"He suffered a bad infection, and the vet couldn't save it." That's the short version. The long version is this: My sweet Walter had a traumatic first year of life and suffered many wounds. When my husband and I first met him at his foster home, his four-inch tail was wrapped in gauze from a recent surgery. Apparently, he had been chained up for months next to a brick building, where due to limited mobility, his tail was constantly hitting the blocks and re-opening a sizable tear. It could not heal and thus combined with pernicious bacteria already in his system. The tail had to be docked to prevent the infection from spreading.
Furthermore, when Walter was seized by the city due to severe neglect and physical abuse by the owners, the vet found several parasites, noted he was thirty pounds under his ideal weight (70 lbs), and recorded numerous lengthy red scars on his neck where hair hadn't been permitted to grow because of the choke collar left on him.
While my heart certainly broke for this animal, who at that time was named "Shorty," we did not adopt him out of pity. He was actually the fifth Sean and I looked at on our quest to find the right dog. I knew he was the one for me when, while I was standing and listening to his foster parents, he sat between my legs and didn't break eye contact. When people tell me that my emotions pour through my eyes, I think back to that day of introduction and remember the story Walter lovingly revealed to me through his.
I named him Walter because (1) I like real names, (2) I'm a geeky English teacher, and (3) he inspired me to revisit my favorite poems. Specifically, the free verse ones that ask questions about why people behave with cruelty, why poets don't write about nice/easy things, and what natural symbols tell us about life's hardships. In one of Walt Whitman's most famous collections, Leaves of Grass, he asks "What is the grass?" and concludes that "The smallest sprouts show there is really no death." Even though he's referring to the buried bodies underneath civil war battlefields, his argument about life extends much further:
When I look at my Walter today, a well-fed puppy who loves nesting in blankets and giving high-fives, I see that the smallest sprouts of trust and happiness show that no damage is irreversible. And the smallest sprouts of curiosity show that hope is alive.
If Walter could contribute in words to this philosophical musing, I believe these are the life lessons he'd add:
1. When on a scary adventure (like being in a boat on the water when you don't yet know how to swim - see picture above), sit next to someone who loves you. You may not understand what you're doing in the middle of nowhere, but there may be a surprise you never dreamed of just around the corner.
2. Sleep. Eat. Walk. Repeat. Life doesn't have to be so complicated, especially when you're trying to get through tough times. There is remarkable comfort in bunching up your covers and creating just the right pillow densities.
3. When angry/dramatic people are nearby, don't stay. You may want to growl, but it won't help anything.
4. It is still okay to wag your tail, even if it had a bad infection and needed amputation. Our injuries - whether internal or external - don't need to define us or fit into our culture's normalcy. Reframe your scars: They can even be positive! Everyone loves my tail because it doesn't knock anything off a table or give "whiplash" to people's legs when I'm excited.
5. Stick your nose in a snow bank. Allow yourself to stop thinking so much and get lost in something you enjoy - like a smell. Even if you have to move on from it sooner than you'd like, you'll probably find another pocket to explore soon. Nature is so good like that.
6. Don't judge the future. Nearly everyone has times when they question things like, "How will life ever be okay again?" or "Will anyone love me for me?" Some folks do give up, but most find a way through. There are so many happy stories out there - happy, not just "okay." Allow yourself to stay open to possibility.
7. Love your people. Whoever is here with you now needs your love and presence. Even if you don't feel like a positive person, you can make someone else feel good by scratching their back, smiling, or telling them you're glad they're here.
8. It's okay to have one more treat. Life is short, don't be too hard on yourself.