Every day, at 3:30, Nora waited on the front porch. Her tail would start wagging as soon as she caught sight of me. She put back her ears, whimpered, barked and squirmed until I plopped down on the steps, dropped my backpack and rubbed her belly for as long as I could manage.
All year, all through elementary school, rain, snow or shine, Nora was there. Even if I was home, at 3:30 she’d go stand at the door. Even when I went to middle school and high school and I came home earlier. Even when I left for college, and no one came, she waited for me, at 3:30, every day.
In 1991, I was 7. We took a road trip—probably to Chatauqua, New York—and in the car my parents played a Recorded Books edition of the Odyssey (I can still hear it: “Read by Norman Dietz”). In very short order, Homer became an obsession. I’ll never know whether this was because I was always going to love tales of travel and homecoming, or whether the Odyssey affected me so deeply that I seek it in all other stories. It doesn’t matter. That’s the way it shook out. I love Homer. I love the Odyssey. It’s just the way I am.
In Chatauqua, my mother fell in love with a basset hound named Harriet, who just happened to be “preggers.” Mom was ready to drive from southeastern Ohio to Washington, D.C., to have one of Harriet’s puppies. Somehow, leveler heads prevailed. In October we drove deep into the ridge roads, an hour or more away in McConnellsville, to meet a litter of eleven bassets. I remember being let into a small, dark shed with a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling.
The shed seethed with puppies. They saw us and surged toward the edge of their pen, yelping and wiggling and clamoring for us. I was so ecstatic I sat right down in the middle of them—into a pile of droppings, as it’s been related to me. I didn’t care. The world had shrunk down to the confines of these walls, and it was made of puppies.
One little girl hung back. She was the runt, a watcher, a wait-and-see-er. My parents told her breeder that they wanted to sweetest, most docile little girl in the litter. A few weeks later, we came back to take her home. Our puppy had a ribbon around her neck. She was eight weeks old, all feet and ears. “Good-bye, sweetie,” the breeder’s wife said, sitting with her on the living room carpet. “Have a good life.”
Her first name was Nora, after Nora Barnacle, beloved of James Joyce. Her middle name was Helen—after Helen of Troy, of course.
Abandoned there, and half destroyed with flies,
old Argos lay. But when he knew he heard
Odysseus’ voice nearby, he did his best
to wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears,
having no strength to move nearer his master.
—Homer, The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
Homecoming is sacred to me, or near enough. I think Homer did that, unless it was in me all along. The stories that hit me hardest are those about coming home, or not being able to.
The worst grief I’ve ever experienced—prolonged, profound, unshakeable grief—has come to me twice. The first was when Nora died, an event that struck us very quickly and lasted long after she was gone. The second was the long, slow process of emptying out and giving up my childhood home.
The homecoming is sacred for me. Unless there is a very good reason for exile—unless I have agreed to hear a story about exile—I need for characters to be able to come home.
Not to derail this argument I’m building, but let’s not get too lofty. Dogs are a huge pain in the ass. They need walking, feeding, policing, cleaning up after, bathing, entertaining, quieting down. They stink. They shed. They fart. They get sick. They break things. They chew. They bark. They howl. They eat poop. They roll in carcasses. They slobber. They can bite. They destroy our living spaces. They defecate and urinate indoors, sometimes strategically. They swallow objects and ingest foods they shouldn’t. They track mud all over the floor and the carpet. They ruin furniture. They hump legs. They won’t leave you alone. They hog the bed or the couch or the blanket. They run away. They jump up on you. They get erections at bad times. They keep you home when you’d rather go out. They get neurotic and territorial. They might bully or herd or fight other pets or children. They lie and sneak and steal. They have terrible breath. They ravage your savings with trips to the vet. They have no boundaries.
But they’re also perfect. No one who loves or has loved dogs would disagree. We would do anything for them that we could.
Even people who know better can fail to give dogs credit. They somehow think that a dog forgets someone if they’re gone for a long time. This has always struck me as ridiculous. Whenever, at a reunion, someone exclaims, “He remembers you!”, I have to bite back a snarky retort.
Watch this video. Maybe you’ve seen it before: the compilations of dogs welcoming soldiers back always seem to come around. But this one gets me. It’s not a flashy reunion, not like the gigantic Great Dane with his paws on his owner’s shoulders, or the duo of raucous baying beagles, or the small white Westie, vibrating with delight, hoisted high and close in her master’s arms.
This is an old dog. Look at the white in her face. Listen to her. Watch her see her owner again. Ignore the family member who laughs about how she remembers her soldier.
Listen to her. Recognize that? She’s weeping with joy.
Except for Argos, the loyal hound who died after waiting for Odysseus, Homer doesn’t generally like dogs. In the Iliad, they’re scavengers of the dead, the lowest of the low, to be cursed and chased away and railed against as they eat the fallen. In the Odyssey, Odysseus laments that his belly makes him little more than a dog, an endlessly hungry body that drowns out the intellect and keeps man from godliness.
Nora was always hungry. She was greedy, and she schemed. I have more stories than I can count of food (and non-food) that she stole, often with ridiculous consequences. (Bags of doughnuts, whole pizzas, an entire gingerbread house, high blood pressure medicine, a cabbage which got stuck in her teeth, endless boxes of crayons…)
About a year after we got Nora, we went on our very first cruise. It was only a week or so, but it was an eternity to a kid who has finally gotten a dog. Mom stepped in: she began to tell me stories about what Nora was getting up to while we were away. Often this involved breaking out of the kennel, donning a special S.W.A.T. suit, tracking me down and embroiling me in a caper that spun wildly, hilariously out of control. My mother’s Nora stories were my favorite thing in the world, and I begged her for them long after I supposedly outgrew them. They also made me determined to be a storyteller.
As you can see, being 7 and 8 was a pretty big time for me.
I’m writing this because someone asked me to. “Why dogs?” she said. “Why not cats or rabbits or birds or snakes?” For me, dogs have been all I’ve ever wanted. For her, there was nothing instinctual about wanting companionship from a dog, which is fair.
I spent a lot of time turning this question over. For days, I sifted through heaps of cliches. Dogs are honest! Dogs are good to hug! Dogs are hilarious! These are true things, but they weren’t the answer I wanted to give.
Something about how dogs emote gets me where I live, that’s true. Canine emotions are easy and satisfying to me. When they’re joyous, it’s in their whole body, their eyes, their voice. When they’re upset, you know—they linger or pace or tuck their tails between their legs. Dogs make no beef about what they want: they’ll bark at the place you keep the leash rather than be coy.
Watch a dog run sometime—really watch, especially in a large, open space. Maybe in slow motion, if that helps. Look at their faces, look at the shapes their bodies make. Look at the length of ground they cover. Do you find that kind of happiness enviable? I do.
That was another answer: I like the way dogs interact with space. I like the way they’re built, the way they move. I like them aesthetically. I prefer big dogs to small dogs. I’m tall, and always have been; I like how unapologetically big the big dogs are. I like how gentle and sweet they are too.
I like them when they’re loud, when they throw their weight around, when you can hear them coming. I like their presence. I like them when they’re graceful and when they’re ungainly. I like the way they sprawl, and the way they curl up with you. I like the way their faces move, how openly they show what they feel.
I like the big dogs who think they’re lap dogs. Ever had a Great Pyrenees sit in your lap? I did. His name was Mister, and it was like being cuddled by a cloud.
The last time I saw Nora was the day I left for my final year of college. I’d come home every summer, in part to be with her, but now my boxes were packed and she needed to go to the kennel. She was old then, nearly 14, and most of her fur had gone white or faded. She sat on the porch, watching me load the other car.
I wasn’t going to the kennel. I don’t remember why; I think I still had packing to do. She always knew when I was leaving; she was no dummy, and she always got clingy and sad. I found her hiding in some bushes. I remember how bright the sun was, and how ghostly she came out in the pictures I took. I laughed at her, untangled the leash and coaxed her back up to the porch.
Looking back, I do think she knew this would be the last time, that she wouldn’t see me come back. I leaned down, very easy, and kissed her in my favorite spot, right between her eyes. How was I to know? She was old, but not so old, and in perfectly good health then, for the most part.
Nora declined, sharply, at the end of October 2005. My parents drove her back and forth to a pet hospital in Columbus, eighty miles each way. We all hoped, desperately, that she’d pull through, just a little while longer. She came home from the hospital the weekend before Thanksgiving. Her kidneys were failing, and she had a tumor in her pituitary gland, and she didn’t seem to recognize people anymore. My parents wrapped her in blankets and put her out on the porch, where she sat in the sun for a while and seemed happy.
The day before I flew home, I shot up in my bed at 6 AM, not knowing why. Right then, though I couldn’t have known it, my parents came downstairs and found her, still warm.
I’d never cried like that before. For months, I dreamed about her. It was incredible, staggering grief. Not long after, I was talking to my mom about it, trying to comprehend it. “Well,” she said, “I guess love makes you ready to love more.”
All dogs are different. Not all dogs are good, or giving. Not all owners relate to dogs the same way. But this is about why I love dogs, and the dogs I’ve loved have never held back.
Gus came to us after almost a year without Nora. We drove to Toledo to get him. Even at five months old, his feet were as big as my fists. I was conflicted about welcoming him. He was another dog, and we needed a dog in our lives, but he wasn’t Nora. He was a very different creature: well-behaved, and simple, as boy dogs tend to be. But he slept between my legs on the long drive to his new home, and he sat in my lap and he huddled against me, scared but trusting.
He grew into the dog-space Nora left behind, in his own way. Now he’s almost six, and a whopping 80 pounds. Every time I come home, we go through the same routine: I drop to the floor while he charges into the kitchen and throws himself at me. He stands on my knee and chews on my right ear. Then he settles into my lap, for hugs and wrestling and bellyrubs.
My mom was right about love. That’s not exclusive to dogs, of course, but for me, at least, they paved the way.
My favorite part about coming back from college was getting in late at night. Often I would take evening flights, and after the two-hour trip from the airport, we’d pull in to our driveway, quietly. We’d come in to the dark house, still quiet, and I would set my bag down near the door.
Nora liked a particular corner, a little nook between the living room and the kitchen. She curled up in a perfect doughnut, feet tucked beneath her nose, snoring and dreaming. Before we turned on the lights, before we made any noise at all, I’d crouch by her head and wait. Before she woke up, her tail would begin thumping. She smelled me. When she opened her eyes, a visible shock of happiness went through her body. She stretched, sleepy-excited-content, and twisted toward me, and her tail would wag harder. That’s when I’d kneel down and kiss her nose, and the spot between her eyes, and scratch behind her ears while she sighed.
This is one way of saying why I love dogs. The homecoming is sacred to me, or near enough.
We’re near the end,
but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm’s green dome
O let the last bus bring
love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.
—Katha Pollitt, “Small Comfort”