By: Glenn John Arnowitz
She was the smallest one in the room. Her siblings pushed her over as they ran to us, begging for affection. But she just stood motionless, and we were both drawn to her calm and quiet disposition. She was not a child but a three-month-old Maltese puppy, and on that day in March 2005, she officially became a part of our family. First, as a gift for our younger daughter who was fourteen years old at the time and struggling with some health issues, and second, to diffuse the teenage female hormones running amok throughout the house from our two daughters.
On the way back home we stopped at PetCo and picked up a trunkload of supplies: a crate, food/water bowls, dog food, treats, and toys. By the time we arrived home, my wife, Sue, had christened her “Aurora”— after the mystical, romantic name for the dawn and also Shirley MacLaine’s character in the movie, “Terms of Endearment.” I brought Aurora to the vet the following day for a check-up and soon found out that she was a very sick dog with ears crawling with mites and eye infections, which explained her aloof nature during our initial meeting.
Aurora was soon on the mend and so cute with a face that looked as if it got hit with a cast iron skillet topped off with the whitest short-cropped hair. She was a smart dog, too, and trained easily. Because Sue didn’t work outside the house and was home most of the day, they instantly bonded. Sue became Aurora’s caretaker and best bud. If Aurora wasn’t on Sue’s lap, you could find her sleeping on a chair next to her or at her feet. They were inseparable.
Here’s the irony: Sue was the one in the family who never wanted a dog, especially a small one like Aurora. Sue wasn’t a dog person, and she hated little dogs. If we were visiting friends who had a small, yapping, annoying dog running about, Sue would turn to me and say, “I’d like to dropkick that dog across the yard.” So her attachment to Aurora was quite uncharacteristic but refreshing. Aurora’s presence injected a new spirit into the household and forever changed the family dynamics—in a good way.
In September 2016 Sue died suddenly, and the family dynamics changed in a very bad way. Our two daughters and I were devastated. I lost my partner of thirty-three years, and they lost their mom. We didn’t give ourselves all the attention required to grieve this huge loss because my oldest daughter was getting married three days after her mom’s funeral. That’s right, a funeral and a wedding, and we barely made it through. Sue’s absence was profound. She was a constant presence in our home—homemaker, mother, gardener, cook, the mom the girls screamed at, and the mom they confided in.
As the weeks passed, we noticed Sue’s absence wasn’t only affecting us but Aurora, too. In fact, Aurora became uncontrollable at times. She was extremely anxious, clawing constantly at our legs and climbing on anything she could. She would walk into a room, trash her bed, and throw around everything else that wasn’t nailed down. When I let her outside to do her business, she would often stand motionless in the middle of the yard—in the rain, in the snow—never heeding to my calls to come inside. Like me, she, too, was overwhelmed and quite lost. Eventually, I would have to go outside to fetch her and bring her back in.
Aurora also started to dig under all of the fences surrounding our property and escaped many times. I would walk the streets frantically searching for her, then find her wandering around a neighbor’s yard a few houses down from ours. One day I received a call from someone a few blocks away who said she had found Aurora walking in the middle of the road and rescued her. When I went to their house to pick up Aurora, I found her sitting on their couch, happy as ever and watching television as two young children cuddled beside her. I spent a lot of time filling up those holes under the fence with rocks but she still managed to find ways to escape—squeezing under the lattice gate or crawling between small gaps in the wire fence.
During all those years before Sue’s death, Aurora had never left our property but now she couldn’t find a way out fast enough. But why now? Of course, she wanted to find Sue. My daughters and I realized she was looking for Sue all along, which broke our hearts. She lost her best friend and was lost.
My vet recommended I bring Aurora to a behavior therapist to help with her separation anxiety. I traveled an hour to the recommended therapist, and what a scene! I walked inside to the sounds of New Age piano music quietly playing in the background as the receptionist spoke painstakingly slow in a whisper. I was directed to a large room with another New Age soundtrack and lots of doggy toys. When the therapist entered the room, her speech was also measured and in a faint whisper. She spoke to Aurora as if she were a small child, and I felt like I was in a Christopher Guest mockumentary waiting for Parker Posey or Catherine O’Hara to pop in at any moment.
The therapist confirmed Aurora was experiencing separation anxiety and recommended some medication. And it worked! The meds reduced her anxiety considerably and leveled her out. She stopped trying to escape, stopped rearranging the furniture, and stopped standing in a trance in the back yard. Aurora was back!
As the months passed and I struggled to navigate through my grief I was becoming more attached to Aurora than ever before. I held her often and found that rubbing my hands through her soft, white hair was therapeutic. It calmed me and in a way brought me closer to Sue. At night my bed was too big without Sue and Aurora gave me some level of comfort as she filled the void on Sue’s side of the bed. I remember one evening feeling a presence against my back and, in my dream state, thinking it was Sue. But when I turned around and opened my eyes, there was Aurora with her back snuggling against mine and snoring loudly.
It’s been almost five years since Sue passed, and Aurora is now a sixteen-and-a- half-year-old who spends most of her days sleeping. We both lost our best friend, but navigated that loss and heartbreak very differently. Or did we? While Aurora’s anxiety led her to trash rooms, mine immobilized me during the day and kept me up at night. As Aurora stood paralyzed in the backyard covered in rain and snow, I disconnected myself from the universe. Lorazepam calmed Aurora, Valium and Xanax got me through the day and night. And when Aurora bolted on a mission to find Sue, so did I. I looked for her everywhere—in a crowd, in the house and beside me in bed.
Aurora and I got through it together and now that I’ve been home since the COVID-19 lockdown, we’ve bonded even more. We wake up together every morning, have our breakfast, walk and talk all day. Well, I talk and she listens. She’s become my best friend, my shadow. And as witnessed by my daughter, she is heartbroken with cries whenever I leave the room or the house.
I often think of how she would react if Sue suddenly walked through the front door. Would she make a beeline for her, jump and bounce around with her tail wagging in excitement? Or would she just bark at her like every other person who comes to the door? Her therapist said most likely she would not remember Sue. Aurora has developed new routines and attachments; Sue is not the center of her universe any more. Right now I am. And I’m fine with that. And when Aurora isn’t on my lap, she can be found sleeping on a chair next to me or at my feet.
Glenn John Arnowitz is a musical and visual artist who is always looking for new ways to scratch that insatiable creative itch.