Monday, December 21, 2009


In the summer of 1997, my friend Kristen and I were at my friends Avery and Kim's house. I don't remember why now, but we were there on a Saturday morning and Avery and Kim decided we should all go to the animal shelter to help them pick out a dog, so off we went. I spent some time with the cats, just checking things out, wandered out to the dogs, and checked in with Avery and Kim frequently, as they looked at various options. And I poked around some, and kept circling around one enclosure that held the cutest little white dog and its companion, a cocker spaniel. I pointed the bright eyed curious white pup - young, about a year old - out to Avery and Kim, but they dismissed her quickly without much of a glance. I pointed her out to Kristen, who agreed she was cute. A volunteer wandered over, and suggested I take her out of the cage into a grassy area and interact with her a bit. Oh, I'm not here for a dog, I protested, but the volunteer suggested it would help the dog to get out a bit and what was the harm. The label said Aja (which is a Steely Dan album pronounced kinda like Asia), and the volunteer told me she and the cocker spaniel had been dropped off a few days before. And honestly, the volunteer continued, I think the poor dogs were relieved they were left here, relieved to leave those previous owners behind.

So out to the grass Aja trotted. There were other people there with others dogs, trying them out. Aja stayed close to me, and when I knelt down she kept beside me, warily eyeing the other dogs and people, seeking shelter in my shadow. Kristen was delighted with her, and the volunteer smiled at how friendly she was. But no, I said firmly, not for me, I rent, I have housemates, I have a cat. We left that day with Eddie, a gorgeous shepherd for Avery and Kim. Don't you want to put your name in for the westie mix? the shelter volunteers asked. But I said I couldn't.

And yet I couldn't shake her from my mind. I checked the website and their phone hotline. The little westie was described as brighteyed and smiling all the time, and indeed she had been. Kristen phoned me and said I should think about it. I talked with my then-boyfriend Rich, and mentioned it to my housemate Ryan, who seemed agreeable. So I called our landlords, who said a dog was fine with them. And a couple of days later, I called the shelter, only to learn she had been adopted. Oh well, not to be. The volunteer on the phone said to me, I've never seen a dog bond with a person they way you two did and not have the person put a hold on her. It's too bad.

Life continued that week, and that weekend I went to pick up my mom, who was traveling up from Florida visiting my Aunt Betsy (Elizabeth's namesake). I picked her up at the airport, we drove down to the Shore, I dropped her off for the visit, and I was spending a day or two with them in Virginia before I headed home. The next weekend I was to do the reverse - picking my mom up and dropping her back at the airport. At some point I checked my messages (pre-cell phones, remember calling in to see what messages had been left?). First message was Avery - the animal shelter had called them, trying to track me down, and could I call them? The next message was the animal shelter. The adoption on the westie had fallen through - a home visit had nixed the adoption - and they had remembered someone else had been interested, so they looked back through records, found Eddie's adoption, and called Eddie's new owner to see if I might be interested. I flew downstairs - Mom! Aunt Betsy! I think I'm getting a dog!

After relaying the whole story, they agreed it was meant to be. The only thing left was to decide on a new name, because a Steely Dan album title was not going to cut it. I had a much-loved cat I had acquired at FSU. My housemate at the time had agreed I could get a cat only if he could name it. Matt was more than a little unusual, which mostly manifested in his obessive love of Andre Agassi. He cut his hair like Agassi, bought all the Agassi outfits from Nike, including the neon wristbands and headbands, and played tennis like Agassi. I believe he even had a Rebel camera. I intro'ed Matt to a friend in the oceanography department who started playing tennis with him, and said, Matt could actually be considered an idiot for the Agassi obsession, except he was so sincere about it, it was kind of charming. So, no big surprise the cat's name became Andre. My mom, Aunt, and I considered naming the dog Brooke, but probably a good decision to rule it out. My mom actually came up with Aggie - short for Agassi, kinda, and similar enough to Aja to not confuse the dog. So somehow, thanks to a random housemate from 1991, who I haven't seen or heard of since I don't know, 1993, probably, ended up with pets named for Andre Agassi. I don't even remember Matt's last name (and it took me a few minutes to even come up with his first name), so can't even look him up on Facebook. He was an undergrad I had found through the student housing office, since I moved kinda blindly from Maryland to FSU without even a visit before enrolling. I remember he was planning to go to law school, and had political ambitions. I wonder where he is now. Nice guy - I wonder what he thought of the crystal meth admission from Agassi? Anyway.

So I came back from the Eastern Shore and called the shelter. They told me the home visit had failed for the previous applicant because she had other pets that appeared uncared for. I eyeballed the 18-pound Andre and knew we'd pass that test. The home visit showed up a few days later. He said, yeah, I should tell you that the dog's companion had been adopted, leaving Aja in the cage by herself, and she had gone a little pound crazy by herself. The shelter was not a good atmosphere for her, and she was slated to be put down if I did not take her. He suggested she not be crated, since she was chewing the bars of the cage at the shelter. But he said it all looked good.

So I drove back to the Shore, picked up my mom, and stopped at the shelter, meeting Rich there, to pick up my cute new dog Aggie on our way back to my house. And my god, she looked terrible!! The shelter had NOT been good for her. She had slowly, over those roughly 2 weeks there, lost her little mind. She was gnawing through the cage, so much so she had worn sores on her snout. Her little smile was gone, replaced by a frenzied, panicked barking. Her bright eyes and shiny coat were dim and grimy. Rich's and my mom's look of alarm gave me pause, but it was me or the kill room, and so Aggie came home. It was a weekday, and we stopped by my office, who all knew the story, and buzzed them to come down and check it out. There I was driving, Aggie crazy in my mom's arms, and my colleagues gathered around the car. My friend DJ called her Bandit, and to this day refers to her by that name.

The home visit guy had suggested gating the small bathroom off my bedroom, so she would be contained but not crated and could see me. But she chewed on the doorframe, on the bathroom vanity, on the floor trying to get out. The shelter had described her as housebroken, but that appeared not to be the case.

Let's just say the first two weeks were pretty much a disaster. Rich and Ryan were in mutiny, and I wasn't exactly happy myself. I think it was Rich who said, let's try a crate, at this point what have we got to lose? And so we did, and presto - biggest problem solved. She slept in the crate just fine, and we could put her in the crate when she needed to calm down. This by no means solved everything. Thank goodness Comcast only charged $1 for replacement remote controls. She developed an obsession for stealing the remote control and chewing it to pieces. A vet later said it showed her love for us, as the remote was strongly scented by our hands. I don't think Ryan bought that explanation. I think we went through nearly a dozen, and once she chewed a remote in less than 20 seconds. Ryan was watching the news one morning, left the remote on the coffee table, and went back to his room. He and I passed in the hallway and said good morning, and by the time I made it to living room, mere seconds later, the remote was destroyed.

About a month or so after getting her, I took her to be professionally groomed, dropped her off and came home to an empty house. Ryan was out, new housemate Cynthia was gone, and the house was all mine and Andre's. We napped on the couch and just enjoyed the sounds of nothing. No chewing. No worrying. No wondering what the dog was into. Nothing. The grooming place called and told me she was ready and I replied, when do you close? How long can I leave her there?

There's more, so much more to the Aggie story. The failed clicker training. Ryan's dress shoes. The linoleum in the kitchen. The barking. The endless barking. The escapes. The energy. The shake can. A simple hush command. Ryan in a frenzy flipping the couch she would hide under, and then building a plexiglass barrier so she couldn't hide under that couch anymore. (It is a miracle Ryan still speaks to me). The pee that she couldn't control when she was excited.

It took many a year, but she did mellow. And she did try to be a good dog. Due to the barking and some unfriendly neighbors, she came to the office with me every single day for about a year and a half and made lots of friends (though despising John, the Fed Ex guy). Andre had a fairly high level of disdain for her, but she loved him - and even jumped in to defend him once during a tussle with a neighbor's cat. And she was fun to walk. And she was a whiz when hiking. She'd stick close enough, and turn back and look when she reached a fork in a path. I'd point the direction and she'd head that way. Early on, we had many a fun hike at Catoctin with Kristen. And she was amazing at the Billy Goat trail at Great Falls. I remember us hiking with Murph, who kind of rolled his eyes at her white fluffiness, but she could do that entire tough, rocky trail with just one assist at one high drop - she'd find a way up and down every other rocky area. She was depressed when Andre was gone in 2000, and I worried about another cat, but Harrison put her in her place quickly and she respected that. (OK, she was scared to death of Harrison.) And of course, when Elizabeth and then Andrew arrived, Aggie took that displacement in stride. One thing that Rich did not type in November, when we first thought something was wrong, was that she had bitten a neighbor child, and snapped twice at Andrew - a clear sign something was wrong and she was not feeling well. When Andrew had started crawling, we had watched him crawl over and over Aggie without her batting one of her long eyelashes. So something was up. We didn't know it would lead to this, and so quickly.

On Friday Rich and I said goodbye to our 12.5 year companion. She was woven tightly into our family story, and her loss leaves a hole. Her flaws and bits of crazy made her what she was, and we weren't ready to say goodbye. She loved a good snowstorm, though my former housemate Cynthia remembered another of her earlier quirks - she couldn't, or wouldn't, relieve herself on snow, so we had to dig down to the ground to allow her to go to the bathroom, or wait til she found an area with minimal snow out on walks. Just another quirk that made her her. And more practically, that dog was a vacuum cleaner - just the amount of sweeping we've had to do around the dinner table has amplified her absence. And living in the city, walking a dog twice a day plugs you into the neighborhood. We have to tell many of our neighbors - some whose names we don't know, though we know most of the dog's names, that she's now gone. I wonder if Edith, the corgi down the street and her arch enemy, will miss her.

And now, she and Andre are together again.

I just never expected to miss her this much.


Thrift Store Mama said...

A beautiful post, Susan. I hope it felt good to write. I'm glad that Aggie was with you in the end, and that, despite her quirks and annoyances, that you, her owner and caretaker, were still able to love her and do the best thing for her.

Elaine said...

Susan, I am not a dog person, but I am going to pass along advice from a friend of mine who is a dog person. Get a new dog. In her words, dog people cannot live without dogs. My sister's dog died about a year ago, and before two months had passed, she had a new dog. It was really good for her and her family. So...if you're a dog person, not just an Aggie person, I hope you can find a new dog quickly. In any case, so, so sorry that everyone is dealing with this. It's just awful.

V said...

What an amazing story, Susan. I love all the details you remember of how you and Aggie met and became part of each other's lives. I love how real your relationship was--that she was such an important part of your life. I hope your pain eases up soon, and that you spend more time laughing over all the great memories you have of your good, good dog.

Laurie said...

Thank you for sharing your and Aggie's story. It sounds like quite an adventure, and she was lucky to have found you.

Rachel et Natalie said...

thank you for such wonderful story Susan. May time appease your sorrow and may the wonderful memories help you to go through

Mom said...

I loved your post and the fact that I was part of Aggie's story. I know she will be missed by all. Mom

Mom said...

I am so terribly sorry! And am probably as sad! I am crying so bad, I can barely see what I write!
I am very sorry for all of you and hope E, you and Rich are at peace.
Lots of love,

Jen said...