched up from shelters, while larger ones linger there for months or even years. After 4 failed attempts at small, adorable adoptees, I switched gears. Let’s give a big dog a home, I thought. I don’t need an Instagrammable dog, or even a cute one. I just needed to rescue something so it could rescue me.
“Just give me a dog who tolerates hugs,” I told the rescue coordinator.
“Margot,” she said, a stray mutt from a reservation in New Mexico.
Margot had been adopted and returned twice from other families, who determined she could not be around children. This should have been my first red flag, but I was like cool, whatever. I went to the adoption event held across town in an outdoor strip mall, and was introduced to Margot.
In a chaotic sea of bouncy, enthusiastic orphans, Margot sat with her head bowed at the rescue volunteers’ ankles, looking sad and overwhelmed.
“I’m getting her the fuck out of here,” I said to my sister, who joined me on this venture for moral support. And my sister, being the great influence she is, said, “Take Lycan, too.” Lycan being a striking husky boy with crystal blue eyes.
So I did, and came home, unannounced to my husband, with two comparatively gigantic dogs who reeked of pee and were ecstatic to be there. Husband did not sign up for this, nor did he want it. But knowing my atomic level of anguish, he didn’t argue. Instead, he bought a carpet shampooer and committed himself to saving our carpet from two untrained jerks who peed everywhere.
Because technically I signed up as a foster, Lycan was almost immediately adopted by a loving family, and then it was just Margot. This is when it started to look like I had made a huge mistake.
While indeed, Margot DID tolerate hugs very well, she also decided it was her job to defend us from the world. By “the world” I mean friends, relatives and other welcome guests. And by “defend” I mean charge after viciously. After two weeks of being totally normal, she became highly aggressive, even with my poor sister who had been around from day one. To Margot’s credit, she never actually bit anyone. But the snarling, bared teeth and hardcore lunging was still awful and terrifying.
To top it off, our daily walks became a nightmare where I could barely restrain her from attacking every dog and human in the neighborhood.
I thought I’d likely “foster fail” and keep her, but was not at all prepared for the struggle to come. When I bring you into my home and you want to murder my mom, I don’t love you. And I didn’t love her for quite a while. I regretted bringing her home, and my ache for Cooper grew. Where was my small girl who loved everyone?
“You have big shoes to fill,” I’d say to her as she tolerated a hug.
“It’s not your fault you’re not Cooper,” I whispered into her warm fur.
I blazed through cash hiring trainers and signing up for classes, then ran out of money before anything could be helpful. I desperately wanted to find another home for her, but because I was straight forward about her temperament, nobody wanted her. The idea of returning her to the shelter made me feel sick. We were stuck.
I’ll spare you the details of how to rehab a semi-dangerous street dog, especially since we’re not 100% there yet. This has not been a linear path. We tried things that worked, and things that didn’t. Mistakes have been made. But we stuck it out. We poured our care and affection into her, and she responded by relaxing a little, trusting more.
She became “Marge”, a sweet, goofy girl who is sensitive, fiercely loyal and wants only to make us happy.
Fast forward 10 months, and Marge has made great strides. I’m proud of us for doing the right thing, which was a difficult thing. I’m happy that she is happy, and not spending her life in a shelter crate. I am grateful to my husband for taking the ride even though he didn’t want to. Almost a year out, I can say it has been rewarding, and that it has done a few repair jobs on my smashed heart.
I can say that I love her (and that she is potty trained).
I take her down the same paths I took Cooper. I take the same pictures. Only this time, my subject is uncertain, worried I’m about to abandon her as I back up with my camera. But she is learning that I’m not going far and will come back every time. Just like the irreplaceable Cooper, who is forever with me, knew from the start.
Marge and I are still finding our own rhythm as the mayhem and uncertainty is smoothing out. The hidden magic in front of us is coming back into view, and these suburban streets will become hallowed again. Poop bags and all.