Talking to Animals
1 Talking to Lucky
I always have the same dream about Lucky; I’ve had it on and off for nearly sixty years, since I was eight or nine years old. In the dream, Lucky is curled up in a ball in a cardboard box in the basement of the school where I first saw him. He is small, white, sweet; he chews on my finger, wags his tail. “Hey, Lucky,” I say. “I’m taking you home. Talk to me.”
These were the first words I ever remember speaking to an animal. I still carry this radioactive seed of memory. The image of this tiny little creature, looking up at me with hope and love, struggling to lift his head up to push against my hand, has been etched in my consciousness more than any other childhood memory. At the time I didn’t know that he was responding to me, but I would come to understand the message soon enough: “Remember me,” he said. My life with animals began with Lucky.
Attachment theorists would say it began some years before that,
in the earliest stages of infancy, when lonely and frightened children first experience animal dreams and fantasies, and embrace the idea of animals as beloved and special friends.
But my conscious life with animals began with Lucky, when I was a miserably awkward and unhappy student at Summit Avenue Elementary School in Providence, Rhode Island.
I lived on the poor end of the east side of Providence, an Irish and Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Providence was a stern, gritty Catholic city. The Providence public school system was the gateway to education and assimilation for the children and grandchildren of immigrants, as public schools were for so many American children.
Summit Avenue School was an imposing industrial brick structure typical of urban public schools at the time. The halls were wide and shiny, filled with echoes. Boys and girls each had their own entrances and play areas. The teachers at Summit Avenue seemed old and severe to me. There was always tension between the children and grandchildren of immigrants and the children of those who were here before them. Classes were generally joyless affairs, lots of lecturing by humorless teachers and the scratching of chalk on a big green board. It was our duty to go and learn, theirs to try to ram some information into our mostly unreceptive brains.
I was lonely and strange and without a single friend in the school or outside of it. I was frightened much of the time, a bed wetter, and a physically awkward boy. I was terrified of a lot of typical adolescent activities—gym, recess, speaking up in class, getting vaccinations, doing homework, walking home alone, speaking to girls.
My family life was difficult—with my parents quarreling constantly—and I was afraid to go to school, where I was often chased and beaten up by bigger, older kids who ridiculed me and made it necessary for me to take elaborate and circuitous routes to get home safely. Many afternoons, I hid in the vast cemetery near
our house. I had no friends, and was almost paralyzed by any kind of social interaction.
And then there was the abuse that is so often linked to bed wetting. Sexual and physical and emotional, it shaped so much of my childhood and my life. The point isn’t what happened to me, but how I have moved past it. Lucky was an angel who came into my life to help me move forward, away from all of that darkness.
The story of Lucky and me began at school one cold gray New England morning. My classmates and I sat shivering at our desks while the ancient radiators hissed and creaked and began the long process of warming us nearly to death in our seats. It was there I learned to drowse whenever anyone gave lectures or speeches, a habit I carry still.
I was sitting at my shiny brown school desk, staring at the carved initials of countless hapless students who had come before me and doodled their initials for posterity. I was already nodding off as the interminable daily announcements began over the school loudspeakers.
I paid little attention to the morning announcements, which were followed by a mass declaration of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a scratchy record playing the national anthem. But one announcement that morning made me sit up and listen.
“Students,” said Miss McCarthy, our teacher, “one of our families has a seven-week-old puppy that needs a home. The first student who arrives at the boys’ entrance on Monday morning at seven a.m. can take this puppy home. Mr. Wisnewski, our janitor, will be present.” Our teacher explained later that the puppy would be at the boys’ entrance because it was understood that no girl would wish to get up so early and walk to school in the dark.
It was a different world, of course. No discussions, parental notes, or permission slips were required. No one wanted to know if we had a fence, were home all day, believed in spaying or neutering, or had even consulted our parents. If you got there first, you could have the puppy and take him home, no questions asked.
I wanted this puppy more than anything; it seemed I had been waiting my whole life for him. He was mine. I had to have him.
We had once owned a German shepherd named King, but I was very young at the time and had nothing much to do with him. My father let him out in the morning, and in at night; he slept in the basement and never set foot in our house.
My parents did not spend money on dogs. King was not neutered, he was not rushed to the vet when he got sick; he holed up in the basement until he got well. There were little Kings running around all over the place. King was never walked or put on a leash, and my father would have chopped his arm off rather than walk around the neighborhood picking up poop and putting it in a plastic bag.
One day King did not come home. There were no posters put up in store windows or on telephone poles. He was responsible for himself. A neighbor told us months later that she had seen him get hit by a truck, his body hauled away in a garbage truck. King was never mentioned again.
We did not have warm and open discussions about things like dogs at the dinner table in my house. My father was not around much and paid little attention to domestic life. My mother worked, cooked, and ran the house.
I knew the decision about Lucky would be up to her, and I also knew I would be getting that puppy no matter what anybody said.
I found my mother in the kitchen after dinner—she always seemed calm and happiest alone in the kitchen doing the dishes,
singing and talking to herself. I told her about Miss McCarthy’s announcement.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “You are too young to have a puppy, and I have enough work to do.” Despite her response, I never doubted for a second that she would eventually say yes. This was just the requisite dialogue we had to get through.
She said no at least two or three more times. She sounded angry, aggrieved. Who would be responsible for the dog? Clean up after it? There was no money for vet bills. She didn’t want any dog in the living room or near the furniture, or tracking up the floors or raiding the garbage cans. Who would be responsible for that?
I knew that my mother loved dogs; she was always stopping to pet them and coo at them. I knew how much she had loved King, and how sad she seemed when he was gone, even though she never spoke of it.
Back then, and for many thousands of years before, dogs lived at the periphery of life, not at the center. It is hard to even imagine a time when dogs and cats were not so intensely a part of our emotional lives. When they were kept around mainly to keep burglars away or catch mice.
America was in the midst of a great transition in the human–animal bond after World War II. Our relationship with animals was changing. The working animal was giving way to machines and cars; the wild animal was being subsumed by human development; the postwar period marked the beginning of the rise of the pet. The pet became a member of the family, and a multibillion-dollar phenomenon that has profoundly affected the way we live.
When I was a kid, dogs did not have human names and were not considered children. Animals were not family members. It would have been outrageous to suggest they were.
Dogs ate table scraps and often got hit by cars or vanished. If
they got sick, they most often died, were put down, or, if one lived in the country, were taken out back and shot. There were no treats, no toys, no animal insurance plans. People got bit all the time, and female dogs had litter after litter of puppies, usually distributed free to neighbors and relatives.
My mother’s dance with me went on for an hour or so, as I made one pledge after another. I’ll take the dog out. I’ll train him. I’ll clean up, I promise. I’m sure she knew better; I know she wanted me to be happy. I saw her work her way through sputtering complaint to a softer stance.
I told my mother how much I wanted the dog, how much it would mean to me. I imagine she thought a puppy would be good for me, since she was always urging me to “step outside” of myself and join the world beyond my room, where I was invariably holed up with my books and my tropical fish.
So without exactly being agreed to, it was agreed to. She must have talked with my father about it. Nobody said no, which in that world meant yes. I could barely get through the week or sleep, I was so distracted with thoughts of my puppy. I named him Lucky because of my luck, not his. His entry into my life marked a turning point that would change the way I thought of myself.
That Sunday night, my mother loaned me her big old bell alarm clock, whose ticking kept me awake before the alarm had a chance to go off. “Good luck,” she said. “Be careful crossing the streets in the dark.”
Most people who love their dogs are not inclined to dwell too much on why, or how their intensity of feeling came to be. In Darwinian terms, dogs make no sense. We no longer need them for protection or help in hunting. But we love them more than ever.
People often psychoanalyze dogs, trying to determine what they are feeling and thinking. But I always found it more interesting to apply that kind of analysis to the people who own them. I write as much or more about the people who love and live with dogs as I do about the dogs themselves. That has always been what fascinates me the most: Why do we choose the dogs we choose? Why do we love the cats that we love?
This is where attachment theory comes in. Attachment theory is important when it comes to talking to animals and listening to them. It is the first step in learning to understand and communicate with them. Attachment theory helps us understand our need and love for them, the nature of our relationship with them. It is about self-awareness, the key to living with animals in a meaningful way. It explains everything that is important about Lucky and me.
Attachment theory is the seminal study of the dynamics of long-term relationships and emotions in human beings. It is the joint work of psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s, and has generally supplanted Freudian theory as the primary theory about the development of human emotions.
Bowlby revolutionized psychiatric thinking about emotions and early development, especially among preverbal children whose feelings are affected by fear, loss, or separation from their mothers. He believed that the template for most of our emotions—our security, anxiety, need for love—is shaped in the very first months and years of life, by the way in which our parents respond to our fears and loneliness.
Animal behaviorists, psychologists, and trainers have applied attachment theory to our relationships with animals. In that way, it can help explain why we attach to a particular dog or cat, why we need to rescue some dogs or hunt with others, why we love small dogs or big ones, why we only want one or have a dozen.
Attachment theory encourages us to understand the emotions and traits that we bring to the relationship. I once had a border collie named Homer, an awkward and fearful dog, or so I thought. He always seemed to lag behind, cowering at strange noises, other dogs, and loud people. I found myself yelling at him all the time, and soon I came to see I was making his problems worse. I was just not connecting with him in the way I connected with almost all of my dogs. One day—after shouting at him all during a walk to catch up, keep moving, stay with us—I stopped to ask myself why I was so angry with him.
All of a sudden, on this cool and sunny morning, it hit me that the voice I was using was not my own—it was my father’s voice.
My father was a good man, but a critical man. He believed lectures would solve the complex problems of children. He sometimes considered me to be a sissy, a disappointing child, bad at sports, with few friends, a bed wetter, awkward, and inept at any kind of physical work.
When I was eleven, he threw a baseball at me during our forced “catch” sessions, and hit me in the head and knocked me down. When I came up crying, he told me I was weak and had no real strength of character. I walked off the field, and our relationship never really healed or recovered from that day. We didn’t speak comfortably again for three decades.
Here was the key to what had been happening that morning with me and Homer. I was seeing Homer the same way that I was seen, as weak and fearful. A sissy. I never spoke to my daughter or any other person in that way, but here, with this poor little dog, it was coming out, the same voice, the same manner, the same anger and frustration. I realized that maybe, like me and my father, the two of us, Homer and I, just weren’t meant to have a healthy relationship.
I was living in northern New Jersey at the time, and luckily, there was a young boy down the street, named Jeremy, who loved
Homer. He thought he was the most wonderful dog in the world. So I gave Homer to Jeremy. With Jeremy, Homer got all of the love and affection and attention that I was not able to give him. Homer lived happily with Jeremy for twelve more years.
Some of my friends and readers were shocked that I had given one of my dogs away. It is one of those taboos that exist in parts of the animal world. But I think it was the most loving thing I had ever done with an animal, and I had John Bowlby to thank for it. If I had not been familiar with attachment theory, I would never have been able to identify the root of why I had trouble connecting with Homer. I would have condemned this sweet creature to a life of tension and frustration.
People ask me all the time how I choose a dog. Simple enough, I say. I get the dog I want, for my sake and theirs.
Our emotional interactions with dogs are mostly a replay of our own early emotional development, and we generally treat dogs and other pets in one of two ways: the way we were treated as small children, or the way we wish we had been treated.
Through the prism of attachment theory, I have since come to understand why I am drawn to certain types of dogs—border collies and Labrador retrievers, in particular. The frenetic, ADD quality of border collies, their drive to work, their curiosity, and their great loyalty are traits I value, things that I need. The Labs offer me the unconditional love I have always sought in life, and not always found. They can slip into my life and stay there.
Attachment theory asks us to look within ourselves, and through our own emotional histories, to understand our relationship with animals.
I know that every animal I have loved has challenged me to look within myself, to understand my own intuitions, instincts, strengths, and weaknesses before I can begin to understand theirs.
In 2012, I was speaking at a fund-raising dinner for an animal shelter in Palo Alto, California, and the discussion turned to attachment theory. A wealthy tech entrepreneur stood up and told me that he currently had four rescue dogs—all of them German shepherds with troubled pasts and behaviors ranging from aggression to anxiety.
What, he asked, did attachment theory offer to explain his love of these dogs and his need to rescue them? His wife was always asking him why he had these dogs. What could he tell her?
I said I was not a psychologist but I had encountered this many times before. I would guess that his mother was cold and aloof, and that he had been an anxious, perhaps lonely child. His father, I would speculate, was remote and absent. When he encountered these beautiful but vulnerable and needy and endangered animals, he was replaying a scene, a living video, of his own sense of being abandoned and unknown.
He gasped, looked at me for the longest time, and then looked down at his wife. “How could you possibly know that?” he asked me. I hear it all the time, I said. And I do. I have had that same conversation with dog and cat owners hundreds of times, and I can almost unfailingly see a glimpse of the early emotional development that shaped the template of their life with animals, just as my life in Providence shaped my need for Lucky and my feeling for him.
Unless we understand ourselves, we can never really understand the animals we live with. They are so often a reflection of us. Every animal we seek, own, and live with is a reflection of a part of us, and can speak to us, if we only learn to listen.
It was not simply because puppies are cute or because I am a magnanimous animal lover that I wanted Lucky so badly. It was really the other way around. I am an animal lover in part because of the human being I am, the joys and sorrows I have experienced, the
things I need in life. Loving an animal is a selfish act, something we need, no matter how we like to sugarcoat our motives.
A trainer once told me that to have a better dog, I needed to be a better human. It was the best advice I have ever received about animals, and it is one of the foundational ideas of my approach to communicating with them. Accepting that idea is essential. It is the first step toward truly understanding animals.
Twenty years ago, a friend, an analyst, told me of a wonderful book by the famed British analyst Dorothy Burlingham, and while reading it, I suddenly began trembling, my eyes filling with tears.
Burlingham wrote in her classic book Twins about the child who feels alone and forsaken in the world. He creates a new family in imagination, builds a wonderful new life in his mind. Most often, this life centers on animals. “The child takes an imaginary animal as his intimate and beloved companion; subsequently, he is never separated from his animal friend, and in this way he overcomes loneliness.”
This animal, Burlingham wrote, offers the child what he is searching for: “faithful love and unswerving devotion. . . . These animal fantasies are thus an attempt to substitute for the discarded and unloving family an uncritical but understanding and always loving creature.”
It was Lucky who came to mind. He had never really left.
I was already up when the alarm started ringing at 4 a.m. It was bitterly cold. No one was awake in the house. I got dressed, tiptoed downstairs, made myself a glass of warm milk, and buttered a piece of white bread.
The thermometer outside the kitchen window read 3 degrees, and I could hear the bone-chilling wind rattle the windows of the house.
I was too excited to eat much. I couldn’t stop thinking of Lucky, of having a pal, a companion. The idea of him just opened me up in a way that nothing else had.
It was a long, cold walk. I ran much of the way. I wanted to make sure I was first. I remember my frozen nose, fingers, and toes. When I got to the boys’ entrance the bells from the big church down the street chimed five times. I knew lots of kids might want the puppy, but I didn’t think many needed him more than I did. I had never known the sensation of wanting something so much. It seemed my heart would burst.
I took my spot on the stone steps and spent the next couple of hours dancing and running in circles to keep warm. I counted to twenty and back a thousand times, imagined that I was one of the Hardy Boys out on a dangerous mission, plotted my life with Lucky.
Lucky would sleep in my bed, of course. We would take walks down the street, into the parks, through the big cemetery on North Main Street; we would play in the back yard, hole up in my room together while I read. In the summer, he would come with me to the beach, to Cape Cod. We would swim together, walk on the dunes.
Lucky would love me, of course. He would offer me faithful love and unswerving devotion. There would be no need for talking. Without words, we would understand one another completely. I had to get this dog.
Around 6:30 a.m., a half hour before the school bell rang, a big sixth grader named Jimmy walked up behind me, took a look around, grabbed me by the throat, and threw me off the top step and onto the asphalt. I got up and yelled “hey,” and he punched me in the nose and knocked me down again, blood spurting out of my nose.
This, I understood, was life on the playground. The people in charge never saw this stuff; usually they were too busy yakking with
one another to care or pay attention. Anybody who ratted on anybody else would not lead a life worth living. Even more than not wanting to get beat up on, I didn’t ever want to be a rat. It was the strange code of the embattled boy.
We were on our own, the two of us, and to make things worse, I started to cry. I saw my life with Lucky washing away in blood and tears. I felt hopeless and desolate. Jimmy no longer bothered to even look at me; he just snorted and said, “That dog is mine.”
To make things even worse, about a dozen other kids had appeared behind me to get in line for Lucky. I was no longer even in line. I had a growing audience to my humiliation; it would soon be the story of the day in school and at recess.
But the fates intervened. There are angels here on earth and sometimes they do appear.
“Wait a minute,” said a thickly accented voice through a window alongside the boy’s entrance door.
I was still on the ground when the door opened and Mr. Wisnewski, the janitor, popped his gray head out of the door. We rarely saw Mr. Wisnewski and never spoke with him. He was a mysterious figure who would bleed the radiators when it got too cold in the classrooms or replace the lightbulbs when they went out. He was the one who cleaned up when somebody got sick or the toilets overflowed. He also came into the big auditorium to sweep up after assemblies.
There were all kinds of rumors about Mr. Wisnewski, most of them suggesting that he was a World War II refugee of some kind. He was believed to live in a tenement in North Providence. It was said he had no family, but nobody really knew since a conversation with him was unimaginable. It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak English; it was that he never did speak it, and we all assumed he didn’t want to. Children often avoid what is strange to them.
He looked angry standing in the doorway.
“You there,” he said, wagging his finger at Jimmy. “I saw what you did to that boy. You took his place in line, you hit him in the face.”
Mr. Wisnewski, in a fur-lined cap, wearing his green uniform, came down the steps and helped me get up. He took an old rag out of his pocket and gave it to me to wipe my tears and the blood off my face and shirt.
“You are first in line,” he said. “You get the puppy.” Jimmy skulked away, glowering at both of us. I had not heard the last from him.
Mr. Wisnewski took me in through the door and led me down to the basement. We went through the door marked JANITOR. On the desk was a cardboard box with a small white puppy about the size of a big shoe. He was thin, trembling either from being nervous or cold.
“Lucky,” I said. I had given him a name the first time I thought about him. We were going to be lucky together.
Lucky, as I remember him, was small and bright white. He had big and soulful brown eyes, like a baby seal. He was, at that point, the size of a small teddy bear. He was easy to pick up, soft and warm to hold. He looks in my memory like a cute Lab puppy, although I am certain he was a mutt. I remember him from the moment I saw him as being everything Dorothy Burlingham suggested—my trustworthy friend, my unconditional love, my buddy and safe place.
Lucky stayed in that basement room all day. I ran to see him a dozen times. I brought him water and a piece of my sandwich, which he ate greedily. Mr. Wisnewski had thought to bring some kibble, which he doled out of a tin. It didn’t occur to me for many years that the puppy may have been Mr. Wisnewski’s. That might explain why he was so involved in the adoption.
Nobody mentioned the blood on my shirt that day, but the girls went wild over Lucky—more girls spoke to me that day than had
spoken to me all year. There was a line all day to visit him and pet him. Even the usually severe Miss McCarthy came in to take a look.
I stopped on the way out to thank Mr. Wisnewski again for saving my place in line, for helping me get Lucky. He just nodded and patted me on the head. “Good luck with the dog,” he said. “Watch out for those boys.”
Then he picked up Lucky, patted him a few times. “Take care of him,” he said. “You are both lucky boys.”
I had the idea that Mr. Wisnewski knew what it was like to get pushed out of place in line and punched. It’s a curious thing, but I don’t believe I ever saw Mr. Wisnewski again after that day. I have no memory of him beyond that encounter.
It took me a long time to carry Lucky home through the cold. I wrapped him in my jacket, he was shivering so badly, and soon, I was shivering even more. I stopped in the foyer of the branch library—
I didn’t dare bring him inside—so we could both thaw out. Lucky grew heavier and heavier as my fingers grew numb, but I was nothing but happy.
When I got home, my fingers and cheeks were nearly frozen. I took Lucky upstairs into my room. I laid him on the bed, wrapped him in some of my undershirts. He curled up in a ball by my pillow.
I cried again, this time in relief. My magical friend had come. I was not alone anymore. I don’t recall ever being so happy or lighthearted; my troubles and fears seemed to melt away. Lucky needed me more than I needed him, I thought, or perhaps as much. The world seemed to change for me in that moment; it had become warm and safe. Lucky, I knew, loved me without condition or judgment.
I sat with him for hours, until my mother got home from work, came up to my room, and dragged me downstairs to have dinner. I carried Lucky downstairs in a box; we sealed off the kitchen and he was permitted to walk around in there while we ate. He whined for
me most of the time. See, I told my mother, see how much he loves me? My mother said Lucky was cute, but she quickly reminded me of my promise to take care of him. I could tell she liked him. She said he looked thin, that we needed to fatten him up a bit.
My father came in to check Lucky out. He picked him up and let him lick his face. I was surprised, since my father did not care for dogs much; my mother was the dog lover. After the first encounter, though, my father had nothing much to do with Lucky. I don’t recall him ever touching him again and he wanted no part of his care or training. I remember what a different world it was for dogs then.
But even then, Lucky was at the center of my emotional life. From the first moment, I talked with Lucky. In the school basement. On the way home. In my room. On the kitchen floor. I imagined him always to be talking back to me, responding, agreeing, supporting.
I confessed to Lucky that I was a bed wetter, that I could not sleep over at the houses of other kids because I was too afraid of having an accident.
I told Lucky every detail of the most painful experience of my life up to that point, the story of how I had to leave summer camp because I wet my bunk every night and the other kids were making fun of me. I was not allowed to say good-bye; my clothes and sleeping bag were collected and a counselor drove me in silence back to my house, three hours away.
I told Lucky this so he would understand if there was an accident in the night. Puppies, I knew, also had accidents. I imagined Lucky to be as happy to be with me as I was with him. My father, I told the puppy, was angry with me every time I wet the bed; he would come in to give me lectures in the middle of the night and I would pretend to be asleep. If he comes in, I said to Lucky, pretend to be asleep, too. He’ll go away.
I had never talked about my bed wetting before, not with any living thing. It was a great relief to share it. Lucky, I noticed, didn’t care. That night, for the first time in more than a year, I did not wet my bed. I slept through the night, Lucky there next to me.
Every night, Lucky curled up with his head right under my neck and we both slept together. Lucky did not have any accidents in the bed, either. Not one.
He was a calm dog, perhaps too calm for a puppy. He slept for most of the day, and while he loved to walk around the backyard, and inspect my room, he never zoomed around like other puppies did. I brought him old baseballs to chew on—he loved them—and I scoured the refrigerator for chicken and tuna fish leftovers to feed him.
He seemed very happy just to be with me; he was perhaps the first creature who loved me in that way, who showed me what that might mean.
We did seem to understand one another. I believed it then, I believe it now. We communicated in some mystical and intuitive way, beyond words, with emotions and feelings. I knew when he was hungry, when he wanted to play. I believed that he knew when I was frightened or sad. He always seemed to do something to cheer me up at those times, or so I convinced myself.
I brought him scraps from dinner—bread, some pot roast, a piece of apple pie. He loved it. He loved breakfast, too, especially toast and eggs. I got up early every morning to take him outside and feed him. I brought him old gloves to chew on, walked to the butcher near my grandmother’s house to get him a big heavy bone (his tiny teeth barely scratched it). I rubbed his belly, sang him to sleep, hauled him outside to pee and dump twenty times a day. Even then, I understood that the best and quickest way to housebreak a dog was to give him few or no opportunities to go in the wrong place.
I was as good as my word: I took care of Lucky, cleaned up after
him, swatted him with a newspaper like my father told me to when he had a rare accident inside the house, usually near the back door. The newspaper swat was a common method of correcting a dog’s behavior at one time. It is no longer an accepted method, at least not by trainers. Now I know how to use a crate to housebreak a dog—simple and not in any way traumatic.
Intimidating a dog is not the same thing as training a dog. Using physical abuse to compel a dog to do something can lead to fear, anger, and confusion.
Lucky got me through a few of those long school days, through Jimmy’s taunts in the recess yard, which didn’t matter to me anymore. I had the dog now. I wrote essays about Lucky in English class, drew sketches in art class, went to the library and researched the history of dogs. When Lucky arrived, I started reading about dogs and I have never stopped. Later on, I started writing about them, and I have never stopped doing that, either.
Lucky had only been with me for several weeks when he began to grow frail, and I saw right away that he was sick. He threw up his food, started having accidents. He had recurring diarrhea, his eyes were rheumy, and he seemed to weaken. At night, I would sleep downstairs in the kitchen with him. My father brought a mattress down for me to lie on. Lucky wasn’t moving much by then; his breathing was slow, labored. I had a dream one night during his illness. Let me go, he said. I am sorry, but I have to leave.
When I got home from school one day, I couldn’t find Lucky. There was a note from my mother saying he was sick and he had gone to the dog hospital.
I went up to my room and cried all night. I knew the minute I saw that note that I would never see Lucky again. It was as if he had told me himself. My miracle was over; the nature of my life had reasserted itself. My heart dropped right through the floor. The walk
to school the next morning seemed like the longest walk I had ever taken. I must have looked awful. Even Miss McCarthy stopped me in the hallway and asked me if I was okay, if I needed to go see the nurse and lie down.
In the world I grew up in, children, like dogs, lived on the margins. I was presumed too fragile and innocent to understand what might befall a dog. Ignorance was protection in some twisted way.
My parents would not take me to see Lucky, and they would not tell me where he was. They would not tell me what his sickness was or what, if anything, could be done about it. Every time I asked them about it, which was continuously, they said he was being cared for, that there was no news. I stopped asking.
The next Saturday, my father took me to Rigney’s ice cream parlor on Hope Street and bought me a sugar cone with two scoops of black raspberry. He got a cone also, and we sat at our table, licking away at our cones. They tasted wonderful, even in winter. I had heard my parents talking softly downstairs on and off for days. I knew they were hiding the truth from me. Kids always know.
“Listen, son,” said my father. “I wanted to tell you that Lucky is very sick. He has something called distemper. It is very serious. Lucky has gone to a farm in Massachusetts where they will take care of him and maybe he will recover. He’ll be happy there. He’s not coming back.”
My father said that was all he knew, all there was to say about it. The farm did not allow visitors. He was sorry. He knew that I loved the dog. Life is like that, he said. You have to get used to it, you have to learn how it is sooner or later and deal with it; this is a good time to start. Life can be rough; it can throw you curveballs. I asked a lot of questions for a while, but I never got answers or any new information.
Eventually, I stopped asking and Lucky was never mentioned again.
So much has happened between then and now, but bonding with and caring for Lucky, my intense early need for this small dog, was a transformative experience for me.
Lucky taught me my first lesson about the power of animals in our lives, what they can mean for us, what they can do for us. He also taught me never to lie to my daughter about what happens to them.
As powerful as it was, my experience with Lucky was primitive. It was my first step into the world of animals, only a shadowy view of what was to come. I don’t know if Lucky and I were really communicating. It felt that way, but how can I know looking back after so much time?
I cannot tell you one thing my teachers taught me in that school, but I can tell you every single thing I felt and learned in my time with Lucky. It is as sharp and fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
When Lucky left, I started wetting my bed again, but my life was not the same as it had been before. I was not the same. Once you have experienced love, trust, and companionship, you know it’s out there, even if you can’t always find it. Even then, I believed he had come to me with a purpose, and for a reason.
Lucky showed me there was feeling beyond my isolation and loneliness, love beyond my sadness and fear. He came to show me that I had more strength and resilience in me than I realized. After all, it was me who got the dog in the end. I always believed that was really his purpose in coming to me, to show me what was possible, even in a schoolyard, alone in the dark, surrounded by bigger kids—that in the face of all that, I could do it. I could get the dog. And I did.