I-love-you-and-also-do-you-have-cheese?

Version 2So I was going to post this longish essay on J.M. Coetzee, but I thought instead, I’d tell you about my dog.

That’s him on the right there. Odie. He’s a seven-year-old rescue beagle who has fans in various places (I’ve come out of shops to find strangers taking selfies with him). And he’s hungry. Oh my heavens. Always hungry.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Odie lately, because:

One: We’ve moved from Australia to the USA, and he’s my wingman. I work at home, and he watches me snack;

Two: We’ve been going to the vet a lot, due to his excessive peeing, and

Three: I’ve been reading the novel Disgrace, by Coetzee.

I grew up with dogs. Big ones, the kind best greeted via the front door, with a family member (never alone, over the back fence). Sometimes, they tried to take my food. Other times, they took me for a walk. The death of one of them broke my brother’s heart.

But I didn’t think I was a dog person. I preferred the screw-you attitude of cats. There was something clean about it.

It would suit me now to say ‘I was a cat person, until I had this dog’—but that’s crap. I’ve been in denial. Decades after my family imploded, my father’s German Shepherd would cry with joy when she realised it was me walking down the driveway. She’d do this butt-wiggling dance of excitement, her eczema-blighted, old-dog back swinging from side to side, keeping time with her tail.

It was delightful, of course. But as a young adult I just couldn’t process that amount of feeling—that much need—from another being.

The truth is, I still struggle with it. The I-love-you stare of a dog can bring even the most hard-hearted of us undone (even when it’s really I-love-you-and-also-do-you-have-cheese). But I’m not so scared of feelings now. The companionable wag of Odie’s tail when we’re out walking makes my heart sing. It’s mawkish, ridiculous. But there it is.

Being with Odie—especially in a new place—means having someone on my team. When I stand awkwardly in the park, he’s right there, ready to be talked about. He watches me resignedly (or perhaps he’s napping?) while I try to work out how to get a doctor’s appointment, where to buy a car, how to get a driver’s licence. And he’s shared (vicariously, of course) my joy at the sheer range and deliciousness of chocolate-coated caramel on offer in this part of the USA.

Odie and I have been spending some extra time together lately, what with all those trips to the vet. After a couple of Olympic-sized pees in the house (I still just—can’t—even), the vet wanted to run some tests. Ultrasounds, blood tests, urine (guess who had to follow him out in the morning with a large disposable cup?). As they ruled out infections and kidney failure, Odie just kept looking at me, panting in that way I choose to interpret as a smile.

It’s kind of terrible, the power one has over a dog. And it’s made worse by the trusting way they look at you. This is something J.M. Coetzee touches on in the novel I mentioned. Disgrace, which is set in post-apartheid South Africa, is about a professor who loses his job after he has an affair with a student. He moves to his daughter’s landholding, where he begins volunteering at an animal shelter.

Of course there’s far too much in Disgrace to do it justice in two paragraphs. But one thing that resonated with me was the way the protagonist’s attitude towards animals changes, the more of them he has to put to sleep. He doesn’t harden towards the dogs, as you might expect. He treats them with increasing respect, even as he knows they will die (and that he will help them).

What does this mean, and why does it tug so much on the heartstrings? I think it’s something to do with love and power. Because the truth is that I love Odie at least in part because he has to love me back. He knows I’m the boss (even if he sometimes chooses not to listen). It’s simple: he trusts me, and I have to live up to that.

Of course, by the fifth hour-long return trip to the vet, I wasn’t feeling my generous best. But I’m pleased to report that Odie’s pee problem doesn’t appear to be too serious—he’s on medication which has reduced his pee volume, and helped our new rug remain (relatively) unscathed. I mean I still had to nonchalantly catch this morning’s pee, and will need to remember his twice-daily medicine, monitor his water intake. And I can’t pretend this doesn’t sometimes feel farcical, when there are so many humans on the planet who don’t have access to clean water, let alone medicine.

But the fact remains that in this small area of influence (his life) I’m responsible. It’s my job to look after him, and luckily, I’m able to. I mean look at that face. Doesn’t it just bore into your soul, asking that you please at least try not to be crap?

And also maybe could you get up, and fetch him a snack?