Three years ago this month, my spiritual advisor left this world, his head on my lap as I rubbed his ears. His fur was soft, and his job was done. I had become a better person.
If you have been reading this column for a while, you will remember Ernie, the 20-pound sage who taught me how to live in the moment with a heart full of love. And self-interest. No purist, my guru had shown me how to love others unreservedly, yet honor my honest appetites as highly as my ideals. For how moral can people be if they lie about what they truly enjoy?
I met my divine counselor when he was 9-weeks old, a five-pound poodle puppy. We shared a good little joke at the beginning, where he appeared helpless and silly, and I appeared strong and mature. This reversed itself in time, as the true nature of our relationship was revealed to me. But in the beginning, I actually believed we had bought our son a dog. And I thought I was his master.
I can easily forgive my mistake, as it was hard to imagine in his early years what he really was. His very first trauma was when he fell asleep on top of the air conditioning vent a couple of days after arriving in our home. The tag on his collar slipped into the vent slot and rotated, so that when he went to lift his head, he could only conclude that something in the floor had seized his neck and had him pinned to the floor.
The ensuing screams of terror and frantic struggle presaged a later incident in which he romped too near a soccer goal net which whipped out and quickly wrapped him in a python’s embrace. Both times, I interpreted it wrongly, thinking, “You silly dog, you’re fine. Nothing has you. Just relax, and I’ll get you free.”
Much later I realized that he was demonstrating the proper reaction whenever you feel anyone—or anything—is taking away your freedom. How right he was to go into full panic. How many times have we all swallowed our alarm in coercive situations and acted cool, when we really should’ve initiated a desperate struggle at the first tug of restraint?
By going nuts the instant it felt dangerous to him, Ernie secured help and freedom from a situation he couldn’t have gotten free of himself. He was saying, “Here’s what you do if you ever feel trapped. Don’t be shy, don’t be cool, and get help immediately.”
At the beginning, I thought house-training was a moral issue. In my mixed-up morality, he was a good dog when he did his business outside and a bad dog when he did it inside. I shudder to remember I actually told him that. He was a paragon of unconditional love and bursting life, and I was attempting to shame him out of his very sense of self-worth in order to keep my floors clean. There were so many other ways I could’ve made my point. But as you’ll recall, Ernie was here to help me evolve. He knew he was good wherever he relieved himself.
As far as I can tell, Ernie did not allow me to affect his self-esteem or sunny disposition just because I had a hang-up with bathroom habits. He was clear that his accidents were my problem and not anything about him. I took a page from him on that and learned to stop incorporating other people’s ideas about what I had to do to be a good person in their eyes.
My spiritual advisor also showed me that you must fight for your attachments. If you are meant to be together, you must keep trying. He showed me this when we were on a family reunion trip, staying in a rented house with relatives trying to sleep one night. I thought Ernie should sleep in his crate in the den. Ernie knew this was against the natural order of our relationship. His banshee howls kept everyone awake until I finally set him up on a blanket by the side of the bed next to me. He covered my hands in kisses and rewarded me with squirms of delight, so happy just to be next to me. “You’re right, Master,” I thought. “I value independence so highly. I have gone insane. We belong together through the dark night.”
When Ernie was nearing his end, after sixteen years of working on my compulsive fortitude, cleanliness, and abnormal self-sufficiency, he began having fits and losing bladder control. He was so weak he couldn’t jump up to put his paws on my legs without collapsing into a seizure from the exertion. He was kind in this: he let me down gently, preparing me for the upcoming inevitability, on this earth plane at least. Plus I think the bladder control issue was his little joke on me, like the spiritual master who makes us realize that regardless of what comes out of us, we are still each other’s beloved.
On his last morning, I discovered he had pulled himself half out of his bed, as far as he could get, and lay there sopping wet and cheerful to see me. We gave him a soapy bath in the backyard, with the warm July sun dappling the grass beneath Ernie’s wobbly legs. Back inside, I fed my Master his favorite chicken baby food and then sat beside him on the kitchen floor, my back against the sink cabinet. I fed him all the Pupperoni snacks he wanted while we waited for the vet. I can attest he was happy. Even at the end, he was telling me, “Honor your appetites.”
When the vet arrived, she remarked on how feeble he looked. Don’t believe a word of it, I thought. This dog has singlehandedly saved my soul. She gave him a little sedative—just a little, not enough to frighten him by a sudden drop in consciousness. Soon he was snoozing. Sooner still, he was gone.
I laid him in his bed and carried him out to her car. Out of old habit, I told him to be a good boy. And that was his final teaching. He always had been a good boy. And I was a good girl. And we had found each other.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.