Irish Stout, Soul mates, and Four paws
This is a story I have wanted to write for a while, but I have hesitated. Writing the story of Guinness in inextricably entwined with the rise and fall of my first marriage…which is inextricably entwined with a time of major Gotham City-ish darkness in my life. Well….you have to get through the darkness to step into the light, right? So, here we go.
I remember the conversation like it was yesterday…
“I really wish we could have a dog…” (For at least the 500th time)
“Fine! You want a dog? Get a dog! But it has to be small with short hair!”
We were young and newly married, both busy band directors just starting our careers. I had grown up with dogs and missed having one terribly. My husband didn’t want to deal with having pets, but I finally wore him down. Persistence, nagging, whatever. All I knew was it was my birthday, and I wanted to have four paws back in my life. I just had to.
The very next day, I took off to the Tampa Humane Society after work with a dear friend- didn’t want to give anyone a chance to change his mind. I will never forget the cacophony that filled the kennel when we walked in, the smells, dog after dog of all shapes and sizes behind the silvery walls of fencing. I was overwhelmed. So many dogs, so much noise….So much. All of the sudden I noticed a dog that wasn’t joining in on the welcoming chorus. A black and white dog sat next to the fence, staring intently at me. I mean seriously- like he was trying to communicate “get me the hell out of this madhouse!” through a Vulcan mind meld. I walked closer…those soulful deep brown eyes, the incredibly gentle demeanor. Something about this dog tugged at me. I tried to walk away and look at other dogs, but couldn’t. I was mesmerized. Could this be the one? Little did I know how much this was the one.
I found the attendant and asked to meet the dog. It turns out “Dominick”was a two-year-old basset/ spaniel mix who had been surrendered the day before by a family that was moving and couldn’t keep him. He was sweet, gentle, and engaged with me immediately. He was my dog.
“I will take him!”
“Sorry, but your husband will have to come meet him, too, and we are closing in a few minutes.”
This is when I heard the “wah-wah-waaaahhh” sound that they always play when someone misses a question on a game show. My husband could be difficult. Very difficult. And I was not good about standing up to him. I never was.
We were total opposites. Both musicians, we knew each other in college, but never traveled in the same circles. I was Mary Poppins; studious, didn’t drink, practiced all of the time. He was bright and talented, but into partying, into a lot of things I wasn’t. We ended up meeting again when I was teaching my first year and he was student teaching in the area. We started getting together…we fell in love. It was never easy, but I was inexperienced and didn’t know it didn’t have to be that way. And, just like I believe we get the dogs we need to get, I believe every person is put into our lives for a reason. Time for some major growing on my part.
My friend and I went home excited about the dog.
“He is so sweet! A beautiful dog with a great disposition!”
“Is he small? Does he have short hair?”
“…He is so sweet! A beautiful dog with a great disposition!”
My husband sighed.
We went back to the Humane Society the next day and met with the dog. I could see it in my husband’s eyes…he saw something special, too.
“Let’s call him Schnapps.” The dog came home with us…and promptly threw up all over me during the ride. Totally worth it. Our journey together had begun.
We decided that “Schnapps” didn’t fit. We came up with Guinness, as the dog was a little stout, and we loved the Irish brew. Guinness it was.
Over the years, I bonded with Guinness in a way I had never bonded with an animal. He fit seamlessly into the fabric of my life. He was there with me through years struggling to learn my craft as a teacher, years spent learning how to make a marriage work between two incredibly different people. He went to North Texas with us as we left teaching public school and went to earn our Master’s degrees. He went with me to spend a month each summer in Missouri, playing in a festival chamber orchestra. He was my confidant, my exercise partner, and when things got tough, my therapist.
When we finished our Master’s degrees, we applied for jobs and were hired at good schools. One major problem- my husband’s was in New York, and mine was in North Carolina. We made the decision; our careers were important…we would make it work. Guinness, of course, went with me to the mountains.
Surprisingly, this was an incredibly happy time for me. The only place that would let me have a dog was an A-frame summer cabin on top of a hill ten miles from the college. It was perfect- great views, claw foot tub, peaceful. I loved my new job, loved the people, loved being on my own in this beautiful place. I went to Syracuse each month to visit my husband, but never felt comfortable there. I missed my mountains, I missed the peace. Guinness and I had one exciting winter where a huge winter storm came through with 40-below wind chills….we were in a summer cabin with only a wood-burning stove…and I was from Florida. At this point, I was thankful for my time in Girl Scouts, even though my fire building skills left much to be desired. Practice makes perfect…and I got a lot of practice. Guinness and I huddled together at night to stay warm. My independence began to grow as I took care of myself and my dog in this new life, and I liked it.
Two years later, the band position opened at Mars Hill, and my husband got the job. Life changed again. Guinness and I had to leave our cabin in the sky and learn again how to live with the storm that was my husband. Don’t get me wrong, I was very happy to be together again, but looking back, I see how I always changed myself to be what I thought he wanted me to be. This was my mistake, not his, and I paid for it dearly as time passed.
Guinness and I took long walks through the mountainous paths. He was always there, at my feet, watching me. I felt sometimes that I didn’t even need to talk to him- he just knew. Knew what I wanted him to do, knew what I needed from him. He traveled with me, sometimes went to school in the evenings with me when I taught. Always a perfect gentlemen, fitting into any situation with ease, a beautiful part of my world.
My once peaceful life became more challenging. My husband was often angry, and things became uncomfortable at work and at home as he pushed the boundaries to build his career and work toward the next big move. I found solace in Guinness, shedding many tears into his soft fur, staring into his gentle eyes. He listened to my whispered words of heartache, and he never judged. He was just love, pure and simple.
By the time we won grants to pursue our doctoral degrees, things were getting more and more challenging in our relationship and at work. We took a leave of absence to complete our year of residency, and I hoped the time away focusing on us would help. My husband wanted to leave Guinness with friends for the year, but I put my foot down. Guinness was going with us…Period. The time away had many positives, but the chasm between us seemed to grow deeper. Still, I kept hope, wanted to believe everything would be okay.
We returned to Mars Hill for two years to fulfill the requirements of our grants, and we both finished our dissertations and completed our doctoral degrees. I remember going by myself to celebrate after passing my quals. I was elated that I had gotten through this last hurdle, but very sad to be celebrating such a milestone alone. I also felt something growing inside of me, a feeling of strength, of accomplishment, of confidence in myself for completing this goal….a feeling that I was breaking through some sort of wall that had always been around me…and that I wanted to be happy, no matter what it took.
The decision was made to look for positions at larger universities, to continue growing professionally. We both knew this would signal the end of our marriage, and for that I was deeply sad. Fifteen years with someone, years spent growing up…this was going to be the biggest challenge of my life.
I won two jobs in one amazing week, and chose to go to Birmingham. My husband was not happy about my decision, still trying to control every step I took. I was ready to take over my own life, and Guinness (and his little buddy, Murphy, a deaf and partially blind dappled dachshund that I adopted), took off for a new life in Birmingham to live in a funky old blue house on a hill.
As I threw myself into my new job and into doing renovations on my 1920 home, I noticed that Guinness was starting to show his age, slowing down, his muzzle turning white, and showing some signs of confusion. Still, he was my constant companion, sitting by me as I gardened, sleeping next to me at night, always watching, always my guardian.
A year after coming to Birmingham, I met Dan. I knew that he was my other half, and we decided to make a life together. Dan was loving and gentle, and accepted my dogs and love of historic homes without hesitation. What a different relationship this was- one of mutual respect, laughter, and love. I felt like I had truly come home in every way.
I watched Guinness sink deeper into dementia, and I didn’t want to accept the fact that he wouldn’t be with me much longer. He had been such a huge part of my life- over fifteen years at this point- and I couldn’t wrap my mind around losing him. But the time was coming, and soon.
Dan and I made the decision together. It was time to let my Guinness go. He was telling me it was time. Our home vet for the cats was also a good friend of Dan’s, and we arranged to have him come to the house so that Guinness could leave us in front of the fireplace he loved so much. The night before, I drank Guinness Stout and held my soul dog. I prayed that none of this was happening, but the morning came, Dr. George came…it was time.
We lay Guinness down on a blanket in front of the fire and I lay down with him, looking into his eyes, kissing his nose. We lit candles, and Dr. George gave Guinness the first shot that would relax him. Dan read some beautiful poetry. I told my dog how much I loved him, how much he meant to me, his sweet muzzle wet with my tears. He stared into my eyes.. The second shot. He kept staring into my eyes, and it felt so much like he was telling me, “It’s okay, my job here is done. Let me go.” I felt my heart break, could almost feel the snap of the part that broke away that would always belong to Guinness.
I got up the next morning and ran a 10-K race on Thanksgiving in his memory. It was hard…I had cried most of the night. When I got done with the race, I looked down and saw a small plastic toy on the ground in front of me..that was the spitting image of Guinness. I still have it- the first sign he sent to me. There have been others when I needed them most.
We buried his ashes and planted a garden where I could see it from the kitchen window. I had a special marker made, and Dan put a light in the garden. The light is erratic, working at odd times. One day when I was missing Guinness particularly badly, I went out to his garden. I have a habit of kissing my finger and touching the marker. This time, I kissed my finger, and as soon as I touched the stone, the light came on. For real. Goosebumps covered my body.
I realize that my love for Guinness was not only for the great dog that he was, but also for what he represented, and what I experienced with him over those many years. Losing him brought some of the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. But loving him brought some of my greatest joy.
Sometimes angels are sent to us to guide us through times in our lives that are tough, to ferry us across the abyss and to the place we are meant to be. And sometimes, those angels have four paws and are dressed in fur.