Saturday 8 September 2018

Four legged friends

This is Inis.

The lead up to him becoming part of my life is complicated, vast and when I recount the details, seemingly unbelievable.

I have always had dogs in my life. As a toddler, I would frequently go missing several times a day, curly hair and full-cheeked face, only to be found curled up in the dog box with the first love of my life, our Springer Spaniel Gretel. Her black fur back was the perfect natural radiator and her house had a comforting scent of warmth and nature and of course, mud. I'd have a snooze in there and wake up feeling peachy. Gretel was the best for a quiet, no-fuss cuddle.

Sally came next. Gretel suddenly looked old and tired next to her. She still remained loving and loved but as a kid of six or seven, Sally was a wonder of tail-chasing, zipping about energy-filled firecracker. If Gretel taught me comfort and support and that motherly love was possible to receive from any creature, Sally taught me that adventure was available on a daily basis, it all depended on your attitude and vision of any given moment. While I could count on Gretel to always be there, to be ready for a cuddle or a cry in her warm fur, for understanding gentle brown eyes and sympathetic, non-judgmental ear, Sally was the adventurous and spontaneous Aunt who was just as loving but in unreliable doses because she was always itching for the next experience.

Frida was the anxiety laden, wiry German Pointer. She was the first dog or living being that I heard the word "anxiety" used to describe. At the time, I didn't know I had the same trait, even though it wouldn't begin to build up until my early teens. I only understood it to be negative. My mam was never her greatest fan. She had assigned the anxiety label, probably because Frida was a bag of nerves on the best of days. She didn't know how to relax, she slept irregularly and always awoke with the lightest of sounds. She gave birth to close to ten puppies and sat on a few, killing them. She looked bored and exasperated when she breast fed, as though she were an independent career woman suddenly clamped down to the level of mere mortals who stayed at home to breastfeed. The contrast between Sally warmly snuggling and caressing her pup and looking at him both with worry and adoring love, and Frida's nervous, eye darting tension was palpable. Frida would get bored of feeding. She would get up and walk out of her bed with three or four puppies still hanging on like perilous rock climbers over a ledge.

I used to be angry with Frida. I couldn't understand why she couldn't just be a mother, why she had to be so selfish, why she didn't care. I never understood why Dad loved her so much and Mam didn't. Then I went with Dad one day out shooting with him and Frida. It was magical the way she simply morphed into a completely different being. She was focused and rational and loyal as she followed Dad's commands to "go left" into a corn field or "seek out" in a ditch between two farms. Then that magical moment when suddenly, for no apparent reason to a child of eight or nine, she just stopped. And pointed. Tail in line with the crest of her nose, jaw stiff and right leg raised and curled with nose pointing in the direction of the wild bird. It was at that moment that I understood Frida and learnt to respect her. She didn't want to be a mother. She was a breed that had a sole purpose; to point, not to procreate or cuddle or relax. She was born with a singular gift and goal. It provided her with structure and a sense of purpose that other areas of her life didn't contain. The stress of unknowing in her everyday life was anxiety inducing. Pointing, using her instincts and her natural talents, that's what gave her a sense of calm. Years later, Frida taught me that when anxiety become too much, get outside your seemingly suffocating monotony and go do what you feel really needs to be done. That's where the calm is.

We sold all of Frida's pups that time and she would later have another litter with one solitary pup: Hazel. Hazel was a golden-brown beauty. Her fur was silken soft. She was playful, obedient, curious, loving, a gentle and inquisitive spirit who loved to follow you around the house or the garden just to be part of your day. She taught me that there is nothing weak or wrong about inherent goodness and kindness. It can be disconcerting and unnerving for some to be around that kind of eternal positive calm. She carried on regardless and taught me to do the same if my heart wished for it. I cried when we sold her. I couldn't understand why.

Bracken was the first male to enter our predominantly female household. Dad was amongst women with a wife and three daughters and three female dogs. Bracken was an Irish Water Spaniel,  with a Rastafarian coat of curly, oily dreads. He was obsessed with water in a way I never knew was possible. He would catapult himself off the end of the jetty and dive deep under the water and lily pads. We would put stones at the end of deep plastic buckets filled to the brim with water and he would stick his entire head under to resurface with the stones. Once we realised he could hold his breath for so long, when we brought him to the lake, we would do the same, careful to throw recognisable stones in. Not only would he dive to retrieve, he would resurface with the exact stone we had thrown in. Bracken was an example of an irrepressible love for the element of water, to an almost obsessive level. He was kind and patient and putty-like in his willingness to spend time with us and make us happy, because that made him happy. We tied up his floppy curly fringe with a shiny raspberry ripple pink scrunchy and played show dog with him in the back garden for hours and he never stopped, never snuck off. He was loyal, glued to us with a wide grin that always asked "what's next?". He was the perfect example of uncomplicated enthusiasm for the things you love in life and that no matter what anyone else says, including the negative voice in your head, there is always time for the things you love and they are more important than the tasks that should be done. Bracken was the real "you only live once" dog, so smile and go have fun.

Sally would later become pregnant. She was enormous! Her soft round belly looked like it contained a sardine can full of puppies. We placed bets. The highest count being fourteen puppies. When she went into labour, her playful Sally-ness morphed into a calm and knowing maturity. One massive puppy flopped out. She cleaned him, nuzzled his face, and gave us a look of deep love and deep fear like only a first-time mother can. We waited. No more puppies. Jack went on to be an Alpha like no other. His head was enormous and he had tank-like shoulders that were rock hard with defined muscle. His paws were equally big. As a puppy, he was a disaster to control and discipline. When he breastfed, he would greedily roll from one teet to another, leftover milk pouring from the side of his jaw. Had he had to fend off brothers and sisters, he wouldn't have gotten so fat so quickly. Despite growing into a jock physique, he was a complete Mammy's boy and out of everyone in the family, I was the only one who thought he was intelligent. Jack had to jump the highest, run the fastest and eat the most. When we walked with him in the park, he would search for the biggest stick he could find, only to be replaced by at least another five since once he came across a larger one, he would immediately spit out the inferior one and upgrade.

Jack and I had a special connection, even stronger than all the dogs before. I defended him when he was misbehaving, arrogant and headstrong pup when others had lost their patience with him. He thanked me with unquestionable loyalty and friendship. Jack protected me like a personal security guard on walks. When I swam in the lake, he would swim out to get me when he thought I'd been out too long, swimming circles around me and edging me back to shore. As somebody who is strongly independent, I hate being told what to do, having my actions questions or second guessed or having my opinions over-ruled. Jack did all of those things on a daily basis. Because he loved me, wanted to protect me, wanted to be near me. When we were together his Jock-ego melted away. He died of cancer six years ago. I still miss him. I wish he was here. I wish he had died old and I could have seen him swim and run around into old age, like those men you see swimming in speedos well into Autumn with grey curly hair on their shoulders, still tanned from the summer swim series, broad shoulders, not a pick of fat on them.

Bert was adopted from a kennel and arrived one day because the only time that Jack's morale ever dropped close to depression was when Sally passed away and suddenly his mammy, his comfort and his company was gone in one quick hit, like the final felling of a pine tree. All our other dogs up to this point had been puppies when they arrived. Bert was two or three years old already. He was incredibly nervous with a whispy foxy tail and watery eyes that didn't know how to make direct contact with another's. He still doesn't know how, years later, but the point is that he tries. For a few seconds at a time, and then he slowly looks away off in the distance but still wants you to rub the end of his ear or scratch his belly just so. Bert is an example of a beautiful, elegant dog with very low self esteem because he had such a horrendous upbringing. He was found muddied and hungry and cold having run away. From the way in which he balked at a mop or sweeping brush or scuttled away whenever any man came near, I can be sure there's some scumbag out there who physically and emotionally hurt this beautiful soul. No matter how much love, attention, hugs, kisses, paw massages and snuggles you give Bert, it will never be enough. He is equally starved and spoiled for affection. He is slowly phasing into old age. He sleeps more and accepts longer hugs and pets. He is another one who forgets all his worries, all his past, the moment he jumps out of the car for a walk. He runs through fields of wild grass and muddy puddles, his tail circling like a propeller for propulsion. He wades into the lake shore and jumps around like a puppy, waiting for a stick or tennis ball to retrieve so he can be told again that he's a good boy. For a long time, and still to a certain degree, I am also like Bert in that I crave(d) external validation. Please love me, please tell me what I'm doing is important, please comfort me from my crippling and exhausting anxiety. But then we are also alike when we are free. There is no fun, no timeline, only open green spaces and water to play in.

If all the dogs we have had before have had complexes galore, the latest dog to be welcomed into our family, is the emblematic antithesis to the rest of the tribe. J.J is named after Jack, in honor of the immense presence he had in our lives and the fact that J.J looks and acts like a happy-go-lucky version of Jack the Alpha. The contrast between J.J and his dad Bert, is extraordinary. If he had a catch phrase it would probably be "no worries". If a theme song followed him around it would be Marley's 'Three Little Birds'. He is equally strong in build as Jack but Bert's gentleness has come through so much. He is incredibly loyal and is as comfortable alone having a snooze as he is sitting on my feet looking skyward at my face, direct eye contact always, always with love. J.J has taught me that worrying is a useless activity, that being positive whether it's in a calm or excited way, is both thrilling and energy giving and always, always, everything will work itself out.

I always knew, after this lineage of incredible beings, that I would want my own dog in the future. I always imagined I'd have to wait, settle down, maybe have a house of my own. Either way, the basic idea was that I was not financially or responsibly equipped or ready to have a dog yet.

Then I saw Inis. His worried eyes came out from the screen of a dog shelter an hour outside Valencia. It was Carlos (my man) who saw the photo and reposted it on facebook. Something happened to me. I see photos of stray dogs all the time and though my heart breaks, I've always felt there's nothing that I could do. I wasn't in a position to adopt. Where would I live? What would my future plans look like? I couldn't be certain of anything. Then I saw Inis.

I talked it out with Carlos. I told him all my worries and woes. Carlos is a practical man, very direct, very Spanish. He never tells you what you want to hear. He never placates. He is rational. He told me that we have a life together and that he knows and has seen how much I care for the dogs in my life, how all of them have been family members to me. He told me he understood that it's a scary thing getting your own dog since the dog becomes your child, your responsibility. There's no return address but that I've got this. I was still terrified but a new feeling I hadn't experienced before rose up. A level of competence I had previously only reserved for times of solo travel when I had no one to rely on except myself. And I remembered how I had thrived. Now I had the opportunity to help another thrive and with Carlos, I had the support and help to do that.

I woke up the other morning to find my boyfriend snuggled against my shoulder, Inis between us and Vera, his seven year old dog sprawled at our feet on the bed. It baffles me that less that five months ago, I was waking up alone in a single bed wondering when if ever I could stop worrying about my life's direction. That morning, I didn't reach for my phone and I didn't say a word. I slowed and quietened my breathing and simply observed, like some form of mental photography and mindful meditation combined and wondered in awe at how I had ever become so lucky. It would be 6.30 am soon and Inis would wake us all up with grumbles and little yelps to go outside to the toilet. There would be commotion and feeding bowls and sleepy eyes and discussions about what to make for lunch and coordinating work schedules. For a few lazy moments, I was in my element, embracing everything that brought me to this place in my life and acknowledging the many difficult moments and choices that led me here.

Inis is still growing in body, mind and spirit. He is only three months old and I often wonder who he'll become. Right now, he is the adventurous and excited, romantically enthusiastic young being who delighted in everything. Equally, he is still a child, believes strongly in what is and isn't fair, (ie. why does he have to leave the park and why is it time to go to bed?) and a child who needs cuddles and understanding and lots of love.

Each day is about overcoming obstacles for us and learning but it's also so important to make light of difficult situations, to enjoy the running around and play times, to make time for cuddles, to find out how far the love of water goes as he jumps in and out of the shallow pool in the park. And to love. Always love. Because that's what radiated from our bed when all four of us were sprawled out together. Love. All you need is love.