A Virtuous Woman

Author’s note: Many of you have read this previous post. I am posting it again today because last night, at about 10 p.m., my beloved Ruby died at my feet less than an hour after I was able to tell her she could go, that I would be okay. I thought I would have another few weeks with her, but it was time. Like the grace I have been given, I did not deserve Ruby, but I am so deeply grateful to have had her.

(RIP Ruby and James.)


Who can find a virtuous woman? She is more precious than rubies. – Proverbs 31

I have a lame dog. She’s fat now, too.

She hasn’t always been lame and fat.

She is a good-looking dog even now that she is fat and old. But when she was young, even people who don’t like dogs will say, “She’s a good-looking dog.” I never assumed they were sucking up to me because she really is a fine piece of dogflesh.

Words others have used to describe her have included regal, precious, butch, pretty, bitch-hound, protective, and alpha.

She’s a short-haired, black-and-tan mixed breed. She shows signs in her physique and demeanor that she has beagle hound blood mixed in with a bigger, more aggressive breed such as a German shepherd or even maybe Rottweiler. She weighs about 80 pounds. In general size, she’s somewhere between a small Labrador retriever and a large cocker spaniel. She has sweet brown eyes in a brown face. She has a black saddle with soft brown detailing on her legs and tail.

She never has had much use for any other creature but me. She’ll play with the other dog, and she will harass the cat. She will greet visitors kindly. She seems to regard my parents, my sister and my niece as extensions of me and understands they are her responsibility to guard. She even shows occasional fondness for my best friend and my boyfriend. But it’s me she wants.

I didn’t do much right in the way of training this dog — my first, but we bonded. I brought her home in December 2003 from the animal shelter in Vicksburg, Mississippi when she was roughly eight weeks old. I had this heavy wool sweater that zipped up the front. I had bought it on a trip to Portland, Oregon with my ex-husband when I was still accustomed to living in his native northern climates. Living back home in my native Southland, the sweater was overkill most of the time, but in December in an old, cold house, I wore it frequently. I would tuck the tiny puppy – about eight pounds when I brought her home — in the front of the sweater and zip her up. I carried her around like this while I would go about my business in my house. I did this as long as she would fit. That stopped between 15 and 20 pounds.

I had gotten this dog because suddenly cats weren’t enough to satisfy me. After years of being married but living like a gypsy, ironically, my first act as a single woman was to buy a house. I bought a cute little house in downtown Vicksburg where I worked for the newspaper. It had space and it had a wonderful yard that just seemed to me was begging for a dog.

I had no clue about mortgages and dogs and yards and planting gardens. I knew rent and cats and stoops and gypsy traveling. I didn’t let these transitions happen gracefully or naturally; I used brute force.

I had gotten this house because I needed something to tie me down, to keep me from losing my mind and flying out of control after my marriage had ended, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. So with very little cash of my own, I borrowed a lot of money and bought a two-bedroom 1920s era house with a screened porch, hardwood floors and no bathtub. And a big-begging-for-a-dog backyard.

As it turns out, you can lose your mind in a house with a dog just as easily as you can in an apartment with cats. Who knew? But I am getting ahead in my story.

There are so many stories to tell about my dog that it’s hard to know where to begin.

My motives for getting a dog were selfish, obviously. I did some research on breeds, but, in the end, I went with my gut. I had seen this litter of little black and tan puppies on my first pass through the Vicksburg-Warren Humane Society. I kept thinking about them, then went back a second time. There were four or five in this litter. They all ran to the front of their cage, but one jumped up and reached for me. She was the runt and the only girl.

That did it. She was mine. I was hers.

If it tells you anything about my life at the time, I took her to my office – on a Saturday — before I took her home. I went because I realized I knew nothing about puppies, and I needed to get Karen’s advice. Karen was news editor at the newspaper where I was features editor. She told me what to buy at the pet store — flea powder, puppy food, etc. — and she told me how to begin the house training. I had been talking about naming my future puppy Jethro after the character in The Beverly Hillbillies.

It was Karen who said I could name it Jethro whether I got a male or a female. And it was Karen who took one look at this little puppy fresh from the pound and said, “You CANNOT name this little girl Jethro.”

And so we sat there brainstorming names. Karen suggested Pearl since that was Jethro’s mother’s name. I said, no, that was my grandmother’s name and then went onto say Pearl’s sisters were Golden, Opal and Jewel. But no Ruby.

It was Karen who said, “Name her Ruby.”

And so Ruby Pearl got her name while she sat in a cardboard box on the main news desk.

Our first year together was rocky. As precious as Ruby turned out to be, she did not fix what was wrong with me. In fact, what was wrong with me seemed to get worse. In retrospect, it may just be that Ruby shined a light on me. I was messed up, to put it mildly. I did things that year that I’m ashamed to admit, such as leaving a puppy by herself all night long while I stayed out. I had fallen in love with James, and I have to admit that his company was more alluring than watching Ruby chase a stick.

When I was with James, I could forget that I didn’t really like my job. I could forget that I didn’t have the money to put a bathtub in my new house. I could forget I didn’t have money to do much at all. I could forget that my time in Vicksburg had begun to feel like a prison sentence.

He didn’t have a job and rarely wore long pants. If that wasn’t enough to hook me, he lived in his grandparents’ circa 1900 house. He was crazy, but he could sing, and he had inherited black curls and olive skin from his Lebanese mother and sky blue eyes from his Irish father. And he made me laugh with impressions of his Beirut-born grandfather’s thick accent and with stories of his Uncle Joe.

But James had a bad habit. He would disappear for weeks at a time with no word.

And so I would be a wreck until he turned back up with crazy stories of losing his phone in a bathtub after partying all night at clubs down by the river.

But the low point came that first summer with Ruby. I noticed there was some kind of sore on one of her ears but I didn’t think it was a big deal. James had pulled a disappearing act, so I went ahead with plans to go to San Antonio for a weekend to see a friend, leaving Ruby with Karen.

It was Karen who told me when I got back that she was fairly certain the sore was mange.

The mange episode was a breaking point in a couple of areas.

For one thing, I felt so horrible I can’t find words for it, and it went deeper than feeling bad my dog was sick. I saw in glaring, unrelenting light how selfishly I had been living my life. I wasn’t taking care of my animals, I wasn’t taking care of my business, and I wasn’t taking care of myself.

I remember sitting in Karen’s kitchen around this time with Ruby playing around in my chair. I was not happy in my job but I was terrified I was going to lose it. I couldn’t figure out how to turn these things around. I don’t remember if I had said all these things or if they were just hanging unspoken in the air. Truthfully, I remember sitting and staring, looking at Karen’s orderly kitchen and thinking there was no hope for me to ever have anything similar. I must have said something, though, along the lines of not having anything in my life worth anything because she said something that I still remember. She pointed to Ruby and said, “You have her. Live for her. And don’t take her for granted.”

It was still a long, long time before I had any real dignity, but I grabbed onto those words that night, and I was determined to try to get my shit together.

Ruby forgave me my shortcomings.  James finally packed his bags and locked the door on his crumbling family home, this time saying goodbye to me as I dropped him at the airport for a flight to take a teaching job in Oman.

Things often get darker and uglier before they get better, and there were a couple of dark, lonely months before I figured out what was wrong with me and stopped doing it. And a couple of months beyond that God gave me the equivalent of a Get of Jail Free card, and I landed a job in Baton Rouge.

Suddenly, everything changed again, and I was a gypsy traveler again. Ruby rode shotgun in my gold Saturn all the way. We went from having a house with a big yard in a small town to a series of apartments with little to no yard in a big city that sometimes felt like a meat grinder. Ruby adapted much better than I did to our diminished circumstances. After all, as I said, all she really wants is me.

The low point in that first year in Baton Rouge was living in Spanish Town. It seemed like a good fit on the surface; its Bohemian quality seemed like it would be a good match for my life. It’s a quaint neighborhood that likes to advertise itself loudly and often as a diverse, artsy and eccentric neighborhood that welcomes everyone. Everyone, that is, except for barking dogs.

Ruby has a tendency to bark when she feels we are under attack. These perceived attacks come from people or dogs walking past her house. The mailman is especially threatening. Living in an apartment building where there were always some unidentified sounds going on was a nightmare for Ruby.

My upstairs neighbor complained.

At first, I was sympathetic. I stopped being quite so sympathetic when anonymous, handwritten, hate-filled notes were left on my door.

Then there was the moment that he yelled something at me from across the street about controlling my dog, then laughed and pointed, nodding as if say, “See!” when she barked at him. She was safely on a leash during this exchange.

Without thinking, I yelled back, “Fuck you,” and flipped him off.

After that, I knew I would have to be moving.

Meanwhile, Ruby was driving me crazy with her neediness.

She was so needy that I couldn’t sit and smoke a cigarette without her whining at me. I didn’t know what to do with her. Smoking a cigarette was my chief pleasure at that time. So, I got another dog. I got another dog, I was already struggling to pay my bills and take care of the animals I already had. I took in this stray female who seemed to be about nine months old. She was severely underweight and had sores on her paws she had been running the roads so long. She had been wandering Spanish Town for weeks according to people I talked to when I tried to find out where she belonged. Everyone had fed her but nobody took her in. No, that was left for me.

And so Ruby had somebody to occupy her time, and for the first few days, Daisy didn’t bark. Then she loosened up and followed Ruby’s lead. So then I had two barking dogs, and other neighbors joined in the chorus of complaints that they barked all day while I was at work.

I had to restrain myself from pointing out that if they, too, got a job, they wouldn’t be there listening to my dogs bark.

I knew I would have to be moving.

And move on I did, with two dogs now in tow along with the two wearied cats that had been traveling in my road show for quite a while now. It had gotten crowded in my Saturn.

I moved on a few more times before landing in a place where I was able to settle. Many of my moves were dog inspired, looking for the right place that fit my budget. Things finally calmed down when I found a place in the Garden District that was affordable if a little shabby. The walls were all painted this café-au-lait gone cold color. The kitchen had tile that was this intense turquoise and navy blue 1960s pattern. The tiles by the back door were loose and concealed a gaping hole that went straight to the ground. The tub leaked down to the living room and created black mildew streaks on the ceiling and down the wall. A buzzing sound woke me up one Sunday morning and I realized that thousands of swarming honey bees had taken up residence in the front porch column. It was described as a hovel and a cesspool, by my best friend and my boyfriend respectively. But something about the place settled us all down.

The cats hung out in the bamboo jungle outside the front door, the dogs loved their Garden District walks and they rarely barked. Best of all, I slept. Plus, it was cheap and it helped me get some financial traction. An out-of-town friend asked me about it as I was moving. I commented that it was going to be good for the animals. She said, oh, because there’s more space? No, I said, because I’ll be able to afford veterinary care for all of them; I won’t have to decide who can wait until next paycheck.

I lived there for a couple of years before I moved to nicer, cleaner apartment where I spent four years. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. It was not too big, not too small, it was just right. No holes in the floor. No honey bees. No weird paint colors. It was bright and clean and comfortable and affordable. Sometimes those days I wanted to get the bumper sticker that says, “Life is good.” It had been such a long haul, but it seemed like almost overnight my life got good and sweet. I fulfilled a lifelong dream to become an English teacher and I had met a man who cannot sing but who never disappears. Everything had changed, but not so suddenly.

Through all this, Ruby was the mainstay in my animal parade. While the others often caused me drama, Ruby was my good, quiet girl. Chick P., my Buddha-like cat, died just days after I buried my father in 2008 and that propelled Calypso, her OCD offspring, into only-and-elderly cat status. Daisy has battled heartworms and we finally seemed to have tamed her tendency to break loose and run that led me on many gut-wrenching, heart-pounding chases through mid-city Baton Rouge to reclaim her.

Then I came home one night and noticed that Ruby was limping, but it didn’t seem too serious. Someone had knocked over an iron gate that I used to divide the hallway from the dining room instead of toddler gate. I speculated it had caught her paw. But by morning, I knew something was badly wrong. She could not walk and she shrieked when I brushed up against her back. The vet was convinced she had been hit by a car, and it took several insistent explanations on my part that Ruby had not been outside unattended so there was no way she could have been hit without me knowing it. They kept her, ran tests but still had no real answers.

“We need to send her to LSU,” the vet said, seriously, in a way that indicated she thought this would be a reassurance to me.

Instead, I got dizzy, and I worried I was going to black out or vomit.

For those of you not familiar with the LSU Vet School, for pet owners in the Baton Rouge area, a referral to LSU feels like someone has said, “Sign over all your current and future earnings or your pet is dead. It’s your choice.”

I had to explain to the kind vet that we needed to try a less economically severe route first, that I couldn’t afford the LSU Vet School. Once again, I was humiliated by my inability to give my Ruby everything she needs. The vet was kind and said spending money doesn’t make you a good pet owner. But at that moment, it felt like it did. She said would keep Ruby for a night or two and then let her come home to try to recover from what appeared to be a ruptured disk.

I wasn’t prepared for the fact that after almost two days in the hospital, Ruby did not seem to be better. In some ways, she seemed worse. They left me in the ward room where there was also a black and white cat named Jessie, an attention-seeking pit pull named Champ and, inexplicably, an unidentified bird.

Ruby wasn’t moving much, and I could tell that she was hurting. Champ’s whining wasn’t helping matters much for either me or Ruby and the bird’s chirps freaked me out.

But, it was in that room where I turned to Champ and the bird and said, “Please, I know y’all are sick, too, but be quiet,” and I made my plea to Ruby and to God and to whomever or whatever else might be listening. I stuck my head into the kennel, looked right into her eyes, put my hands on her paws and said, “You cannot leave me. I am not ready to let you go. You have to get better,” and then I put my head on the kennel floor and cried.

The vet showed me how to make a halter for her hind end and she showed me how to express Ruby’s bladder. As I made my way to the car holding Ruby’s hind end up with a teal and turquoise scarf I had bought months earlier at a thrift store, the vet said something in a really perky way that made my blood run cold.

“If this is as good as it gets, they do make carts and they can get around fine.”

I added a silent, frantic prayer of please, dear, sweet Jesus, don’t make me be the girl with the cart-walking dog, please, please, please.

And so we went home, with orders of strict kennel rest. It was a scary few days. I rearranged my living room so that the couch and the kennel were facing each other. I set up a shrine on top of the kennel with a St. Francis prayer card, a rosary and an Our Lady of Guadalupe candle.

I joked that I had not known that Ruby was Roman Catholic until now.

I slept on the couch or I moved her kennel next to the bed at bedtime.

My friends prayed for my dog without being asked, and I was reminded what good friends I have been given.

I did some preliminary research on dog carts, realizing that if I had to be the girl with the dog in a cart, I would do it.

Ruby fought the constraint of the kennel and of the leash when I would take her out. I got some hope from that even as it irritated me that she would try to run away from me.

I expressed my dog’s bladder several times. I cleaned her butt when she pooped. Calypso and Daisy seemed to understand that we were a sick house, and they sat close to the kennel as if to keep Ruby company.

On the third day home, she dropped her hips and peed by herself. The sound of my dog’s urine hitting the grass that night was like angel trumpets. I jumped up and down, praising her. It took me back to a cold Vicksburg December when I said, “Ruby, tee-tee,” to a puppy who clearly did not like the feel of cold ground on her paws.

On her fifth morning home, she stood in her kennel and took two steps.

“We have walkage!” I shrieked over the phone to my boyfriend, who had already suggested that the dogcart idea sucked, both for me and for Ruby.

She got better and stronger every day after that, and on follow-up the vet was hopeful for a full recovery eventually. Sometimes, I discovered, dog’s disks will just rupture, so it’s not clear whether this was an injury or a fluke that could happen again.

“You’re a good mama,” the vet said, when I explained how I moved the kennel from living room to bedroom and back daily.

I wanted to cry, but instead, I took my Ruby home and we have gone forward with our life together.

I remember Karen’s words: “Don’t take her for granted.”

Ruby’s rear end has a funny little wobble now when she walks, and she has adjusted her gait when she runs. She sometimes tires out and long walks aren’t a great idea for her anymore. She can’t jump on the bed by herself. Instead, she now sleeps on a velvet dog bed.

And I am flattened by the knowledge of just how dependent and connected I am to the other creatures in this world. I was minding my own business and then a gate fell and my dog couldn’t walk, and everything that wasn’t about love and care and prayer just fell away.

Like a fingersnap.


3 thoughts on “A Virtuous Woman

  1. This is a great tribute to Ruby. I have been there with guilt over pets I couldn’t afford and not-so-good decisions. They said our great-grandmother used to take in cats. Two separate female cousins of your dad had about 26 cats at the same time. We haven’t gone that far. You are a talented writer.

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