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Chapter 1; How To Know Your Purpose
from my novel-in-process, How To Train Your Human
I lay on the cool, tile floor waiting for Mom to finish her shower. There’s an ache in my mouth. I stand again, circle my spot, like my ancestors, but here I don’t need to tamp down the underbrush, feel for rocks, or thorns, or scare away insects. My enemies from my wolf lineage are no longer a threat. Still, I spin and spin. Maybe the myth is true. I’m searching for the earth’s magnetic field. I’m not feeling it, so I give up. When I do plop down, I prefer my nose to be upwind; I’ll be the first to smell danger. But here, in my Mom’s bathroom I plunk down on my other side and rest my jowl on the chilly tile, hoping for relief. The pain is persistent. I groan as Mom turns off the cascade of water.
“What’s up, Alfie?”
Mom dries off and I notice her cancer boob. It’s bright red. It looks like a giant radish. Mom rubs special creams on it, waves her hand over the area as though that effort will create dry heat. She slides her arms into a bra, t-shirt, and finishes her outfit with sweatpants. She kneels on the floor and looks me over, feeling my body and head. She runs her hand around my mouth, and sees the red splotches left on her hand.
“Alfie, you’re bleeding.”
I try to lick her hand. The iron in the blood smells enticing. She lifts my lip and looks carefully at my teeth. I want to lick the concern away from her face. She’s been through so much. I don’t want to add a vet appointment to her to-do list.
“Oh sweetie. Your tooth doesn’t look right.”
It doesn’t feel right either. But I like that she called me, sweetie. That’s a name she’s only reserved for her human kids. What does that mean? After eleven years am I as equally loved as her human offspring? Does she consider me an honorary human?
At the vet clinic we see Dr. Johnson. He is a kind man with silver fuzzy hair. His skin is brown like the liver parts of my fur. (I still don’t understand why someone decided that the color of an English Springer Spaniel is “liver” and white, and not “brown” and white.) Dr. Johnson determines that a teeth cleaning will help me, but I may need tooth extractions. They won’t know how many until I’m under the influence of anesthesia. This doesn’t sound pleasant to me. I like my teeth. I love to gnaw on a bone, chew my food and snarl at the UPS man and people with political fliers. Mom growls at the latter with me. Snarling won’t be very intimidating if I don’t have any teeth. I will look like the before picture for a dental advertisement. I think about Murray, the first Springer Spaniel of the family Gluberman. My predecessor lived to be 17. Did he have fur and teeth problems when he was eleven like me? Why did he need 17 years on Earth? What was his mission, and did he accomplish it? When the Big Dog in the sky came to me in a dream, He showed me a library of dog diaries he keeps. The books shimmered and glistened like a pond at dusk. Maybe when I return to the sky, I can read Murray’s story. I guess BD wants to keep all our missions separate, and top secret.
I wake up in a cage with a plastic cone around my head and my mouth feels numb. I can’t move my tongue. It hangs out of my mouth and I can’t curl it back in. I blink trying to focus. The room is a blur, but I can make out glass containers on top of a counter and hear the terrier next to me barking. I’m too tired to speak. Anyway, I can’t feel my mouth. After ten minutes or so my tongue shifts. Slowly it wakes up. I coil it back inside my mouth, feeling for my teeth but there is a thick wet cloth tucked into my cheek. The compressed rag is stuck like an old pasty raw hide bone, and I can’t maneuver it forward. It won’t dislodge with a cough either.
“Alfie, you’re awake. We had to remove seven teeth,” says a nice round lady with purple hair.
I try to lift my head.
“You can do it, buddy. Wake up.”
I manage to sit up like the Sphinx in Egypt, except the cone knocks against the cage door.
“I’ll call your Mom to pick you up. The doctor will be in soon but I’m sure you’re fine to go home.”
I lay back down and close my eyes. Whatever medicine they gave me makes me sleepy.
I’m home. The same plastic cone from the Vet Clinic is threaded with ribbon to my collar. I paw at it, but it’s double tied. With seven teeth gone and stitched gums Mom says I’m only allowed soft food. She grinds it in the human blender where she makes her protein shakes. I’m excited my meal will come from a human appliance, just like a person. My tail wags as she places my bowl in front of me. I sit and stay. Then, upon her command I get to eat. But I’m hindered. The cone slaps against the floor and my snout doesn’t reach the food. Mom removes it for my meal. I’m free again. I gobble up the mushy chicken, rice, and broth within seconds and Mom threads the cone ribbon back through my collar.
“I’m sorry, Alfie. You’re not allowed to chew on anything. We can’t take a chance.” Her eyes linger on me. That concern is back like she knows something.
Dad comes home and we have a relaxing evening together. I curl up between them on the couch which has dappled blemishes from my slobber. They watch humans on the television hung above the fireplace. I glance up and see an animal. I don’t understand how a dog can run while it’s hanging on the wall, but I’m intrigued.
During commercials, Mom and Dad’s conversation is minimal. “How was work?” “The same.” “How’s Alfie?” Mom shrugs and takes Dad’s hand. My torso becomes a table as they rest their clasping hands on me.
The TV show fills the void for the rest of the evening.
When it’s time for sleep, Mom lays out a towel on the bed so I don’t get blood on her white comforter that’s already discolored from dad’s sweat and the time I ate a dead baby bird. The regurgitation scent lingers.
After three days I’m still grumbling. The pain is excruciating but I don’t want to worry Mom with loud crying. Mom just recovered from a different kind of ache. She had to have a bump cut away from under her skin and then six weeks of special treatments she described as the “sun’s fallout on her chest.” That round ball above is hot and powerful. I know this from our summers in Massachusetts. Three big bowls of water and running through the sprinklers was the only relief. Air-conditioning too, but that meant being indoors. Most dogs prefer the outdoors. It’s been our nature for thousands of years.
I wish my teeth weren’t misbehaving. Mom needs a break.
“What’s up, sweetie,” Mom says.
She lifts my lip and hers curls up too as she scrutinizes my choppers.
“That does not look right,” she says. “Deja Vous.”
I heard Mom say those non-English words when she came down with the depression. It first happened when my human brother and sister, who are twins, were born. Mom told me it was called Post Partum Depression. Then when Juliette and Henry left for college, Mom said, “Deja Vous,” and called it “Post Nest depression.” A few months later she got the cancer in her boob.
“This reminds me of when Pam’s dog had an abscess,” Mom says through a sigh. “Why now?” I know she’s not asking me.
Back to the vet. Dr. Johnson concludes that I do have an abscess. They must perform another procedure. I come home with a tube hanging from my check. The pus from the abscess drains into my cone. Mom cleans out the muck every twenty minutes or so from my cone. It becomes gooey and messy.
I fall asleep on the couch while Mom cooks dinner and BD comes to me in a dream. He tells me I’ve completed my mission. I’ve trained my humans. I whimper in my dream. I don’t want to go back to the sky yet. I love my family and Mom calls me, sweetie. BD says I must make room for a new buddy. The family Gluberman will have another Springer Spaniel after me who will have different lessons to teach.
“Why can’t I continue to train them, like Murray?”
“You are one of the lucky, dogs,” says BD, “You finished your mission early. You bravely accomplished the boldest task any dog could do. You took on your family’s hardships and their emotions and made them your own. That’s why you’re sick now. That’s why I’m calling you home. Don’t worry. I will send your spirit to them for visits. They will know it’s you, especially your Mom. You have a special connection.”
Although I was sobbing in my dream, I woke up comforted. Mom is petting me.
“Alfie, you were having a bad dream,” Mom says.
Bad and good, I want to say. But I can’t talk. Besides training my humans I wanted to become a real member of their family. Oh, to be human with all its expressions, complexities, and shortcomings.
“Don’t leave me, Alfie,” Mom says.
I perk up. Was she in my dream too? Did she hear BD’s forewarning? I climb into Mom’s lap; my cone knocks against her head. She wraps her arms around me and doesn’t let go.