The Stamp of Love
Lessons From My Dogs
The Stamp of Love
Si on me presse de dire pourquoy je l’aymois, je sens que cela ne se peut exprimer, qu’en respondant: Par ce que c’estoit luy; par ce que c’estoit moy. If I were pressed to say why I love him, I feel that my only reply could be: Because it was he. Because it was I.
—Michel de Montaigne, explaining why he loved his friend.
Ice covers the branches and now hangs, frozen in falling, in solid crystal droplets like winter’s perfect pearls--and I have never seen anything so pure, a feeling I know I’ll try to express again with the first buds of spring and again in sacred autumn, but for which in truth I know I have no words. For now I stand enchanted in a silence broken only by the cawing of a crow, as she flies across a heavy quilt of gray, and the slight ticking of ice as the birds hop from silvered branch to frozen ground and back to branch again.
Recently I was listening to a program on NPR about great art. The curator said, “Everything has a price,” even the Mona Lisa now behind her protective pane of glass within the Louvre’s hallowed walls. The Mona Lisa? Really? Well, perhaps in the art world everything does have a price. But there remain ‘things’ for which one can never assign monetary value. While I know it happens in difficult circumstances, I think few parents would willingly sell their children.
I remember the old Master Card commercials that listed several glamorous material objects—sports car, exotic vacation, gemstones—each with impressive price tags. Then the ad mentioned something priceless: being there to see your child score his or her first homerun. Now, as I stand surrounded by nature’s mystery, present to a vastness and beauty that knows no logic—only awe—I know the moment has no price. It just is.
As I sat in my meditation chair, Lauren’s old chair, Sasha stared up at me, a round butterball turkey masquerading as a dog. Then she leapt. There is nothing subtle about Sasha. But where subtly falls short, love and loyalty make up for it. She squished up atop my lap, throwing back her head and staring up into my eyes just as Lauren used to do. Then she settled into the spot where she loves to sit, between my legs on a small 8 x 8 cushion, which was a beautiful and unexpected gift my seamstress made for me out of the old fabric of this beloved chair when, threadbare and duck-taped together, it had to be reupholstered. While Sasha is the least introspective of my three dogs, the cushion has become her meditation pillow. I remembered back to when Sasha first entered our lives, bringing the great depression, as I called it—a period of unease due to her own deeply depressed feelings—disrupting the peaceful life of joy that Flash and Chance and I shared. But there in the chair, as I stroked her, I told her: “Sasha, I’d not give you up, even for ten million dollars.” They were the same words I’d used back then, so long ago to reassure her that I would not forsake her, and as I spoke the words again, I knew their truth. There is no price tag for them. For love.
I know I don’t "own" the dogs—they are not mine, but they are my responsibility and they are…priceless. I read that if we can lose something in a shipwreck, it isn’t ours. Of course we can lose our bodies, our selves, so perhaps, when we speak truly, we own nothing.
With the dogs I share a partnership based not so much on an alpha hierarchy as on mutuality—listening to what they have to say and taking an interest in their world. For Olive this means sharing her enthusiasm (or perhaps indignation) over the squirrel who steals the birds’ seed. I put out more than enough for him too since the acorn crop this year was slim to nonexistent.
“Do you want to get the squirrel?” I ask in my most squirrel-animated voice, hoping of course that she never really will, and she pricks her ears and comes running. I open the gate and let her root around in the compost pile at the base of an old walnut tree where the squirrels hang out.
Taking an interest in Chance’s world simply means being home, being there. Once so independent, she now follows me from room to room, her deaf ears forcing her to search with nose and sight more than she once did for the comfort and reassurance she seeks in knowing I’m here. I’m impressed by how well she and most animals adapt to the loss of a sense, but sometimes I see confusion shadow her white face. I want to put to words the love my fingers know, deep to the bone, every time they caress the lumps and bumps that now cover her fragile frame. I want to put to words the pang I feel when I turn and see her lagging so far behind on our walks when once she strode out front, or when I watch her try to jump upon a chair and fall. I want to put to words the feeling that builds within me as I stand and watch her sleep—but I can’t. I love her more than I have words to say. Every time I see her walk the wrong way in her search to find me and stare off to an empty room with pricked ears, she is writing her own story upon my breast—engraving grooves of sorrow on my heart from which I’ve learned not to turn. For, when I stand in stillness and listen to the wisdom of the wind, I understand these are the same grooves as those of joy.
Because of her there is now the daily puddle of urine on the rug or even in the bed. I don’t want a house that smells of dog pee…but neither, I realize, do I want its end. And when we love unconditionally, we forgive everything. We don’t judge, but merely observe and accept. In real love, familiarity does not breed contempt but rather a bond so connected that we feel its desolation if severed.
True love wears no price tag. It just is. And yet people would pay millions to have it. The dogs with whom I share my life don’t leave behind their marks in poetry or song; they’ve never painted a picture, let alone the Mona Lisa, but they leave behind their mark in other ways. They stamp it on my heart.
Olive and Sasha stare deep into the camera, as Chance gazes off in her own world.
Kay’s latest book Flash’s Song: One Small Dog, One Big Miracle is available in bookstores and Amazon. Partial profits are donated to animal welfare organizations. For a list of charities please visit: www.kaypfaltz.com.