Friday, February 13, 2009

Harriet and Max: A Love Story

The image of Harriet that comes to me when I think of her, the one that breaks my heart is this: We’re on the wooded trail behind my house, where we went often. Harriet has run ahead, sniffing things, exploring. She realizes she’s lost sight of me. Suddenly, she barrels down the path. Her run goes from frantic to joyful as she spots me. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Harriet’s stampeding run, and that look of joy and relief on her face when we were reunited.

I met Harriet on a blind date. It was a year after my old girl Maggie had died and I was ready to get another dog. That’s what dog people do—we get dogs.
I went to the Maryland SPCA, which is where I had found Maggie 16 years earlier. I was a kid then. I could barely afford the adoption fee (I think it was $40 at the time). Now I was all grown up—a magazine editor and a longstanding member of the SPCA board of directors.

I scanned the cages and saw many adorable dogs—that usual assortment of grinning labs and cautious pit mixes and snouty hounds and yappy beagles—but every time I found a dog that seemed suited to my taste, it had a little note on the cage: “I’m Going Home Tomorrow!”
Translation: Someone had beaten me to the punch.

After three or four such thwarted attempts, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I’d been on the board for 8 years at that point—membership had to have some privileges, right?

So I called up my friend Aileen, the SPCA’s executive director. “Can you call me if a perfect Max dog comes through the gates?” I asked. I had only a few requirements: I preferred a girl dog, if possible. I wanted the dog to be under 25 pounds. I was partial to floppy ears, but again, not a deal breaker. I didn’t want a precious lap dog type and I didn’t want a dog that had been bred for fighting. Aileen told me she’d get back me.
And then I waited.

It took two weeks for Aileen to call. She reached me at work. “I think we have your dog,” she said: A bitch, about 6 years old; she’d been found wandering the streets of Catonsville. I literally dropped everything and went to the SPCA. I waited in the courtyard. I paced.

In minutes, Harriet—curiously called Brownie at the time (Harriet was a blonde)—emerged. She was cute, of course. Some have described her as a miniature Sandy from Annie. She had dark button eyes and a scruffy coat and these ridiculously dainty long legs. We took her into a special holding room to see if we were a match.

I’ve often characterized my meeting of Harriet as love at first sight, but that’s not entirely true. She was hyper that day and it was hard to get her to focus. She ran around nervously. Occasionally she would stop and lick my face.

I’ve always had romantic notions about dogs and their humans, that we would instantly recognize that we belonged together. It’s weird. I didn’t feel that way instantly about Harriet. I thought she was cute and sweet and needed a home. The face licking charmed me. So I adopted her.

Everything changed in the car ride home.

It’s hard to explain it, but there is that moment when the dog goes from “a dog” to “your dog.” You feel this surge of protectiveness and tenderness. I looked at her, standing shakily in the front seat of my Mini (she never was much for settling down in the car) and suddenly I adored her. The funny thing is, she must’ve had her own similar revelation. Because within a day, she was my shadow.

I happen to think dog owners are an insecure bunch. (If we were secure, we’d own cats). We want a dog to love us unconditionally, to flatter us into thinking that we are something extraordinary.

In Harriet’s eyes, I was a goddess. She followed me around the house. If someone else went to pet her, she’d cast furtive glances in my direction, as if to say: “Is this okay? Because if it’s not, I can end this any time.”

She kept vigil at the bay window when I left home. She was always there when I left, poking her little nose out from behind the curtain, and there when I got home. As soon as she confirmed it was me, she’d make a beeline to the door to greet me.

Once, I was working from home—a rarity—and Kate, the dog walker, came to get her. It took a lot of tugging and cajoling to get Harriet out the door. It was nothing personal. Harriet absolutely loved Kate. She just had this real anxiety about being taken away from me.
Ten minutes passed and I looked down. Harriet was standing next to me, her leash trailing her, looking rather proud of herself.
“Where’d you come from?” I laughed.
A few minutes later, Kate came bounding in, out of breath.
“She just took off,” she said, trying not to laugh.
Harriet had come home.

I always joked that Harriet came pre-trained. She was the best behaved dog I’ve ever known. Lord knows, I had nothing to do with it. I literally never once had to yell at her. Her separation anxiety made her perfect off leash in the park. She came when I called, without fail. Sometimes, she'd have leaves stuck to her nose. I called her canine Velcro.

She was a picky eater, to a comical degree. I could never anticipate what she would eat. She liked hummus. She ate olives. She didn’t like milk or bread. Most dog treats held no appeal to her. I found one kind of biscuit she liked—Milk Bones Chewy Chicken Drumstix. I bought 6 or 7 bags a time, whatever they had in stock. SuperFresh is going to wonder why the hell they have so many left in the store now.

She loved when I played cello, especially Beethoven duets with my sister, Felicia. We called her Ludwig. Sometimes when I played, I’d look up and she’d be staring at me dreamily. Once in a while, she’d come and jump up on my leg mid piece (she risked being poked in the eye by my bow on more than one occasion.) Once, she managed to wedge herself behind me on the chair while I played. She was in heaven.

The face licking never ended. Harriet loved to give kisses, all the time. It was her signature move. Just a few weeks ago, we were outside and saw my 2-year-old neighbor Violet. Her daddy held her upside down; Harriet kissed her face, like that scene from Spiderman. Violet giggled, delighted. Some grownups complained that she had bad breath. Violet and I never minded it.

After Maggie died, I wasn’t sure I could ever love a dog again like that. But I did. And I’m happy to say that I never took Harriet for granted. “I’m so lucky to have her,” I said to myself. I thought that almost every day.

I had Harriet for two years. I still can’t believe she’s gone. I couldn’t have loved her more if we’d spent a lifetime together. She did nothing to cure me of my hopeless romanticism when it comes to dogs. I do believe she and I were meant to be together. And no, I don’t understand why our time together was so short. I’m just so damn grateful that, for a brief period of time, she was mine.

This blog post is dedicated to Felicia, Mom, Dad, Travis, the Lewins, Amy E., Patti, Marge and all my friends and family who have helped me get through this difficult time. I couldn’t have done it without you.


Ellen said...

Oh, Max ... I'm so sorry you lost Harriet.

Sending love,
Cousin Ellen

Jennifer said...

Max! I'm so so sorry. Harriet was lucky to have had you. I've been thinking about you, sweetie...

Jennifer said...

Oh no Max--I'm so sorry! She sounds like an amazing dog--you were lucky to have her. Hugs!!

MBall said...

Hey, Max. This is Alex's brother, Matt. I happened upon this thanks to my wife. I'm so sorry to hear about Harriet. I can't tell you how much I can empathize. I'm sure the pain has gotten easier by now, but I know she'll always be there.