I’ve been writing this post for about three months. WordPress tells me I’ve revised it 59 times. I’m still trying to figure out what losing Puzzle means. It feels like a metaphor for … something. But as my life continues, that meaning constantly changes. So for now, I will just write about Puzzle. Not about Puzzle, the metaphor of loss – about Puzzle, the puppy I loved.
~ ~ ~
In reality, the Puzzle Week lasted longer than just a week. Puzzle stayed 8 or 9 days with me. And after that, I kept going back almost every day. I’d walk past her, her mom and her littermates’ house, call “Pupupupupup!”, which would bring them all out into the alley. Puzzle would walk with Game and I while the others stayed back. Sometimes, I’d pick her up and let her hang out at my house for a few hours, and then drop her off again. She’d sleep on my lap while I worked, or chew up flip flops on the living room floor.
All in all, our relationship lasted about five weeks, and we saw each other, I suspect, every day except for about 3 or 4 of these days.
When I entered the part-time-puppy-relationship – that is, when I asked her people to let her stay with me for a week – I already knew our time together had an expiration date. It wasn’t the right time for me to add another dog. Her family might place her with someone else at any point.
I knew that I could share 24-7 hours of quality time and then return a puppy because I’ve fostered dogs in the past, and I’ve rehomed my own dogs when it was the right choice for us. I usually do so calmly and pragmatically, and with little or no tears. I trust my gut. Sometimes, you need to let someone go.
~ ~ ~
It took me two or three days to love her. I don’t use that word lightly in general. I do not love all dogs who stay with me. I haven’t even loved all of the dogs I have owned, or shared a house with. Yes, I’ve been fond of all my dogs. I’ve even “loved” all my dogs in that throwaway comment sense of “Love you, see you later” as you walk out the door, your mind somewhere else. But I have not loved all of them in the way I’m using the word here. In the words of Mark Dotey: “this way to the mountain”:
Maybe I loved Puzzle because of the way she curled up with her back pressed against my neck every night, ever since the moment she convinced me she was not going to sleep on the balcony. She slept through the night, always making contact. Her body was warm, and I could feel her breathing. It was easy for me to fall asleep next to her. (Usually, with a new animal – human or otherwise – in my bed, it takes a while until I sleep peacefully next to them. The smell of someone other than myself – their coat, their soap, their sweat, their skin – these details keep me up at night until they become familiar. It takes a conscious decision to let them become so, and several nights to adjust.
When I let Puzzle sleep in my lap while working on my laptop, she did the same thing: she’d curl up, and I’d feel her rise and fall slowly, breathing, sleeping, snoothing, trusting. Sometimes, she snored a little. Ever so gently. The warmth of her little body. The not-entirely-but-still-quite softness of her short brindle fur. The nose, always a little drier than Game’s. The floppy ears between my fingers. And just like that, I loved her. It was easy. It was this way to the mountain. And I let myself love her. Just like that.
~ ~ ~
Love’s always also cerebral. All emotions are, to a certain point. My prefrontal cortex is pretty good at monitoring what’s going on. As long as it’s in charge, love isn’t scary either. It only gets scary when other parts of the brain take the driver’s seat. Early on, I can still take an exit if I want to. Eventually, there are no more exits – but until that moment – and I see that moment coming for a long time; it’s like a warning sign I’m approaching: “Last gas station.” Until then, I can take an exit pretty much anytime. Knowing that gives me confidence and it makes me brave, and able to open up to people.
I did not care about exits with Puzzle. For the time she was here, I was all in, and that was clear from the moment she first curled up with her back against my neck.
~ ~ ~
Loving a dog is paradoxical. When you choose to not take any of the exits, you already know it will end in sadness. It’s part of the reality of loving a being with a lower life expectancy than your own. The moment you allow that puppy to tumble into your arms, you are saying, “I accept that I will lose you. I know I am going to grieve you, and I will love you anyways.”
I’m finding this pretty remarkable, mostly because I have never allowed myself to feel this way about any animal (human or otherwise) this quickly. I’ve definitely got that foreboding joy thing going on that stops me in my tracks when I approach the last gas station sign: this far, but no further. You’re allowed to “love,” but not to love. You get some of the joy, but not all of the joy, because all of the joy isn’t worth the sadness. You’ll grieve more deeply if you love more deeply, Chrissi, and if you don’t want to grieve deeply, it’s better not to love deeply. You know deep grief. You know it’s an abyss that is f*cking hard to not jump into once you’re at its edge, so you better stay away from the edge altogether. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s how you survive.
I’m not saying I haven’t let myself love people in that way – I have. But never this quickly. It usually takes months for me to get to that sign, and by that point, I’ll know if it will be worth it. (At least by now, at 36 years of age, I hope that I know, at least some of the time.)
I’m almost always aware of the landscape I am traveling through (and how far I’ve gotten on that road; the abundance or lack of exits and gas stations) on a meta level as I let new people or other animals into my life. It’s a trade-off: do you want the safety of not fully loving and never fully grieving, or do you want the joy of fully loving and the devastation of fully grieving? I simply didn’t care when it came to Puzzle. I didn’t analyze, get scared, run away, or keep her at arm’s length. I just loved her without giving it a second thought, and it was easy, and it was good.
I’m not even sure there ever was a time I loved a dog in that way and this fast – but if there was, it was when I was 8 or 10, and that dog’s name was Waldi. Maybe the moment something in my brain decided to protect myself from loving dogs that way again – maybe, actually, from loving anyone in that way – was when I eavesdropped on my grandmother telling my mother that Waldi had died. They were not going to tell me, and that was the biggest betrayal I had experienced in my young life. Maybe I never loved Waldi in that way to begin with. Maybe at that age, you’re not capable of loving in that way yet. Maybe I just used him as something to project my feelings onto (I wrote him letters every day). I don’t know – I don’t trust childhood memories, including my own.
The first time I loved a person like that was MANY years (and two relationships) later. It was E, and the reason I loved her like that was that I didn’t see it coming. I missed the last gas station sign because I didn’t realize I was on that kind of road. E was a woman, and I didn’t yet know I could fall in love with women as well. E came with an abyss, and I didn’t let her go gracefully or remember her fondly.
~ ~ ~
I gave Puzzle back, as promised. More than a week had passed. I had taken all the videos I was planning to take for my CU instructor certification and for my puppy leash skills blog post. It was time. I thanked her people, and got permission to visit from the friendly Señor with the mustache who looked like he was someone’s favorite uncle.
I knew I would miss her, but it was okay. She’d be nearby. I’d visit. Indeed, I ended up visiting her every day. It’s the thing (I thought, smiling to myself on my way up her callejón) that I do. It’s the wanting-to-see-the-animal-or-human-you-love every day. It’s who I am. Loyalty. Stability. Trust. I’ll be there. Always. I’ll be your person, and I want you to be mine. That’s what love means to me. I had thought our relationship would pretty much end when I returned Puzzle (that was before I loved her). It didn’t. And the reason it didn’t was because I loved her this way to the mountain.
Days passed. I kept visiting. I was talking with someone about a home for her – one that she’d be a great fit for. Nothing was sure yet, but life was good. Puzzle wasn’t living with me, but she was in my life, and she was bringing me joy every day. I was her person.
~ ~ ~
One day, she was gone. I came back the next day, and the day after. She never did. I talked to her people – they hadn’t seen her, and they hadn’t placed her. I kept going back for more than two weeks, hoping, against all reason, she’d come tumbling down the stairs.
I’ll never know what happened to her. If I took an educated guess, she is most likely dead. I’m familiar with the mortality rate of free-roaming puppies: it’s 81% before they reach reproductive age.1 There were 5 puppies to begin with, which means that 4.05 of them would die before they were, say, about 6 months old. They’re a couple months old now, and there’s one left.
I’m familiar with the causes of the disappearance of puppies, too. 63% are being directly or indirectly influenced by humans. I know the numbers because I researched them for my presentation at the 2022 Lemonade Conference.
Every single person I’ve shared Puzzle’s disappearance with has told me to imagine someone stole her and gave her a great life. That’s probably the first comforting thought that comes to mind, and my friends want to comfort me. Maybe that’s what happend. Maybe it isn’t. In the former scenario, she’s still alive (which is great). But I’m not liking this scenario. It says something about people that I don’t want to be true. (You don’t just steal someone’s puppy, for fuck’s sake! You go up to the house, and ask if they are selling or giving the puppy away. We’re in Mexico, so the answer will probably be yes. If you were the kind of person who would actually end up giving the puppy a great life, I hope you’d ask first.) So I can’t even say I prefer this scenario to any of the others because it says something terrible about people, and I do not find it comforting.
~ ~ ~
Would I do it again? Sure, with Puzzle. She was special for me because I let her, and that made all the difference. I can live with the fact that I’ll never know what happened to her, and it doesn’t diminish the good times we had. (Which is surprising.) I remember Puzzle fondly, not sadly. I remember her in the way a good thing you needed to let go makes you equal parts sad and happy. It was sad, but okay to let her go. And it was great while it lasted.
The luckiest people in the world are the ones who have something the loss of which will break their heart. The bravest people are the ones who know that joy and loss are two sides of the same coin, and who are willing to dive in anyways. Maybe I’m becoming that person. I’d like to think so.
~ ~ ~
(1) Doty, Mark. Dog Years. A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.
(2) Paul, M., Sen Majumder, S., Sau, S. et al. High early life mortality in free-ranging dogs is largely influenced by humans. Sci Rep 6, 19641 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep19641