Bixby’s New Year

It’s beginning to look a lot like…California should about this time of year. The crew installing new shrubs and lawns and decorative walls at the apartments up the street have stripped down to their undershirts. Yes, it’s vest time. Although for Jane it’s vestment time, with the services this Christmas eve, and again tomorrow morning, Christmas Day. Hard, intense work, and she is utterly into it. Meanwhile, my work here is completed. With two retail forays under my belt by 11 AM, really there was nothing more. Well, there is the matter of Jane’s birthday present, but I’ve still got 10 days or so. No, it’s beginning to look a lot like a warmer version of any other day. Which is good. And judging by the expressions on people’s faces, the sun is warming everything.

Even more warming is Bixby, redoubtable Shetland Collie, survivor of mass imprisonment…with 25 other dogs, abandoned at some demented person’s house in Oakland…who has just emerged fresh from oral surgery. Twelve of his teeth having been removed under total anesthesia. Why this dental catastrophe? Well, rescued dogs like Bixby have a certain amount of baggage, as it were. And since I do, as well, this whole surgical saga has moved me.

At their most instructive, dogs illustrate a stripped-down version of the human heart. All they want is love. Yes, there’s food. But their mostly uncomplicated need for affection is mostly soothing and heartening. But it’s the complications – and with rescued dogs there are many – that enliven the otherwise predictable exchange of doggie love. Okay, a transgenic emotional relationship is fraught under any circumstances. Who knows what dogs really feel? They feel something, that is clear, and our human projections fill in the blanks.

Back to Bixby. The adage about not teaching old dogs new tricks has some factual basis, I am convinced. Truth is, I know nothing about dogs. But Pavlov must have discovered a thing or two. And dogs do appear to be highly patterned. They respond to repetition and regularity. And, let us not wander too far afield…so do humans. Yes, we have more variety. Our insight gives us the opportunity to interrupt patterns, see beyond them. But the latter takes a fair amount of willpower. Of which we humans have a limited supply. So, embarrassing truth be told, we have a way of falling into patterns ourselves. Where was I?

Oh, yes, Bixby and his teeth. His abusive puppyhood included an abusive diet, let us assume. No standard veterinary care. When he and the 25 other dogs were discovered, all were in a desperate state. Bixby’s fur was falling out. He was blind. But after time and love and, yes, large veterinary bills, he is thoroughly back in doggie action. But with some significant deficits. In human terms, I would describe these as…not to be either melodramatic or pull one’s punches…the aftermath of trauma.

Though not all would agree. What makes a snarling guard dog snarl? Systematically harsh treatment, I would conjecture. What makes a Bixby cower? More or less the same thing…except for the systematic part. Who knows what survival skills we…or dogs…adopt and why? Bixby’s adaptations could be described as submissive. So could mine, to some degree. My need for approval, for example. Acceptance.

So Jane had quite a few misgivings about taking her little Shetland sheepdog in for his oral surgery. Simply abandoning him, as it were, left in a cage to await his anesthesia…well, it was hard for her. And it was even hard for me to hear. Abandonment and trauma being one of my own things.

So how did Bixby emerge? Well, with a certain amount of drama. Another dog just ahead of him in the surgical queue had a vast number of teeth extracted. Delaying Bixby’s operation by hours. That much more time in confinement…of which he must have fearful memories. Then finally coming home from the veterinarian after 11 at night, in pain and woozy. He did not seem to recognize me that night. But by the morning, he responded when I called his name.

Which called forth something in me. A reminder of the courage it takes to trust. And the fact that trust is possible. We can heal, get beyond our patterns, however ingrained. And even make it into another…New Year.

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