Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog
BY: Gregory A. Kompes
No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.
"Can you take Max?" the neighbor asked weeping. "You said you liked dogs, wanted a dog. We have to move and the new place doesn't allow them."
"But you've only had him a week," I said. Max sat attentively, taking in the scene.
The neighbor cried and nodded, stroking the puppy's head. "We've been transferred; no dogs allowed in the new place." Max looked at me expectantly. I agreed.
And so he moved in. Pillows were destroyed, shoes were eaten. I laughed at his antics.
He was housebroken within days. But he wasn't a Max. He never came when called and there were three other dogs named Max on my lower Manhattan block. I got a baby book and read names to my new companion. "Aaron? Able? Armand? Wallace? William?" No response. "Spot? Fido?" Did he chuckle? Amused, I read the names of the authors from the books on my shelf. "Irving?" Nothing. "Buck?" Nothing. "King?" Nothing. "Aristotle?" His head turned with expectant eyes. I said it again, "Aristotle." He came to me. "Aristotle!" He nudged his wet nose toward my face, licking my nose.
Aristotle learned tricks quickly. He patiently taught me a few tricks, too. He balanced, hindquarters solid, paws in the air, bone balanced on nose. He waited for the command, flipped the bone in the air and caught it. He barked on command. He shook the hands of newcomers whether asked or not.
Aristotle was an excellent judge and jury. Those he liked treated me well. I learned quickly to avoid those he avoided.
Tennis balls were his passion. He'd chase and retrieve them until collapsing from exhaustion. He'd show off with tricks in front of crowds, conning younger, more athletic types to throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball in the parks around New York City.
Then one night a whimper came from the corner. Aristotle was sprawled on the floor, trying desperately to get up when I called. I quickly found the number of the vet. The after-hour operator forwarded my call to the all-night clinic. "Get here fast," the voice said.
I wrapped Aristotle's small shaking body in a towel and headed out for a cab. We arrived at the animal hospital and were met at the door. A man and woman in medical garb whisked Aristotle from my arms, motioning me to follow into the stainless steel room. The air was cool and smelled of antiseptic. Blood was drawn; tubes inserted; questions asked; and frowns made.
No, I hadn't seen him eat anything strange. No, we hadn't been to the country. Yes, he was current on all his shots. No, it couldn't be a reaction to a shot because the last one was several weeks ago. No, I hadn't had him since he was born. No, I didn't know where he was born. I got him from a neighbor who'd left town.
The days passed. I visited before and after work and cried, petting his soft golden head as those enlarged brown eyes desperately looked at me. He kept trying to stand, to follow me out, but his attempts were futile.
I'd made it to adulthood without having my heart broken by another, but here, with him, I could feel the pain of heartbreak.
The doctors, some of the best in Manhattan, didn't know what was wrong. They ran more tests, tried different drugs, attempted experimental treatments. I feared the medical bills. I had trouble covering my own rent every month; how would I pay for all of this? "We make choices," I told myself. "It will all work out."
Six days had passed, but Aristotle was no better. When I went in after work that night, the vet asked if I wanted to take him home. "I think we've done all we can do," the doctor said.
He didn't look me in the eyes, but instead, looked into Aristotle's eyes. "He'll get better care with you over the weekend," the vet said.
"Will he...?" I choked back my tears. "If he's going to die, I don't want to take him home. Is he going to die?"
"I don't know," the vet said, but convinced me to take him.
I approached the desk to pay the bill and the young man behind the counter smiled warmly and said, "No charge."
"What? You've run all these tests. He's been here a week."
"We wanted to know what's wrong. We've never seen an animal sick like this. We know you can't afford all we've done; no one could. Just take him home and love him over the weekend."
Love? I'd never felt myself to be in love before. That's why I'd spent my life alone. I didn't know what love felt like. All this pain and worry? All this sorrow and grief? Is this what love feels like? We'd only been together a few weeks; doesn't love take longer? Can you really love an animal?
I pushed the furniture out of the way and we spent the weekend together on the living room floor. I stroked him and he nudged me. His big eyes looked deep into me. I hand-fed him food with the crushed antibiotics; he licked my hands clean.
I openly begged him not to die, not yet, not when I'd finally felt so deeply for another. I'd finally opened my heart to another soul; it couldn't be taken from me.
I awoke to a whimper. It was like that sound that started this ordeal. My heart filled with dread. Aristotle was standing by the door, begging to go outside. I quickly attached his leash, opened the door and he bound outside, barely making it to the street in time. He looked up at me and there was absolute relief in his eyes; was he mirroring me? It was a miracle, there's no other way to describe it.
When we walked into the vet's on Monday morning it was someone else's turn to cry. The doctors and technicians stopped what they were doing to see the miracle puppy prancing around the waiting room, showing off for everyone, as if nothing had happened. They took more blood and ran more tests for comparison. They never did find the source of the problem.
I knew what it was: Me.
Others may not understand, but I believe this was a test. This test proved I could love another. It proved my worthiness to possess this remarkable companion.
Love, I realized, is the simple willingness to share my life with others and to trust that we'll be there for one another no matter what happens. Aristotle helped me comprehend that love is an open heart, open to sorrow and to joy.