The story I am about to confess has been my own personal shame for over thirty years. When I was three or four, my local public library showed children's movies for free in a special room on the second floor, just off the "children's section." The library was a magical place. The librarian was a woman with a salt and pepper beehive and enough extra curves to make her welcoming to a child. Whenever we went to the library, my mother would let me pick out stacks of books which we would take home. I would sit in her lap, and she would read to me in a low, soothing voice full of expression and warmth.
Still, seeing a movie at the library was a treat. They were free and kids from the community would come and sit in the dark. I'm not sure where my mom waited, perhaps downstairs. I don't believe she ever left the building. All I know for sure was that she was not with me when I would watch the movies.
That day, we were watching the movie Benji. It is the story of a stray dog who wanders around from friendly stranger to friendly stranger for scraps, brushings, pets, and cuddles. This, of course, was in an era when setting out food for strays wasn't uncommon. We had several neighborhood cats that wandered from house to house. I still remember Whiskers, a long haired yellow cat owned by our neighbors across the street. He was a sweetheart who would lounge in the grass and tolerate the clumsy fingers of children. We even have a picture of Whiskers in one of our family photo albums.
Benji was a lovable mutt, mid-sized, long hair around the face. In this movie, the first of several, he befriends a white female dog who looks like a mix of Pomeranian and poodle. They meet, romp through tall grass, race each other in wide open fields, and share drinks together from a bird bath. I loved Benji. He was cute and plucky. I felt akin to this stray who seemed to make the most of his unleashed life. He seemed so street savvy, but his little white friend was more vulnerable.
In the movie, two of Benji's young friends are kidnapped, and he and his girlfriend must help them. I was caught up in the movie, absolutely transported onto the screen. Movies were still new thing in my life, and there is something mesmerizing about sitting in complete blackness and allowing yourself to enter that cinematic world.
Here comes the moment of my eternal shame:
At one point in the movie, one of the kidnappers kicks the little white dog. She squeals. I will never forget that image as long as I live. That was it for me. Tears, sobs, deep heaving sobs escaped...
Before long, one of the librarians was escorting me outside of the movie room into the harsh light. My little shoulders still shook. My mother was waiting for me.
"We were worried about her," the librarian said. "She got so upset."
I did not finish the movie. I collapsed into my mother's arms and tried to believe that the white puppy would be okay, that she wasn't hurt and it was just a movie.
Animals lovers are a separate breed. The older I get, the more I become convinced of this.
I lost a good friend almost a month ago. Her name was Zoey. She was a big talker and could hardly stand to stand in one place for long. She loved to sit in sunlight. She was a beautiful calico cat with a big patch of red on the top of her head. There were few things she loved more than a good head massage and belly rub. Human attention made her day. Whenever she was allowed out in the backyard, she would roll around on the sidewalk, stalk birds in the garden and flowerbeds. She had such long, long legs.
The first night I met her. She brought me a present. Uncharacteristically, she had caught a baby bunny and placed it by the back door.
I cried when Zoey had to be put to sleep. Her kidneys had failed, and she had lost so much weight. She still clung to enough energy to ask for head pets and belly rubs, though.
Animals lovers have open hearts. They are unafraid to risk the hurt. We know that, in most cases, our furry friends will not live as long as we will. I have already lost a good dog named PJ, a good cat named George, and a dear guinea pig friend named Herbie. We embrace the full love of such creatures, trying to give them the best life we can all the while knowing that we will outlive our friends and might even have to make the heart-wrenching decision to end their suffering.
They always depend upon us. They will never grow up and demand to drive a car or attend a pricey college. They are perpetual innocents who only want a safe place to sleep, steady food and water, and toys to keep them busy on a boring afternoon.
I just adopted a puppy. Even if he lives to be eighteen--a long life for a small Chihuahua--the odds are that I will outlive him. My cats are eight and six, respectively. If God smiles on me and favors me with a few more decades of life, I will have to see my dear friends age and endure the challenges of a long life. But, I want them to have a long life. As long as Time will allow.
I haven't watched movie Benji since that day as a child. I rarely watch movies with animals as the protagonists. My heart cannot take it. But, I will love every animal I can. They depend upon us. They truly need us.
Zoey is buried in the flower bed where she used to sit on warm Spring days. She led such a good life. Her death was painful and all of the deaths of our furry friends cut to very core of us, but animals lovers take a deep breath and love again.
We are a rare breed. Our hearts are open and wide to love and to the hurt, but as we know, the hurt is only measure of the happiness we gained while our friends were in our lives.