My Furry Valentines
God bless all creatures great and small—especially small!
By Mary Beth Crain
This may just be the most cornball piece I’ve ever written, but even a sophisticated, witty—and, oh yes, humble—writer like myself is entitled to one lapse of cynicism in her lifetime. After all, it is Valentine’s Day, history’s best excuse for schmaltz extremis, a day when the heart can legally kick the head off the throne and the candy, flower, and diamond industries are once more reminded that there is indeed a God.
So I’m writing a Valentine to the two most ardent and faithful loves in my life—my cat and my dog.
My cat, Rhonda Susan, was born on my bed and had trouble emerging, so my friends all cheered her on by singing, “Help Me, Rhonda, Help, Help Me Rhonda,” which is how she got her name.
Truman Lawrence is my nine-year-old Chihuahua. In chi time, that’s around 50 (the usual seven canine years to one human year rule doesn’t apply to Chihuahuas, who live longer than other dogs). Even though that would make him around my age, Truman is perfectly content to be referred to as Mommy’s Angel Doglet Boy, and will forever shower me with the undying, desperate devotion of a two-year-old who is convinced life has come to an abrupt and cruel end the minute Mommy is out of sight.
When I think of Truman and Rhonda, I am reminded of that part in the 23rd Psalm: “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” It seems that these two small creatures, who each weigh in at under 10 pounds, were put on earth solely for my comfort, to get me through lonely days and hard times, to stand by me when I am sick or scared or totally disillusioned by the overwhelming venality of Man, and to remind me that the Lord had the sense to create at least one life form that is the living embodiment of unconditional love. The 23rd Psalm, is, after all, essentially a love poem, an expression of adoring gratitude toward the One who will never forsake us. Comparing God to a cat and a Chihuahua may smack of blasphemy to some, but I have a feeling He wouldn’t mind in the least. In fact, He might be flattered, or at least pleased that I appreciate His handiwork in the manner in which it was intended.
Before Truman came into my life, when my husband Adam was dying of cancer, Rhonda, her brother Petie, and her mother, Angel, sat vigil in his bed, refusing to budge until he breathed his last. When he became incontinent, I would walk in to find them standing guard on either side of him, exuding an air of peaceful fortitude in spite of the fact that they were lying on soaking wet bedclothes. After Adam died and they took his body away, I wanted to sleep in his bed. Petie had gotten there first and was sitting on his pillow. I sat down, took the big black and white bundle of cat in my arms, and explained to him that Adam had died. He burst out in a long wail. I held him and cried too.
Five months after Adam’s death, I got Truman. He was my first dog, and at three pounds was as dominant a force as if he’d been a Siberian Husky. While my cats always exhibited a quiet affection for me, thoughtfully including me in their grooming rituals or sitting on my chest and purring in low, rumbling ecstasy, Truman’s expressions of love were much less restrained. He would cry piteously whenever I left the room, and dance wildly in a circle like a whirling dervish when I returned. He would lick and lick and lick my face at every opportunity, and lived to accompany me everywhere I went.
While the cats screamed like they were being murdered if you put them in the car, Truman would jump into the passenger seat, tail wagging furiously, a big grin on his face, and stand up at the window on his little hind legs with his paws on the door, all set to watch the world go by. He was so much like a human child, with his unabashed dependency on me and unbridled enthusiasm for life, that I began to wonder why everybody didn’t just forget about having kids and get a Chihuahua instead. I mean, you don’t have to worry about paying for their college education. You don’t have to worry about them eating you out of house and home—it took Truman about a year to go through a five-pound bag of kibble. You don’t have to worry about them doing drugs, or getting into gangs, or getting knocked up or knocking someone up—a trip to the Spay and Neuter Clinic only takes a few hours and, if you’re lucky, might cost 20 bucks. And you definitely don’t have to worry about them growing big and sassy and thoroughly ungrateful. It was wonderful to contemplate the fact that Truman would never outgrow either his 8 ½ pounds or his ardent toddler mentality.
But actually, he has grown up, into a mature Chihuahua who understands every damn word I say, and who is the most loyal companion on the earth. There aren’t too many humans you can say that about.
When I am ill, both he and Rhonda assume their respective canine and feline nursing duties. Truman will lie on my pillow, peering into my face with big brown dog eyes full of concern, licking my cheeks with truly dogged determination. When my neighbor comes in to take him for his walk, he runs under the bed and hides until she leaves, regardless of whether or not his bladder or intestines are about to explode. He will never leave the bed unless I do, and has remained there for days, on 24-hour watch through fevers, sciatica, a broken ankle, pneumonia.
Rhonda goes even further, and will actually sit on me and massage the ailing area of my body. When I had pneumonia, she pushed and prodded the lower part of my left lung, which was the affected lung. When I had colitis she pushed and prodded my left side, the site of the acute pain. This went on for two weeks. But the morning I awoke to find the pain gone, she came in for her usual ministrations, sat on my stomach, looked down at my side and then got up and ambled off. Coincidence? Hah. Psychic? You bet.
How many people do you know who would devote themselves entirely to your welfare and happiness, with no thought of their own comfort? Oh, they exist, to be sure—my husband happened to be one of them, and I swear, a number of my friends have confessed to the eerie feeling that Truman is Adam reincarnated. But such noble specimens of humanity are few and far between, as anybody who’s dated a schmoe or married a creep can attest. When I think of the thoughtless and selfish actions I myself have committed through the years, of my just “being human” ness, I am humbled before my animals, and ashamed of my inability to practice the unconditional love that is the ultimate goal of all religions and spiritual practices. Yes, we humans have to try very, very hard to feel that kind of love—study, pray, do years of meditation, and even then we fall short of the mark. But animals practice it effortlessly, without thought. It is simply part of their nature. Which means that they, and not we, are the most highly evolved of God’s creatures.
Do animals engage in torture, crime and other willful acts of violence against other living beings? Do they dump their newborn babies in garbage cans or leave them locked in cars in 130 degree weather, to fry to death while they’re having their hair done or doing the grocery shopping? Do they pass evil budgets designed to reduce their fellow beings to poverty and homelessness and even suicide? Do they lie and cheat and steal and break spirits and hearts?
I know a lot of humans who are incapable of love, no matter how much love and understanding you give them. But I have yet to meet an animal that, if you give it love, won’t remain right there by your side, through thick and thin, forever.
And so, I honor Truman and Rhonda with the following prayer: “May I be worthy of your devotion, and in the next life, may God grant me an incarnation as a dog or a cat, so that I will finally know the meaning of unconditional love.”
Amen. And happy Valentine’s Day.
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Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Nothing for Something.
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