Opinion | Everything I Know About Hope I Learned From My Dog

NASHVILLE — The bad-luck streak started when I got Covid-19 and then it escalated: health troubles, deaths in the extended family, frantic worry about loved ones, too many of whom were struggling in the pandemic. All of it backgrounded by dire news about the natural world and my own beloved country. There have been times during the last 16 months when I wondered whether grief and fear were all I would ever feel again.

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions,” Hamlet’s perfidious stepfather observes, failing to note that his own crimes are to blame for the rotten state of Denmark. I can’t discover any way in which I am the source of my own pandemic sorrows, but I don’t need to search far to find others whose struggles are far worse. So with every new setback and every new worry, I remind myself to be grateful for what is going right, to stop enumerating all the things that are going wrong.

That coping strategy worked pretty well until my dog died.

As a writer, I try to call attention to the goodness people are capable of. I comb the headlines for promising news about social justice, the environment, the body politic. But in real life, I expect trouble to lurk beyond every corner, to emerge from every shadowed doorway. I have always felt a closer kinship with darkness than with light.

Fantastic!” my father would say whenever anyone asked how he was doing during the two and a half years it took him to die of a cancer. Even when the pain and nausea were at their worst, Dad was certain that being alive, no matter how much misery might be involved, was incomparably better than the alternative.

My husband, too, is the kind of person who trusts that good will prevail after every anguish, who believes so thoroughly in the happy ending that he later forgets the anguish itself. Recently I mentioned a scare we’d had earlier this year, and my husband didn’t even remember it. “You must not have been as traumatized by that as I was,” I said. “I’m not as traumatized by anything as you are,” he said.

I grew up with an optimist, and I married an optimist, but even the sunniest human being is barely more than a neophyte where hope is concerned. In any household, the true master of hope is the family dog.

Dogs regard any delicious smell emanating from the kitchen as a meal they can reasonably expect to share. An elderly dog may have been fed only kibble in all the years of his long life, but he will nevertheless haul his arthritic self to his feet and wander into the kitchen, confident that this time the lasagna setting up on the counter will be his.

Our lab mix, Scout, taught me that a dog who has never caught a squirrel will keep chasing squirrels the same way a dog who is not allowed on the bed will climb under the covers the second a bed is left unattended. Betty, a feist who had never been taken to school even once, would wait hopefully beside the back door every morning, just in case it was Take Your Dog To School Day at last. A UPS delivery driver once tossed a dog biscuit to Clark, our rangy old hound, as she turned the corner, and every day for years that dog would wait in the yard for his biscuit, no matter how many delivery trucks rounded the corner without a pause.

In my own life, the apotheosis of canine hope was Emma, the miniature dachshund we inherited after my mother’s death. Emma believed she could climb the bookcase where dog treats are kept, never mind that her legs were all of two inches high. She believed she could open the closet door where the dog food is kept, despite her lack of opposable thumbs. And damn if she didn’t manage both feats. For a dog, hope is self-reinforcing.

Our last dog, Millie, taught me that dogs carry trauma with them, just as we do. Millie, a terrier mix, didn’t know why she feared what she feared, but she knew that my response to her fears would be kindness, patience and, often, a delicious chicken treat. Whenever we passed a big, scary dog on our walks, or a giant, rumbling truck, she would look up hopefully, almost skipping when she saw my hand reaching for my pocket.

The triumph of hope over irrevocable trauma: Is it any wonder that Millie’s unexpected death was what finally broke my conviction that better times would soon be on the way?

As much as I hate living in a house without a dog, it was months before I felt ready for a new one, and by the time I finally started looking, it had become much harder to adopt. Everyone, it seems, wants a pandemic companion. There are six new puppies on our street alone, with two more due from breeders this summer.

I understand why rescue organizations are so careful about pet placements. Many year-old dogs available for adoption today are pandemic puppies who turned out to be more work, or more costly, than their adopters bargained for. Every day volunteers look into the desolate faces of pets left at the shelter by the only families they have ever known — or, worse, abandoned on the streets — and that’s why these organizations work so hard to avoid approving a home that isn’t an ideal match for that particular pet.

It is also why so many dogs I applied for went to younger people, or runners, or families with children and other dogs, or homes with a large yard, or some other requirement my household didn’t meet.

Then Rascal appeared. A pandemic-born mixed breed with a ruinous case of fleas, he was exactly the size and age we were looking for: small enough to travel with us, young enough to be part of our family for years. There were more than 40 applications for him. By some miracle our home was the best match.

Two hours after he arrived, Rascal was curled up in my lap. A day later he knew his new name, a name he lives up to in ways that make me laugh out loud: stealing shoes from the shoe basket and hiding them around the house, grabbing the book I’m reading and running away with it, sneaking a sip of iced tea when my back is turned. Every morning, he likes to perch on the top of a chair in our family room, watching birds through the window. He cannot possibly catch a bird through that glass, and I think he surely knows it. He keeps hoping anyway.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”

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