Meditations on love, death and what it means to be fully alive

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Emma Murray

Memory is a funny thing. One recent lunch break, my sister’s on the phone and she mentions Daisy’s resurrection. I’m walking down the street with my new 8-week-old red heeler puppy, Paco, and have to stop, stand still on the corner.

The earliest memory I can conjure is shrouded in blue — that seen-through-the-top-of-the-windshield kind of blue — and from what I can tell, I’m sitting in a dog bowl the size of a basketball hoop in the backyard. All I can discern is the back door (hazy) and the blueness of the plastic, monochromatic dog bowl (beneath and surrounding me). I think I’m splashing around, and that feeling, maybe now I’d call it glee.

But how I can remember a scene from the time I was small enough to fit inside Daisy’s giant water bowl, but not her death and coming-back-to-life, which would happen five years later? I call Mom and Dad, and they confirm my sister’s story. Memory just works like that.

When I mentioned to a friend how guilty I feel everytime I leave Paco alone in the apartment, “Oh I used to feel that way too,” she tells me. “But then I learned that dogs have such short-term memory that they don’t even remember you leaving by the time you get back.” That’s why they’re always so happy to see you, and love you, despite the fact you continually exclude them from the rich world outside. I doubt her, so I Google it. National Geographic suggests dogs can forget things as quickly as two minutes after they happen. I think of this as I leave Paco alone in the apartment after lunch, again, while I go back to work, to a place he can’t come.

Death comes and death goes. Four days after my parents tell me and my younger siblings that our golden lab Daisy is dead (and we thr0w away all her toys and dog accessories), they sit us back down and tell us that, as a matter of fact, Daisy is very much alive. I’m still shocked I don’t remember any of this. “I mean you were five,” my dad says when I call back to ask for more details about this resurrection story. “You might not have exactly comprehended life and death.”

Good strangers exist out there. Daisy’s first death was the result of a mysterious accident (“No witnesses,” Dad says) resulting in twin four-inch gashes down the length of her forearms, which my parents (a public school teacher working two other part-time jobs, and a career mom waitressing on the side) couldn’t afford to surgically mend. But, days after they’d signed the paperwork to put her to (permanent) sleep or give her away in the event of a miraculous recovery, Mom saw our next-door neighbor walking Daisy, bandaged forearms and all, down the sidewalk. In hysterics, Mom called the vet demanding to know why they’d given our dog away — and to our next-door neighbor of all people!

It turned out the dog the neighbor was walking was an imposter (weird coincidence), “but,” the vet explained, “Daisy is doing just fine now and you can come pick her up whenever you want!” Apparently the heart-of-gold vet took it upon herself to mend and care for Daisy’s life on her own time.

Sometimes life is actually like the movies. There’s a desolate road in Argentina that runs between a gas and a police station (and hundreds of more barren miles in either direction). On the side of it, my partner, Jordan, and I wait. We’ve been waiting for hours and the moody, overcast clouds are starting to resemble our resolve — bruised and battered. The unrelenting wind is tangling my hair into knots that’ll take hours to undo but no truck driver pauses to let us hop in, maybe catch a ride north. Our patience grows stale and we amble toward the police station. A small puppy, midnight black and tiny enough to eventually curl up on Jordan’s chest inside his jacket, crawls out from behind a half-built, concrete retainer wall. We coo over it and when it affectionately takes to our attention, I run down to the gas station to buy salami, and we name her Fray, after the mountain range shadowing the town in which Jordan and I had recently met. Sleeping in Jordan’s jacket, pressed to his heart, Fray spontaneously comes with us when a trucker finally pulls over.

A few days later, we’re at a different gas station, 400 miles north, and Jordan and Fray are sprinting down a road that’s leading into the belly of nowhere. Just grassy fields, a boy I’m in love with, and a puppy that makes me smile for as far as the eyes can see. That night, I write in my journal, thinking of that moment: “Feeling so alive. Like I’m living a movie. Don’t forget this.”

Jordan and I both grew up with dogs, and as we planned our wedding and moved into a new pet-friendly apartment, adding a dog to the mix gradually became a feature more consistent in our conversations. I wanted a companion to run and walk with (hello, mountain lions); Jordan has just always loved dogs and when he spotted a Craigslist ad the morning I was due at the airport, he said we should “just go look at the puppies.”

Paco was born a few miles east of Fort Lupton to a red heeler mama and a blue heeler papa. The litter was split in color, and we got the impression both parents worked long days on the farm, chasing chickens or herding sheep or whatever it is farm dogs do these days. We drive to the farm from the airport. And when we turn to leave (having forked over $200 for Paco), I walk over to the three elementary school-aged girls swinging on a porch rocking chair. 11-pound, 7-week-old Paco is curled in my arms like a sack of jumbled steamed potatoes. I ask if they want to say goodbye. “Bye, gordito.” They giggle, rub his tummy. Bye, little fatty.

We drive back down the dirt road, straight toward the sunset-silhouetted mountains, and after a few minutes, it occurs to me this puppy doesn’t understand he’s never going back. He yelps, then collapses, naivete gone, into a pile of stress.

That night Paco pees on our hardwood floors not twice, but three times.

Strangers and puppies, when together, have no boundaries. The first family errand Jordan, Paco and I run is at Home Depot. To get down the light fixture aisle, it takes us 15 minutes; every person who walks past needs to stop, pet Paco, and comment on his adorable cuteness. At the cash register, I tell Jordan, “You really have to be in the right mood to take him anywhere, huh.” A certain threshold of extroverted energy must remain in my system in order to bring him out in public. Later I decide not to bring him to into a store, even where he’s allowed, because I’m in a mood where I can’t deal with people.

Forgiveness works best as a two-way street. When Paco gurgles and dry heaves at 4 a.m., regurgitating the stick he’d chewed and swallowed over the course of the night, I get out of bed to clean it up, blurry-eyed until an acrid whiff of his vomit hits my nose and I’m suddenly up for the day. I don’t want to look at or acknowledge him. But I do. And I remember he’s not only a dog with an innate proclivity to chew things, but he’s also learning. I can’t help but cuddle with him on the couch again. I practice letting go like this every day now. Maybe it’ll bleed into other facets of my life.

Whenever we open the front door, Paco tries to weasel out. When I have to leave the apartment, he wags his tail across the floor as if sweeping away the ants that have conquered our lower cabinets. I have to close the door in his face, have to hear him whimper, let out a little bark, fall silent, defeated again. When I peak back in through the window, he’s just staring at the doorknob. He notices me (accidentally hit the glass with my bike helmet) and his face lights up. I feel horrible for having to keep him there for hours at a time. Yet when I come home, he lavishes me with kisses.

Patience isn’t just a virtue; it’s a lifestyle. I’m walking him and we stop every once in a while between the neighbor’s apple tree, the church’s lawn, the Little Free Library. We have no reason to rush. The point is being outside, roaming.

I find myself talking with him like I would a human child. “Why must you bite everything?”

Silence.

“Why don’t you like baths?”

Silence.

“Why is your poop still so runny?”

Silence.

“Why are you whining?”

Anything but silence.

There’s a lot of guessing, a lot of trial and error. I guess that’s life, too. Trying and learning. Tweaking and observing.

Following your nose is good advice. I take Paco skiing for the first time in early December. I’m touring with a new-ish friend and her blue heeler, Kodha, and as we push ourselves up the mountain, we talk about things exciting us about the future. I look forward to slowing down a little, pursuing more projects that stem from deeper inspiration, nothing forced. “Just like how Paco decides what to go after — instinct, intuition and his nose,” my friend says, laughing.

Paco loves to roam, but he also knows the standard tricks (sit, lie down, roll over, shake, kangaroo). I worry, though, if all the camping we do and the miles he explores off-leash is making him less submissive. Once, while camping shortly after he’d turned 5 months, I write in my journal, “He does not always do as told when we’re in the wild — even when treats are plentiful! What does this fresh air and borderless roaming do to our souls but slowly unravel the framework of ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds?’ Perhaps Paco is merely more susceptible to the power of arid wind and a constant grinding of red dust. We’re all worn down to our cores, our roots of connection to the earth and landscapes. There’s not a lot of junk in Paco’s way, no clutter filling the mind or soul. He gets it quick, feels it big.”

Though purpose might elude us, contentment is achievable. I sit in a camp chair on Independence Pass, a drive-up lookout at 12,000 feet with views of the Rocky Mountains’ Continental Divide. Paco is curled in my lap. He whirs in soft, irregular snortles. He’s 10 weeks old and as I notice the completeness of his relaxed, sleeping weight, I look across the rounded mountain tops and feel my own completeness, sunken into the canvas chair. I’m here. It’s now. I’m at peace. 

The night Paco comes home from the vet after being neutered, he can’t figure out how to relax with the giant plastic cone around his neck. We set up his bed at the foot of ours, and sleep flipped around with our heads by him. I try to coax him down, but he stays propped up. He whines periodically, and finally at 4 a.m. I crawl on the floor and pull him into my embrace, let him drape his chin over my shoulder. I feel his entire weight drop onto me. He sighs now, no whine.

My favorite leash is our hands-free leash. You wrap a black strap around your waist, thread the velcro through a metal ring and fold it upon itself. Then you clip the strap’s other end to Paco’s collar. One day we’re out running and I realize it’s like a 10-foot, heavy-duty umbilical cord. Living thing secured to living thing. Not exactly how I thought I’d end up thinking about it when I was dreaming about owning a dog to accompany me running.

One night when we’re sleeping in our car, Paco curls up in the space next to me and Jordan. “He’s our animal,” I say. “We love him. He loves us, too, right? He didn’t have a say in the matter — we just plucked him from the farm. Made him ours. Now he relies on us for his life. And we are happy to reciprocate.”

Jordan, impersonating an old man voice, says “Well, if you ask me, he got pretty damn lucky.”