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Color of Joy

This seemed like a perfectly reasonable statement to me—I tend to take my attachment to her for granted these days, as a simple and central fact of life—but Lisa’s eyes widened a little when I said it. She said, “Wait a minute. You’re scaring me.”

Scaring her? I looked at Lisa, aware of a sudden sense of dissonance, as though I’d just exposed too much. It was an uh-oh feeling. Uh-oh, she doesn’t live in that world, she probably thinks I’m wacko.

So I took a deep breath and tried to explain. This is a complicated task, trying to describe how a relationship with a dog can be healthy and sustaining and rich. It’s hard even trying to explain that the attachment does, in fact, qualify as a relationship, a genuine union between two beings who communicate with, respect, and give to one another. Unless you fall back on the one or two pat explanations we routinely trot out in order to explain the canine place in the human heart—dogs give us unconditional love, dogs are “good companions”—it’s hard to talk about loving a dog deeply without inviting skepticism. A lot of people, quite frankly, think intense attachments to animals are weird and suspect, the domain of people who can’t quite handle attachments to humans.

So there was a good deal I didn’t tell Lisa. I didn’t talk about what a central force in my life Lucille has become in the years since I acquired her. I didn’t talk about how I basically structure my life around the dog, organizing the day around the morning walk, the noon walk, the evening outing. I didn’t tell her how much I think about Lucille, how much I hate leaving her alone when I have to go out, how I’ve either written off or vastly reduced my involvement in activities that don’t include her—shopping, movies, trips that involve air travel. I didn’t use words like joy or love or affection, although it’s safe to say that Lucille has given me direct and vivid access to all those feelings.

Nor did I tell Lisa how much I need the dog, which might have been the most honest thing to say. Lucille came into my life in the aftermath of a period of enormous upheaval. In the three years before I got her, both my parents had died, my father of a brain tumor and my mother of metastatic breast cancer. Eighteen months to the day before I got her, I’d quit drinking, ending a twenty-year relationship with alcohol, and opening up a third abyss in my life. So I was wandering around at the time in a haze of uncertainty, blinking up at the biggest questions: Who am I without parents and without alcohol? How to make my way in the world without access to either? How to form attachments, and where to find comfort, in the face of such daunting vulnerability? Lucille has been a fundamental part of my answer to those questions: in her, I have found solace, joy, a bridge to the world.

But I didn’t go into all that with Lisa. Instead, I used safe descriptions, clinical terms. I talked about loneliness, and how Lucille’s presence had helped ease the fear and emptiness that accompany a major breakup. I gave the dogs-as-pack-animals speech, explaining how dogs’ need for social structure really does turn them into family members of sorts, highly relational creatures who look to their owners for leadership and guidance and companionship. I talked about what a comforting presence she is, how much pleasure I get out of walking in the woods with her, watching her play, even just sitting beside her while she’s curled up on the sofa at home.

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