If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
— 1 Corinthians, 13:1
It’s a cold, wet January morning, and I am circling the yard of my Grant Park home with a shovel in my hand.
I am strung out and shivering. I haven’t had enough sleep. There’s a bitter metallic taste in my mouth. My breath is rank with coffee. The stench of death is in my nostrils.
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Between a spindly spirea bush and a leafless hydrangea, I struggle to dig a grave.
The basin and pedestal of a heavy concrete birdbath lie overturned on the soil like a fallen monument. I’ve had to drag them out of the way so I’ll have space to break open the earth. A brown cardboard box sits on the ground nearby. From time to time I try to place it in the hole.
To my horror, it won’t fit. Every time this happens, I panic.
Is this even legal? Am I supposed to be doing this? What if the neighbors, just cranking up their cars and leaving for work, see me in this messy, anguished state? What if I can’t make the hole big enough? How will I ever bury the body?
No matter that the furry black object in the box is a little dog that I have known for less than a year.
At this moment I feel more sorrow for the sleek lifeless creature in the cardboard casket than for any soul I have ever known, living or dead.
I press my right foot on the shovel and push it deep, deep down into the dirt.
The day she found me
She appeared on my front porch, as if in the murky edges of a dream. I pretended she wasn’t there and hoped she’d go away. I didn’t even have the bigness of heart to give her anything to eat.
And yet she refused to leave.
Eventually, I started noticing her behind the house, looking lost and scared. But always looking. Looking straight at me with her haunting, mysterious eyes — like bottomless black pools of despair.
Still, I ignored her.
“Do you know there’s a dog living in your backyard?” a neighbor said to me one day.
“Oh, I know,” I replied. “I just don’t know what to do about her. I’m afraid if I feed her she won’t leave.”
“She looks kind of traumatized,” another passerby said a few days later. “Looks like she might have had puppies recently.
“I would take her, but I’ve got too many already. My husband would kill me,” the lady said.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “She just won’t leave. Maybe I need to call animal control.”
And then a remarkable thing happened.
The lady looked me in the eye. And for a moment, there was a connection. Something profound. Something prophetic.
“Well, you know,” she said, tenderly. “She seems to like it here. It’s like she’s found her home. She chose you.”
One day, as the rain poured down, my niece and I noticed the little dog cowering in the backyard. She was trying to stay dry under a canopy of branches. She had pushed herself so far back into a corner that she seemed in danger of disappearing.
“Do you think if we got her onto the front porch she would stay there and dry off?” my niece asked.
“Yes, let’s try,” I said.
We got the shivering dog onto the front porch. As I recall, she jumped right up on the wicker settee. Like she owned it. Like she belonged there.
From that moment on, there was no turning back.
My history with dogs
On the South Georgia farm where I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, we treated our dogs only slightly better than our hogs.
No matter how hot or cold the weather, canines stayed outside, never in. We fed them table scraps, even chicken bones. And though we thought of these farm dogs with some affection, we didn’t treat them like family members.
And certainly we never dressed them up, put bows in their hair, took them to the groomer or the veterinarian or mourned them when they died.
After I went off to college, moved out on my own and took a job, it never occurred to me to have a dog. Dogs were messy; I liked neatness and order. Dogs bark. I needed peace and quiet. (Excuse me! I am a writer for heaven’s sake.)
When I left my job at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2009, after 27 years as an editor and writer, I found myself working at home in solitude — trying to figure out how to piece together a living from random jobs. I had a mortgage and a car payment.
The last thing in the world I needed was another mouth to feed. Or so I thought.
I was not — let me repeat — NOT a dog person. I cannot state it more plainly than that.
Yet others begged to differ.
Single people like me are used to be quizzed about why they are not in a relationship. But over dinner one night at a fancy restaurant, an acquaintance took it a step further.
“So you don’t have a partner. What about pets? What about a dog?”
“No dog, either,” I said, wrinkling my face into a fist and thinking to myself, I wish you would leave me alone.
In return I received a judging glare that seemed to say: What kind of heartless loser are you?
One particular cousin told me I needed to go down to the Humane Society posthaste and pick out a pet to keep me company.
I found such suggestions to be patently absurd, presumptuous, none of their damned business. As it turned out, they were right.
But it wasn’t a dog or a cat that needed rescuing. It was me.
I love Lucy
She came to me with nothing. No name, no story, no chip, no tag. I didn’t even know how old she was or what breed.
Before I could even get her checked out by a vet, I knew I wanted to keep this skinny, skittish, mysterious girl of the streets.
Though she was terrified of being leashed and cowered in nooks and crannies, she slowly began to trust me. She was smart, obedient and carried herself like a little lady. Her toenails tapped precisely on the floor. And once I bathed her, her black-and-tan coat shone lustrously. I called her Lucy, after the cousin who tried to convince me I needed a dog.
The vet guessed she was 6 and perhaps a dachshund-Chihuahua mix. Indeed, she had the elegant nose and long body of a dachshund, the fierce loyalty of a Chihuahua.
And she was an excellent cuddler.
I’d lie on the sofa. Lucy would nuzzle between my chest and arm. I could not get her close enough: Safe. Warm. Happy.
She was also terribly sick.
On our first visit to the veterinarian, I sensed something was amiss when the lab technician knocked on the door and told the doctor, “I need to see you for a minute.”
Lucy had tested positive for heartworms, a pernicious, potentially fatal parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes.
The vet didn’t seem overly concerned; he prescribed a round of antibiotics and twice the normal dose of heartworm preventative. On my next visit to the same animal hospital, a different vet told me that such a slow treatment might eventually kill the worms but that the long-term damage could be severe.
After a good bit of agonizing and the counsel of two other veterinarians, I chose the option of injecting Lucy with two rounds of the arsenic compound Immiticide, 30 days apart. The risk of this treatment is the side effects. Once the foot-long, spaghetti-like worms die, they have to go somewhere. As they begin to break up in the bloodstream, they can form clots that may devastate lungs or kidneys.
Before the first injection, I stood next to the vet as he looked at an X-ray of Lucy’s heart for the first time. He winced at what he saw — indicating that the heart was enlarged and the damage could be extensive. We gave her the treatments anyway.
The final shot was administered on Nov. 15, 2012.
Ten weeks later, Lucy was dead.
I will spare you the finer details about the spastic coughing attacks, the emergency trips to the vet, the steroid injections, the oxygen that accompanied Lucy’s last days.
With the final beat of her heart, as I stroked her and tried to comfort her, she wailed like a human being trying to speak: Oooow. Oooow. Ooow.
Louder and louder. Until it stopped.
Lucy did not come with a script. But in my head, I have written one for her.
I believe she contracted heartworms at a very young age (it only takes one mosquito bite) and never saw a vet before I found her. I believe she was seriously abused and was either dropped off in my neighborhood or ran away when she couldn’t take it any longer.
In the end, I am grateful that we had our good half-year together. It wasn’t enough. But that wasn’t my call.
I tried to show her a good time while I could. She ate very well, charmed everyone she met, saw the seashore and even sported a little sweater emblazoned with peace symbols.
But here’s what abides: The experience of letting Lucy into my life — then trying to save her — cracked me wide open. To the possibility of love, and the gasping sorrow of loss.
After Lucy died on that chilly January morning, I texted a friend and asked him what to do. He told me to bury her in a box with a toy.
Crumpled over with grief on my bathroom floor, I wrapped her in a gauzy white scarf and placed her in the box with a tiny Teddy Bear. I wrote a note — “Dear Lucy: I will love you forever and will never forget you” — and tossed it in.
And that’s how I found myself digging a small grave in my backyard on that surreal winter day.
It seemed like the right thing to do. After all, she had picked this place and refused to leave. I believe it’s where she wanted to be.
My funny Valentine
On the night Lucy died, I called my 87-year-old mother at the nursing home where she lives to tell her the sad news. I had to brace myself to keep from sobbing. Mama, of course, had a simple solution.
Go get another dog, she said.
“It’s too soon,” I said. “But I’ll think about it.”
A couple of weeks later, I started looking for dogs online and visiting pet-adoption centers around town. I missed a couple of wonderful puppies — a handsome basset blend; a sweet, floppy cocker spaniel — because I just couldn’t make up my mind quickly enough.
After a few days of searching, it seemed like I knew every dog at Atlanta Pet Rescue & Adoption on a first-name basis. But not a single one of them was right.
Late one night, I was looking at the agency’s website when this adorable little face popped up: Shirley. About 9 months old. Part dachshund, part shih tzu.
I was there the next morning when the doors opened.
When they let Shirley into the room where I was waiting, the first thing she did was jump in my lap.
I took her home that day: Feb. 13, 2013.
I loved her name, but decided to make one minor addition. I would call her Shirley Valentine.
Today, Shirley plays in the backyard with her chew sticks and toys — oblivious to the memory of Lucy and the way she rewired my heart.
Before Lucy’s arrival, I had tricked myself into thinking I had everything that the world could offer: friends and family; meaningful work; a house full of beautiful objects; a well-stamped passport. Now I see that it meant nothing. Lucy came here looking lost and hungry, but I was the one who was famished.
Boy gets dog. Boy loses dog. Boy gets another dog, and they live happily ever after: It would be tempting to tie this story up like a package with a bright red bow.
But life is never so tidy. Owning a dog is hardly a panacea for everything that troubles the soul. But for me, it’s a start. A glimmer.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Since leaving the AJC five years ago, I remained in touch with former colleagues and observed many of their sweet and tender pet stories and photos on Facebook. I have posted a few myself. I was honored when Personal Journeys editor Suzanne Van Atten became interested in the powerful tale of Lucy, the little dog that changed my life. She encouraged me to share the story with AJC readers and kept pushing until I accepted her commission. Once I sat down to write about Lucy, the story flowed like tears. Readers may follow me on Twitter at @MrBrock — and see more pictures of both Lucy and Shirley on my Instagram account, where my handle is WendellDavidBrock.
About the reporter
Wendell Brock was a long-time theater critic and food writer on staff at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution until he left five years ago to freelance. Lucky for us and our readers, he still covers theater and food for the AJC.
About the photographer
Brant Sanderlin has more than 20 years’ experience as a photojournalist, including 14 at the AJC. He shoots a variety of assignments, including front line action during the Iraqi war, sporting events, breaking news and human interest stories.
Pet owners should be vigilant about heartworms. Talk to your vet about when to test for heartworms and the best heartworm preventative for your pets. Not giving your animals a preventive can lead to serious, costly and unnecessary consequences, including death. To learn more about heartworms, visit the the American Heartworm Society website at www.heartwormsociety.org
Next week: It wasn’t until songwriter and piano player Bruce Gilbert was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease that he got serious about his music.