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Guestwords: The Meaning of Love

Wed, 02/09/2022 - 17:14

I admit, on occasion, to using the word “love” frivolously. For instance, I say “I love” spaghetti with arrabiata sauce and a glass of white wine, when I could just as well say “enjoy.” Or, I “love” the way my husband, Norby, writes, when I could just as well say “admire.”

But when I say I “love” our dog, Odie, I’m talking about an attachment that I feel certain embodies the meaning of love.

I read about Odie before I met him. Along with his siblings he was born on the steps of the Animal Rescue Fund on Daniel’s Hole Road in East Hampton. The East Hampton Star headlined it. Six black puppies born to a white mother on a freezing February night, after being left there by a well-known breeder fleeing the cops for drug possession. Luckily the night caretaker, who should have been elsewhere on his day off, was there to rescue and care for the newborns.

Norby jumped on the story. Never having had a dog, he was sure this was his big chance. The article said the pups would be quarantined for six weeks. We called ARF and waited for the call to come and look.

During the quarantine, Norby conspired with Vania, our housekeeper, to share the dog. She needed some real-time responsibility for her teenage daughter, Isabella. Norby thought he could persuade me to get a dog by our committing to Odie only during the summer months, when Vania’s family went to Brazil. In the end they went ahead alone. I was not consulted.

On the designated day, we four went to ARF for a look-see. The ARF lady released four furballs on the floor. Only one approached us. That was him. He chose us, not we him. All of us were thrilled, but after a few hours back at the house he peed on Isabella before they took off for Queens.

We got daily reports from Vania. Housetraining did not go well, and she was flooding the house with Clorox. Worse, Isabella was not rising early enough to take the dog out. Tensions rose. Pleasure evaporated. Finally Vania declared “exhaustion,” and suddenly we became sole caretakers of one black Lab, still without a name.

Some weeks later, the puppy was delivered to our driveway. He had metamorphosed from furball to toddler. Norby named him Odin, King of the Gods (since our two cats had already been tagged Sigmund and Siglinda). Again, I was not consulted. I wondered who this puppy was to us — his, mine, or ours. I got my answer soon when Norby said, “I never saw you with a baby; I like to see you this way,” whereupon Odie vomited up a tiny squirrel. And so it was. Odie was the baby we “second-marrieds” never had together. It was Norby’s dog but mine to care for.

Sigmund and Siglinda were not happy about our canine addition, but Odie was delighted to have two moving toys in his size range. Despite constant rebuffs, he tried to hold them stable with his paw so that he could investigate their private parts. In turn they hissed and swiped his snout. Norby and I nodded knowingly: The kids will bicker! Eventually, the felines leaped onto the kitchen counter, leaving Odie perplexed as to how they were suddenly so high and he so low.

In the early days, we took Odie to Wiborg’s Beach twice a day, enjoying the company of other dog parents while Odie humped their pets. We befriended the writer Steven Gaines and his dog Shep; the basketball coach Larry Brown, who picked up a new dog that had just failed Seeing Eye dog training; Linda, who taught Odie to swim in the pond behind her house, and Tom and his ridgeback pup. Odie introduced us to new friends and enlarged our personal community.

And his endearing antics. One day, unbeknownst to me, he followed me out our property gate. A good Samaritan found him wandering alone on the road toward the deer encampment nearby. She invited him into her car and made some calls to the pound. When she came out, there was Odie blithely swimming in her pool. No time-waster he.

I don’t mean to idealize our boy dog. He can be very naughty, like when he ate an entire brisket I’d prepared for our communal Rosh Hashana dinner. But you don’t stop loving your dog because he ate a dinner for 10. In truth, a secret part of me smiled.

I loved all of Odie from the beginning, but there was an unforgettable moment when he told me how much my love was returned. One day shortly before Thanksgiving, we set out for our early-morning walk. As usual, Odie would go to the bottom of the stone steps and wait for me to leash him and either go right to Washington Square Park or left for coffee. But instead, that day I slipped on some fallen leaves on the top step and fell into the gutter, where fortunately the same tree had shed most of its leaves, saving me from becoming a piece of broccoli.

Odie came to my side and stayed there. After I’d spent an entire day in Langone’s E.R., Odie tried to squeeze in the hallway to give me a face-lick on my return. When I was lowered onto the bed, he jumped into my arms and nestled into my chest. This 80-pound boy dog told me how worried he had been and how relieved he was that I was home. It was six weeks before we could walk together again. During that time, he stood sentinel by my bed or wheelchair, and it was not until I was fully recovered that he allowed some space between us.

These days, after he wakes me, we walk on the beach in the early morning. He’s aging with me, gray creeps around his snout and paws. He rarely tries to hump the other pups anymore, and only occasionally frolics in the ocean or races ahead to chase a seabird. Always he returns to my side, verifying my presence before venturing forth.

When I think about my attachment to Odie, I try to identify the glue. When I enter a room where he is stretched on the floor, he wags his tail even before seeing me. When he anticipates company, watching Norby and me prepare, he stands in front of me, looking me in the eye, and leads me to the special chest where I keep bones for him to chew during the grown-up cocktail hour. (He is his naughtiest when hors d’oeuvres arrive.) It’s that intimate interaction that glues the attachment.

Though Norby will always be the love of my life, Odie is a close second. We are attached at the hip.

Judith Schneider lives in East Hampton.

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