02/21/2011 12:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Devotion, Doggone It

Yesterday began with deception, as my husband and I loaded our car with empty suitcases and his golf clubs still here from our last trip. Our apartment has inadequate space for luggage, so we store them elsewhere. We leashed up our eight-year-old cockapoo Walter as well. He was scheduled for dental surgery and the removal of a suspicious growth on his back, so we'd drop him at the vet's on the way. He jumped up and down, nearly spinning, figuring (I do believe that Walter makes assumptions and suppositions) that we were all traveling to some warm clime. We joked that if Walter owned swim trunks, sun glasses and coconut oil, he'd be packing. When we pulled up to the animal hospital, Walter quaked. Once inside, as I handed his leash to the doctor, I swear that Walter looked at me with desperation and accusation, asking how I could have tricked him.

I tried not to watch the clock when I came home, tried not to picture my eight-year-old dog (who everyone thinks is a puppy) as the IV was placed in his hind leg and he was rendered helpless. When the phone rang hours too early, and the caller ID read "Vet," my heart skipped a beat. The call was just a progress report to reassure me, but it brought me back to times when the phone rang and my breath caught: When a child's after-school activity ran overtime because there was an injury; when a teen missed curfew and I sat wringing my hands, and then fast-forward to the days when my mother ailed for five years. When the phone rang with the caller ID from her home, I never quite knew what to expect and always anticipated the worst; yet when the inevitable call came that she had "arrested," I was completely unprepared.
I picked up Walter at the end of the day. His fur was matted, his eyes glassy and unfocused, his nose running, his gait wobbly. I carried him home. He weighs only 14 pounds, but he was dead weight as he flopped over my shoulder. Was that his heart pounding or mine?

We ordered in sushi last night, and Walter barely let out a "woof" when the delivery man rang the bell. He usually barks relentlessly. Walter slept in his bed while we ate. I gave him a pain killer wrapped in turkey. More deception, I thought. I ate too fast last night, eager to be done with dinner, wanting to just be alone and unearth what was bothering me: I sent a spry little dog to the vet that morning and received a dog that look 10 years older. I couldn't shake the comparison to my mother, who'd gone in for a simple procedure seven years ago and suffered complications. She left for the procedure looking beautiful and elegant. She came home leaning on a walker.

If I'd been able to read the stars last night, they might have told me to check my e-mail, something I did anyway. One of my cousins scanned in old pictures of my mother for me: as a child with her brother, as a young 20-something in an outfit of high-waisted trousers and floral print blouse, and one of the two of us some twenty years ago at a family reunion. The photos made me happy and sad; emotions crashing into one another at high speed as I wondered how the young girl with thick wavy dark hair (Mom) became the woman with a blond bouffant and a "new" nose because, in her forties, her "old" nose wasn't the right one for her.

My husband and I were exceptionally tired last night. At least for me, it was the emotional cacophony of the day, coupled with writing, laundry, and post-weekend cleaning -- the latter of which is an impossible job in New York City. Wipe the window sills and more soot appears just moments later. Masking city air (that's rife with diesel) with scents called Ocean Breeze and Fresh Linen is a useless exercise. As tired as I was, I couldn't fall asleep, so I went into the guest room, watched at least three episodes of mysteries, read, wrote and then I heard the tapping of paws and a scraping at the half open door. Walter had staggered down the hall to find me. We lay on the bed together, my hand resting on his back below the incision. I remembered the days of my three babies with night frights, chicken pox, and just plain colds - how I sat with them until we all fell asleep. I remembered my own days as a child, when shadows became monsters, and Mom stayed until I fell asleep.

Walter was better this morning, and we took an early morning walk. The sky was gray; the air was damp. The sanitation trucks churned as the men in padded gloves threw in endless wet black bags of garbage. One of them told me that he felt "exuberant," and I laughed. The masts of the tall ships at the Seaport stood motionless against what is really just a patch of sky over the East River, but vast for Manhattan. But more, I felt a sense of true déjà vu, laden with nostalgia and uncertainty, and yet a sense of something familiar and comforting.

I knew all along last night why I couldn't fall asleep: Walter was too far away in the "other" room, yet I was reluctant to disturb his slumber and bring him in with me. I was equally reluctant to admit how connected we are. I have learned in the last half dozen years that devotion is dangerous and requires courage. But with my hand on Walter's back, I fell asleep and dreamed of Mom: We were at a wedding, and as in all my dreams of her, she was elusive and ghost-like. Attachments are unavoidable. Devotion is ever-lasting.