Love here, love now

Puppies, love, and chocolate: how to live on life’s knife edge

5 minute read
Seen from above, tiny brown poodle wears a purple coat, standing on leash with two polka-dot boots visible at bottom of frame

Before the puppy came to live with us, I had a generic understanding of dogs, gleaned from movies and other people’s pets: they need to be house-trained. They chew your slippers. They should never, ever eat chocolate.

But this was no generic puppy; she was my daughter’s toy poodle, named Cleo for the Greek muse of history, 8.2 pounds of exuberance and affection pajama-ed in chocolate-brown fluff, with doleful, searching eyes and an inquisitive, stubborn spirit.

My daughter chose her from the litter because Cleo was the one who darted up to investigate her shoelace. When Sasha nudged her away, she scampered back to grab the lace again.

Determined. Curious. Unfazed by reflex gestures of authority.

Like mama, like puppy.

How to be a dog person

When Cleo came to live with us—Sasha’s a college senior, writing a history thesis; no bandwidth at the moment for a dog—I realized the limits of my canine understanding. Why did she persist in peeing under the dining room table? Should we discipline with a Tough Love “NO!” or catch her being “good” and reward her with treats?

Within days, Cleo chewed through the thick white cable that wires the stereo receiver to a kitchen speaker. She clawed a pit in the jute rug as if it were a patch of playground dirt. She gobbled the cats’ breakfast; they retaliated by peeing on our comforter five mornings in a row.

But as the days rolled on, as I did yoga next to Cleo’s crate and played tug with a green sock, my protective instincts flared. We were responsible for keeping this creature alive. And there was an additional weight of obligation because she was our daughter’s—a proxy, even, for the kid herself.

I bought Cleo a purple fleece-lined jacket when December’s temperatures sank to sub-freezing. I swabbed her paws with a wet-wipe after every walk. We paid our neighbor, an animal trainer, $150 to advise us about house-training, then spent an entire week with the puppy leashed to one of our wrists.

A friend texted, “I don’t think of you as a dog person.” I wasn’t. But people change. Love changes us.

Which is why, when I saw the gnawed-through Ziploc sticky with brown crumbs, my gut wrenched. I recognized those crumbs: the remains of four chocolate cookies I’d tucked inside a bamboo steamer basket on the kitchen cart.

So close to calamity

I’d stashed the cookies a few days earlier, and then that morning I’d grabbed the steamer basket, and in between lodged an impenetrable black box. Did the bag fall through the slats in the cart? How did Cleo grab it and trot from the kitchen without my notice? And why—I couldn’t stop trying to parse the previous hour—did I not think to take it out of her reach?

Sasha, home on winter break, called the ASPCA poison hotline; they advised her to induce vomiting with a slurry of peanut butter and hydrogen peroxide. The mere sound of that made me want to hurl, but Cleo lapped it up without a retch.

Next stop: the veterinary clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. While my daughter zipped Cleo into her carrier, I flashed back to every adrenaline-laced emergency of the past 22 years.

The time the pediatrician said, “They taught us in medical school that if it ever crosses your mind that a baby might have meningitis, you should check for meningitis.” Sasha was nine months old. I white-knuckled it to Einstein Hospital, praying to gods I wasn’t sure existed.

Another time, she tumbled backward off a kitchen stool to the ceramic tile floor, while my partner and I stood by, too slow and stunned to catch her fall. And that wedding of friends—she was seven at the time, twirling in a handkerchief-hemmed dress—when she jumped, yelping with delight, from a low stone wall into my arms. Only later did I peer over the wall to see a craggy plummet, and my insides churned, measuring mere inches between our gleeful game and spinal cord injury … or worse.

Close-up selfie of a tiny, fluffy brown poodle nuzzling Anndee’s smiling face on a sunny day.
What’s the antidote to the terrors of life? Love anyway. (Photo by Anndee Hochman.)

At Penn’s vet clinic, they administered something to make Cleo throw up, then kept her overnight to monitor her heart and pancreas. Turns out it was a toxic, though not lethal, dose of chocolate for a dog her size. Sasha picked her up the next day: a $1200 bill and a spaced-out, but intact, pup.

I held Cleo and apologized, hot tears streaking down my face. You didn’t die, I blubbered to her shaggy neck. She stared at me—was that forgiveness in her cocoa-almond eyes?—and licked the inside of my left ear.

Love anyway

Is existence just a series of dodged bullets, our unquenchable curiosity at lifelong war with our impulse to survive? I remember Sasha as a baby, crawling toward the outlet in the kitchen, flashing a gummy, mischievous grin. How many times did she—did we—edge close to the maw of unspeakable loss?

To live, we have to act as if we’re ignorant of grim statistics (53.6 percent of injury-related accidents happen in the home). We have to forget, and remember, and forget again, that a fallen branch, distracted driver, or a rogue bacteria can rupture any moment. The line between toxic and lethal is gossamer-thin.

So what’s the antidote? I think of the thing a high-school pal said, years after we graduated, when he was about to drive five hours to see his mom for Mother’s Day. “I’m not doing it because next year, she might be in the hospital,” he said. “I’m doing it because, this year, she’s not.”

There you go: love anyway. The kind of love that skewers you with terror when it isn’t swelling you with joy. Love here; love now, while the puppy sniffs the kitchen for benign crumbs of pumpkin scone, because somewhere beyond the front porch flicker, the thump of our own dear, fragile hearts, a wolf is howling in the endless night.

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