Picture of empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is the hallmark of every exceptional teacher to understand and share the feelings of students, remembering what it’s like to be in their shoes, being able to discern factors of student life beyond “school.” For any adult, empathy is remembering what it is like to be a child. In good times and bad. For the writer, empathy is invaluable to character development … and for taking a walk in the shoes of anything and everything, real or unreal, alive or not. Empathy is more than taking on the guise of another; it is the ability to be the other in a given situation. It is a transformative force, one of humanity’s greatest facets, vital to our coexistence.

But not solely a human attribute.

Since his cardiac arrest and heart surgeries last year my husband has battled a new thing. His blood pressure is typically high and it’s been a challenge for his doctors to get his prescription cocktail just right. His pressure is currently well-managed, to the point of being a little low; occasionally when he rises from a sitting position he becomes light-headed. This is something for which I have much empathy, my own blood pressure being characteristically low. It’s called orthostatic or postural hypotension. Once, as a teenager, I got up from the living room floor where I was sprawled in front of the television to answer a knock on the front door—thankfully the neighbor caught me as my knees buckled and the tingling world went solid gray.

So the other evening when my husband got up from his chair just to grab the kitchen counter, muttering, “I’m dizzy,” I knew exactly what it was like.

“Sit down! Now!” I told him.

He did. He leaned over in the floor and rested his head on his arms.

That’s when Dennis, our 6-month-old dachshund, rushed over, considered the situation, and promptly keeled over in the floor beside my husband.

“That,” I laughed, “is about the most empathetic thing I’ve ever seen.”

And once his light-headedness was past I made my husband restage it so I could take pictures.

Poor sweet hilarious Dennis.

I can’t say for sure how much he understood, but he certainly shared the experience of another. Took a bit of the suffering on. Kind of like If you’re going through this, then I am, too.

If only our species could be as consistently perceptive, responsive, and willing.

Puppy therapy

Seems like a couple of weeks into stay-at-home orders and physical separation is an ideal time for some puppy therapy.

So I brought you a tiny puppy to hold awhile. In your heart, anyway, if not in your hands.

You’ll want to know the story, I suspect …

Last December, my son and I went to pick up his new puppy.

We wanted a mini dachshund, as we had one for sixteen years, from the time my boy was four until he was almost twenty-one. Dachshunds love to snuggle. They’re full of affection and whimsy. And mischief … and stubbornness … but their devotion outweighs all else.

When we got to the breeders, as paperwork was being completed, I noticed a movement under some blankets in one of the kennels.

“Oh, something’s in there!” I remarked. “It looked empty except for the blankets.”

“Yes,” said the breeder-lady. “A mother and her baby. She only had one, born yesterday.”

And then the lady did the unthinkable.

She reached under the blankets, scooped the newborn out, and placed it in my hands.

I could hardly breathe.

Tiny. So fragile. So beautifully formed, utterly perfect in every way. The sheen of its gorgeous coat, solid chocolate. Teeny little ears. Nails so miniscule they could barely be seen … awe isn’t adequate for the suspended moment of wonder at this bit of life in my hands.

The puppy’s mother, a long-haired red dapple, hovered at my feet, her big brown eyes fixed on me as I held her baby.

“Here, ” I said to my son, “hold it for just a second and we’ll give it back to its mother. She’s anxious.”

I placed the puppy in my son’s hands and took took a picture with my phone. With a fingertip, I stroked its satiny head, just once.

“It’s so beautiful,” whispered my son. Very carefully, he slid the tiny creature back into the breeder-lady’s hands and she deftly returned it to its blanketed kennel.

The mother darted in. She went right to work on her baby, licking away all of our human smell from its fur.

I don’t know why I wanted to cry just then.

Maybe it was the mother’s impeccable care of her one baby. We’d worried her, made extra work for her. The puppy squirmed against its bath but quickly settled back to blissful neonate-sleep.

Perhaps it was the fragility of new life that twisted my heart, its precariousness and preciousness, the struggle of being alive and helpless and dependent. Or the convicting knowledge that the human touch is not always a kind or good thing. Or maybe the pang was simply because life is beautiful and because I love dogs.

“Okay, you’re set,” smiled the breeder-lady, handing us the paperwork. “He’s all yours.”

No, of course not the tiny day-old chocolate puppy. That was just a gift of the moment. The breeders hadn’t yet determined if it was a boy or a girl. I did fantasize about returning in two months to get it, however, and what I’d name it … right now, as I write this post while watching Citizen Kane, I am considering “Rosebud” …

No.

I just felt you might need a moment with the tiniest puppy I ever held.

THIS is what we went for, and what we carried home:

Our Dennis.

He’s like a furry worry stone … while holding him and rubbing him (he now rolls over for belly rubs, his favorite) it’s impossible to feel sad or worried or anything but peace and gladness to be alive.

So I give him to you for a minute, to hold with your eyes. And maybe with your heart. He’ll steal it—trust me.

Just a little puppy therapy for your day.

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Nikolaus, 2004. Age 2. 

Dear Nikolaus,

I write to celebrate you and your long, long life.

To thank you for the joy you brought and the love you gave for so many years.

To ask your forgiveness.

When you first came to our family, we were elated.

April 2002. Age 3 months.

You see, we’d been looking for a little dog because we had a little boy who wanted one so badly. Big dogs frightened him.

But you were perfect.

April 2002. Nikolaus age 3 months. Cadillac Man age 4.

And so you grew up together.

You weren’t always easy, but you were always, always loved. Despite the countless accidents in the house and that time you snuck a chicken strip off of little Cadillac Man’s plate and ran for all you were worth with your booty. Not to mention how you figured out a way to climb on top of the furniture to get the boys’ Valentine and Easter chocolate. And ate it all, leaving only the wrappers behind. More than once. How did you do it and not get sick?

We began to think, all things considered, that you might be immortal. After all, you outlasted legions of other pets. The boys began to joke about you plotting the demise of every other dog, for they came and went throughout the years, but you remained. No one questioned your alpha status. Not even the dogs seven times your size, when you took their rawhides and their pillows for your own. They just sat, blinking in respectful disbelief, at your Napoleonic powers.

There’s so much to say, for we shared so much together. I am thankful for my special place in your little heart. How, when you were young and strong, you’d jump up on the couch to curl up beside me or to crawl in my lap. For the hours I spent working on the computer and you were snuggled behind me, between my back and the chair. I loved you and your deep, abiding warmth, always near, just being. Just together.

How the boys loved you. How they laughed as we tried to teach you to roll over, to sit and beg, the two tricks you’d pull off multiple times in succession just to get one treat.

How much comfort you gave them when they were hurting, from boyhood to manhood. They held you in their arms, but you, well—you were holding their hearts all along.

January 2017. Cadillac Man, age 19, celebrating Nik’s 15th birthday with a car ride.

Time is no friend, is it, old sweet Nik. Not when it takes your youth so that you can’t jump anymore but have to be picked up and carried. Not when it turns your face and paws so white. Not when it takes your sight, your hearing, even your ability to understand exactly where you are and what’s going on.

Here’s what I marvel over: That you tried to run through the grass like always, even when you couldn’t see. That you could still find me in bathroom getting ready for work each morning. That you never forgot where your treats were, or that you should get one after coming in from outside, even when it had to be broken into small pieces for you to chew. I knew you could only find them by smell; that’s why I put your broken-up treats on the kitchen rug, so you wouldn’t push them all across the floor trying to get them into your mouth.

I marvel over your ever-voracious appetite, how you ran for your bowl every morning, even if we had to guide you just a bit.

And I worried when you started losing weight.

May 2018. Age 16. 

The vet said your blood work was amazing for a dog of your age; never saw the like. Said your heart was strong. Said things like cancer can make a dog lose weight despite plenty of food, and it wouldn’t show in the blood. Gave you the pain medicine which made you sleep but also tore your bowels up so that we couldn’t give it to you anymore.

And still you rallied, although every day you got thinner and thinner.

Cadillac Man watched you staggering and falling in the yard.

Mom, he looks like a skeleton. He’s just going in circles. 

Mom, it may be time.

Mom, I just got on the scales with him. He’s under seven pounds.

Three weeks before, you were about nine pounds.

When you were a young dog, you were nearly twenty pounds.

On Saturday, when I gave you your last bath, I could see every vertebra on your back, could feel every knob on your tiny tail. For the first time in your life, you sat in the bathwater, too weak to stand.

When we wrapped you in your “Happiness is a Dachshund” blanket to take you to another vet, I didn’t know it was going to be good-bye.

I didn’t.

I thought maybe another medication would help. Or another suggestion. You’d made it so far, so well, until then. The regular vet said your heart was strong, so . . .

The new vet said:

I can’t fix the blindness.

I can’t fix the deafness.

I can’t fix the severe cognitive impairment.

You can run tests to see why he’s losing the weight, but it would only be for academic purposes. Just to know. He’s a very old, weak dog.

Cadillac Man looked at me, holding you in his arms:

Mom, there’s hardly anything left of him.

How to let you go like this, when you’d been so utterly trusting and loving your entire life?

You looked at me with your tired, cloudy eyes, and I wasn’t sure what you were seeing. Maybe me. Maybe not.

I couldn’t know how much pain you felt; you never complained. You just kept going, for it’s all you knew to do.

I loved you. I struggled then, I struggle now with the decision, but I believe the boy—the man—who loved you best knew what was best.

And so we stroked your sweet head when you breathed your last—one tiny sigh, of contentment, of resignation, of release—utterly, utterly peaceful.

And I take comfort where I can find it. When I read about euthanizing suffering pets, when I talk to others who’ve been there, I don’t question the logic. Of course no one wants to watch their beloved endure prolonged suffering. When I think of your ravaged little body, I know you couldn’t bear much more. Your determination, your will, was astounding. That’s where I struggle. That’s why I write. It’s a matter of the spirit, see.

I write to celebrate our long run together. Sixteen years.

I write to thank you for your unconditional love, and to tell you that mine is just as unconditional. I love you still, even now that you’re gone.

I write to thank you for the joy you brought to two young boys for so long. You’re indelibly written on their hearts, as long as they live.

I write to say I’m sorry. For all the times I lost my patience, for the times I could have made more time, for being part of that last, anguishing decision. But if you were going to go, I was going to be there with you, all the way.

And I ask your forgiveness, because the weight is so hard to carry. But old age and sickness are hard to carry, too, aren’t they.

For something so little, you are so mighty, Nik.

I imagine you always will be.

Why I DON’T write

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I think this picture says it all . . .

I took it while trying to write a blog post.

This is Henry.

He belongs to my older son. Who’s back home for a while.

Hmmm . . . thinking of all those pets I foisted on my dad . . . is this poetic justice?

I type a few words, then stare, unseeing, trying to capture the elusive idea, drawing vague images out of the shadows, turning words and phrases around and around for the right rhythm, my mind miles away. I am not even in the world at the moment . . .

A nudging at my lap. The worming of a furred head between me and the laptop.

I am pulled back from wherever I was.

From my lap, two brown eyes look up at me, unblinking.

The images recede, the lovely phrases fall apart in chunks, the idea skitters away.

“What, Henry, WHAT?”

Wagging of tail, perking of ears.

He runs to the back door. Does a dog-dance to go outside. I call it his reindeer dance, because that’s what he looks like, back feet stationary and the front part of his body springing upward, repeatedly.

He’s out there for forty-eight seconds before he’s barking to come in.

He needs his treat.

Okay.

I settle back at the laptop. What was I thinking about—? Oh yeah . . . 

I type, oh, five or six words.

A nudging at my lap.

I ignore it.

A warm head worming its way between me and the laptop.

I am NOT looking at him. I am WRITING.

He finally withdraws his head. Good. He’s giving up. He’s going to to the living room to get on the couch, thank heaven.

But no.

A soft whine.

I don’t look. I reach over, pat his head. Tail thumps. I am going to finish this post . . .

A low grumble.

Then a louder, longer, much more rumbly one.

“Henry. STOP.”

I make the mistake of looking . . . and take the picture to prove why I don’t write.

He needs to be loved right now. That’s all he wants, to be petted and to snuggle. For me to give him my undivided attention.

It’s my own fault. I’ve spoiled him. I cave, but it gladdens my heart. His fur, especially the white patch at this throat, is silky-soft; he arches and rubs against my hand as if he were a cat.  He exudes comfort and luxuriant well-being. Henry could be a therapy dog; it’s impossible to be sad, angry, or troubled in any way when he’s leaning against me or lying with his head on my feet or even while he’s devising clever ways to get petted. He craves being touched, responds to it with absolute bliss, wriggling, writhing. The words I say to him most often are Sweet boy. Sweet sweet boy. 

He intrudes on my writing. He’d say my my writing intrudes on him.

One day I’m going to put Henry in a story. It’s a really important role; I’ve got it figured out.

I guess I’ll have to teach him to write it, because he’s certainly not going to let me do it.