Abandon your sad history; meet me in the fire.
–Jackson Browne, “Under the Falling Sky”
I don’t remember the age at which my birthday became a day to stop and gape at the size of the number that represents my age and ask the proverbial question:
“What have I done with my life?”
The question first popped up on some birthday in my late 30s or 40s, and has returned on schedule every year since.
The answer requires a whole day of brooding, all of it difficult and pained and full of regret; a meditation on blown chances, squandered friendships, waste-of-time relationships and roads less traveled that I blithely chose only to find out why no one else had chosen them before: They were rocky and dusty and left me with bloody feet. Plus, they were dead-ends.
Somebody asked me a few weeks ago how I got into this mess with dogs. It has nothing to do with not having children, though that always ranks high on my regret list. It does, however, have a lot to do with the annual birthday regret party of 2006. It was three days after I turned 47 that I made the decision to call the vet and end of the life of my 17-year-old cairn terrier, Seamus, who was by then completely deaf and almost blind; incontinent and slow and growing an apparently malignant tumor on his tongue. People around me — neighbors, a boyfriend at the time — scolded me for not making the call sooner. “You prolonged his pain to postpone your own,” chided one particularly sensitive dog expert next door. I disagree to this day: I knew Seamus and he knew me, and he let me know when he was done.
I knew Seamus and he knew me. He was born on my 30th birthday.
My regret was not that I didn’t let him go sooner. My regret, silly as it sounds, was that I had trained him and taught him tricks and taken him with my everywhere, and yet never put him into the obedience ring where I could show off all that he was. Thanks in part to the legacy of Toto, I had grown up believing that the cairn terrier was among the smartest and most noble and biddable of dogs, and neither the patient and brilliant trainer I had worked with, Marion Lewis (then of River Falls, Wisconsin), nor Seamus himself disabused me of this notion. For 15 years he did not see leash; he walked so reliably near me on the streets of Hollywood that I kept losing whatever leashes I had for him. He jumped into my arms on command, sang, sat up and begged, retrieved without coercion. He slept next to my head on my pillow.
I apologized to Seamus as the vet inserted the needle; I apologized to the universe, to the people around me, to the gods I don’t believe in. I kept apologizing in the weeks that followed, howling on my bicycle as I pedaled to work that I should never have left Minnesota and never stopped training with Marion Lewis. I still have the AKC Obedience Regulations from 1990 that she gave out at class. She encouraged us to work toward an AKC Companion Dog title with our dogs. I kept that booklet because I had an idea in my head that when I got time, I would fulfill that ambition with Seamus. When I got time.
And then 17 years went by, during which I was busy and thoughtless and searching for love and a place to land in the world. Seamus grew old, Seamus died.
All I wanted after Seamus died was another Seamus. I contacted breeders. I searched Colonel Potter’s Cairn Terrier Rescue and hordes of other sites several times a day, burning through boxes of tissue and maxing out credit cards by sponsoring sick and senior dogs. Finally, after three weeks of this, I saw a picture of a dog on Petfinder.com that looked an awful lot like Seamus did as a puppy. I wrote to the rescue group and arranged a time to meet him. My friend Cindy and I drove 90 miles to Murrieta, California and met Thomas. He was nine months old. He was not housebroken. He could not walk on a leash. I was not sure I wanted him. He slept in Cindy’s lap as I drove, all the way home.
Thomas is not Seamus. This became clear early on when on the evening of his first obedience class, he slipped through my arms and took off running, through the parking lot and out into the soccer field when he nearly got crushed under a stampede of cleats. After three years of obedience classes — after he had learned to heel and retrieve — he was still pulling the same stunt. But in the random sorting of dogs and humans throughout history, it was Thomas that had stepped into my great pool of regret. Thomas had been anointed as my do-over dog.
This time, I promised, I will not be too busy, too needy, too selfish or distracted. This is the dog I will train for the ring.