As I write, my dog Buddy is nestled next to me, wrapped in an afghan, asleep. It is a rare moment, this silence, the sweetness of my dog sleeping next to me, his quiet breath punctuating the air.
I don’t know how to write about a dog without sounding dorky or mushy, but I know this: Buddy may be a gift but he’s also a pain.
Some days, the line between the two is so thin, I cannot tell the difference.
Getting a dog was part of me accepting a certain idea about my place in life. I thought that a writer’s primary task was to be alone, and as a way to bargain with myself, and to silence the fear of loneliness, I let myself imagine having a dog, a quiet companion to walk and care for, who would warm my feet while I sat at my desk, writing.
And last spring, I was finally settled in my city, writing and teaching. My neighborhood was full of dogs, their owners striding confidently down the sidewalks, bright leashes in hand.
So I went to the Humane Society. My friend Caitlin pointed out a dog asleep in his crate, his nose freckled with red. We moved on. Then, after visiting another dog (who promptly peed on Caitlin and hid in a corner), I went back and took another look at Buddy. And I took him home.
Buddy is not what I expected, or even wanted, from a dog. Walking him is a chore. Disciplining him, most days, ends in failure. He’s expensive. A few weekends ago, he bit me so badly that I cried and had to leave the room.
What’s even more difficult is that, with Buddy, I see a version of myself that I also do not want—the short fuse when I yank his leash, the annoyance when I push him away from me, sometimes just a little more forcefully than I have to.
With Buddy, I see what is dark within me. I know what Jane Kenyon felt in her poem “Biscuit,” where she describes giving her dog a treat, what his trust reveals in her:
I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.
I betray my dog’s trust every time I yell at him, ignore him, mock him. Buddy is a mirror of my wickedness, and every day, he shows it to me, his dog smile innocent and unknowing, his tail bouncing high in the air.
Perhaps this is a harsh way to put it, but I feel the sting of truth in it. Wouldn’t each of us, if asked to give bread, offer something hard and bitter instead—at least when the other isn’t behaving as we’d like?
We betray each other daily, and it takes the reflection of the other—friend, dog, child, beloved—to make us see what we do.
What is overturned in my life is the notion that I can go it alone, that I can spend my days without the crucible of loving someone. When it comes to Buddy, the line between pain and gift is not only thin—it turns out to be a good place for me to inhabit. It refines, burns, polishes, renews. It makes me ask for mercy.
“Buddy,” I find myself saying, “I am sorry for that. Let’s start over.”
It is foolishness to ask a dog for forgiveness. It is also foolishness to assume that the dog is just a dog, or that our sins will go unnoticed. That our betrayals are too small to deserve much attention.
When I bought Buddy, I snapped his leash onto his collar, lifted his face to mine, and stared at him for a moment. It was as if I both knew and didn’t know what I was getting into, the way that all serious commitments feel—terrifying and bottomless and beautiful and absolutely necessary.
And here was this dog, who would teach me that grace sneaks through the ordinary, leaves you staring at a beagle, who holds your sock in his mouth, grinning.
And what can you do? You reach out your hand, gently, firmly, and you pet the dog, letting love draw you in.