Let me preface this by saying that while my state is under a stay-at-home order, my job is considered essential, which means I’m still working outside the house–my shift only reduced slightly because of shorter business hours.
I’m also aware of the privilege I have: I have a snug little roof over my head (thank God we’d finished the renovations last spring), food in the pantry, and my income isn’t going to be seriously impacted in the near future. We have a financial cushion. Our circumstances have allowed us to divide our family and send the high-risk individuals and those who can work from home into another residence while I–still working with the public–can avoid bringing something home to them. More privilege. I have a lot of safety nets others don’t right now, so I get it if you want to roll your eyes at me.
That means, however, I’m living by myself on the farm with the animals.
As a former dog trainer, it embarrasses me to even write this, but I’ve struggled these past few years to bond to our newest edition, our young big dog, Remington. (Named for Remington Steele, the TV show, not the firearm)
That’s not to say I’ve neglected him. No, I did all the proper things to raise a German Shepherd. I introduced him to over a 100 strangers by the time he was sixteen weeks old, including lots of children (which he loves). He went through two basic obedience classes, two agility classes, and passed his Canine Good Citizen test. I set up doggy play dates with other dogs to make sure he was well socialized. We went on long rambles in the woods and I taught him to swim. On days when I knew I couldn’t make it home from work at a reasonable hour, I paid a friend to let him out and play with him.
But I had a hard time bonding with him just the same.
It really bugged me. Animals have always been a huge part of my life. Not having a dog was–and is–unthinkable. But I kept finding fault with him. He didn’t seem as smart as some of my previous dogs, nor as courageous. My previous German Shepherd, Sampson, had been a high-performance dog, built for action. Remington’s confirmation leaves a bit to be desired, and I can look to the future and see hip problems. I also acted as though he was the worst puppy ever, when he was actually easier and less destructive than others I’d had before. I’d come home in the evenings too tired to deal with puppy energy and be annoyed that he had any at all.
The thing is, he wasn’t the problem. It was me.
2017 was a bad year for us that bled all the way through 2018 as well. Part of it was timing: we had several elderly animals that came to the natural end of their lives at the same time, but we also had pet losses due to cancer and illness. I also lost multiple family members within months of each other, with no time for emotional recovery. I put those emotions aside, thinking I’d dealt with them in a mature and rational way, but I’d only spackled over the cracks in the walls and ignored the rot within.
Two months after I’d buried Sampson, I took my husband to look at puppies. He was supposed to prevent me from impulsively buying one, a task at which he failed miserably, I might add. 🙂 I’d sworn I’d never get another big, male dog. That it was time to downsize. That we had enough animals already. But I was also getting inundated with texts and images from well-meaning friends and associates about available puppies that ranged from the inappropriate to the unsuitable and everything in between. I was tired of the onslaught. I suspect I put down a deposit on a puppy in part to stop the barrage of messages. But it was also with the knowledge that I needed another big dog to feel safe at the farm, to make me take long walks, and keep me honest about getting some exercise. And, to be frank, I wanted some joy in my life.
When he was eight weeks old, I brought Remington home. As I said, I did all the right things. In addition to socializing him, I practiced the kinds of handling techniques he’d need for vet visits, and I set him up with short day boards prior to his neuter so that experience wouldn’t be terrifying for him. Though I could have trained him myself at home, I enrolled him in classes so he’d meet lots of other people and dogs, and learn to focus on me in exciting and distracting circumstances. We went to farmer’s markets and to school yards and on walks downtown alongside traffic.
And still, I held myself at a slight distance from him. I can see now that it wasn’t just him, but he became the canary in the mine for my emotional frigidity. I was stretched too thin from a mentally and physically demanding job, and everyone at home bore the brunt of my growing inability to deal with burnout and unresolved grief at the same time. I’d spy a crack in the wall and spackle over it again. I was irritable and short-tempered, and above all, I wouldn’t allow myself to connect with anyone. Because connection was attachment and attachment inevitably led to loss and I couldn’t handle any more loss.
Hah. Apparently, after giving me some slight breathing room, 2020 looked at 2017-2018 and said, “Hold my beer.”
I’ve been on my own here at the farm for the last three weeks now. With the shortened workdays, it’s been easier to get back in the habit of evening dog walks, and tentatively, afraid to reawaken the plantar fasciitis, I began taking them out again.
One of the things dog trainers recommend encouraging is something called ‘checking in’. That’s when your dog glances back at you to make sure you’re still with the pack, that we’re all still moving as one unit. You want to encourage this attention because you want your dog to be more focused on you than your surroundings, like the kid on the bicycle or the jogger headed toward you. Some dogs have to be trained to check in, though it is a natural reaction. My little terrier doesn’t check in at all, unless I call his name or crinkle the treat bag. But after about a week of walking every evening, I noticed Remington would not only check in visually, but he’d often drop back to touch my hand with his nose.
How you doing, there? You okay?
It made me wonder how often he’d done it before and I’d never noticed. That I was the one who’d checked out, who wasn’t paying attention. Daily we’d walk, and finally, finally, I was able to tune in to him.
“Not so hot, buddy. Truth is, I’m not okay.”
As the cracks widen, my emotions have been all over the map. Some days I’m calm in the face of knowing I’ve done all I can and continue to try to protect myself to the best of my ability. A big part of my COVID-19 preparations has been to outline a plan for the animals in case I become hospitalized or die. It’s made me really focus on how I would manage if I got very ill but was able to self-treat at home versus what to do if I became so sick I needed hospitalization for several weeks. Truth is, I believe if I get sick enough to need to check into an ER, I’ll never come home.
Other days I’m dealing with escalating anxiety and near-panic attacks. Those emotions, never completely dealt with, always bubbling under the surface, erupt in strange ways over unexpected things. I heard someone liken this time period where many of us are waiting for the coronavirus to hit our area hard as pre-traumatic stress syndrome, and I for one, believe it. The other day I compared life as we know it now to being a caveman foraging for food in a hard-scrabble existence and learning there is a saber-tooth tiger somewhere in your area. Oh, and by the way, it’s invisible. My mood can swing from gallows humor to certainty I’ll be fine to wishing I’d get it and be done with it to nauseous with fear at the prospect of going to work again.
I’d joked about giving zero f*cks in the past, but in the face of a pandemic and the potential loss of everything you love, the phrase is taking on new meaning. Growing up in a household where appearance was given undue emphasis, I am no longer concerned about crow’s feet or carrying more pounds than I’d like. I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about being embarrassed for squeeing over something I love. And though I have to work to keep both my health insurance and the money coming in to pay the bills, once this is over, something has to give there. It’s a funny thing but when you face your worst nightmare–and for me, that IS a pandemic–nothing else scares you nearly as much.
In the mornings, ten minutes before the alarm goes off, Remington climbs onto the bed, touches me with his nose, and curls up beside me until I have to get up. At night, he sprongs about on pogo-stick legs as we begin our walk, only to settle quickly into our usual routine. He chews on his bone quietly in the evenings now, when he used to pester and poke at me. I kept wondering what had changed until I realized it was me. I’d changed. I was cued in now.
Last night on our walk, as the red-wing blackbirds sang their welcome, spring songs and the wild redbud lit up the mountainside with their gorgeous blooms, I found myself thinking that Remington was a wise, gentle soul in a young dog’s body. That he was exactly the dog I needed right now, even though I’d been too blind and stupid to acknowledge that before.
He checked in with me, turning his head to touch my hand.
How you doing, there? Are you okay?
“Not really, buddy. But better because you’re here.”
Be safe. Be well. And love those you love with your whole heart.