I do penance for Bear every night as I lift the quilt and invite my dogs to join me on my stacked featherbeds. I tuck them in by my legs, two small terriers, letting them snuggle down into the feathers before wrapping them in the old quilt for warmth. Dogs love warmth, every dog lover knows that. I learned it watching Billy seek out the sunny spots in the house or jump into a basket of laundry fresh from the dryer. I often think of Bear as I fall asleep, the soft breathing and sweet, warm bodies of my dogs forcing me to remember her.
Bear was a small black Schipperke, the second of those tailless Belgian dogs to live with us. Bear followed Cindy by eight years, years filled by a seizure-prone pug. She was a playful puppy, an energetic adult, great fun for us in our grade school years.
When I was nine, Bear developed an itchy back and like Cindy before her, it was unrelenting. Whatever it was, and there were plenty of theories, it drove her to fits of scratching. Dr. Ray's ministrations and his soothing ointment had no effect. Nothing impacted this itch. It must have been maddening and torture for that little dog, the most severe itch being on her back where she could not reach.
At every opportunity, Bear would race to my father's bed, an old mahogany four poster my mother had fitted with metal rails in order to accommodate a larger mattress. The rails were the perfect height to scratch Bear's back, to soothe that desperate itch. Scratching made it worse, of course. We'd put her out so she wouldn't scratch; she'd dart inside as soon as the door was opened.
Missing her one day, we found her in the bedroom, her back a bleeding mess. This horror was repeated over and over until she ended up with an oval patch of bleeding, hairless skin from rubbing against the rails. We put her outside to stay and from that day on she lived in the back yard. We were, by then, front yard kids, active, outdoors a lot, but Bear was a backyard dog and so she was alone.
That's how I think of her now ~ alone. And the worst, the most painful, agonizing thoughts are of Bear alone in her dog house on the coldest night of winter with deep snow and all of us warm inside. On those desperately cold nights, I would sometimes find myself seized with a kind of panic, a 12 year old's guilt, wondering how she was faring out there, realizing I couldn't sleep until I knew.
Going to the door, I'd call her, persisting until she hobbled from her dog house, a moving inkspot against the snow. Rousing her from her nest, from whatever warmth she could find, I'd feel reassured that she was alive. I'd pet her briefly, then shut the door and so to bed. I left her there, cold, alone, in the dark, with no companionship, with nothing that dogs thrive on. Nothing.
I hate myself for this. It is one of my worst sins. I can't write it without crying. What a hideous thing to do to a dog. It's no excuse that I didn't know what dogs were like, what they needed. It was a terrible, terrible thing to do and it is a permanent stain on my conscience and an ache in my heart.
I think the intense shame and guilt I felt over the treatment of one small black dog fueled my near lifetime insistence that I didn't like dogs. Until Bill arrived in my life five years ago, I lived dog-free, touting the superiority of cats over the panting, shedding, jumping, licking canines of my acquaintance. I jokingly insisted my sister should administer "the final solution" to her pack of nine unadoptable and ailing dogs. And Bear was always on my mind. I couldn't laughingly denigrate a dog without thinking of Bear and with Bear inevitably comes a hot shame. Always.
There was a little comfort for Bear when my father remarried. As my stepmother arrived on the scene, we were coming alive again after the shock of my mother's disappearance. A dog lover, this good woman was horrified at our neglect of the little Schipperke. I am horrified too, and filled with regret. After 35 years, I am still sickened by my mistreatment of that poor animal.
I can't fix it. I thought writing about it might help. I don't need reassurances that what I did wasn't that dreadful. It was, end of story. But I live a program that insists I make amends, to right wrongs where I can. Long before my dogs arrived, I helped animals where I could, supported rescue, paid vet bills for strays, anything to assuage the guilt. And though it can't be fixed, my neglect of Bear, it is some comfort that my two terriers have the best possible dog's life, every comfort, constant companionship, inside living with their people, lots of exercise, endless, boundless love and affection.
I wish I could do it over with Bear, give her this kind of life. I'd find a solution for her itchy back as I've found for Billy's itchy hip. I'd tolerate her quirks as I tolerate Deaf Betty's barky attention to every falling leaf and passing car. And I'd let her sleep with me every night. I'd hold her and love her and keep her warm, every night.
There aren't any do-overs, and regret is the most wretched of emotions. I suspect I will die with this one. What about you? Do you have regrets that simply will not leave you?
Labels: dogs, regret, terrible things