I haven't written much about Bennie, but she has been a constant in my life for almost 14 years. She's seen many animal faces come and go and has lived in five states. She's been around for the end of a marriage and for the evolution of another. She's gone from being the youngster to the matriarch. And, after all these years, I can still remember the first time I saw her like it was yesterday.
I was on the phone when I noticed a skinny, nearly hairless, little beagle wandering around the homes of my cul-de-sac street. I grabbed a handful of dog food, filled a bowl with water and went outside to see what I could determine about this dog's condition and where it might have come from. The dog came right to me and was obviously hungry and thirsty, but her priority was to give and receive love. She was the sweetest thing, not at all scared, and she climbed into my lap as soon as I sat down on the sidewalk next to her.
Up close, she looked even worse than she had through my front window. Her coat was extremely thin, and her feet were completely bald. I can remember noticing that I could see bare skin where the nails grew from the toes. I had never seen that before. And when I ran my hands over her body, I could feel that her ribs were deformed and turned out where they should turn in. Her back was humped upward, and she walked with a limp on her back left leg, which turned outward from her body at an awkward angle. She was absolutely beautiful!
Of course, she wasn't wearing a collar or any form of identification. I suspected that she might belong to the neighbors directly across the street from me, but I didn't knock on their door. I had had experience with them and their pets before. Once, I found a young Golden Retriever with an injured and severely infected tail on their property, and I had called the animal control officer. On another occasion, I took in what I thought was a stray Basset hound. Several weeks later, those neighbors came to my door looking for the dog. When I confirmed that I had her, they asked if I wanted to keep her, so I did. I thought that they had had two beagles, but I hadn't seen the dogs in months, and their grass was over a foot tall in the backyard. If this little one "belonged" to them, I certainly wasn't going to be the one to return her to that hell.
When the animal control officer showed up, she confirmed what I had been thinking. She was sure that this dog belonged to my neighbors, but she told me that she wasn't going to contact them. If they wanted the dog back, she said, they would have to answer to her, explaining the dog's condition and probably facing charges for animal cruelty. "They won't call," she said, "and in three days, she's yours if you want her." So, three days later, when I called the officer, I was informed that the gate would be unlocked and I was free to claim my "new" dog any time.
A trip to the vet confirmed the degree of the neglect that she had seen. She had heartworms and she had bone deformities on her ribs which were most likely caused by malnutrition and neglect as a puppy. (It would be several more years before I discovered through an x-ray that her limp was caused by her left rear thigh bone being out of the hip socket, probably since she was a puppy.) Her hair loss was not the result of mange, but was also most likely caused by a lack of nutrition. The vet explained that her body had gone into survival mode, so any food that she did eat had gone to simply sustaining her life and other functions, like growing and maintaining her coat, had shut down. It would be a long road of recovery ahead, but since this little dog had escaped that horrible place, I was committed to doing what I had to do to help her get there.
The first big decision was to pick a name for this sweet, cute, little dog. Beagles may just be the cutest dogs ever to walk the earth, and this dog was superbly cute, even by beagle standards. She had big, brown doe-like eyes, floppy hound ears, and freckles up and down her legs. She loved to be held like a baby and was as quiet as a mouse. She needed a name that matched her cute face and sweet disposition. I also wanted something that represented my Louisiana roots. I soon settled on Beignet and started calling her "Bennie" for short.
I've never driven as fast as I did to rush her there, and I was relieved that she was still breathing when we arrived. The vet told me that a large clump of dead heartworms had been released from her heart, entering her bloodstream, and becoming lodged in her lung. He would administer steroids, fluids, and oxygen and would watch her through the night, but he didn't give me much hope for her survival. When he called me the next morning, he actually sounded surprised when he said that she was ready to go home.
Bennie is now almost sixteen-years old. She has been relatively healthy until a year ago when she needed to have an infected tooth removed. A few months later, she suddenly refused to eat, and it was discovered that she had an infection in her gall bladder and gall stones. Her age didn't make her a good surgical candidate, so she was treated with medications and a change of food and recovered. Another month later, a lump was tested and removed successfully when it indicated a cancerous growth. Now, she is experiencing new problems with her liver and is being again treated with medication and a food change.
She has evolved from that sweet, quiet, little dog in need of love and attention into the queen bee of the household. She found her beagle bay after a few years of silence and now slips easily into it whenever another dog (or person) needs to be given a warning. And, her warnings sometimes aren't the end of it for the offending party. Bennie has been known to relentlessly pursue her target, requiring intervention and removal to stop the attack. At this point, she has completely and totally embodied the "grumpy old lady" moniker, though her face, now white with age, is no less cute than it was in the beginning. She still has those same puppy dog eyes that hold the power to melt the coldest, hardest heart and, of course, those freckles....those freckles!
Those freckles belie the tough spirit of the dog inside that little, less-than-perfect body. Bennie's attitude and tenacity have carried her through some hard times, and she has been at death's door more than once only to turn her tail on it and to walk away from it. She's a survivor, and she's taught me about what it means to face adversity with bravery, faith, and more than a little stubbornness. And now, as she returns to the vet tomorrow for a recheck of her bloodwork, I pray that I will have more time to learn from her, more time to make up for her rough start in life, and more time to admire those freckles.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Monday, February 18, 2013
I was that kid who knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. I can't remember ever wanting to be anything else. I knew that I would go to an Ivy League school. (I thought that it would be Harvard until I learned that they didn't have a vet school.) I knew that I would not have children. I didn't plan on marrying anyone, opting instead for a male neighbor who would cut my grass and let me borrow his big, woolen sweaters. I wanted to have horses, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, goats, and a donkey. I knew exactly what I wanted and how I was going to get it all.
Until I failed. In my defense, it wasn't through a lack of trying that I failed, but rather through a lack of focus created by trauma and its resulting mental health disturbances. You see, I hadn't factored into my life equation things like rape, self-injury, dissociation, and clinical depression. I didn't plan for my complete and utter unraveling, for the alienation of my friends, for the judgment of my family, for the feelings of despair and hopelessness that would rule my life for so long. I hadn't prepared for the unhealthy relationships, the financial hardships, and the lack of direction or purpose.
I lost years to this detour, but unexpectedly found a new path when I became involved in helping others who had experienced sexual violence. I was trained to answer the phone to speak with survivors and to provide emotional support and information about available services. After some time as a volunteer, I was offered a full-time position with the agency. I started doing public speaking and community outreach on sexual assault. I suddenly felt a sense of excitement about my work, fulfilled by the promise of doing something that might prevent another person from experiencing what I had, and happy for the first time in over ten years.
That was almost 15 years ago, and now I am beginning to question whether I have followed this path as far as it can take me. I am frustrated by so many aspects of the work that never seem to improve--the police response to reports of sexual assault, the low likelihood of arrest or prosecution of the perpetrators, the judgmental reaction of the general public, including the professionals tasked with providing care and services to victims, and the constant justification for the work that I do, from the begging for funding to the meticulous documentation of client demographics and services provided. I feel powerless to truly help victims and particularly powerless to end the cycle of violence faced by women in our culture. I dream of an end to the sadness, pain, and confusion that I feel vicariously through the people that I try to help.
I'm facing a crossroad...one direction leading me deeper into the work that I have been doing with more credentials and new skills and the other direction leading to a fresh start on a brand new path. I don't know how to choose. I don't know which option to follow. I don't know whose advice to heed. But, I feel a sense of obligation to that little girl, the one who knew so strongly and so deeply what she wanted to be when she grew up. She didn't get to fulfill her dreams, and life led her into a new direction. Now, I have the power to make a choice, to let that girl be who and what she wants to be, to take control of the next phase of my life. I may not have become a veterinarian, but there's still time for me to dream and to make my dreams come true....once I decide.