Ten Things My Dog Taught Me That Made It Possible For Me To Get Married
By Pam Houston
My husband and I sleep with an Irish Wolfhound named Dante in a wrought iron queen-sized bed. Our combined weight is somewhere in the vicinity of five hundred pounds, and while I don’t know enough math to tell you how much square footage of the bed’s surface we cover, I can tell you that when we are all in there, it is impossible to determine the color of the bottom sheet.
We start out at bedtime in a fairly organized fashion. I get in bed first, in the very center, and lie on my side, facing the center of the room. Dante gets in next, and spoons his long body in front of mine, facing the same direction. Since he gave up all dog-like postures years ago in favor of human ones, and since he and I are approximately the same length, we are toe-to-toe at the foot of the bed. My nose comes down right at the back of his head, so I can fall asleep to the cinnamon smell of his ears. Martin squeezes into bed between me and the wall, and I am in my favorite place, the meat of the sandwich between the two pieces of bread I love most in the world.
Where we end up, by morning, is anybody’s guess. Dante has a habit of encroaching, and I, ever fearful of inadvertently pushing him off the bed, have been successfully trained to scoot—at the slightest provocation—nearer to the wall without really waking up. That leaves Martin wedged in the crack between the wall and the bed, which he sometimes responds to by reversing direction and wrapping his similarly long torso around Dante’s and my feet.
Dante, meanwhile, will have decided that he and I are not quite close enough, and will have rolled over to face me, slinging his front leg over my shoulder and his back leg across my knees, burying his often drippy nose into my neck and blowing damp little snot bubbles for the rest of the night.
I often wake to Dante chasing rabbits in a dream, his back paws kick-kick-kicking at my shin bones, his nose twitching rapidly against my cheek. Martin’s big toe will be stuck in my ear, and the comforter will have disappeared entirely. Dante will have somehow managed to get all four pillows under his body, and if I try to extricate one of them he will resort to what we call “gravity dog mode,” in which he somehow triples his body weight without ever opening his eyes. Sometimes when I wake up I’m in the crack, Dante is diagonal across the entire bed, and Martin has given up and gone to the couch.
I can almost hear your heads shaking, hear you pronouncing my marriage doomed. But neither Martin nor I would ever think of changing the sleeping arrangements, and we figure whatever we lose in sleep we make up for in other ways. Martin says, what’s a few nights on the couch in exchange for what so far is turning out to be a pretty great marriage. We both know that if it wasn’t for all the things that living with Dante has taught me, I would have never figured out how to be the marrying kind.
Lesson #1: That if your paws are too big to fit in your ears, you have to get someone else to do the scratching.
God played a dirty trick on the Wolfhounds. He gave them huge Marmaduke clubs for paws and these silky delicate ears with tiny openings. When they try to scratch it looks like somebody trying to tweeze their eyebrows with barbecue tongs. There are an infinite number of reasons why humans need Wolfhounds, but the one undeniable reason Wolfhounds need humans is so that the humans can scratch their ears. The two methods Dante prefers are as follows: the knuckle of the forefinger, bent hard and rubbed around the outermost section of the inner ear; or, the thumb and forefinger stretched over the back of the head and massaging the skin directly behind the ear cavity. When I hit the right spot, Dante leans hard into my hand, makes little grunts of happiness, and gets a far away look in his eye.
My father is a man who takes selfishness to almost bizarre extremes. When I was a kid he used to say, Pam, one day you’ll realize you spend your whole life lying in the gutter with somebody else’s foot on your neck. More recently he called to say, I’m just sitting here looking over my life insurance policy and realizing that there is no way I’m going to reap the rewards of the money I’m putting in here, so if you want the thirty grand after I’m dead you are going to have to start making these payments.
I knew his world view was wrong, even as a kid; I just didn’t know in how many ways. I used to believe his selfishness was getting him somewhere, allowing him to rip off the world in some way that he found satisfying. And even though I had no desire to emulate it, I saw it as a tactic that worked for him, and later—although I was ashamed of this—one that had dramatically influenced me.
I’ve spent a lifetime unlearning the things my father taught me: Life 101 for those who speak generosity as a second language. When I’m scratching Dante’s ears I begin to understand just how much my father’s selfishness cost him. I understand —in the simple language of a born-again kleptomaniac—that it really is better to give than to receive. Not because of what you might get back, not because of some kind of karmic balance, but because it simply is. Dante always receives the scratching with such simple gratitude, with such total pleasure, and that pleasure comes straight back into me, multiplied one hundred times.
“Ten Things My Dog Taught Me That Made It Possible For Me To Get Married” (partial excerpt from Dog Is My Co-Pilot)
copyright © 2003 by Pam Houston