Years ago, my sister Joy was working her shift as Services Director at a massive co-op complex in NYC with thousands of apartments. Early evening I get a call from her telling me to come to the Bronx and bring Betty, my late wife, with me.
You see, in many NYC apartments, sometimes people die and leave animals. In this case, my sister had removed several large dogs from an apartment and there was still a sound of crying and whimpering in the unit. After another careful search, my sister found another dog, a white, matted, scared, female Maltipoo.
My sister is smart: When the three of us drove to the Bronx, she made me stay in the car. Betty came back with a blanket wrapped around the most incredible set of eyes I had ever seen. At that time I was a 275 lb man, doing so-called manly things, and this thing shows up and reminds me that there is room in all that manliness for a dog that most men wouldn’t be caught dead walking.
When I saw her, I instantly gave in.
We took her home and kept her warm with a small box and a bunch of cozy blankets. We tried to feed her, but she wouldn’t eat. Late morning, while still dark outside, I heard crunching…the dog was eating, and I didn’t disturb her. Before she came home with us, she had been in an apartment with dogs far bigger than she was. She couldn’t eat when they were fed, so she would sneak out and eat while they were asleep, full or otherwise occupied. This was heartbreaking.
My son, Kenny, was young and happy to have a pet. Essentially, she was a lap dog so she would lay on either my lap, Kenny’s, or Betty’s and sleep while we were sitting and working, or just watching TV. We had to name her and I left that chore to the family. Kenny called her “Puffy”—I winced, but soon it made sense. I took the dog to the vet to get shots, checkup, etc., and in the vet’s office, I met some of the neighbors’ dogs named Shug (as in Shug Knight, the jailed Rap Impresario), and Biggie (as in Biggie Smalls, my favorite Brooklyn-based rapper who was killed a few years ago, and whose murder was never solved). There was beef between Shug Knight, a West Coast Rap CEO and Puff Daddy (Sean Combs aka P-Diddy at the time), so it made sense that my dog was named Puffy. My male mind justified it, even though there was nothing even remotely rap related about this little white dog.
I was Puffy’s favorite: I fed her, groomed her, walked her. Let’s focus on the walking.
Do you have any clue how many beautiful women and cute kids will walk up to you and talk and go, “awwww,” when they see a Black man with a little white dog? Most of these people would never have approached me otherwise. I knew everyone in my small suburban New Jersey town and it was because of Puffy; I was deemed safe, or a good bet to not be an angry, aggressive dude. I am not saying that presumption is correct but it’s definitely something I noticed.
I can remember on Valentine’s Day, there was a dog collar I saw on the Coach website. It was a bright red collar with a big metal heart hanging embossed with the Coach lettering. I bought it, and she looked great in it. (The photo for this post is my actual Puffy and the collar I bought her that day.) With that act, I solidified my manliness even further.
Puffy was one of the most pampered pooches because I pampered her. Kenny’s fascination with the pup wore off when he was a teen. My wife was dealing with depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse, so Puffy’s care was mostly in my hands and she was essentially my companion. Everyone loved this dog who brought love and a sense of caring for something besides yourself. Even my mom, who only embraced the love of dogs in her final years of her life, loved this little white pup.
My wife’s substance abuse, depression, and anxiety worsened and problems started to mount in our 18-year relationship. There were no children in our union, so our defacto child was our Maltese…Puffy. As with children, Puffy became embroiled in the madness; an innocent victim. Betty became increasingly hostile, so I took her to therapy, medical care, and drug rehabilitation. None of it worked. I began to think she was bipolar, but how do you convince someone they need help if they are spiraling into their own darkness?
The physical violence started, the damage to things she cared about in the house. Throwing glasses in the house and at me. Then she started hitting me. I did not hit her back, but I could not stay in the abuse, either. Things were getting out of control. My solace was caring for Puffy, who kept me calm. Dogs know, and when I left the bedroom, Puffy followed me. She would try to sleep with Betty, but because dogs know about the spirit of a person, she chose ultimately to sleep with me every single night.
Dogs are like humans in many ways. When Puffy was upset or did something she knew was wrong, she would go hide under the bed. I would urge Betty to leave her under the bed, and when she tried to reach under the bed to pull her out, she would get nipped by Puffy.
One particularly volatile evening, when Betty was enraged—and I am not blameless, I reached my breaking point of patience, also—she was walking upstairs with the dog, and in anger she stopped, said something, and literally threw Puffy at me. She threw the dog. I left the house shortly thereafter, I couldn’t do it anymore. I was fearful of my physical safety and how I might react to her continued anger, disrespect, and violence. I needed peace.
I made a huge and fatal mistake…I left Puffy thinking that it would help keep her calm. It didn’t, it only got worse because there was no one to care for Puffy, and she was again neglected. She became matted and ultimately died of dog diabetes and in my opinion, a lack of love because I left Betty. I knew Betty was incapable of loving herself enough to seek help that she took seriously. I thought that I could save Betty. I could not save her, but I could have saved the one spirit that loved me unconditionally, my Maltipoo Puffy.
On a scale of colossal life screw-ups leaving Puffy with Betty is a big one because I could have saved her and I didn’t. I had to save myself, but I should have found the space in my heart to save the pup that loved me and protected me emotionally because in that house, in that life my caring for her made sense. I was not a responsible pet owner: and I could have done better and in my pain, I left a soul unprotected. I find it very hard several years later to forgive myself for that.
Out of all God’s creatures that arent human, dogs are my favorite because they love us unconditionally. They love us in ways we wish other humans could. In many instances, they are replacements for the love we don’t get from humans. They are four-legged lessons of compassion that we should be able to show to each other. So, from time to time, you will see me hug a dog way too long, or let a dog lick me in the face. It’s my way of seeking redemption, of showing respect and love for something the Lord made that in a moment of weakness, I personally lost sight of and maybe that little white soul with the red Coach collar will one day let me know I did my best.
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