Someone asked me the other day about my chocolate Labrador retriever. Her name was Catira, a term applied to blond women in Venezuela, I believe. But to me she is my Soul Dog. In this case, circumstances are important because every thing about her adds meaning to the way she influenced and –as far as I am concerned- saved my life. This makes telling complicated but I will try.
Catira came into my life in September of 1982, seven months after my father’s death. We actually came by her through an auction at a formal dinner dance offered by Ducks Unlimited (DUMAC), a hunter’s association closely related to the Conservation movement in Mexico. It gets a little complicated here but stick with me; it’s not that difficult really. I was at this formal annual dinner dance because my father had been a founding member of a budding conservation association in Mexico called PRONATURA and this association, along with Ducks Unlimited, was involved in the protection of certain wetlands in the South of the country. I had supported my father’s work in PRONATURA by publishing newspaper articles about their projects so, when he died, I was invited to take his seat on the Board. Therefore, being a member of the Board of PRONATURA I was expected to show up for the annual celebrations of other associations connected with the conservation of Nature. My husband and I, dressed in our formal best (black tie, long gown, the works) and accompanied by my mother on her first outing since my father’s death, arrived at the grand salon shortly after the doors opened and people started flowing in to occupy the 50 some odd tables around the ballroom.
No sooner had we walked through the door than we heard a puppy yelping. My mother and I looked at each other and being of like mind, made a B-line for the large cardboard box from whence the sound came. It contained two puppies, one male and one female: balls of brown fur full of energy. I picked up the female. She immediately licked my face enthusiastically. Her eyes were the colour of honey; her coat was a deep chocolate that almost made you want to eat her. I fell in love. I looked at my husband and he knew immediately that I was a goner. My mother cooed over the puppy a few more times and then we placed her back in the box and headed for our assigned table. During the whole meal, my ears were tuned to the whimpering and barking emerging from the box. Finally, the auction started and when, after what seemed like a hundred uninteresting objects, the puppy was pulled from the box and offered up for bidding, I grabbed my husband’s hand.
He made a bid, there was a counterbid, he bid again and after about 7 bids there was silence: the dog was ours. I was ecstatic. While my husband went over to the table to write the check I walked to the stage and received the tiny bundle of fur in my hands. She was adorable. The first thing she did –as the waiters stood helplessly by- was pee and poo on the elegant ballroom carpet. C’est la vie.
Now Labradors in general are a bundle of energy and Catira was no exception. She careened through the house, ate everything in sight and insisted on continuing to make pee and poo behind the living room sofa until in desperation I took a belt to her one day. She never did it again, but I felt so guilty I wanted to die. I had not hit my children –except my son once when I was still in a state of extreme neurosis before beginning psychoanalysis- and hitting an innocent animal was something I had not wanted to do ever. I spent days trying to make it up to her and myself.
Catira was an adored member of the family and herself loved everyone, even though she was definitely my dog. When I was in the house, she was at my feet and followed me wherever I went. At night she slept on the floor by my side of the bed. When she was about to have her puppies (after jumping the fence and mating with the ugliest mutt around) it was me she woke up to help her. When I was sick, which was not very often, she wouldn’t leave the bedroom. She was my companion during walks in the woods and she would curl up at my feet when I was writing. She was the most huggable dog I have ever owned and, even though after turning two she calmed down and stopped destroying things, she never lost her rambunctious playfulness or her absolutely loving personality.
Catira was also the most intelligent dog I have ever had. If I told her to “talk” she would immediately begin making modulated dog sounds with her mouth while turning her head from side to side as if carrying on a real conversation. “Find” was her favourite game and she seldom lost. She was an incredible retriever and could wear anyone to exhaustion bringing a stick or a ball 150 times without rest. If the stick by any unlucky chance got caught in the tree, she would not take a substitute and insisted on barking until someone went for a broom or a rake to retrieve the precise one from the high branches. She knew her stick. When she was to have her puppies, I fixed up a large cardboard box and filled it with old blankets. It was placed in the kitchen. Once or twice I patted her tummy and pointed to the box and said “There”, but every time she passed through the kitchen she would give the box a wide breach. It was obvious she wanted to have nothing to do with it. Then one morning, her panting next to my bed awoke me; she was sitting there, tongue hanging out, looking at me. I didn’t doubt for a minute that she was about to have her litter. When I got out of bed, she went to the bedroom door and waited, looking back at me. So I followed her. She went straight to the kitchen, climbed into the box and looked at me. I said “Yes, good girl”. She had her puppies in the box.
We lived on a golf course and one day Catira was sitting outside on the terrace leading out to the garden barking and barking. I went to the porch door. A golfer was at the gate looking into the garden. I asked him what I could do for him and he said that his ball had gone into my garden. I looked but couldn’t see it.
“Where exactly is it?” I queried.
“In your dog’s mouth” he answered pointing to Catira who sat at my side happily wagging her tail and barking around the ball. She was a barrel of fun.
Then everything started going downhill for me. I was drinking heavily and everyday writing less or nothing at all which caused me a tremendous amount of anguish, so I would drink more. I knew something was terribly wrong but alcoholism is an insidious disease that feeds on denial, so I blamed my marriage. Then I had the dream or perhaps I should say, nightmare.
In the dream, I was walking out the door of my house. Catira was on the other side of the road and upon seeing me, immediately dashed towards me and was hit by a gas truck that materialized from nowhere. The impact severed her in two. As I watched with absolute horror, her front half pulled itself towards me on its forepaws, looking me straight in the eyes with the most pained, confused look I have ever seen in my life. I awoke screaming, with a sharp pain in my chest.
Even though Catira was right there by my side, none the worse for wear from my dream, the pain in my chest wouldn’t go away. I was sobbing, gulping, crying as if I were going to vomit everything inside out. My husband had to hold me very tightly to even begin to calm me down, but the pain in my chest, the sorrow so deep it wouldn’t fit inside, didn’t go away. No matter what I tried, the look in Catira’s eyes, the silent “why” that screamed out of wouldn’t leave my mind. And with the image, came the pain. A week later, I hit bottom: I woke up one morning and the only thought was: “I would rather be dead.”
Five weeks later I emerged from the Rehab Clinic sober and somber and on what turned out to be the path to a whole new life.
Much of my recovery entailed dream work, so I learned that dreaming of an animal, specially a loved animal such at Catira, is actually a referral to one’s own body and the dream of Catira then took on a completely different meaning: in the dream she represented the projection of my own body which I was unconsciously killing. The pained and puzzled look in her honey colored eyes voiced the question that my poor body could not express: Why are you killing me? My body was dying. The alcohol had practically done in with the colon’s capacity to process food so it was my lower half that was being destroyed, much as it was the hind quarters of Catira that were lost in the dream. I came to understand that she had served to warn, my soul’s guardian crying out through the dream world, in hopes of waking me up. My soul dog.
But the story doesn’t end there. Eighteen months after leaving the rehab clinic, I divorced my husband. Catira almost died in the process. It was then that I realized that for her, the family –not the house- was her home. She stopped digesting her food and had to have special pills with enzymes so she could eat. She grew fat and listless, seldom played any more and began suffering from arthritis. By the time the divorce was consummated, Catira, only 11 at the time, had become an old dog.
After the divorce, Catira and I moved into a new house. I cried a lot then, and each time I did (even if it was silently, just letting the tears run down my face), she would hide in the closet behind my clothes and not come out until the crying stopped. Six months after the divorce, I went on a trip for a month. Upon returning, I found a dying dog: she was so fat and riddled with arthritis that she could hardly walk. Even though with my return, she recuperated somewhat, I couldn’t see her lasting much longer.
Then I met the man who was to become my second partner, or maybe I should say “we met the man” because in a matter of weeks, with a man coming around to the house frequently, Catira got better. When I moved in to live with him eleven months later, she had lost all the extra weight, was running and jumping like a young dog again, and could eat anything under the sun without a shadow of a digestive problem. I watched astounded as every visible sign of decrepitude that had previously aged my dog beyond recognition, was reversed. Catira was joyously happy: she had a family again.
I had been living with my new partner for around three months when I got the call. I was driving to an appointment across town and in order to answer the cell phone I had to pull over. It was the gardener. Catira had been lying in the driveway in front of the house sleeping in the sun. The gas truck had pulled in and not seen her. It had run over her hind quarters severely damaging them; she could not walk and they couldn’t move her because of the pain. I gave the gardener the number of the vet and instructions to call him immediately. Then I turned around and sped towards home. When I arrived, Catira was lying still on the pavement with a chair alongside to protect her from other vehicles that might come up the driveway. As I approached she lifted her head and looked at me. I remembered the dream.
I sat down next to her, working my way close so I could lay her head on my lap. I told the gardener to bring an umbrella to make shade. Her hind quarters were completely destroyed; there was nothing to be done but wait for the vet with the injection that would end her pain. As I sat there stroking her head, I thanked her again and again. I told her how grateful I was to have had her in my life for the last 13 years, how much I loved her, how she had saved my life and how my gratitude knew no bounds. It was a peaceful moment. I thanked her for staying with me during the difficult time that followed my divorce and for having absorbed so much of my pain in her own body as she grew fat and arthritic. I thanked her for waiting until bringing me to a new family before fulfilling what apparently was her destiny and I told her that it would not be long before the vet came and she would find peace. She seemed to relax. I could feel the weight of her head on my lap. By the time the vet came, my daughter had come also and was standing by our side. We all held her in our hearts as she slowly slipped into her last sleep and for a while afterwards I continued holding her in my arms until it was time to let go. The tears that were running down my cheeks were tears of love and gratitude.
Epilogue: I have never doubted that Catira came into my life to save me, perhaps sent by my father after he left. I have often wondered at how life produced a dream that saved my life, and then, three years later, came to pass just as I had dreamt it, when I was strong enough to bear it. I have since had other dogs and adored each one of them. But Catira for me was not a dog: she was my soul wrapped in chocolate and honey.