The morning of January 20, 2010, rain pummeled the entire Bay Area. The commute to work proved little more than a drippy, sloppy race for shelter. I was standing in the lobby of our office building, shaking out my umbrella, when Paul stepped off the elevator. “One of my dogs got loose,” he said matter-of-factly. “She’s terrified of wind and thunder. I’m going home to look for her.”
I don’t remember how, or even if, I responded. I headed up to my desk, thinking of the day I’d called my husband in a panic because our Pit Bull had darted off the walking path and into the trees. We only had to search an hour or two before we found her, but the stretch was agonizing.
Like me, Paul had left a stable corporate job to join an unknown, unproven little startup devoted to canines. He was hired a few months after me, and in those days, it was just a handful of us packed into a tiny apartment-turned-office-space. We worked elbow to elbow, coffee mug to coffee mug, amid frenetic typing and the occassional yap of a coworker’s dog.
I once brought in one of my pups–he peed on the carpet of the makeshift conference room during a meeting between our CEO and a potential investor. And Paul occasionally brought in one or more of his three dogs. We developed a camaraderie around our most striking commonality: our dogs were the focus of our intentionally childless lives. We came to compare notes regularly:
“Does your Pit Bull roll around on her back making these weird groaning noises?”
“Does thunder scare the pants off your shy one?”
“Totally! Wait… your dog wears pants?”
Their thunder-fearing dog was Maybelle, the “middle child” Aussie mix named for Johnny Cash’s mother-in-law.
“She’s scared of her own shadow,” Paul would say. “Sweet as they come, but just a wreck when it storms. She hates the sound of the wind.” And I’d nod my head knowingly (my timid one hides behind the couch when it thunders).
The pain of knowing
It was just after noon, still grim outside, when we got the email. Paul wrote to say they’d received a call from the Marin Humane Society.
Maybelle had been found five miles from home, dead on the Richmond Bridge.
The rest of the day is a blur. I know that I cried. I know that others in the office did too. I remember calling Paul on the phone, hoping to impart words of comfort, but instead breaking down into heaving sobs. I remember longing to hold my own dogs, who were safe with their sitter, and feeling guilty for the impulse.
That evening when we talked, my husband’s eyes welled with tears. He’s not particularly emotional or sentimental, but the story hit too close to home. We ached for a dog I barely knew, and trembled with the knowledge we’d one day have to face the loss of our own.
Grief… and friendship
Even though Paul had written he’d be at work the next morning, I was surprised to see him shuffle in.
“How are you doing?” he said to me when I finally made my way to his desk. How am I doing? How am I doing? I couldn’t answer.
On the big dry-erase board in his office, he mapped out where his home in Marin sits, where the freeways are, and where he’d suspected Maybelle had gone. “We were looking here, but somehow she was here.” He pointed to the top of his drawing, and then to the bottom.
“And I still can’t figure out where she got out,” he said. “She must’ve been so terrified she jumped the fence. Why didn’t I lock her in the house that night? Seal the doggy door so I knew she’d be safe?”
It’s punishingly useless to recount the what-ifs, but because I had no words of solace, I let him continue.
“You know what the hardest part is?” he asked me. “The hardest part is imagining Maybelle out there on the highway. Lost. Confused. No place to escape that thunder and wind she was so frightened of.” He looked away. “Those were her last moments.”
I tried to think of something reassuring. I wanted to say that I’d rather have lived Maybelle’s life – in his home, in the care of him and his wife – than take my chances in the life of any other dog. But no matter how I tried to form the sentences in my mind, they came out garbled and disjointed.
So I simply confessed: “Last month I went a little crazy. I was freaking out – worried – that if something happened to me and Mike, our dogs would have no place to go. There’d be no one to take them, let alone keep them together. I know I should’ve told you sooner, but I asked our sitter to contact you and Alicia if the worst had happened. You’re the people I trust most to give the best life to my animals.”
I waited for Paul to tell me that my dogs’ welfare was not really top of mind right now, that he’d need to think about committing to something like that, that it certainly wasn’t a topic he wanted to address just then. But he didn’t miss a beat.
“I promise you,” he said. “If the need ever arose, Alicia and I would personally come get your dogs. We would bring them into our home, make them part of our family. And if for any reason that didn’t work, we’d find them a home we know you would approve of. Together.”
The sense of relief was almost too much to take, and tears streamed down my face with renewed insistence. It seemed unfair that in the midst of his profound sadness, my own anxieties had been so effortlessly eased. I hoped that this connection – this acknowledgement that our animals mean more to us than many people can grasp – somehow brought a glimmer of comfort.
He sat quietly while I wiped my eyes.
“Will you have any kind of memorial for Maybelle?” I finally asked.
“I don’t know,” Paul said. “I think we’ll bury her. Somewhere close to us, somewhere in our yard.” He looked at his hands and then he looked back at me.
“Somewhere quiet where the wind won’t bother her.”