Lessons from a little prince.
My best friend died three months ago.
Her name was Gypsy. She was a German Shepherd and the other half of my soul.
I’ll talk about her someday when the hole in my soul will start to close. Right now I can’t. I can’t see to type. I walked. I cried, I choked, I drunk. I tried everything I could to dull the pain. Nothing helped. Three months later, I am still suffocating with the pain of losing her.
I tried replacing her.
We live in frozen Upstate NY, but we’re spending this winter in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Our condo doesn’t allow pets, otherwise we’d have a dog already. My husband has made passes to every mangy, flea-ridden cat he meets, even though our old, deaf black cat Paxil is waiting for us back home. She’s taking care of our son for the winter.
We looked at pet stores. We considered fish. They are hard to communicate with. I got infatuated with an Angora rabbit. He was pretty, but wouldn’t fetch. Hedgehogs looked good but were too thorny. Steve talked to a parrot. The parrot talked back. It was rude.
We found a group of volunteers caring for a pack of homeless dogs hanging out at the local crematorium. A local family keeps an eye on them, though they have plenty of their own.
The volunteers get them food. They take them to the vet for vaccinations and when they’re sick. They give their meds. They play with them.
Finding them homes would be ideal, but it’s unlikely. They aren’t used to belonging to someone. They don’t play by the house rules. The two young puppies may stand a chance for now. As they grow and become part of the pack, their chances grow slim.
We committed to visiting a day a week. We walk for an hour to visit them — we live at the other end of the town — we check on them, we try to medicate them, we hang out with them.
They enjoy treats. Who doesn’t? They appear to love liver pate and chicken offals made into gooey slippery balls smelling like somebody’s long forgotten dinner.
We prepped for our first day. We brought peanut butter and marshmallows. Wouldn’t you love that? Our girl Gypsy was a peanut butter connoisseur. She preferred Jiffy. She liked it chunky, served chilled inside a marrow bone.
These dogs looked at us as if we were nuts. One, being polite, tried a marshmallow. He spat it out when I wasn’t watching.
We’d also brought two kinds of sausage. They had no interest in the fermented Vietnamese sausage with chilis, the one I liked. The bland one worked. The puppies were all over us. The older dogs came closer. Some accepted the sausage. A couple allowed us to touch them.
We returned a week later. We brought home-cooked blood-cake. I cooked it. I tried to get Steve to taste it. No go.
The final product was clot colored, spongy, and it smelled like blood. Now you’re talking, they said. They allowed us even closer.
My new black friend Ai Ya allowed me to brush his back. Steve’s chosen, Oo Ee a shaggy, formerly white dog looking wise, like shepherds do, said no.
He took some blood cake. But no touching. Steve insisted. The dog left.
I told Steve a story. You may have read it. Maybe as a child? If you didn’t you should. It’s “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
“A pilot stranded in the desert meets a little prince from another planet, who’s trying to make friends.
His planet is small, so small that you can circle it in minutes. There, you can watch sunset after sunset just by moving your chair.
The little planet is threatened by baobabs. Their seeds fly in from faraway places. They are so big that their roots would tear his planet apart. To keep his planet safe, the little price must weed the baobab seedlings every day.
One day a seedling turned into a rose. The rose was vain and silly, but so beautiful!
He fell in love with her, but she was so silly that he had to leave her. He went to visit other planets.
On one planet he meets a pretty fox. He asks her to play with him.
“I can’t,” the fox says. “I’m not tamed.”
“What’s tamed?” he asks.
“To tame is to create ties…For me, you’re just a boy like all the other boys. I Don’t need you. You don’t need me either. For you, I’m just a fox like all the other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.”
“I understand. There’s a flower…I think she tamed me.”
“If you tame me, my life will be filled with sunshine. I’ll know the sound of your footsteps. Other footsteps send me back underground. Yours will call me out of my burrow, like music. And look! You see the wheat fields? Wheat fields say nothing to me. But you have hair the color of gold. Once you’ve tamed me, the wheat, which is golden, will remind me of you. I’ll love the sound of the wind in the wheat.”
“I don’t have time. I have friends to find and things to learn…”
“The only things you learn are the things you tame,” the fox said.
“What do I have to do?”
“You have to be patient. First, you’ll sit down a little ways from me. I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye, and I won’t say anything. Language is a source of misunderstandings. But day by day, you’ll sit a little closer…”
I’ve paraphrased this. You should read the real thing, it’s way better. But back to our dogs. We returned. More blood-cake, more liver pate, more doxy.
Like the fox, every time they allowed us a little closer. My friend Ai Ya lays on my feet to get brushed. Steve’s Oo Ee came closer. Not close enough to be touched. Not yet. The puppies followed us when we left. We had to shoo them off. That was sad.
We’ll come back again with more treats. We’ll get even closer.
This is how you tame dogs. This is how you tame foxes. This is how you tame people.
Friendship comes from many hours spent watching, from a little ways away. From many silent looks. From trust built slowly, moment by moment, like fermenting wine. Like fruit and wheat and trees, friendship takes time to grow. And patience. And acceptance. And kindness.
We’re taming these dogs. It’s an imperfect art. We should be there every day. We should stay longer. We should be more patient. We should spend time one on one building ties, instead of a pack of them and a pack of us. We should give more them than spongy blood-cake, doxycycline, and impure water.
Still, because people are people and dogs are dogs, we are slowly taming them, a little more each time. Every day they allow us closer. They learn to trust us. They learn to love us.
Just as we’ll abandon them to go back to our frozen New York tundra.
Others will take our place. More volunteers. More pate. More doxycycline. There will be more hours of waiting patiently to get closer.
I hope that’s a good thing. I hope these dogs, who’ve never had their very own human, will feel the compassion the volunteers give them. I’ll hope they’ll thrive. I hope it’s better than nothing, even if it’s not enough.
As for me, I care for them, I really do.
But they aren’t mine and I’m not theirs.
I have already been tamed. My soul is a bottomless hole of sorrow and loss that no cute puppy can bridge.
Rada Jones MD is an Emergency Doc in Upstate NY. Her novel Overdose, an ER thriller is now on Amazon. As for the dogs, you’ll find them at https://www.facebook.com/AllAnimalsAreSuay/. They can use your help.