A new addition to the pack.

A new puppy is an extraordinary teacher, especially for these times. I’ve recently been claimed by a little one, which I’ll get to, and that’s made me think about having been a somewhat reluctant pet owner at various stages of my life.

As a child, I moved far too much with my mother for us to have a pet for long, but that didn’t keep me from trying to rescue stray kittens I found on the street. I remember those strays as mangy but cute, frightened and brave. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I could see parallels between our states of being, between my story and theirs.

Each of us had been left out in the cold, sometimes literally; we went without the basics of warm, adequate clothing and shelter and warmth. For want of attention and protection, I projected my emotions onto them and it felt like we might perish. And finally — though this last part took a few decades for me to see in myself as clearly as I saw it in animals — we each had the potential to be great, if only we had the benefit of inside, of warmth and a little loving.

My first real pet was Snoopy, a black and white stray cat, that in my estimation absolutely behaved like that writerly dog. Snoopy was attentive and kind, slightly mischievous, but ultimately a greater expense than we could afford without a budget with room for another mouth to feed. When we were evicted from our Bronx apartment, Mom put Snoopy back on the street.

After college, when I left New York for Houston, a classmate from there told me about some kittens in need of a home. My first instinct was probably the best one — to say no for once. I was 22 at the time, living in Texas and working at the Houston Chronicle at all hours, taking buses and taxis until I (barely) learned how to drive. I lived in an efficiency — a smaller version of a studio with a bed that flipped down from the wall — in the Medical Center, across the street from a supermarket and about a mile from the old Astrodome.

I don’t remember how much money I was making, but it wasn’t a lot. I taught myself to cook using dishes friends and mentors sent to me in the mail. All of this to say I did not have money or time enough for a cat. But I fell in love, which is actually pretty easy for me, honestly, with a tabby kitten. He came home with me as Heathcliff.

Heathcliff was not the best kitten a girl could ask for. It did not help that I was learning how to be a reporter through a journalism fellowship that would require me to move every six months for two years. Maybe while we were in Houston he was relatively good, but when it came time to pull up roots and move to East Texas, things got dicey very fast.

My next rotation in the fellowship was in Beaumont, 90 miles east. I’d just learned to drive, predominantly in a Sears parking lot and with the benefit of a shared company car, and purchased a 1998 new-to-me Corolla. I did not have any kind of container for Heathcliff — I was a New Yorker, remember, who grew up without a car, so all the accessories required for transporting a pet were completely unimaginable to me.

Heathcliff made the relatively straight shot more dynamic, shall we say, by meandering coyly across the dashboard before I could convince him to mostly stay in the backseat for the hour and a half long drive. My second memory of him included my fervent praying that he would not destroy the furniture I rented for my one-bedroom apartment. That prayer was more or less answered but I did come home after a night out at one of the only pubs in town that had $5 steak night to find that he’d ripped a kitten-sized hole in the screen that essentially seemed to toss my security deposit right out of the same window.

Cats, at least, knew how to keep things exciting. My other entertainment was a 24-hour Walmart.

I was, as a child and well into my twenties, an exceedingly lonely person. It’s interesting to think about this now, in a time when so many of us are isolated, when before the pandemic, there was already talk of a loneliness epidemic. I did have the benefit, as a creative and a writer, of having a vivid and well-nurtured inner life; this is a more pleasant way of saying I had a lot of time on my hands and I spent a tremendous amount of time alone. It reminds me of what I once read John Edgar Wideman say about his writing, that he did it mostly to keep the loneliness at bay.

A pet, of course, is one way to take the sharp edges off of loneliness. A creature that requires your attention can at times feel like the rawest, most primal part of you calling out for play, food, cuddling, attention. I’m here, the pet/your id/your need says. Pay attention.

I learned from these first pets what entertaining, kind and funny creatures pets could be. They were also expensive, even if I couldn’t imagine how to get all of the extras, like collars, tags and outfits like some folks. (This was in the days of MapQuest and Netscape, so the Internet had not yet evolved to be the ubiquitous network it is now.) The food and cat litter and bowls and blankets and toys and scratching posts were a lot to add.

For the six months I was in Beaumont, I made it work. But when it was time for me to move to the West Coast and I decided to drive, I left Heathcliff with a co-worker in East Texas. I knew he would not abide a cross-country drive with all my earthly possessions and I wasn’t sure either of us would survive that, so I decided to maybe skip all the pet stuff for awhile until I got settled.

I didn’t end up with cats again — yes, plural — until I was working in the Bay Area. I’d been hired at the end of my fellowship as a full-time reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and pretty early on, favored the East Bay over San Francisco for many reasons I should write about in another essay. I’d been working on a reporting project related to the violence in Oakland (“Oakland in the Crossfire”). This would have been around 2003.

The bureau chief found a pair of kittens behind the Albertson’s on Lakeshore Drive, up the street from where I lived near Lake Merritt. I named them James and Zora and they were two of the cutest and baddest kittens in the world.

They broke wine glasses and chewed computer cords and made muffins on my chest to wake me up every morning and kept one another company during my long hours at work. My friends teased that I was one cat away from becoming a cat lady.

To be honest, I had been single so long that the cat lady label seemed as good a distinction as any. But the Bay Area was not a place for me. I could feel, over time, how much of an East Coaster I was. The Bronx girl in me was too blunt and direct for these places.

The beauty of the Bay was not enough to keep the culture and the lack of Black visibility from feeling like too much. So, I left the kittens and moved to Texas. To horrify my smug colleagues, I half-joked about getting a pick-up truck and a gun.

In Austin, I focused my first five years on mostly going to graduate school and working. I worked nonstop, multiple jobs, even when I was also trying and failing (as I had as a pet owner) at maintaining a relationship. I don’t remember when I saw that Sandra Bullock movie about how you need to be able to keep a plant alive for awhile, then a pet, before you could work your way up to a relationship, but I also killed house plants, so there was that.

When our inevitable break up finally broke us and I had my house back to myself, the first thing I realized when I was back to being by myself was how very empty my life was. It had people and work and jobs in it, but no vitality, really, or wonder. Those felt like aspects of my imagination, and I longed to find them in the real world.

At the end of 2009, a colleague mentioned a friend who had to give his dog away. He had two of them, a brother and sister pair named Brutus and Cleo. But I had never owned a dog, let alone two very big ones, so I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen. Then Brutus ran away, and that left this cat lady with the new love of her life in the form of a mastiff shepherd mix named Cleo.

Cleo at my friend Andrea’s house, where she had lots of company.

For reasons I’ve written about for Bark magazine after Cleo died, I have generally had a strange self-judgment regarding dog ownership as a Black woman. Some of it had to do with a kind of socialization of pets and dogs as being connected to whiteness. Over the years, too, having lived in areas that gentrified, the presence of more dogs than children seemed to be a signal of a fundamental cultural shift where I lived that was not likely to shift back.

Cleo more or less helped me put a lot of that to the side. She had amber eyes that looked lit from within and a shiny brindle coat. She did not bark so much as she howled in disapproval in the direction of things once in awhile. She had a bump on her head like Marmaduke, the cartoon hound I adored back when I spent time with newspaper funny pages. Cleo had lots of endearing traits and ways; among them, she had a way of pointing her muzzle at cats that let me know she liked them liked them, and a distinct repulsion to water, even the serene waters of Lady Bird Lake.

We had three solid and great years together which also happened to be some of the hardest years of my life. She was nearly 10 years old and toward the end of her life, the gray on her muzzle grew more distinct by the day. But she was the easiest part of my life by far, especially then. She was there with her tapping, giant tail and sad eyes when I was shocked by my father’s death by suicide and then again when my mother became ill with terminal Stage IV cervical cancer and died about a year later. I cared more about continuing to write so I could feed Cleo when I left newspapers than I did about whether I would be able to feed myself. When I quit my job, I retreated even from online life, which had been a main feature of my life since at least 2001. But because everyone in my life who called themselves a friend knew Cleo, they knew I would be OK, that I wouldn’t go too far.

For the Bark piece, I wrote about much of what Cleo taught me — some of it was that she taught me not only how to be more outwardly friendly (like, expressive, I guess) towards others while also showing me how to be kind to her as well as to myself. Without having language for it a decade ago, she became my emotional support animal. So much of grief is wordless and personal. The deeply intimate, harrowing aspects of it rip the fabric of our spirits to the point we can only guess at what might repair it. The warmth of an animal, specifically a pack animal, reminded me that I was safe. Not from mortality — and I didn’t want that — but from being insignificant.

My loneliness has always stemmed from worrying about the many ways in which I was not seen or considered and the ways in which this might be lethal. I have never felt so melodramatic as to say that I might die of loneliness, but the vast weight of my loneliness at times has felt like it could crush me, that I could die from want of another. Dogs teach you to remember your presence is significant to at least a single other sentient being. They see you, and sometimes only you. That unconditional sight, friendliness, sweetness is an extraordinary gift.

That’s some of what I learned from Cleo whose front paws swelled up before I could get her to the vet to find out what was wrong. She died at my feet in my house. It was the year after my mother died, and only months before I decided it was time to finally leave Texas and come back east.

I guess I grew up thinking it was silly to mourn a dog, but the ache I felt when Cleo died had other deaths layered over it. There’s also the horrible truth that Black people are treated worse than dogs in life and in death and I have always felt that I needed to save my sympathies for us. But no, losing my companion was heartbreaking. It also gave me the freedom to finally move back to the East Coast. And I did not intend to ever have an animal again unless I could share the responsibility with a partner.

But that was not to be.

The morning after we first met, Bendito stared at me like WTF.

The puppy I have in my life now showed up on what would have been my mother’s 80th birthday while I was out with friends, crying and maybe four or five drinks to the wind. He had no tags or microchip. We searched frantically for his owners, to no avail.

He was warm but shaking, panting with his adorable wise face and crooked puppy teeth. First, he was in the arms of my friend, who gave him to me and then, when I held him, I couldn’t let him go. I did my due diligence to find whomever might have lost him.

And then, I went to get all the new puppy things wiser people than me said he needed, including a lot of wee wee pads for him to make my place his own. I called him Bendito that first night and it has stuck: My little blessing.

It has only been a couple of weeks. If I’m lucky, we have many more years to go. Already, I’ve learned so much: To be present. To listen closely. My word, there are so many more broken bottles on the streets of the Bronx than I have ever noticed before.

I have yet to find a Mutt Mitt station with actual bags to pick up dog crap; why are they even? I’ve learned also: To watch my step. To see all that crawls and skitters and flies from the ground. To walk and walk and run and jump and play. To mimic his bark. To cuddle and rest. To be more consistent. To give praise where it is due. To reinforce good behavior — his and my own — with a variety of treats.

This feels like a long list in a long year with days that stretch and bend and crack us open in new ways by the moment. It is also meditative. It is also a reminder that one other way of keeping loneliness at bay is to connect, even if it is from a distance.

On his first train ride with me, I mostly carried Bendito in my arms. A woman gushed and asked the main questions people do: How old is he? What kind of dog is that? These are questions I don’t have answers for, not yet. I know the vet will help.

The woman said her dog had recently died, and she was waiting for the right time to get another one. So many people want or already have puppies now, because of the pandemic. But a lot of breeders are sold out. There are waiting lists. “That’s nature right there,” she said, her eyes brightening with recognition. “Love,” another passenger said. I nodded to them both. I told her that my wish for her is that a puppy finds her before we got off the train. I spent the rest of the day thinking about the profound wisdom of finding myself once again with a natural love in my life at a time so fraught for all of us.

Writer, Journalist & Educator. Author of I Can Write The World & a few other books. joshundasanders.com

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