The Dog Difference: How We’ve Made One Another Whole Again

At two years old, Lady’s ribs protruded from her coat and her belly was swollen with milk.

Like the other thirteen Labs that had arrived at a rest stop in Union, CT after the straight 12½-hour drive from Muncie, IN, she was presented to us on a crisp autumn day amid the chaos of respective adopters.

My fiance Dennis had never experienced the warmth and companionship of having a dog and well, I surprised him with Lady, who we quickly renamed to Sabrina. The very afternoon we picked her up, we raced to the park, wanting her to feel the joy of freedom and play. Dennis’s face lit up and while I was thrilled at the opportunity to befriend and care for Sabrina; it meant closing the 20-year gap since our beloved German Shepard from my childhood passed away.

Until laying my eyes on Sabrina’s profile, my heart couldn’t entertain loving another dog.

And what canine isn’t after the same love?

In Sabrina’s case, she couldn’t know of the family members that awaited to embrace her presence. Within days of the initial hair-raising excitement, the cat sought out occasions to groom her ears. Our pet rat was free to waddle the kitchen floor un-bothered, and the pair of bonded bunnies in want of company stretched out beside her on the living room floor.

Dog, cat, rat, rabbit?

You bet.

And Dennis and me?

Like kids again.

Sabrina settled into the folds of our lives, well-nourished and exercised in Boston’s epic snowfall in the winter of 2009-2010, taking careful watch over all of us. The fear expressed in her eyes pre-adoption disappeared.

Nine years later, she watches over me in particular. Thirty years ago, I was struck and thrown from the passenger side of a car until my abdomen collided with the steering wheel—blunt force that called for iterative repair to my digestive system and caused IBD and permanent damage to the nerves that signal my bladder is full.

Today when I’m busy working away, Sabrina will alert me to get up every couple of hours to make a trip to the restroom by gently placing her head in my lap.

When I suffer acute intestinal cramping, Crohns-like symptoms, she’ll sit at my side and lean her body against mine. Her calm and steady source of nurturing, helps me to relax and mitigates the cramps.

In 2008, the Department of Justice amended the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to include digestive, bowel and bladder impairments that limit major life activities as the disabled, calling for employers to make reasonable accommodations and if the individual elects, to allow task-oriented service animals [dog or miniature horse] to accompany them on the job.

Sabrina, serving in the capacity of a sensory/medical assist – alerting me to get up and take care of myself – qualifies.

Three winters ago, the HR Director, Debra Susler of Reputation Institute in Cambridge, MA would not allow Sabrina to accompany me on-the-job. I sent her an elaborate email explaining my condition and Sabrina’s service dog certification. She replied “no,” not to me, but to my supervisor.

My response?

I walked out of the place.

Sabrina: rescue dog to helper dog.

Respectively, Sabrina’s competencies and understanding of language never cease to astound us and her behavior on-the-job at Dell Technologies is so well-mannered, coworkers never run out of compliments.

And bystanders in public? The grocery store, pharmacy, gym, dentist, doctor?

Gazes from cell phones are broken, conversations fall short.

Then, come the smiles. A question. Praise. The feel-good moment.

Sabrina brings people together.

I recently read a distressing post from a woman who said every time she looks into a service dog’s eyes, she sees sadness. Even Ingrid Newkirk, CEO and Co-Founder of PETA, has told me, “the life of a typical service dog is a terrible one.”

It’s true. Any canine enslaved to servitude is doomed a dog’s life unlived.

Service animals are working animals, not pets.

The ADA confirms it.

But that’s not the relationship Sabrina and I share [and I understand it can’t be the same with other handlers and service dogs].

And what have I learned something from Sabrina?

She shows me how to exist in the moment — just like she does. To enjoy the sight of the sun shimmering through the trees, the call of the birds, the fragrance of wildflowers, the feel of the soft soil I tread a few yards behind her when we’re on our hikes.

What more could a dog do for a girl? 

Sabrina Is Just Like Heaven.

To see all of Lisa’s published work, click here.

Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. One of her essays appeared in the IPPY-award-winning anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, published in 2017. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents and is at work on the sequel. Contact her at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.

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7 Reasons You’ll Love this Cat Like I Did

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It’s Friday night and I am sitting down to dinner. I want to relax, delve into an episode of Breaking Bad and savor my meal in peace. My beloved cat Jontue is gone. The salmon on my plate is safe. The soft tissue interior of my nose is not in danger of being ripped by her ferocious forepaw. My cheek won’t be swatted at either. And no one is staring at me with the intensity that could move a mountain.

I miss that someone.

That “fur person” as May Sarton said.

I first spotted Jontue in a pet store, a small kitty in a huge enclosure all by her lonesome, crying out for my attention as I shopped for cat food. I already had four at home. But this one’s eyes were pleading take me; I need love. Those eyes also said, I can love you too.

Of course you can, little cat.

A strange looking thing, Jontue was six months old and resembled a prehistoric creature with her brindled coat, fangs, and wiry tail. Exotic or not, no one wanted her. I understood this all too well. So I paid an extraordinary amount of money for the pure breed Cornish Rex because she needed a home, someone to take care of her.

She entered my life when I was particularly vulnerable and lonely; she captured my heart and I like to think I captured hers. Over the years, I’d come to know Jontue so well. She was a cat driven by instinct and visibly affected by subtle shifts of energy. She was small and silky-haired and stuck close to me at all times. She was also needy and affable. She liked to hold my head in a firm grip with her paws and lick the tip of my nose.

Jontue was my last live connection to the desert, another planet called Tucson, the barren landscape where I lived a few difficult years in my early thirties in personal chaos. She was the fifth cat I adopted during those years when I was living by my lonesome and she was like all others in this one way: they were all abandoned and unwanted.

That is, until I came along and laid claim. I adored all five of my cats. Jontue held an especially beloved place in my heart.

She was my protector, my nurse and deeply in tune with how I was feeling. When I’d cry myself silly or stare off into space feeling blue, she’d whack my cheek as if I was in a diabetic stupor. Mama, snap out of it. Caring for her and the other cats gave me the reason to drag myself out of bed at times when I was overcome with illness and depression, those heavy burdens of being human. When these feelings took over Jontue knew and she came and offered all she could: her soft coat to pet, her warm body and a purr, her kind eyes holding mine for a moment before looking away.

I’ve met many irresponsible people in my life but never an irresponsible cat.
—Rita Mae Brown, author of Pawing Through the Past: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery

Jontue even made living in Tucson at times fun. She got frisky when she had a productive #2 and frolicked out of the litter box and across the kitchen tile floor like a filly with a belly full of bedsprings. A supreme hunter, she dismantled geckos in the apartment, danced about with flesh-colored scorpions, and swatted down flying insects with incredible precision (inside the apartment). Outside, she could leap six-foot fences in a single bound. Nimble, she was!

The Rex Cat Association of the UK says this about Jontue’s breed (my comments are in parentheses):

Cornish Rex cats make excellent pets (if you don’t mind being treated like prey). Aristocratic in appearance (hmmm, not this one), they are charming (huh?), acutely intelligent (vibrational), very affectionate (suck you dry of the sentiment) and gentle (uh-uh) whilst full of mischief (yes), never seeming to grow old (she was the last of the fivesome). Their long toes are a distinctive feature which enables them to use their paws like little hands (“I slap my mama in the face”). The breed is adaptable to new environments (she yowled the entire 2.300-mile drive from Tucson to Boston), elegant (?), agile (incredibly so) and active, demanding constant companionship and closeness (as in Velcro). In some cases, they crave closeness so much that when their owner is out at work all day their Cornish Rex will go visit with a neighbor! (Segue: The Doberman story.)

Jontue once scaled the six-foot stockade fence and landed on all fours in my neighbor’s Doberman pen. In the early evenings when the desert cooled off, I had a habit of letting my cats out into my “yard,” an eighteen-foot square dirt floor absent of vegetation and enclosed by a fence. The cats would roam about, sniffing, digging, grooming and sprawling themselves on the warm earth without any concern for what lay beyond the fence. Watching them relaxed me; I wanted to learn their carefree nature.

Why that night?

Why jump?

I’ll never know. In the blink of an eye, Jontue was over the fence. The first otherworldly wail shot the remaining four cats through the screen and into the house. My adrenaline soared and I froze. Fence. Dobermans. Cat. Screeching.

What could I do?

I cupped my hands over my ears and darted into the house. Leaning up against the closed door, my heart pounded. My flesh churned out perspiration. I was in a sort of paralyzed shock.

Then the mama bear stepped in and I moved!

Back into the yard. I was a grizzly and began tearing down the fence one picket at a time. Crashing through it with the fiercest mothering instincts I would save my young or be shredded by the hounds of hell while trying.

That’s my cat, Dobes!

The crazed attack dogs were in full view. I was in their territory now and I didn’t see Jontue. There was no flesh dangling from their teeth—I took note of this—but their focus had turned to me, canines barred, hackles raised. I was about to be torn to pieces.

But where’s the cat?

The enclosure was barren with the exception of a cinder block here and there, and a sizable pile of 2x4s, sticks and brush off to my right.

How could that flimsy form of refuge protect her?

I didn’t spend too much time on the question. I fell to my knees before the brush pile. The dogs were going to eat me rear-end first!

Out of my periphery, I saw a woman approaching, running, arms flailing. Her mouth moved, I heard nothing; it had no effect on my mission. I was feeling recklessly enthusiastic and plunged my hands into a desert den that would make even Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin hesitate (and we all know what happened to him). Colors and textures panned before my eyes; I was chucking sticks and 2x4s over my shoulder. The woman was dodging the debris, unsteadily pulling back the frothing beasts while fragments of my terrycloth dress caught in their teeth.

Jontue was there, I had unearthed her. She was balled up, disoriented and trembling; her coat slick with dog saliva. She did not look, as the Rex Cat Association would describe, “charming” or “elegant.”

I grabbed the cat, secured her to my chest and turned my back on the beasts and my neighbor, and swiftly attempted to retreat through the makeshift opening in the fence. I couldn’t make traction. I’d take a giant step forward then snap back to the fence like an elastic band.

“Wait, wait, I’ll help you!” my neighbor said, but now just as crazed as the dogs, I bulldozed forward and my dress ripped even more. A long and twisting fragment of white terrycloth remained caught up on the nail, an ironic white flag signaling—a little late—for peace. Jontue’s claws dug deeper into my chest, I was bloodied yet free.

Dumping Jontue inside, I collapsed flat on the kitchen floor and gazed at the geckos scurrying across the ceiling; waiting for my respiration and heart rate to fall back into normal range. The other spooked cats tiptoed around and came in close; Jontue eventually perched on my thigh. She had fared much better than me—she didn’t have a scratch on her. She was safe. I would do it all again; I would have done just about anything for this cat.

Many years have passed since then. I left the desert and eventually lost Jontue’s sisters to renal failure, ketosis, and lymphoma. Not one of them lived past thirteen years. But Jontue did, she moved residences a total of ten times with me in a span of eighteen years.

Her life, dictated by mine, changed dramatically and often—fluctuations in places, people, animals and my emotions. Four months into last move, Jontue’s health deteriorated in a matter of days. She wasn’t well; at times she suffered from blindness and would curl up in her heated bed and stare into the space in front of her. I could read her eyes, her body; I could hear her thoughts—I feel terrible, I don’t understand what’s wrong, the pain won’t go away.

The day after Thanksgiving, I made her pain go away.

Jontue. She was my last live connection to the desert, to that painful time of soul searching. But the pain made me a writer and I soothed this sorrow by bringing home cats. One after another and particularly the ones nobody wanted. And those felines repaid me—by making me laugh, making me play, giving me the strength to tear down a stockade fence when I thought I was broken and weak.

These unwanted animals are the best ones to love, they become the dearest companions because animals know when you have saved them. Our pets remember. In return they nurture us, protect us, see our truths, and they love us.

What more is there possibly to ask?

Albert Schweizer said, There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.”

I agree with him.

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Dear Jontue: It took me so long to write this little memorial for you, weeks and weeks, and I needed to distance myself from home, miles and miles. I couldn’t bring myself to write it where we shared an abode, where your bed has been taken over by the bunnies, knew it would force me to mourn your passing. I pretend that a big piece of my life as I know it, isn’t gone, that the vibe of the house is still in check. That you’ll still be there when I return home, come squawking on your tippy toes to greet me, wrap around my leg and rub your butt on my shin. The last few moments of your life haunt me—you did not struggle, lay right down quietly and slipped away. In the end, it turns out, you were oh so “elegant.” Thank you for coming into my life when I needed you most, trying the various people and places on for size right alongside of me, and being my true companion for all these years.

This article was published in Foliate Oak Literary Journal under the title What More Is There Possibly to Ask? 9/16

My Dear Friend, the Dirty

The bliss in that first taste soothes my soul.

It’s six ounces of Ketel One vodka with a dribble of brine. Not the nasty liquid that comes out of an olive jar, but twice filtered brine from premium olives. This subtle saltiness takes the bite of the vodka down a notch to pleasurable, an inviting clean crispness that sterilizes my insides and satisfies the palette.

This drink and the art in making it is what symbolize the end of an arduous day, or not so arduous, a ritual nonetheless.

It’s a beautiful thing, the vodka martini. Even the word vodka sounds terribly exotic, so undeniably Russian. I’m wearing a sable hat, standing amid the tundra, my breath streaming before me in smoky condensation as I set my implements about—the cocktail shaker, ice, olives, pick, the 1.75-liter bottle that takes the support of my two hands to pour it.

I was introduced to the dirty when a high school girlfriend mixed one up for me during a girls’ weekend. The memory of its taste and influence to seduce my mind into peaceful waters remained dormant, however, until I hit a stretch of unbearable time, some four years later, when I had been writing long and hard without any validation or ounce of fruition.

I’d bleed all day long over the page, feel isolated having abandoned my corporate career, determined to make something of myself writing. What I found in my dear friend, the dirty, was a form of self-medication—a crutch, a reward—the delightful anesthesia that numbed the anxiety of feeling like a failure, the taking of a wrong turn.

Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life. ~ George Bernard Shaw

The thing, too, that’s commendable about drinking the dirty is it gets you to where you’re going, fast. And instead of looking like a thirsty drunk, you can do the deed looking poised like Holly Golightly, long stem glass high in hand, three beautiful olives appearing larger than life through the condensation between the rim and where you’ve already sipped away.

The art, the sophistication, the ritual—its downright writerness.

I am a seasoned, one per night, quite functional vodka martini drinker. To some that may not sound bad, but I know what my physician would say and I’m staying clear of her exam room.

The margin, however, between quite functional and fully functional is a subject to be questioned. Especially since I’ve transitioned to drinking the dirty straight, aka “sans the dirt.”

Certainly, the “advantage” here is to be numbed from pain, some sort of intolerance for various fragments of life, the daily grind. The detriment, in the slightest incremental stages that’s widening the margin, is found in a loose tongue and the voracious appetite that follows in the martini’s wake; the inability to read before bed, remember little things in the morning.

The detriment, the slippery slope, is outweighing the advantage.

The latter is evidenced in my ever-expanding girth and my two arms, which now resemble loaves of bread. For the martini, the escape it brings, frees me to consume a serving fit for Pat’s defensive tackle Alan Branch. Sugar and salt begets more sugar and salt.

And chicken parm tastes best when complemented by what?

A robust red wine—two glasses worth.

But it’s stops there, right?

Nope.

With an overstuffed belly, a shot of Remy Martin in a handsome snifter comes afterward. I’ve had a love affair with food all my life, well-managed through biking my butt off, but throw in this consumption at my age, it’s gonna lead to the end of me.

Obese essayist dies of ever-consuming consumption: she drank and ate herself to death, despite what she’s thinks, not so artfully.

Shakti Gawain, a new age author, whose methods of creative visualization I practiced like a junky when I first began writing, says of validation, “When we consistently suppress and distrust our intuitive knowingness, looking instead for authority, validation, and approval from others, we give our personal power away.”

Sorry Shakti, I just can’t buy that.

I’m wired differently, tethered to the physical. I do not trust my intuition; I don’t even think I have any. I need validation to keep on.

When validation continued not to surface, I began taking in cute and furry animals until a person of well-intention adopted them. The vodka soothed my nerves, caring for the animals gave meaning to my life. I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of lagomorphs and tiny whiskered fur balls that have moved through our home.

Validation, alas, is crucial to my existence.

But, wait!

There’s a change blowing in the proverbial wind. Yes, siree! I no longer a need to anesthetize myself to endure the operation of life. I’m quitting the vodka—although I’m on the third bottle beyond the one that was to be my last.

I’m gearing up, you see.

Why, might you ask, am I “suddenly” willing to give up my dearest friend, the martini? The beautiful thing that took me away from reality; facing the endless number of untethered days ahead of me?

Because my essays are starting to get picked up. There’s the validation, the essence of what I’ve been striving for. No more crutch needed.

And you know what?

Getting published, I find, tastes as clean and pleasing to the palette as the vodka.

And, by God, it’s healthier!

It is the dawning of my intended existence.

Right now in fact I’m crafting a new essay on the writing life with Suzanne, my coach, an accomplished individual with street cred who validated my existence long before I was born and frightfully knows me better than myself.

We have a lot of things in common she and I. Except outside of writing, she’s not obsessed with the martini—she’s obsessed with yoga.

Yoga sounds so wholesome, doesn’t it?

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Elephant Journal published My Dear Friend, the Dirty in December 2014.

Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. One of her essays appeared in the IPPY-award-winning anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, published in 2017. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents and is at work on the sequel. You can contact her at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.

 

Hopscotch: Small Bun, Big Personality

Our newest foster, Hopscotch insists on speaking for herself and I wouldn’t dream of preventing her from doing so. Here’s her pitch…

“I like to think of myself as low in maintenance and high in entertainment.”

I’m an adorable lion head house rabbit, a very special breed that came into being in Belgium. This means I speak English with a Dutch accent.

Far from Belgium and anything Dutch, I ended up for sale as an 8-week old baby and was bought by a young boy who feared for my life at a New England fair. He could not keep me.

Since then, more than a year later, I have been moved around a lot and grown wary about being picked up and even touched, so I would do best in an experienced home. Experienced means you are seasoned in caring for a rabbit like me, have patience, and don’t expect me jump on your lap and shower you with kisses. At least not right away. Don’t get me wrong I want to trust you–I just need time. I’ve been with my new foster mom and dad for nearly three weeks now and already taking treats from their fingers—bits of banana and their slow movements have enticed me to do so. Banana also happens to be my  favorite thing next to Stella Artois, Guylian’s Chocolate Seashells, and Ridley’s “The Liz,” a road bike. (My foster mom is budding in here saying never give any type of beer or chocolate to a ‘bunny.’ She also says she’s never seen a ‘bunny’ ride a bike no matter how fantastically engineered it is).

Most rabbits, even Belgian ones like me use a litter box and I’m quite tidy—I like to think of myself as low in maintenance and high in entertainment. I am “a petite” at just 3½ pounds, but I’m a spry girl and prefer being kept in a pen so I can run its perimeter as fast as my little feet will carry me and do binkies. What’s a binky, you ask? In the language of a lagomorph, it’s when rabbits become so overwhelmed in glee, we jump into the air and twist our head and body in opposing directions—to a first time observer, it looks like we’re having some kind of convulsion. In reality, it’s actually a conniption, a form of hysterical frenzy.

Talking about binkies, do you know that cats can bink too? My foster mom sometimes straightens out my pen so I have access to most of the first floor. The only bit of mischief I get into is sneaking up on and startling the cat that often shares my pen—she binks straight up into the air!

After a great while of exploring the place, I begin to feel tired and climb up on my cardboard box tunnel. Like the bun diva that I am, I survey the room feeling secure and confident until I grow so sleepy that my eyes close and I fall asleep sitting up. How I love to have room to exercise, feel safe and be cared for. And, I find, I have developed a certain affinity for cats.

Won’t you consider adopting me as one of your companions—developing a bond with me, have me trust you? I’m so much fun to have around, I just need a permanent loving home in which to blossom. 

Please contact House Rabbit Network to inquire about adopting me, the little caramel-colored rabbit with a Dutch accent and a lion’s mane.

Consider fostering too!

Hopscotch brings out the highlights in my hair nicely.

Lisa Mae DeMasi lives in Natick, Massachusetts with her boyfriend Dennis and a fluctuating number of animal companions–some live with them full time, some are fostered, some board. This animal husbandry is a compulsion, saving just one more neglected cute and furry creature warms her heart. Dennis loves them too; the landlord is exceedingly tolerant. Her mother thinks she’s nuts. Lisa is also a blogger and avid writer, her work has been published in Shark Reef Literary Magazine, HuffPost and Elephant Journal. She considers Massachusetts her home, but has lived in Connecticut, Vermont, New York State and two other planets called Wyoming and Arizona. She earned a B.A. from Regis College and an MBA from Babson College, and possesses over 25 years working in administrative support roles in small Boston consultancies. She also holds a Master certificate in Reiki and practice this form of holistic healing on the animals in which she cares for.