I found Buster at the pound. He pressed his side against the wire mesh of his cage, begging to be scratched, to be touched. When we went outside to see if we liked each other, he sat on my feet. I took this as affection. What I found out later was that it was just one form of domination.
Buster wasn’t overwhelmingly large or fierce; he’s a medium-size Australian shepherd. But I learned that he had a will strong enough to intimidate an inexperienced dog owner. From the moment we got home he was a wild man, energetic, stubborn and recalcitrant. I put his dog house under a shade tree in the far corner of the yard. He refused to use it. I put towels in there so he’d have a soft bed. He dragged them across the yard and left them in a snarled mess on the patio. Angry scratches appeared on the back door. When I returned from work, he jumped on me on his hind legs, with an erection that left no room for discussion as to who he thought was alpha dog between the two of us. Let me tell you, this sort of enthusiasm is not as flattering when it’s not your own species.
I had him neutered.
As the testosterone ebbed away, Buster and I began obedience classes. Teachers despaired over my inability to follow instructions. I pointed the finger at Buster. We walked around in a circle with other dogs and their owners. We practiced the most basic of functions: walk, sit, lie down. I tried to come to grips with the fact that I was forcing another creature to my will. What if he didn’t want to sit? What was it that made me so superior that I got to tell him when to sit? What difference did it really make whether he sat or not? Buster sensed every philosophical quiver in me and balked at doing what I wanted. We walked around the circle again and again.
Thirty-two sessions later, Buster and I negotiated a truce. If he would come when called, I told him, be courteous to others and make dinner once in a while, we could stop taking classes. He agreed to only two out of the three, but I had thrown in the extra term out of my superior negotiating abilities anyway.
Sometimes I compared Buster to a bad boyfriend. He burped and farted with impunity. He was moody without being able to articulate his feelings. When he deigned to sleep with me, he took up too much room on the bed. I was there to make his dinner, pick up after him and scratch his back.
We could have gone along like this quite happily, Buster and I, just another woman and her dog. But the universe, exasperated with my slowness as a pupil in my own life, signed me up for something else.
Buster’s first seizure happened at 3 a.m., and I don’t know which of us was more frightened and confused. He was possessed: Horrible tortured screeching came out of his throat; he was rigid, his eyes seeing something in another world. I went into my bedroom and closed the door, shutting out all the things I didn’t know and couldn’t handle.
When I came out, Buster growled at me and pressed himself into a corner. He smelled of his own urine. I went back in my room.
Here’s what I learned about emergency vet hospitals: After you drive through the dark and sleeping streets, there are people who are completely awake and not dry-mouthed with panic. They are willing to tell you all kinds of data, like your dog has epilepsy, how they know that, the drugs they’ve administered, the types of drugs that are available. I learned it is possible to watch another human being’s mouth move without being able to process any of the information coming out of it. In later visits, I learned that it’s possible to put your 65-pound, semiconscious dog on a blanket, drag him out of your house, across the porch, down the driveway, up onto the back seat of your car, off the back seat onto the vet’s parking lot and into the waiting room. In the middle of the night. Alone.
At first, the medication stopped Buster’s seizures, and I grew comfortable and smug that things were under control. But little by little, I could see the waves battering down his defenses until the seizures were coming 10 times a week, twice a night, lasting for an hour at a time.
Anyone who does not believe in possession by the devil should watch a dog having a grand mal seizure. Buster’s lips would draw back in a snarl, his teeth chattered, he shrieked and drooled. He would fall on his side, his legs paddling like he was swimming in Lake Hell, his head rising repeatedly and then banging on the hardwood floor unless I absorbed the blows by holding him and letting them beat against my body. After that part was over, he’d get up on unsteady legs, sometimes falling splayed out like a newborn calf, and trot around the house in an unseeing, unresponsive daze. He tried to wedge himself into corners behind the TV, behind the couch, on top of the firewood, scattering kindling, or behind the nightstand, knocking the phone off and tangling himself in the wire. The walls were decorated with drool marks.
I tried everything: different drugs in varying doses, herbal concoctions, acupuncture. I drove regularly to the health food store to buy ingredients for his holistic home-cooked dog food. (My dinner continued to come out of cardboard boxes.) I rocked him, sang to him in the middle of the night, rubbed flower essences into his forehead.
I wish I could tell you that my nurturing and diligent efforts healed us both. I wish I could tell you that we sailed through this with grace and humor. I wish I could tell you my higher self led me every step of the way, and I followed that orange robe and shaven head up the mountain to enlightenment.
Instead, the dark currents leapt from my dog to me. It was as if the devil had merely flicked a black and horny fingernail at the thin shell of my goodness, which was sufficient to crack it wide open. Exhausted, I looked out at the world with the red-rimmed eyes of a stupid and vicious criminal, having lost the ability to feel sorry for a suffering creature other than myself. I yanked the damn dog out of corners. I yelled at him as I saw him succumbing to a seizure, as if it were something that could be corrected if only he’d been paying attention in obedience class. I fantasized about how much easier it would be for me if he died.
Gradually the drug dosages had some effect. The seizures became milder, less frequent, and generally confined to the more convenient after-dinner hours. At the onset of another bout, when I caught myself clawing the air with rage like a cartoon witch, there were nevertheless brief but significant moments where I found myself able to choose between kindness and anger, between acceptance and the insistence that I be in control at all times.
I found that I now understood sleepless parents with newborn babies, the fear and isolation of a single mother, the wife whose husband was always absent on a business trip when the kids were sick. I walked shoulder to shoulder with those tending a loved one with a chronic disease, waiting for things to get back to normal but only getting days that were better or worse than others, thinking that they would simply expire from emotional fatigue long before the patient who had been diagnosed.
I never entirely stopped looking for solutions to Buster’s life, as if they would then put mine in perfect order. I wondered sometimes if he was simply acting out my own chaotic psychic state. Last winter we had taken a trip to the desert and rested in its silence. We drove back on a maniacal southern California freeway. My arms were rigid on the steering wheel, eyes staring, body vibrating with tension.
Buster made one of those familiar strangled sounds, paddled and scrabbled onto the back seat and tried to wedge himself into the windshield. I thought about pulling over. Then I just surrendered to all of it: my lessons, my dog, my life. I figured it wasn’t any weirder than what was going on in any other car, and we drove on.
Ruta Paskevicius practices law and lives with Buster in northern California.