I have a dog. He’s a big, red, long-haired Australian Shepherd. Very handsome. Very imposing bark. He’s also a great big chicken. It’s funny how you never know, when picking out a puppy, just what you’re going to get. I’ve had some amazing dogs. I’ve also had some annoying, obstinate, excessively barky and neurotic dogs. I wish you could know ahead of time just what kind of dog you’ll end up with. However, the process doesn’t work that way. It’s always a gamble. With good instincts, some dog savvy and a little luck, you pick a good one. But if you don’t, you grin and bear it. And buy a bark collar.
When I first met Riley, my Aussie, he was a several-weeks-old bundle of orange cute. Big tawny eyes. Floppy ears. Paws the size of sand dollars. I fell in love in less than a minute.
I was introduced to him at work. The nurses from the OB-GYN’s office next door had sent this box of puppies over to our door. “Come out and see them! OMG they’re soooooo cute!!!” Their patient was very, very pregnant with twins and also had an Australian Shepherd with 9 puppies. I think they were trying to help her by clearing out out one set of babies before the next arrived. So there I was, forcefully jettisoned from my desk and paperwork to go play with cute furballs. In no time at all, I was outside playing with my favorite one.
My boss came outside to have some fun as well. She was watching me rub and roll him around. “Dogs. Every one’s a heartbreaker”‘ she sighed.
“What?” I asked, “What do you mean?” I looked down at the fluff of pup. How could this sweet creature be a heartbreaker?
“Every one’s a heartbreaker. That’s what I tell myself, right at the beginning. They are so adorable and fun, and you love them so very much. But no matter what, no matter how long they are with you, they’re going to die. It’s inevitable. They just don’t live very long. So I remind myself at the beginning. This one’s going to break my heart, too.”
I felt suddenly sober. I’d lost my favorite dog recently to a terrible accident. He’d been my constant companion for five years. He was beloved by everyone — the kind of dog you could take everywhere, was perfectly well- behaved, would let small children tug and poke and sit on him. I was devastated when he died.
I looked down at the pup. He was biting my hands with his sharp puppy teeth.
“But you have dogs. You have three dogs! How come you keep getting dogs when you know every one’s going to be a heartbreaker?”
She laughed. “Because I can’t help it!”
She bent down and petted the pup nearest her. Then she looked at me and shrugged. And went back to petting puppies.
So, despite the warning, I did get that orange pup. Still have him. He’s ten now, nowhere near done, but definitely slowing down. And at least I’ve been warned, you know?
It occurs to me that I wish I’d gotten the same warning about marriage. Sure, most people start with the assumption (or is it hope?) that it’s not going to end. But, if statistics are to be believed, a marriage has equal chances for survival or dissolution. But no one talks about it that way – at least not to the ones getting married.
I don’t mean to be a downer here. I know lots of people who have been in solid, longtime marriages. I also know lots of people who had that awful, painful experience of having their first marriage break up. It blows your mind, that break up. Its dissolution makes you question everything you are, everything you believe, everything you’ve ever dreamed.
Then, if you are lucky, you try again.
And for lots of people, that second one works much, much better.
But here’s another factor we often overlook: there are two people involved in every marriage, but it only takes one – either one- to make the decision to walk away. So if you are talking probabilities, it means the chances of a marriage continuing are even slimmer than that 50% chance we generally assume to be true.
And then, if you’re like me, you have to face the hard reality that marriage, like the dogs in your life, can be a finite thing. In fact, it’s likely to be a finite thing. And there’s not much you can do about it. You start off thinking joy and partnership and happiness and trust. You might be thinking those things for years. But your spouse is an inherent factor in the marriage. If they change their mind, that’s it. End of marriage.
Not much control there. Maybe, though I hate to say it, some element of inevitability. What to do? Swear off relationships? Swear off marriage? Falling in love? Sex? (Gasp!)
Interesting idea. But, as my former boss explained, “I can’t help it.” I’m not sure it’s in our nature as humans to cut ourselves off from companionship. Even if it was, I’m not sure I’d want to.
Maybe it’s best to remind myself, going into things, of the fragile nature of love, of commitment. Maybe it’s best to be that voice that I wish others would be for me – the one I never hear because no one wants to be the voice of doom. That nothing is guaranteed. That some things bring joy and pain. That both are part of life.
I know Riley will die someday. And I will likely be here to see it happen. I will feel that pain. But I will also be glad for his presence in my life. And I would never let his passing away prevent me from giving a home to a new dog, one in need of love and care. I wouldn’t deny myself the affection and joy that having a dog in my life brings. Inevitably, after death and mourning, there is new life and love and goodness.
Is it the same for marriages? I don’t know. But for now, I kind of like saying it that way. To myself, at least. Don’t know if I’m brave enough to say it to anyone else.
Dogs. Marriages. Every one’s a heartbreaker.