My dog Louis is the bane of my existence. He follows me around all day like my shadow. If I try to hug my son, he pushes us apart. If I sit next to him, he nestles himself right between us. When I tuck my son in at night, he jumps on the bed and, like a wolf protecting his pack, he growls, snarls and snaps, ready to bite.
My son is amused, I am infuriated, and the words euthanize and adoption come to mind. Instead, I ignore him. I dare him. I pin him down. He settles, sheepishly, until the following night. Jump, growl, snarl and snap. Repeat.
He weighs 14 pounds and shares the same birthday as my son. Territorial, moody and unpredictable, he terrorizes my house day and night. Unless he falls severely ill or gets run over by a car, this four-legged creature could go on to reign in my house unchallenged for at least a decade.
I tell him that I love him multiple times throughout the day.
How did I get here? “Say no to dogs” was the mantra I lived by and an opinion I often volunteered. This is how deep my conviction was.
Well, that was a different time, pre-diapers and dog-poop bags, when I still had dignity and the right to a safe distance from others’ excrement.
But my son, now 13, has been infatuated with animals from a very young age and, because he had lost his father when he was still a toddler, I overcompensated. Before the dog that he always wanted, we tried unsuccessfully to own several different species of animals or pets I thought would require little attention and fit in our life split between two countries, an ocean and a continent apart. That, however, brought more loss to his life and more wounds for me to tend to. By the time he turned 9 years old, death, now so constant, had become the unwelcome guest we could never get rid of.
“Get a dog,” friends said, between our many losses.
We started with cats. After all, they have nine lives, or six or seven, depending on your culture’s beliefs. The first one we adopted was a rescue. He was grumpy, on a strict diet of canned tuna, had very little interest in interacting with us and generally preferred to spend his days lounging on top of my kitchen cabinets, out of reach and out of sight. He died of old age.
A year later, we bought a Scottish fold kitten that we immediately fell in love with. When he died a few days later, my son was heartbroken. The following summer, we tried again, this time with a British shorthair, but he too lived only for a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, my father, who indulged my son’s every whim, turned my apartment into a petting zoo of sorts. At one point, we had rabbits, guinea pigs, turtles, tortoises, parrots, fish, hermit crabs, cats and a lamb. Those who died were immediately replaced by exact lookalikes before my son could notice. After a while, that became unsustainable, and we grew tired of trying to cheat death.
My husband, Anthony Shadid, had tried to cheat death too. He survived a sniper’s bullet that barely missed his spine, wars, explosions and a kidnapping. He often talked about his near-death experiences. If I did not know any better, I would say he was convinced of his invincibility.
In his memoir, “House of Stone,” published posthumously a few weeks after he died in February 2012, my husband described how he felt during these moments, fleeting in their duration and everlasting in their impact, as “emptiness, aridity, hopelessness, the antithesis of creation, imagination.”
And yet, as a foreign correspondent based in the Middle East, a region rife with violence, he found himself, time and again, heading in the direction of death. I never asked him to stay home, to sit an assignment out. I never asked him because I too was a journalist, often running in the direction of fire.
I also did not ask him because part of me was accustomed to violence, having grown up in Lebanon during the civil war including, as a 9-year-old, having seen my father standing on the balcony of our apartment trying to locate the source of the shrapnel that had just shattered our window. Meanwhile, my aunt, crouched in a corridor, was crying hysterically. I may have concluded that day, subconsciously no doubt, that there are two groups of people: those who cower in fear and those who stand in the face of danger, and subsequently decided which group I would belong to.
Before going on dangerous assignments, my husband would offer statements like these: “I will live long enough to see our grandchildren graduate from college” or “When I retire, I want to learn how to make artisanal cheese and raise goats.” We were both too young to think about retirement or a quiet life, but I suppose it helped him to say them out loud as a way to convince himself that he was coming back.
My son, it turned out, was also playing a game with death. If he pretended that no pet was dying, then maybe the irreversible could be reversed and his father could be alive again. He finally admitted it when the last two animals standing, an African gray parrot and a South American one (on the list of endangered species, though we did not realize this until many years later), were given up for adoption. Disheartened but not ready to accept defeat, we declared a truce with death.
Five years later, our truce, like many before it, was shattered as my father took his last breath on a hospital bed. By then, I was ready to accept defeat.
I have a lot to be thankful for. But in the face of death, everything pales: Priorities shift; convictions, no matter how deep they run, falter; and hope dims. So does the ability to be grateful, to hold on to happy memories and to dream of better days.
My father’s life, like his death, in a hospital bed in the middle of a pandemic, was tragic. He came of age in the 1960s and was active in the student movements that swept the Arab world in the late ’60s. He dreamed of a strong, united and free Arab world with the nostalgia of a man who had lived through the Islamic Golden Age from the 8th to the 13th centuries.
But the decades that followed were anything but golden, as a series of epic defeats and disappointments unfolded, each chipping a little at his soul. He was a successful lawyer but spent more time chasing intangible dreams, the perfect recipe for disappointment.
Unlike my father, my husband was allergic to all the pets we once owned. Indeed, his death was caused by a fatal asthma attack triggered by an allergic reaction to horses. He was leaving perhaps the most dangerous assignment of his career, which he also told me was the best. He spent the last week of his life in northern Syria with rebels, taking every possible precaution to stay undetected by the groups loyal to the regime.
My father has been gone for three years, my husband over a decade. Neither of them had met Louis, who answers to nicknames like Dog, Louis Loup (French for wolf) and, my favorite, Lucifer, because, well, he has a dark side. Or maybe because I need to believe that he, unlike the Roman deity, will live, not forever, but long enough for his life and death to mean something.
When I look at Louis, I sometimes think of the life I would have had with my husband. I tell him he would not have been part of it. Louis and all those pets before him were an attempt to replace the irreplaceable, but in vain. My son still wishes every birthday, as he blows his candles, for his father to come back. “I wish I could just hear his voice,” he once told me.
Fathers are not replaceable. I should know. I had 40 years with mine, and that was not nearly enough. He was everything my husband would have been for his son. He played video games with him and spent hours discussing history, an interest all three shared. They sketched plans for a zoo they wanted to have and researched wild animals and their habitats.
I did not have time to be a bad wife, because my marriage was very short, and so I have no guilt about my relationship with my husband. I loved him then and I love him now. My father, though, is a different story. Every day I tell myself: I wish I had been a better daughter. He said I was his hero and rarely called me by my given name, always by my nickname or a term of endearment. He would say I was a good daughter. I wish I could believe it.
A friend told me after his mother died that he feels at peace with her passing. She had lived a long and happy life and he was grateful for that and the time they had together. I am not at peace with either death. I could have asked my husband not to go on the trip he never came back from. I could have been a better daughter to my father.
“Will he die soon?” my son asked the vet when she finished examining Louis two days after we brought him home. She reassured him he was in great health. Half-convinced, he asked me again on the drive home and regularly for the first few weeks.
So much hinges on Louis’ well-being and long life: He is the vessel that will restore my son’s faith in the world. And my son is too young to not have hope.
So, for now and until I know better, I remain at the dog’s service. O, Lucifer, how have I fallen!
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