Leftover paper Easter grass is lots of fun when you’re a little bird.
I’m alone a lot. This is not a problem for me. Usually. I like being alone to work. I must have some measure of alone time to read and write. But there is such a thing as too much alone.
When I was a child I planned to live alone when I grew up. Well, not alone exactly. I would live with animals—a horse or two, dogs of many breeds (all of which I had already named), perhaps a mountain lion . . .
I’d live in Montana where I would enjoy a vast view of mountains and forests and fields stretching off in every direction, a wisp of chimney smoke on a dim, far hillside the only indication of habitation in sight. I would heat my small cabin with a woodstove and read by candlelight.
No humans ever factored into my plans, not even my own family, not even as visitors. No means of supporting myself did either. Though I knew with certainty that I’d be running what would amount to a modest animal sanctuary, I never considered that I might need to buy dog food or pay a veterinarian or use a phone or flush a toilet.
One of the special qualities of childhood—one that I miss—is the unabashed embrace of total impracticality. No need to bother oneself about such petty concerns as money when there was fun to be had outdoors.
Another childhood tendency I miss is utter ignorance of the law of non-contradiction. At the same time I envisioned a solitary life of riding across foothills with an eclectic pack of happy dogs at my steed’s heels, I imagined I would be also be a noted explorer and photographer for National Geographic, a bestselling author, a chart-topping singer, and once, after watching Elvis Stojko doing backflips and landing quadruple toe loops (often while wearing tight leather pants), an Olympic gold medal figure skater, despite the fact I’d never ice skated in my life.
Whatever I did, I was confident of enjoying simultaneous worldwide fame and complete anonymity and solitude. Perhaps I thought my many admirers would write me letters that I would pick up once a month at a distant post office in a town with one blinking red traffic light.
I don’t think I have to tell you that none of this came to be. I have never owned a horse or a mountain lion. I have had one dog of mixed breed that already had a name. My small back yard looks into the back windows of a TV news station on a corner serenaded by the constant din of traffic on the four lane highway to the north and the expressway to the east.
I’ve never even visited Montana.
Except for the couple months leading up to my wedding, I’ve never lived alone.
Not long after Elvis Stojko captured the silver medal in Lillehammer (damn you, Alexei Urmanov), I met a funny, self-assured, dark-eyed young man during the auditions for Arsenic and Old Lace at my high school and thoughts of living alone vaporized. Five years later we were married, he was in seminary, and I was finishing a delightfully impractical undergraduate degree in English. Soon after that, we started having mice as pets. Eight years later, he was a pastor, I was working from my home office, and we had a baby, a cat, and a dog.
Our cat had to move due to our son’s allergies. Our dog died last month. Our son is in school.
And during the day, I am alone. Alone in a way I had not imagined as a child. Because in those childhood plans, there were always animals present.
I recall now why I wanted to get a dog in the first place. When we moved in 2005, I began working from home. Alone. Yes, I had the cat, but cats aren’t dogs. They don’t smile at you. They don’t initiate interaction until it’s really inconvenient for you (somehow they know). If I talked to our cat and got any sort of look in response it certainly wasn’t one that invited further discussion. Yes, she was amusing at times, in the same way an out-of-control friend might be—she made you laugh now and then, but mostly you were just waiting for her to destroy something dear to you.
I’m not sure about our son, because he doesn’t talk about it much, but I know my husband and I are feeling the loss of our old dog more than we expected we would. When I come home from my weekly visit to the office, I expect someone there to be happy to see me. But no one is. When I come downstairs in the morning I still expect there will be someone down there waiting for me, someone to say good morning to. But there isn’t. When something falls on the floor at the dinner table, we have to stop ourselves from calling out Sasha’s name so she can earn her keep. There’s no one to lick melted ice cream out of our bowls or syrup from a breakfast plate.
As I work in my home office my normal rhythm of breaks to let the dog out and in has been broken. I find myself standing up and walking into the dining room where our dog spent so much of her time in the past couple years and then kind of wandering around a moment. Why did I get up again?
I was going to run my own private animal sanctuary. Now the only life in this house during the day other than me is a rosemary plant I’m trying to overwinter inside and three freshwater puffer fish up in my son’s aquarium. But they aren’t much for conversation.
We’re still giving it time before we make any decisions…but our hearts seem to be inclining toward a new pet. Maybe sooner rather than later.
Earlier this week we had to say goodbye to our beautiful, sweet-natured Sasha. This picture was taken three winters ago, when she was already 13 (and when we actually had snow on the ground). Even then I thought she must be living on borrowed time as the breeds that make her up (German Shepherd and Samoyed) had average lifespans around 10 and 12 years. Had she made it to February, she would have been 16.
Sasha came to live with us when she was six, less than five months after we moved into our house in a new city where I didn’t know anyone and I was now working from home with a cat who didn’t seem to care if I was there unless her bowl was getting empty. Sasha has been a constant fixture in my life since then, always parking herself right behind my rolling desk chair (and freaking out when I moved it back to stand up).
However, for the past year, she had rarely moved from the dining room rug and slept most of the day. She had developed a deep and persistent cough that only went away when I could get the vet to give me prednisone for her. Her back legs had grown weak and she struggled to get in and out of the house (each trip to go to the bathroom meant several stairs both ways). She fell more and more, developed a wound by her ear that would not heal, and her belly and side were covered in little tumors, one of which had grown considerably in the past year. Hardly four days could go by without her getting sick.
Last year we had to re-home our longtime cat due to our son’s allergies. And now without our dog the house is very quiet and empty when everyone is gone but me. Zach and I talked before about trying to be pet-free for a while (except for my son’s fish). But we’ve already begun talking about potentially getting a parrot. We’ll have to do a lot of research before making that kind of commitment. But it’s hard to envision a future with no pets.
In the meantime, we miss our sweet old dog.
My 15-year-old shepherd mix Sasha is back on prednisone for a cough and on some pain med to see if it helps her mobility with her weakening back legs. As we think about the fact that this will probably be her last year, my husband and I have been discussing whether or not to get perhaps a parakeet or cockatiel so we will not be left petless when the time comes, now that our cat has gone on to another home.
Beyond the obvious benefit to my allergic son, not having a cat in the house has made more than a few things much better. Mainly, I can now lay out fabric on my sewing table and not have it become encased in a layer of fine cat fur when it is mistaken as a good place to take a nap. A close second this time of year is the fact that I will be able to start vegetable seeds in the house and will not come into the sunroom one day to find that all of my baby plants have been beheaded, half-digested, and then regurgitated in a yellow puddle on the floor. I’m also anticipating the possibilities of cut flowers all summer long.
A contained, non-furry pet who could be brought to a friend’s house when we’re out of town is far preferable to us at this point in life than another dog, even if it were smaller and less sheddy. Non-free-ranging animals are easier in some ways.
What do you think? Anyone had a bird as a pet before? What was your favorite (or least favorite) pet?
In my house, I must daily keep vigilant against pernicious assailants bent on disruption and destruction. These assailants take different forms and attack from various angles, so even the slightest relaxation of awareness on my part will inevitably result in atrophy and, left unchecked long enough, catastrophe.
I’m talking, of course, about fur and ants.
Fur and ants are, respectively, zombies and alien robots. One attacks so slowly and dumbly you don’t even realize it is upon you until it’s too late; the moment you recognize one clump of fur is the moment you realize that you are surrounded. The other attacks suddenly, with disconcerting, otherworldly speed should you fail to get that one errant tomato seed into the trash or your idiot cat (one of two moronic creatures producing zombies in your house) insists on leaving food in her bowl so she can’t see the bottom of it.
An effective weapon against both fur zombies and alien ant robots is a powerful vacuum, and I wield mine with stone-cold heartlessness. Preventative measures like brushes and traps help, but you cannot rely on them to keep you safe from invasion. At best, they are like an overwrought and underequipped border patrol, attempting to do their job but ever aware of its ultimate futility.
When it comes down to it, all you can do is buckle down, man the guns, and wait it out until the enemy is spent–or you’re defeated.