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Three other stories I keep in my heart
I’ve written a few times this week about the importance of Lisa, the pit bull who came into my life after being born in a dog fighting ring. She passed this week, and coping has been difficult. When I wake up, I instinctively reach over to find her. And on a few moments this week, I’ve become panicked when I realize she’s not there — only to remember as I come out of delirium that she’s gone.
Finding lessons in her loss is helping me. But sharing more about her, and the positive impact she had on me and so many others (but especially her co-parent Priya) is helping too. So I want to share 3 other brief stories. These will not be as dramatic (and bloody) as my other story. But they are meaningful to me, and I hope will be meaningful to you, too.
Swimming for Love (and Life)
I mentioned that Lisa did not like water. In the first email I sent out to my friends, I noted her distaste for a bath. That extended to larger bodies of water as well. When I first brought her to the beach, as a puppy, she refused to go in, even as her sister Natalie swam out gladly.
What I didn’t share, however, was how that first experience hinted at the tremendous bravery that Lisa would later demonstrate. The setting was an early morning on the Lake Michigan beach in Chicago. I had thrown the ball out to the water, but Natalie, who was never the most visually astute dog, did not see the ball. I was mindful of the fact that Lisa was scared of the water, and attached to me at the hip, so I typically would not venture more than a few steps into the water. But Natalie could not find this ball!
So I thought to myself, “I’ll just head out there. It’s just a few dozen feet, and I’ll be back in 10 seconds. Lisa will be fine.”
The moment I waded in, though, Lisa became incredibly nervous. She ran back and forth on the shore and whined at me pitifully. I thought about heading back, and just leaving the ball out there. But I was already wet to my belly button; I might as well just get the ball and run back. So I headed further out and waded to the point that the water was near my neck, as I came close to the ball.
And then Lisa dove right into the water, half drowning and kicking like a helicopter crashed into the lake. I first laughed. But when I saw she was struggling — but still pushing herself towards me despite her struggles — I realized that she might be in real danger. So I rushed back to the shore as quickly as I could, and cradled her little belly in my arms and gently helped her back to the shore (all while she was kicking uncontrollably).
Despite the moment of anxiety, we all laughed about it when we got to the shore. I gave her a huge hug. “Lisa, you love me so much! But you shouldn’t risk your life just for a hug.”
I left the tennis ball in the lake. But smiled and gave Lisa plenty of kisses all the way back home.
Lisa had extreme difficulties with other dogs. And so when we rescued Oliver from a dog meat farm in Yulin, and I felt a deep internal calling to adopt him as my own, we were in a conundrum. How could we integrate Oliver with such a dangerous dog? Lisa accepted the cats and Natalie, who she had known since she was a baby. But was dangerous even to them. She ripped Natalie’s face open once, when I was not home, and she once chomped on Flash’s neck (i.e., my cat) and caused a hematoma that swelled up the size of a golf ball.
Oliver is a timid boy, so we thought it could work. But the first meeting between the two did not bode well. Lisa, muzzled, repeatedly lunged at Oliver and acted like she wanted to eat him. We didn’t know if that would ever change.
But it did change. Over two months, we continuously exposed Lisa to Oliver, under heavily supervised conditions, and gave her plenty of positive enforcement when she did not menace Oliver. And something beautiful started happening. She didn’t just stop attacking him. She started showing him love. First, it was just a happy tail wag when she saw him coming closer. Then, it was actively seeking him out to lay down next to him; she wanted his physical touch. But the moment that made me finally feel safe was when we took Oliver out of the house, one day, to go see his brother Pao (another dog rescued from China, who was living in a different home). Lisa whined as pitifully as she whined when separated from me. And I knew it: this was love.
Over the next 4 years, Lisa and Oliver spent more time together than I did, with either of them. And Lisa eventually became even more intensely bonded to her brother, than to either of her parents. Anyone who was a roommate of mine, or who dog sat the two, will tell you that Lisa’s cries when separated from Oliver, even for a few minutes, were the most pitiful cries one could hear from a dog. It would start with a low moan and quickly turn into a piercing shriek. There were many times when I literally ran home with Oliver, after taking him out for a 1 minute walk, because I could hear Lisa’s cries down the street.
One of the most painful things for me has been the loss of that bond. Oliver now has no doggie sister; no one to make him feel safe on walks; no one who misses him when he’s not home.
But I still feel blessed to have witnessed that bond.
Lisa was an incredibly active dog for 12 years, running everywhere and biting and chewing up everything — often within minutes of finding it. But in her last years, especially after she was spayed, she slowed down a lot. She did not play with toys. She did not scamper around the home. And she definitely did not run and jump into my lap, the way she did when she was a kid. (I can’t attribute this entirely to the hysterectomy. But I’ve read some evidence suggesting that the surgery can cause behavioral change, and gaining weight, due to changes in a dog’s hormones. Call me out on this if I’m wrong!)
But in many ways, even though we did not play nearly as much, our bond became even stronger. Lisa’s trust in her parents deepened. When she had trouble going up or down stairs, she would look up at me, and I knew she was asking for a ride. When she was having trouble getting up, I would bring the food over to her, and hand feed her, so she wouldn’t have to make a short (but to her, arduous) walk to the food bowl.
Lisa was losing her sense of hearing, and sometimes would stare out the front door, looking for me, when I called her from the back. She would get lost sometimes and try to go into the wrong house, or the wrong car. But the one thing she never lost was her deep trust in her dad. And it made me so happy to help.
Every time she got lost, stumbled from her feet, or just needed someone to pick her up and carry her down a path, she trusted that her parents would be there.
I don’t know why this is the case. But helping her back onto her feet when she fell was particularly powerful for me. I have never had that experience before. My other dog Natalie, even when she was older, simply stopped walking entirely. She did not commonly trip and fall. But Lisa was such a trooper that she always wanted to go on walks. And so we could take her — “Use it or lose it,” I would say to her — and every day or so, she would have at least one minor fall.
“Aw poor Lisa,” I would say, and rush over to her. “Let me help you sweetheart!”
And she would look up at me, with everlasting gratitude at my help.
They say you find meaning in service. And the last year of my life with Lisa certainly showed that. Lisa, I won’t be helping you on your feet again, little lady, but I’ll always remember the times that I did. It was the love, and honor, of a lifetime.