Companionship and Commitment: Human-Animal Bond

I am constantly amazed at how people function. We are a total mess of emotions, confusion, and yet, there is always a desire to attain perfection. When perfection is the ideal, you are left constantly unhappy, striving to please, aiming higher, and eventually at a loss. The loss is grand. It is the loss of the self. The loss of the simple things in life. The appreciation of all that you are today. All around me are unsatisfied and unhappy people. And it is not their fault. It is this society, this culture that demands, that expects, that tells you you are falling short, that it’ll never be enough, and worse, that you’ll never be as great as you’re supposed to be. Who gets to say what is perfect, what is great, what is deemed better than others? Why the constant comparison? Self-worth is derived from others, and yet they will always fail you. Why do we keep doing it, then? A bad habit. A dangerous addiction to perfection becomes a disease that eats away at you, until you no longer know how to function otherwise. Until the simple things scare you. Until quietness and stillness is uncomfortable. Until simple faith and trust is difficult to attain. It becomes difficult to believe in others, and in yourself. Where do we go from here?

Flake knows. Flake, my 14 year old Labrador knows better. She’s my best friend, and not just because she’s non-human. Quite frankly, because she’s not “human” she seems to have an advantage. She sees through people. Flake has been my companion for the past eight or nine years. This companionship has taught me a lot about trust, about friendship, and commitment. I am tempted to mention Donna Haraway’s “The Companion Species Manifesto” but this is meant to be a personal, rather than an academic post. (For more information see Haraway’s work on animal-human interaction).

When Flake first arrived, I was hesitant. I did not like animals, simply because I did not understand them. She was a terrified, traumatized creature, who would shake every time I touched her paw. She rejected human interaction, and would eye me carefully. Flake was paranoid, and rightly so. She had been abused in the past. People were cruel, and it seemed I could not change her perception. One day, after a long day at university, I came back home and sat next to her. She moved away. And, despite all logic, I knew I would simply have to speak to her in human language. I told her something along the lines of: “Listen, you and I, we have to be friends. You’re here to stay, and I don’t want to send you away to another family. You’ve had your share of disappointments. I’m not too happy about this commitment, but let’s just try.” And we did try. We ended up spending time with each other, and she ended up taking care of me. I ended up learning about commitment, about going home at a certain time to give her medication (she has arthritis), and waking up early for her walks in the morning. I learned that when someone (human or animal) puts their faith in you, you don’t let them down. You rise up to the challenge, if you are afraid of commitment or responsibilities. You get rewarded immensely: there is so much beauty in giving, in being there for another being, someone other than yourself.

Struggling with Multiple Sclerosis, shuffling feet out of bed, getting dressed with difficulty, working through it all, is no easy task. Add to it having another creature that demands and needs your care. I learned the art of balance. I learned how to communicate without words. When I am in pain, Flake will place her paw on my shoulder and stare at me questioningly. When I cannot get out of bed as early as she would like, Flake pretends to be asleep. She waits. She waits until I can. There is an unspoken agreement. Animal lovers will understand this, while people who don’t have pets will be skeptical. This is a companionship that rejects perfection. We are both struggling. She is growing older, is less capable of jumping around, and I am making peace with my own lack. But I have never felt judged or incompetent, except by humans. The cruelty is strange- human beings are strange. Mark Twain says: “‘Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.” And we inflict pain on each other by so many different ways. We ridicule, we mock, we expect perfection, we demand more of each other, and we let go when the pressure is too much.

Below are a few pictures of Flake, because I can’t help it.

And that’s all for now.

  

Scab

We were friends. Every night, I went to sleep, not thinking of consequences. But one fine morning (nah, I’m kidding, it wasn’t fine), I found that the cat’s scratch was right underneath my eyelid. I ignored it. The following morning, the scratch had made itself at home. I stared at its presence. Words on flesh. The cat’s constant purring was too close for comfort, and just when I thought I could hold her close, it pawed at my face, clumsily perhaps, but nevertheless, there it was, a scar had formed. On my face. Just in case I tried to forget. I am still me, except for the scar she carved. But the cat is still a fine creature, demanding of attention, willing to reciprocate every once in awhile, moody, loving, and unpredictable. Would she have scratched if she cared “enough”? Can you measure a concept as vague and as fleeting as affection/love?

After a long day, when all I want to do is drop my guard, she climbs onto my lap and stares at me. Anticipating. Waiting. Inquiring. Greeted by silence, she meows and purrs as though we have no history. I don’t recall the words, it’s hard enough when we speak different languages. I can only touch the now scabrous skin. Each night it digs itself further into me.

  

My Favorite

I have a best friend. She’s around seven years old, in dog years, that is. In human years, she’s in her forties. Flake is a mixed breed, a hybrid, just like me. She’s also a very shy, awkward dog –a bit like me. And Flake is one hell of a tough dog. At home, we call her “Tough cookie.” Also, a lot like me.Image

I have never actually been able to write about Flake. It’s very intense for me, there is a lot of love there; and a deep bond, a friendship that has grown over the years we have known each other (and of course, we have had our ups and downs). Today, however, something happened. That’s when I realized I need to at least try write about the connection we have. I was walking Flake, and our other dog, Eddie. Eddie is quite a character, and one day I’ll get to writing about him, too. Eddie is nothing like Flake; he is popular, social, extremely good-looking, impatient, a bit selfish and self-absorbed, and well, a bit of a douche. But I love him anyway.

As I was walking them, something happened to Flake’s paw. From where I was standing, I could see that she was in pain. Eddie and I were walking ahead of her (because she has arthritis and struggles to keep up), and I turned around and noticed that she was no longer walking, that her hind leg was stuck in an awkward position, pointing upwards, and she was unable to put it back in place. She looked at me with her big chocolate droplets of eyes and pleaded for help. Eddie, always a handful, thought she was playing, and immediately got into his playful mode. He crouched into his playful wolfish position, a predator ready to attack, and I knew I had to take him back inside before helping Flake.

I looked at Flake, and shouted “Wait right there! Don’t move! Wait.”

She stared back at me, leg stuck mid-air, and froze. I ran back to the house, made sure Eddie was safely inside, and went sprinting back to my best friend.

By the time I reached her, she was in a lot of pain. Granted, it only took me a few minutes to get back to her, but you try having a sharp hammer nail stuck in your hand. I held her leg, carefully examining her paw for the source of the pain. She glanced over her shoulder once, and let out a soft whimper. It must have hurt like hell when I pulled out that hammer nail which was stuck in her paw. But Flake trusted me completely. She could have easily flinched, easily barked at me, easily misunderstood –yet it was a moment of complete trust and surrender.

Of course she showered me with wet kisses after, thanking me. But you see, I had done nothing. It was her who trusted me enough. I realized right then and there that the bond I have with Flake, is a bond like no other. It’s that, that moment, that moment where you know you both trust each other, and that there is mutual, acknowledged faith in the other.

Flake has saved me so many times over the years – I can’t begin to relate every single time this has happened. She’s been there through everything. Long nights of research. She would sigh and pout, look at me like I am the most boring company ever, and just go to sleep, hoping I would join her at some point. At one point, I had breathing/heart problems, and I noticed she had adjusted her sleeping position so that she would sleep closer to my chest. There are nights when I am in pain, and she wakes up seconds before I do, sticks her wet nose in my face, checking that I am still ‘okay.’

I do the same with her. She’s growing older, which means, more sleepless nights for us, and less fun. It means medications at difficult times. It means remaining strong, persevering. We both have to. Me and my MS, and Flake and her arthritis. There are two rules, both of which Flake has taught me. First, above all, do not give way to pain. Second, you must be there for your person, because your person has put their trust in you. It is a form of blind faith, blind trust, that humans have yet to learn. I have learned that people always disappoint, and almost always take advantage of anything remotely related to “blind” faith and/or trust. Rather than take that as a blessing, as a commitment, as something to appreciate and even more importantly, reciprocate, they let you down. It’s taken as a form of weakness to trust. To believe in the other. Dogs don’t do that. Dogs know it is a form of strength to believe in the other. It is a Law of Love that only dogs have mastered. And I continue to learn from them, and especially from Flake (who I will be writing more about).