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  • Writer's pictureLiz Weiner

Canine Love on the Rebound

Millie - photo by Elizabeth Weiner

It started as the typical rebound relationship. I had been there before, so I should have recognized it, but I was drowning in grief, and to say my judgment was impaired is an understatement. Tovi died two weeks prior, breeding an impulsivity no intervention could interrupt. I was sure adopting another dog would sedate my debilitating pain. The day after he died, I frantically dragged my husband to three shelters and cried when no one came home with us.

Tovi was the closest thing to a soulmate I’ve ever had.  He was there for me during those tumultuous twenties and having him as a stable presence forced me to grow up. We lived in nine places, took road trips, and hiked countless trails. He walked me down the aisle and gave me away to a man I would later divorce. At my second wedding, in lieu of flowers, I walked down the aisle carrying a bully stick and gently handed it to the “Best Dog.” I grieved not only for him, but the life he had represented, the memories he held. The Before.

I had a checklist. Through Petfinder, I found dogs in foster care meeting my criteria, only to find out that dog had been adopted. Like a desperate buyer in a seller’s market, my heart sank every time. Racing to yet another shelter, I spotted a volunteer in the parking lot carrying a five-month-old puppy in her arms. Knowing nothing about this dog (other than she broke my age rule), it was as if I yelled, “DIBBS!” Checkboxes blank, I went against every rational intent of making an informed decision.

As most rebounds do, Millie seemed good enough.

Millie needed to be spayed before her official adoption. Over the days as I waited to take her home, my mind slowed down. My gut screamed I was making a terrible mistake. I was too ashamed to call the shelter and abandon my commitment, so I dismissed the same voice that warned me not to get married two weeks before my first wedding. Once I adopted her, the thought of bringing her back to the shelter was not something I could entertain. I was sure they would put me on some sort of “Do Not Adopt” list, and then I would never get a dog.

My gut proved right. Millie wasn’t the comforting presence I sought out. I was an emotional disaster. I needed support. I had nothing to give, yet here I was, responsible for this vulnerable dog. I’m not sure what part of my grief was worse: The life I lost or the life I would soon be living.

Millie felt like an unwelcome intruder; only I let her in. At home, she was loving. Outside, she was a troubled dog: Fearful, aggressive at times, and had a noise phobia that quickly ended walks.

The blank checkboxes haunted me.

On walks, fearful of anyone she didn’t know and unsure of how she would react, I would introduce her from a distance as my "new dog" and not let anyone near her. I would emotionally vomit on strangers about how I had the most incredible dog before her. As if to prove I once had that dog.

Millie was a constant reminder of my impulsivity, filling me with resentment at every glance. I went through the motions of being the quintessential dog mom. When the superficial wasn’t helping, I sought months of therapy in hopes of breaking through the invisible fence between us.

If we were in a relationship, I would have ended things after realizing we weren’t a good fit. I would tell her, “It’s not you; it’s me,” and mean it with all my heart. I would move on from my rebound, and she would be devastated.

Over the years, with the help of behaviorists (and Prozac), she made steady progress. I devoted my life to loving her, being her advocate and keeping her from triggers. I am her person. We share a bed, we share Prozac, literally. Sometimes we borrow from each other if the other is late on a refill, “Millie owes Liz (x) Prozac,” scribbled on the whiteboard in the kitchen.

In relationships, I’ve always lived by the motto, “Every time we fall in love, it’s a different experience.” They say you’re lucky if you have one great love in your life. I had that love.

Short of five years into our relationship, Millie was diagnosed with cancer. Initial reaction: Ecstatic. I thought about the new dog I would get and how peaceful life would be with that dog. Laden with remorse, the thought passed as quickly as it came. I finally saw her as the dog she’d grown into, not the dog I adopted years ago. She was the dog I couldn’t sleep without. The dog who learned to love hiking. The endearingly shy dog who allowed people to touch her (sometimes).

Despite chemotherapy, she died six weeks later. I was devastated, but it would be cliché not to confess that there was also a sense of relief. I no longer carried the fear of liabilities, the foregoing of vacations, and the countless “what-ifs” that fueled my anxiety.

In time, with intention, I will adopt another dog and fall in love in yet another distinct way. For now, the words, “Millie owes Liz 8 Prozac,” remain on the whiteboard, and perhaps, always will.

Written by Elizabeth Weiner - originally published in the Chicago Tribune

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