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Dog Days

Though we’ve been treating my daughter’s anxiety for a while, I get fresh worry when I see the violet smudges under her eyes. There’s a weariness in the slump of her shoulders and the way she’s ignoring the cat weaving in and out of her ankles. I’ve never seen her this leached of energy, but it’s wholly recognizable to me from my own experience. You get tired of being scared, so you start to not care about anything. Clinically, they refer to this as depression. I feel it as heartbreak.

My daughter feels terrible that she is sucking up so much energy and causing so much concern. Even in despair, she is considerate. During a talk with her therapist, she shares her guilt. The therapist tells a story: One day she was walking with her mother when the most terrifying dog in the neighborhood sprang at her. It growled and snapped and threatened to bite. Her mother, whom she describes as a tiny, cheerful woman, ran to her daughter and put herself in between the wild, snarling dog and her precious girl. “This is what parents do,” the therapist explains. “They will do anything to protect their children.”

This story lodges itself in me as a kind of splinter I can’t stop picking at. Images of my bleeding body lying at the feet of my already troubled child spin in my midnight thoughts. But, for what it’s worth, I think I would protect my child from an attack by a wild dog. This isn’t grandstanding. It’s just an assumption based on past behavior because I once protected my dog, Athena, from a dog attack. On the beach by our house, Athena was off leash, and we were walking toward the stairs that take us back to the coastal trail. A wild, snarling dog hurled himself down a length of beach and leapt on Athena, snapping and growling. Impulsively, I knelt down and wrapped my arms around Athena. I remember the dog’s open jaws in my face. His lips curled high over white teeth. I heard someone scream. Then the dog was gone. I don’t remember seeing it go. I might’ve closed my eyes. As I shakily made my way to the steps, a man stopped me, his expression pained, and said, “Please don’t ever do anything like that again. I honestly believed I was going to watch your face get ripped off.” I just nodded and grasped Athena’s leash with shaking hands.

When Athena and I got home, we slumped together in a heap in the yard. I ran my trembling hands over her twitching body, reassuring myself that she was unhurt. Her athletic heart raced wildly against my palm. Having accidentally performed this experiment, I can tell you this wasn’t courageous self-sacrifice. It was just stupidity moving fast. But I still take it as a pass on the therapist’s ridiculous test.

When I ask my daughter what is at the heart of her suffering, she is perched on the end of her bed. She turns her attention from the sunny window to me. “Everything just looks like chaos. Out of control. I don’t understand how to live with it.”

I’m raising a preteen girl who has learned one punishing lesson after another. I watched her face crack open in a sob when I described the death of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer. She read Malala and learned that a girl was shot in the head because she argued girls should be allowed to go to school. Visitors to the trail and beach near our house often wandered maskless in close quarters in the midst of a raging pandemic. “Why break a rule that could get someone killed?” My daughter asked. Words pour out of me. My answer to every question about every horror more inadequate than the last.

My daughter’s therapist calls me to discuss my daughter’s progress or lack thereof. “Doesn’t everyone go through periods of sensitivity?” I hear the edgy desperation in my own voice. “I mean, doesn’t everyone get overwhelmed by the world sometimes?” She answers me with another story. Again about a dog. In fairness, this may show some insight on her part because I am, obviously, a dog person. When she was growing up, she had a Labrador. A big, dumb, goofy dog. Once, she made him a kind of birthday cake with meat. She lit the meat pie with a single burning candle. The dog ate it. Fire and all. He was fine, she tells me. But, she explains, some people are like that Labrador. They would eat the lit candle over and over and hardly feel the pain. I come to find this dog story even more upsetting than the last one.

I wish I had religion. It would feel good to tell my daughter that there is a grand plan, that everything works out in the end, that on the other side everything will make sense. But I believe none of it. It would be good to be happy-go-lucky like the stupid Labrador in the therapist’s story and assure my daughter that every pain is but a passing moment. But, metaphorically speaking, I remember every lit candle I’ve ever swallowed.

Here is another dog story. This one is mine: Athena was born on the streets of Taiwan. She was moved between shelters as a puppy before being adopted by a couple in the Bay Area, where she was shipped. They gave her up. She went to a foster home, which she ran away from. For twenty-one days she roamed the wilds of Sunnyvale, California. After she was found, she was placed with another foster family. I adopted her from them a few weeks later. She was two years old, desperately skinny, and she started shaking whenever I touched her. She was like a ghost in my house. She’d follow me around on softly clicking nails, stopping when I stopped, keeping her distance. She never barked. She ate quickly. She retreated to her crate in the evenings. Slowly, I believe because I was the most consistent deliverer of food and walks, she began to sit next to me in the evening when I watched TV. Eventually, she came to sprawl half in my lap, her belly to the sky. She started to bark violently at the approach of the mailman. She whined when it took me too long to get her out for a walk. Now, when I take her down to the beach I watch her shoot out from the leash like a cannonball fired and sprint a length of sand before throwing her narrow body like an arrow to the sky at the arcing flight of a crow. When I call her name, she hurtles toward me, elongating her body in an aerodynamic sprint.

Athena is still afraid of a long list of things: feet, groups of dogs traveling together, large men, herding dogs, water, thunder, car rides, fireworks, and so on. We usually have to confront at least one of these every time we leave the house. It could be a dog that looks at her wrong, sending her into a spasm of defensive barking, or a man who leans over to pat her head, causing her to take five quick steps back as if she’s inviting him into a dance. She lives in steady contact with her fear. But, for a period of minutes, her confidence in her body is limitless. Her capacity for full-blooded exhilaration is entirely undiminished.

The world isn’t just chaotic, as my daughter says frightens her, it is also often ugly, cruel, and bitterly idiotic. I know I’m not just seeing my daughter develop some random set of anxieties, I’m witnessing a loss of innocence. The protective veil of childhood is being stripped away and the world is being revealed in all its bitter complexity. I don’t have any answers, and I won’t pretend. What would be the point when she can see right through me? I take her hand in mine. Her fingers are almost as long as my own. The dog and I can’t cure her pain, but I need her to be reminded that joy, tethered to nothing but a passing moment, is still possible. I look into her tired, troubled eyes and say, “Let’s take the dog for a walk.”

–Emily McNally


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6 thoughts on “Dog Days

  1. Oh Emily, I want to hold you all in a loving embrace and dog cuddles and snuggles and sandy paws. We are here for you whenever you want a couple of furry buddies for a beach walk or if you need a nice stick.

  2. Emily, I love everything you write but this is particularly poignant and wonderful. Many hugs from Mississippi to you and your beautiful family.

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