“Dog Years” by Mark Doty
That bittersweet feeling of finishing a book that takes you to the bottom of the ocean and delivers you again and again to the salty air for breath. How long will it take to find another book that holds onto you like this?
Mark Doty’s brilliant memoir, Dog Years revealed to me how important it is to name, to memorize publicly the impact of our animals on our lives. I was particularly moved by his experiences in Mexico. While in San Miguel Allende, Doty is touched by a yellow Mexican dog, a street dog who is both starved for love and food, and is wary in her experiences of people, but after testing his character, quietly gives the full weight of her head to his hands. I often think people and animals are the same in their needs, only animals have different filters. Their transparency is as natural and pure as survival itself, the apparitions and masks don’t apply. And we need them to reflect the idiosyncratic, the to be discovered, experienced and explored interiority of our inner lives and domesticity.
Dakota is a prey animal. Similar to the yellow dog he both needs and fears me no matter how many years and salads we’ve shared. He’s vulnerable. More than his mate. His nose is stuffed up most of the time, he’s not sure how he’ll breathe everyday. He has sores on his hocks, his belly is too round to clean himself fully (my fault) and he’s aging, his eyes are growing bad, his toenails turn outward causing him pain. In psychological terms his approach/avoidance tendencies are overwrought with dramatic stains; charged with haughty determination to have it all in spite of it all. And this is what touches my heart about him. He struggles like this daily with ‘issues’. he will chase and growl at his mate if he thinks she will get more than him in any way–more of me, more food, more hay, and come running over to me, lick my hand, burrow into my hand, purr and follow me and then after I’ve left go running over to her for forgiveness. He burrows into her, spoons her, licks her ears. She licks his ears back, forgiving him every time. Every day the drama changes.
And when I adopted him, he was the troublesome character, the rogue rabbit nobody wanted. That’s because he was mine from day one. When he lay on my shoulder next to my ear, he let out a sigh. We seemed to share something; like a sympatico of disruption, an intensity of having made it through certain insertions, intrusions, not so desirable outcomes at times in life. And still this daily need to love and play.
At the end of Mark Doty’s book, the last chapter is tortuous if you’ve lost an animal you love deeply. And the letters from readers. It seemed there wasn’t a dry eye in the experience. I am so happy for this book and other authors who have paid attention to the stewardship—the gift, the reflection of our best selves in our furry companions. The hardest part is realizing Dakota’s age and health conditions (that have been seen by many vets regularly without the hope of full healing) and understanding that I may be next in line to write a memoir. I promise not to call it Rabbit Ears. Maybe Rabbit Glares. ; )
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