I did try. During the Great Lockdown, I made a habit of driving to nearby parking lots and worked for an hour, sweaty and uncomfortable, in the car. Deliberately left alone, our new pandemic pup began the hour by wooing so loudly and mournfully, I had to force my foot onto the gas pedal. Then he dragged a piece of cardboard from the recycling bin in symbolic protest. When I came home, he jumped up and down on his hind legs like a black kangaroo, tore around the yard in a frenzy of spent panic, came inside and collapsed on my lap, gave a big sigh of relief, then fell into an exhausted sleep.
We hid smiles at the drama of his distress. But really, dogs are like babies, who are like adults, who just hide it better. A dog who has been deprived of food and company will greet his owner before eating. When a dog smells his people, the reward center in his brain lights up—we are a treat.
When I was newly married, my brain lit up in my husband’s presence, too. Long independent, I realized with horror that I did not want to leave him. I mean, ever. Even to grocery shop. The phase was disconcerting as hell and lasted less than a month; maybe it is some wily natural trick devised to seal a monogamous bond? When we returned to normalcy and began spending some time with separate interests or friends, it was fun to compare notes when we returned home, bringing juicy worms of gossip or intrigue back to the nest to share. They are necessary to any relationship, those comings and goings.
I tried to persuade the dog of that, but he was having none of it. He was only truly content when we were both home, the entire pack together in the cave, safe and cozy. “All he wants is to be with us,” I told my husband, angling to avoid some social event that did not interest me. “That’s a lot less than our human friends demand.”
“Yeah,” Andrew agreed dryly. “We only have to agree to never leave the house again.”
• • •
Absence only makes the heart grow fonder under limited conditions; extend it, and you are looking at a different cliché entirely: out of sight, out of mind. When wealthy families of the nineteenth century sent their teenage kids abroad to end an unfortunate relationship, it usually worked. And while carrying a flaming torch of unrequited love for decades might sound romantic, I suspect it has more to do with avoiding the terrors of a new love. Even dogs can be rehomed.
I write all of that, but I am the first one weeping at those videos where somebody returns to Africa and finds the lion they cared for as a cub, and the lion lopes over and nuzzles them, remembering. Maybe it is only shallow, unwise loves that wash away with a change of scenery.
• • •
With the dog, we have reached an accord. Often it involves a restaurant doggie bag, because a bribe can sweeten grief. In return, Willie no longer drags bits of recycling to his dog mat. I used to think separation anxiety was just neediness and insecurity, but more fundamentally, it is about trust. He trusts us to come back; we trust him not to trash the house in our absence. We all trust that the affection between us will not be weakened by a temporary absence.
• • •
When married people separate, they can only remain civil if they can trust that affection remains, that neither person wants to hurt the other. The War of the Roses drama is all about ego—slighted pride, a feeling of being maligned and betrayed, one’s love cast aside as useless. The friends I know who managed a truly amicable separation and divorce never tried to sever the bond altogether; they honored it as something that had mattered, even if its everyday expression was ending.
• • •
Willie still goes a little crazy when we come home after being gone a few hours. But now he has Horsie, a big stuffed horse he carries everywhere, so he walks in circles with Horsie dangling by a hoof, and the reunion is a bit calmer. That is what a trusted friend will do for you.
He had other toys all along, but in fits of prey drive, he tore off their heads or limbs, and they bled polyfill stuffing and had to be buried in the kitchen trash bin. He adores Horsie because he cannot destroy Horsie.
Did he realize that his frenzied bloodlust was depriving him of steady companionship and solace? Probably not. My grandmother ripped into her husband regularly, sharp-tongued in frustration. Did she know she was destroying her marriage? I am not sure.
• • •
Many dogs ago, we invited a couple for dinner, but the wife did not share my fondness for the four-legged, so we warned them that we now had a dog.
“Can’t you just put it in the basement?” she asked, as though this were the obvious solution.
Sophie was terrified of basements, had never once gone down our basement steps. It was cold and wet and dark down there. I shot a nervous glance at my husband, but he had not even stopped to think. “No,” he said, his voice firm. Leaving for work and play was one thing, but exile a family member to the basement? “She lives here,” was what he wanted to add. “You’re just temporary guests.”
Another friend put her dog and ours on the other side of a baby gate while we had dinner. I tried hard to keep a straight face. Her dog was used to this token separation and settled down with a bone. Ours sat at the baby gate through the entire meal, back straight, eyes wide. Every time I glanced over, he pawed the latch and looked hopeful.
Separated, but in plain sight. Other images flood in, far harsher. Little Black kids who stood peering through a fence, watching White kids splash in a cool blue swimming pool on a blazing summer day. Women who give birth in prison, only to have their baby taken from their arms. Migrant children pulled away from their parents and locked up alone.
Tyranny thrills at any chance to separate us. What better proof of power?
• • •
After 9/11, it was the replayed cell phone calls that tore me up. Yes, it was awful seeing the explosions and the falling bodies and hearing the screams. But the deepest sorrow was that desperate need to say “I love you” across time and space, when they knew their life was about to end. Why bother? Why not focus on some possible safety measure, or count your sins, or commiserate with your fellow passengers? We know where we belong, to whom we belong. In crisis, we cannot endure feeling separated from them.
Watching footage of the Kentucky tornado, it hit me again: the terror of trying to find someone you love, wondering if they are alive. Hell, I worry just when the roads are icy and Andrew is late getting home. If I could not find him in the rubble? It is bad enough knowing that someday I might outlive him. I make contingency plans to calm myself: I would sell the big farmhouse, move to a studio apartment in the city, keep really busy, lean hard on my sturdiest friends. My Horsies.
• • •
When COVID struck, even seasoned ICU physicians were undone by the sight of so many people dying alone, unable to squeeze, in terror or pain, the hand of the person who shared their life. Young mothers could not hold their children in their arms one last time, kiss them softly, whisper how to live. The final separation, and they had only a stranger’s hand to hold, only a stilted Facetime call to say goodbye.
I have stopped smiling at the dog’s separation anxiety. That mournful howl is too often justified.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.