Sophie was my protector. Not so much physically. At 25 pounds she couldn't have fended off a mugger or a monster, but she saved me from loneliness, which is one of my greatest fears.
I was lonely for the first year after we moved to Pennsylvania. I couldn't find a job in the area, and even though I worked part-time online for my former university, I wasn't making enough money to contribute my fair share, and the limited contact I had with my former colleagues only emphasized how isolated I was. Doug went to work to teach all day and stayed most evenings for rehearsals. I knew no one else.
On fall break, Doug insisted we go dog shopping, their eyes met, and we came home with her. The only reason I was opposed was because I took the responsibility seriously and worried I would screw up as a pet parent the way I felt I was screwing up in general. To a lesser extent, I felt left out of whatever bond Doug and this dog had. Sophie was never as excited as when she reunited with Doug upon his return to the den. Throughout the day, we would look at each other not with hostility, but with confusion. What were we supposed to do while the guy we loved, albeit differently, was out of the house?
I loosened up and started talking to her, not caring whether she understood me or just liked the sound of my voice. I realized that my feelings were a cautious version of what Doug had let himself feel immediately: this skittish little dog deserved to feel safe, and unconditional love was the only way to make that happen. Soon, I wanted to take on that challenge. I could handle it.
Giddy as new parents of any species of child tend to be, we smothered her with attention and food, and I took an annoying number of photos. On her first Thanksgiving with us, we presented her with a plate of food, a sampling of the treats we were about to enjoy. After nibbling at some dressing, she looked up at us as if to ask, "Is all of this really for me?"
In the photo, I managed to capture one of the most meaningful moments we had with her. The lighting captures the necessary information (the food, her face, the texture of her fur), but the shadows temper the brightness and create a mood that matches her expression.
It was the expression that inspired her previous owners to call her "Eeyore" but apparently did not melt their hearts as it did ours. We wondered how they could look into those eyes and not want to give her everything. We still can't understand how they could have given her up, although we're glad they did. Clichés you've heard before from exuberant pet parent apply to us, especially that we needed her even more than she needed us.
We kept our promise of making her feel safe, and whether or not she had any idea of what she was doing, she returned the favor. Our happiness with her was always tinged with a little sadness, at first because her behavior indicated she had been mistreated, and later because we knew she wouldn't be with us forever. She died in August, so now the photo provides significant amounts of comfort and pain. I'd take a little sadness over the gnawing pain of her absence that lessens only to return in force. I know Doug is going through the same thing. We've talked about it, but we're kind of all talked out and have reached the point where the only way out is through.
Generally speaking, I don't feel loneliness like I once did, but I feel lonely for Sophie like I've never felt lonely before. In the moments when I understand that life can only move forward, I can accept the photo and the memory of taking it as almost enough to fill the emptiness.