Dogs and hearts and time and space

So I consider myself a dog person. Kind of. Had dogs when I was a kid, but my parents would never have dreamed of having them in the house. Then, when Sylvia and I got married, her dog was part of the package, an overweaned bitch answering to the name of Lady Chanel (the dog that is). To unbiased observers Lady Chanel was strange looking to say the least.

She was not quite what my wife had anticipated when she purchased a purebred poodle pup. It became evident as Lady Chanel grew older that the chihuahua next door must have had a contribution to the preserved poodle gene bank, because Lady Chanel had a face and ears that were a cross between a rat and a bat. Poo-Chee, or Chi-Poo, call it what you will. It was unusual.  People sometimes found her cute. 

Alas, Lady Chanel died after 16 great years of life and now her ashes are in a box over the mantelpiece. Time went on, and as you have no doubt anticipated, there was a clamor for another dog. It was my eleven year old son mostly who wanted one. But I was not averse to it. I am on record as saying, "Let's get a real dog this time."  

Sylvia finally came out of mourning and she agreed to get my son his dog. The two of them went off to the animal shelter to make their choice. This happened  while I was at work.  They made their pick, and then--the rules of the animal shelter required this--I had to go to in person and signal my approval to the staff at the shelter; you see, they don't want dogs coming back just because you find out when you get home that Dad doesn't like the pick.

Well, Dad didn't like their pick. "Another ugly dog," I believe were my exact words. By this time, my son's heart was set on Julia, for such was the prospective adoptee's name. Out of my son's hearing I asked Sylvia if she couldn't get him to pick another dog. She confessed that she also was not that excited about Julia; she was predisposed to a perky chihuahua called Buster, while I favored a newly arrived pup--Charles was his name--who was engaging, playful, and promised to grow well past chihuahua height.  A real dog in other words. All the time we were at the shelter, Buster and Charles were at the doors of their cages, pushing through the wire, anxious to join our family, tails wagging like weed whackers.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Julia sat in the deepest recesses of her cage, not coming anywhere near the wire door.  She was a cross between chihuahua (Ay Chihuahua, otra ves!) and dachshund. She did not smile. And another thing--she limped. Her left hind leg was damaged. We were told she'd been found bloodied and scared, perhaps thrown out of a car.  The shelter had treated her wounds,  spayed her, given her her shots, and now, after a few weeks of being there, she was good to go. So Julia came home with us, despite my unspoken reservations.

Soon after we brought her home, for reasons that are still mysterious to me . . . she stole my heart. It crept up on me as I look back, this stealing of the heart, but all of a sudden I was thinking about her a lot,  anxious for her as you might be anxious for a baby, reluctant to go to work, eager to see her when I got back. By the second night she was in our bed, and now two months later, I cringe to imagine that I might have left her to her fate at the animal shelter, and picked Charles or Buster. My family looks at me strangely thinking this is hardly possible that I should be so besotted.

But what is most mysterious is this sensation I have of a door having opened in my heart, and this mute little creature having walked in there. It's a bit unsettling. What else about myself do I not know? What other doors are waiting to get unlocked? Is there a seagull out there waiting to bond with me. A polar bear?  What part of the human genome explains this need to give affection to and receive it back from another species? Is it a function of my age?  Is it because I failed all these years to make such an animal bond, and therefore all that missing time is compressed into this moment?  What other mysteries await, I want to know. I ponder these questions as I walk around with Julia in my arms.

Julia's limp, by the way, turns out to be a torn medial cruciate ligament, the ACL equivalent of dogs. Fixing it costs $2,000. I'd never consider spending that kind of money (what dyathink, I'm nuts?)  But  . . .I am considering it.  The opinions I am getting from dog owners is surprising, because a majority say don't fix it. Is she in pain? No? Then leave it alone. Surgery means more pain, a prolonged recovery.  And after surgery we are supposed to keep her from running (when she loves nothing more than to run, and she runs faster on three legs than most dogs with four).

It's an ethical dilemma. I'd ask her if she could talk. I would really want to know what she'd want done.

What do you think? Here is her picture. Talk to me!Julia.JPG 

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Abraham Verghese is an author, physician and med school professor. He is the author of Cutting for Stone and his writing has appeared in many major publications. More

Abraham Verghese is a physician and writer. His third book and first novel, Cutting for Stone, was published by Knopf in 2009. He is also known for two acclaimed non-fiction works, My Own Country, which was based on his experiences working with persons living with HIV in Johnson City, Tennessee; that book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and was made into a movie. He followed that with The Tennis Partner, also a New York Times notable book and a national bestseller. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times , The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and The Wall Street Journal as well as many medical journals. Verghese is board-certified in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine and infectious diseases. He attended the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa where he earned his MFA. He currently practices and teaches at Stanford University School of Medicine where he is a tenured Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine.

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