White Whiskers

Published in Bazaar Magazine, November issue at http://www.bazaar-magazine.com/baz/bazaar/index.php?show=eIndex&ampshow_filter=view&action=article&art_id=ART00000001608

They say that unconditional love is the love that lasts even when wrinkles have riddled your hands and face, when bald patches on your head have to be combed over with what few strands of grey hair you have left, when your face contorts and you wince in pain at your old, aching legs every single time you have to stand up, and when they still kiss you despite your new, unappealing habit of not only snoring in your sleep, but slobbering, too. Yet, this process loses all sense of romance and selflessness when only one of you is doing the aging.

We come up with excuses for our anger when we lose someone we love. We say it was too soon, too sudden, we weren’t given enough time with them, didn’t share enough kisses, laughs, secrets, whispers, hugs. But the truth is, even if we were told when we’d lose them, even if we were given a few extra years with them, no amount of time would ever have been enough for us to love them to our full capacity before saying goodbye. Even if all you’re asking for is just one more touch, just one more chance…in reality, not even forever would be enough.

I met my dog Flake when I was fourteen years old. I am nineteen today, and I still remember the strange little quirks she had back then that made my heart melt. This golden-lab mix was not a tiny little bundle of hyperactive, untainted puppy joy; she was a frail, starving two-year-old golden gal with a visible ribcage, what seems to be a cigarette burn on her front leg, a scar between her eyes, and literally shook with fear.

Yes, most people prefer puppies. Yes, puppies have pure, unscathed souls, and because of that, they have the ability to fall in love with you for an entire lifetime in a short span of only a few minutes. They’re not much different from babies, from a certain angle. There’s a reason why when people choose to adopt, they don’t seek older children; it’s because their personalities have already been shaped, and more often than not, they’re still suffering from emotional scars as a result of past traumatic experiences. It’s a burden, and usually signifies a bumpy road to recovery; most people prefer the smooth path.

Yes, it took a long time for Flake to trust my family and I – but all of that effort, patience, and tip-toeing to be considerate of her fear of loud noises was worth it. Since Flake has become a part of our family, I often joke with my little brother and tell him that she was the best ‘decision’ he ever made – because he was the one who brought her home. I have a photograph of my little brother and Flake sitting side by side on a couch when she first arrived; my brother Fawaz was eleven years old and still curly haired and baby-faced, and Flake was still quite skinny, but also had a young face. One of the things I loved the most about having Flake grow old with us is watching my little brother grow up at the same time, too. When he grew facial hair, wrinkles riddled her face. When he shot up, she gained weight. When he started to develop an easy going, laid back personality that he was happy with, she also developed a sense of security and confidence.

My sister has often labeled me “Mother Theresa” in a not-so-flattering way, implying that I try too hard to save the world – that, I am guilty of. At fourteen years old, Flake’s constant terror bewildered me. I could not fathom what kind of pain someone would have to go through in order to reach that level of fear. I watched her, studied her, thought maybe if I looked at her hard enough, that I would be able to see into her soul, get some kind of insight into the trauma she experienced. Of course, nada.

But I learned to be tender, gentle, kind, and considerate because of my friendship with her. Let me tell you: it is not easy to love someone who’s been hurt. It takes an indescribable amount of patience, and understanding, and sacrifice. You have to comprehend that the last person they trusted took advantage of that trust and hurt them. Understandably, they’re hesitant to ever trust again. You also have to understand that the mistrust is not aimed at you; there is no room for your personal feelings when you are in the process of healing someone who’s been hurt. You can’t take anything personally; not their suspicion, or aggression, or any walls they may put up.

Flake went to a “training center” in Chabd, where she was subjected to ruthless torture for two weeks. When she “graduated” from this “training program” that taught her nothing but fear, she developed a phobia of men. It took her at least one year before she was able to warm up to my older brother, who I assume reminded her of those men because he was an adult male – despite the fact that he was also quite gentle with her, she could not help the association she had made. Over time, with a great deal of patience, she reached a point where she would warmly greet Abdulla with smiles and a wagging tail every time she saw him – she learned to love him.

I have a silly but surprisingly effective philosophy that the key to anyone’s heart is through their stomach. Now, apply that philosophy to someone who just came back from a torture camp where food was a privilege only offered to ‘superior beings’ who walk on two legs. Naturally, when I unwrapped a Bu Thahab cone and tentatively sat criss-cross next to her bed, her eyes lit up and her nose started sniffing, trying to find the source of goodness that filled her sense of smell with such a fantastic aroma. I let her come to me, not pushing her. And from that point on, we took baby steps to building the trust between us.

There have been times during certain rough patches of my early teenage years when I would quietly hide away with her and pour my deepest, darkest thoughts to her. I cannot describe the wonderful sense of catharsis these confession sessions would offer me, especially as a young girl with raging hormones and indescribable confusion about the world – she made it simple, though she offered me no words. She offered me company and acceptance. We were there for each other when things were difficult.

In 2008, my sister Shahd left to England for grad school. At that point, Flake had formed a deep attachment to her, and had picked her as “her person” – it has something to do with the fact that they slept in the same bed, I think. The heartbreak she experienced at her departure was excruciating; I won’t lie, I shared her pain. I was also very attached to my sister, and this was the first time in my life that we would have to be apart for so long. I cried my heart out – and so did my mother. This was not exactly comforting for Flake, who must have assumed the worst. The long, cold winter months passed, and I clung to her for comfort, because I knew she missed her just as much as I did – except she could not rationalize it like I could.

When Christmas came, Shahd finally came back to visit. On a cold December morning, my family and I waited for our sister outside our home. When the car pulled up, and Shahd stepped out, my eyes darted towards my dog, who was standing at the end of the street. Her eyes widened, and she blinked twice, like she could not believe what she was seeing. She must have thought she was seeing a ghost, but after blinking a few times and affirming that what she was seeing was indeed real, she bolted towards my sister at lightning speed. We shared the same overwhelming joy at my sister’s return.

I watched her grow old and ill, saw her develop arthritis and would feel nothing but utter helplessness when she would have difficulty standing or going up the stairs. I felt even worse knowing that she could not enjoy our Scientific Center walks like she used to, because she would run out of breath within fifteen minutes. I watched her whiskers turn from a gorgeous golden shade to a pale, white color. Yet, I think the worst part was that she still tried to be the same. She still rushed to greet us when we’d come home from work, school, travels; even though I knew it was painful and tiring. Let me tell you: nothing hurts quite as much as not being able to ease the pain of those you love the most, especially when they try so hard to mask it for your sake.

A month ago, we came back from the vet after a long day of x-rays, blood tests, and endless picking and probing. The doctor examining her had suspected she had a tumor in her mouth; “she might have a tumor”, he said.

I don’t think he was quite aware of the magnitude of that one single word, “might”. “Might”, as in she may or may not suffer a slow, painful death. “Might”, as in my family and I may or may not have to watch her deteriorate right before our very eyes. “Might”, as in we may or may not have to decide if we should spare her all that pain and put her to sleep. The way he so lightly tossed the word “might” made me think that I “might” just choke this guy.

At 7 PM of that day, she was exhausted, and collapsed on our kitchen floor. I knelt down beside her, and she cuddled her head in my lap, snoring quietly. I stroked her soft, golden ears, consoling her after such a draining day. I studied her features; her small paws, her fragile legs, her pretty ears, her blond eyelashes. I was suddenly so determined to drill every single feature of her into my memory, so afraid that I would someday not remember the triangular shape of her wet, brown nose.

She was sleeping so soundly, and I did not want to wake her. I told myself not to make a sound, not to move an inch, no matter how upset I was. But when the pain swelled up in my chest, when a lump formed in my throat, my tears betrayed me and traveled down my cheeks. I still held my breath, careful not to sob so as not to wake her; I closed my eyes and wished it all away, imagined I was still fourteen years old and she was still the two-year-old skinny lab with her head in my lap licking away at my Bu Thahab cone. I was jolted back to reality when I felt her warm, wet tongue licking my tears, and found her sitting up, facing me. I broke down. I wrapped my arms around her with an intensity that clearly said I was terrified of losing her. She was only seven years old, and I was not ready for her to go.

I am grateful for all the great memories that we’ve had together, and for Flake showing me what kind of tenderness and patience I was capable of. I am grateful that I can now touch her paws and legs without her twitching and retracting, that she can now wake up from certain sounds in comedic annoyance rather than anxious fear, that I can now shower her with kisses and make her feel loved without her previous discomfort at that kind of proximity and affection, and knowing that I played a part in her healing process. I am especially grateful that during times of sadness or pain, she was there for my family – she has offered us comfort during times when we had lost every ounce of faith. I am grateful that we were able to give her a life where she felt safe, secure, happy, and confident. I can honestly say that she is a transformed dog now, and whether or not we do lose her, a part of me will always be with her, and a part of her will always be in us. I will forever carry her in my heart and soul.

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