She is no longer a part of my life. After so much time together, it seems strange to have forgotten about her. In order to survive the divorce, I had to leave pieces of my life behind. But when my daughter Katherine sent me a text message last week “Maggie is so sick” I had to choke back tears. When you adopt a pet you make an investment in future sadness.
Like most families we had our share of pets. Some were short lived. When my daughters were young, we bought two hamsters. They would sip from their water bottle exposing their nasty yellow teeth, run on their squeaky stationary wheel and burrow into the same cedar shavings that they urinated in. There was very little interaction between the girls and the hamsters. Most of the interaction that occurred was between the two hamsters, so that six weeks after we bought them, we owned eight hamsters. It was very much like an episode of “16 and pregnant” because mother hamster, who we will call Ashley, was too young to raise a family and became a tragic role model for our young daughters. As angry parents do, we separated the two sex-obsessed teenage trouble makers.
One morning the girls came bounding down the stairs, excited to see Ashley and her babies. But Ashley crushed by the heavy responsibility of parenthood became cannibalistic. All that was left of the babies was one lifeless, headless body in the corner of the cage. While our daughters were in school that day, we set Ashley and her baby daddy free in the field behind our house.
After that experience my wife and I decided that a dog might make a better pet for our children. We reasoned that the girls could learn responsibility by feeding the dog and when the time came, they would learn an important lesson about death, hopefully more natural than being eaten alive.
Maggie was a pound puppy. My wife travelled up a winding mountain road in the hills of western Virginia after reading an advertisement in the paper for a free, sweetly tempered dog. Unfortunately Maggie was also prone to car sickness, so that when she travelled back down that winding mountain road, she vomited the entire way. She was timid when I met her. Her black and tan head cowering and her tail lowered. She stood about eye level with our daughters, who she would run from; scared silly by a six year old and four year old girl.
We fretted over our decision. Here was another poor pet choice, like the hamsters. It was clear that she had been mistreated by her previous owner and we wondered if she could ever recover. We decided to give her a week.
Each morning I would let her out of the back door and watch her run to the far corner of the yard. As the end of the week approached Maggie must have understood that her fate was close to being sealed. While I sat on the sofa watching TV in the evening, she placed a paw next to me on the seat cushion. I looked at her big brown eyes and patted the cushion next to me. Slowly, cautiously, she climbed onto the sofa, and then quite incredibly, she placed her head on my lap. “Such a good girl” I said while rubbing her soft head and just like that, we fell in love.
It makes me smile to think of Maggie panting and vomiting in the back seat of our car on our annual five hour trip to the beach; me taking curves gingerly so as not to upset her tender stomach. Each of us so in love with her that we could not bear to leave her in a kennel. She became a fixture in our lives and a symbol of that early happiness.
When we moved to Massachusetts, I often wondered what Maggie must have thought, jumping into the car just before we left and ending up in some foreign yard in another part of the country. Her adjustment was far easier than ours; the girls, now teenagers struggled with all of the changes, but Maggie's love was a constant. Our marriage was not.
Then one day, Maggie jumped into the car again and through my tears I watched her, the girls and my life pull away. In those early days after they left, I would reach for her head instinctively and call out “Maggie, I’m home!” when walking through the door, shocked by the silence.
There is a survival instinct that buries the emotional feelings with bitterness when you go through a divorce. When my cell phone rang last week, I looked at the display and saw my ex-wife’s number. She’s looking for money to pay the vet bills I thought angrily.
“Maggie can hardly walk and her eyes are twitching uncontrollably.” She said.
And that was all it took. I wrote a check to pay for Maggie’s final care. The investment in sadness matured, but the happy memories were strong enough to tear a hole through the bitterness. And just in time, because the bitterness was starting to eat me alive.