Saturday, December 1, 2007

For the Love of Dog

Those who know me are fully aware of my love of dogs. Not many know the reason.

When I was almost 6 years old, my family was involved in a horrific car accident on Easter Sunday, 1967 which resulted in the death of my sister. Obviously, my life was irretrievably damaged from that day forward. The guilt I experienced for being the one who survived instead of my sister tortured me my entire life. When I tried to vocalize my feelings, I was met mostly with silence. The family's hush-hush approach, refusing to explain to me what was going on, caused deep insecurities. My parents became brooding, depressed, angry, and every other negative emotion you can fathom. I thought it was because they wanted Deanna alive instead of me. The thought plagued me for years.

This picture was taken a few hours before Dee's death. She's the cute, smiling one on the left; I'm the fearful one on the right. Today would have been her 44th birthday. I wish we had known each other longer and shared our lives. Maybe we could have comforted one another I'd like to think. Or, perhaps she would have been perfect, and I would have been jealous. Actually, nothing could be worse than trying to compete against an angel for your parents' attention.

Due to my mother's extensive injuries, I spent several months with my grandparents. In addition, I was late entering the first grade because of the accident. To add insult to injury, my parents did not enter me in kindergarten the year before, which made me feel even further behind my classmates. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Milton, gave me a big hug, being exceptionally attentive to me when I entered her class. I will never forget her kindness.

About a year after the wreck, my mom, dad and I were kneeling at my sister's grave site. I was fixated on the tears streaming down my mother's face. Suddenly, my dad looked at me, hissing through clenched teeth, "Stop staring at your mother." It was the most hateful tone I had ever heard. The look on his face was filled with fury, chilling me to the bone. Every time I recall that moment, it fills me with intense pain. Soon after, my dad left us. His visits were sporadic, and he rarely picked me up for any type of extended visit.

One positive thing that came from my dad was a little Beagle puppy he brought home. From the moment I locked eyes with Cocoa, my heart was overjoyed. When he saw me, his tail wagged wildly - for ME! Cocoa's happy face made me feel loved, and I had not felt anything like it before. He was my playmate and bicycle buddy, accompanying me all over the neighborhood. Cocoa became fiercely protective, snarling when others approached me. Sometimes he would even growl at my mother. One day, he bit a neighbor who had tried to take me for a ride on his new motorbike. The next day my dad came to get Cocoa, saying that he had found another home for him. I cried and cried and cried until I was completely dried out. I worried that no one would love and care for him the way I had. Worse, I didn't want him to feel that sense of abandonment I knew so well. Oh, how my heart hurt.

When I was about 16, I went with a friend to look at a litter of Shepherd mix puppies someone was giving away. I sat on the ground to get a closer look. "Dusty" curled up in my lap as though he had always belonged there. I took him home and hid him in one of my big dresser drawers until I had the courage to show him to my mother. I guess she finally grew weary of fighting with me because for once, she did not roll her eyes or scrunch up her face at the idea.

When I got married at age 18, Dusty came with us. We rented a little wooden house with a big yard, about 2 miles from LSU. While I worked, my husband went to school. One day, he came out of class, and there was Dusty, waiting outside the lecture hall, wagging his tail, greeting my husband with gusto! While the thought of him trotting after that bus was cute, it was also worrisome. He did it a few more times, so we started making sure that he was secure in the house after that. Dusty's devotion was particularly notable, considering my husband was not a big animal lover, nor was he particularly kind to Dusty.

When our firstborn came along, Dusty became too much for us to manage with work, school, and parenthood. My mother's good friend, Martha, had two little boys who wanted a dog, so we let Dusty live with them out in the country. A few years later, Dusty developed cancer. Martha spent a great deal of money trying to save him, to no avail.

I miss Dusty's kind eyes and sweet disposition. Seen here, wearing his sweater while donning my sunglasses and hat, demonstrates just how patient and loving he was.

Deanna, I still miss you after 40 years, and wish with all my heart that I could have traded places with you on March 26, 1967. For over 25 years, I put up my Christmas tree on December 1, in honor of you. I don't know why. It just seemed a good way to honor your memory. If you were watching, I hope it made you happy.


Nida said...

This was all beautiful to left me teary, smiling and wanting to give u a big ass hug! I've known you for along time and didnt know these details. All I want to tell u is many of us can agree ur a blessing in our lives.

Tammy@Simple Southern Happiness said...

My heart ached for you having to experience such pain at an early age, nothing was your fault. I can not even imagine what was going through your young mind. I pray that over the years GOD has given you and your family some kind of peace.

She Who Carries Camera said...

Gail...what an awful experience for all of you to have to endure. What a precious little girl. My heart ached to read this post and I can just imagine that no matter how many years pass, your heart still yearns for your sister. Hugs to you.

Linda said...

This is such a touching post, Gail. To a small degree, I can relate to your feelings of guilt. My brother was killed in an auto accident in 1967, too. But we weren't children. He was 25 and married with two small children. I was 22. Seeing my parents' grief made me wish it had been me, instead of their only son.

It's hard to go through the death of a sibling at any age, but your situation was about as bad as it gets. I'm so sorry you had to go through that. I hope things continue to improve in your relationship with your dad.

Lisa Gordon said...

I did not know Gail, and I am truly so very sorry.
This is such a beautiful post.

Barbara said...

Gail, I waited until I had time to really read this. You've gone through so much loss... my heart aches for you, but what strikes me most is how you came through this and grew into such a warm, loving, forgiving woman. I can't imagine a daughter more devoted and loving than you. Too many of us hold grudges against our parents for their faults, instead of realizing they're human, struggling as we are, making mistakes as we do. It doesn't soothe the pain, though. Hugs to you, sweet friend.