Sheltie

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An Essay in Honor of Cody Stardreamer Kuehn

I am home from college for the weekend. I am home, but no one is there. My brother is studying Greek and Hebrew and writing exegetical papers at a seminary in St. Louis. My sister is doing pirouettes and forming kick lines with her dance team at the half time of a high school basketball game. My parents are watching her, wearing their Lincoln Lutheran parent pins and cheering for the Warriors. I cannot bring myself to join them at the game. I cannot face the possible defeat and I do feel not like celebrating a victory.

It is late-February in Nebraska and my heart is still jagged from a month-old fracture. The ground is covered in snow and frozen solid. Recent storms have left patches of black ice all the way from Sioux City, Iowa to Lincoln, Nebraska, freezing over the artery of pavement that leads me home, the stretches of highway and interstate that bridge my two worlds.

I knew the gray-trimmed house would be empty when I unlocked the door, but I did not think that it would be so cold. Lights off. Candles out. The kitchen swept clean.

I shoulder my backpack and drop my other bags on the floor of the living room. There was a Christmas tree in this corner the last time I was home, its tiny twinkle-lights still glistening in the January twilight. But now the party has been packed into boxes and the tree has been replaced with a stiff burgundy chair.

I cross the hardwood floors of the entryway and pass through the kitchen, not even bothering to flip on the lights. I open the door to the basement and look down. There in front of me is a creature who has been waiting for someone to come home. Four white legs, two curled ears, a blanket of long dark fur and a hand-broom of a tail softly sweeping back and forth, back and forth.

“Cody,” I say, the two syllables warming my throat. I bend to stroke the white blaze that runs the length of his short-haired face. He shuffles through my legs like a compact through a car wash and heads into the kitchen to look for my mom.

I carry on, plodding down the carpeted steps and heading to the far end of the room, where I flip the switch for the gas fireplace. It is instantly aflame, but slow to put out heat. I grab a quilt from the pile in the corner, and dig through my backpack for a textbook and a notepad.

For five minutes I try reading the same two pages on the psychology of relationships—attachment theory and secure bases, the importance of security in the quest for emotional intimacy. I have failed to learn this in practice. Why bother learning the science behind it?

I hear Cody pad down the steps. He is the cat of all dogs—aloof and reserved, the shy kid at the dog park. But tonight he comes right up to me, nuzzles his nose along my thigh, sets down his head and softens his ears. I place my book on the floor and lift Cody into my lap. I feel his heart beat into my knee, his body heating the blanket between us.

Cody sighs and I sigh, and I realize I needed to sigh.

“Hey, Baby,” I say softly, stroking his long thick fur. “Hey.”

As my hands continue their motion the blood flows back into my fingers. Loose fur floats into the air, falling to the floor like feathers.

Cody is a Shetland Sheepdog, more commonly referred to as a Sheltie. He is not a hunter, not a retriever, not a yappy high-wired terrier or a useless decorative toy thing. Shelties were bred to be herders, to run circles over the wet heaths of the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, bolting their legs and bursting their hearts to gather wide flocks of sheep back together. When my siblings and I were children, Cody would orbit the yard and the house, trying to bring in the breadth of our soccer games and pull each of us closer to home.

When I walk Cody around the neighborhood he attracts his fair share of attention, which is always more than he would like.

“She’s beautiful,” women remark.

“He,” I am quick to correct.
“Honey, come over and pet the puppy,” they say to their children. “She looks just like Lassie.”

Lassie, I recall, was also played by a male. All six times. This is the problem with long-haired dogs. If they aren’t sporting colored scarves or rhinestone studded collars, your chances at guessing gender are about fifty-fifty. Cody resembles Lassie as much as the Space Needle resembles the Eiffel Tower, which is to say that it’s not ridiculous, but really he’s a different kind of creature. Where a standard collie is upwards of two feet tall, Cody is right around 12 inches. The runt of his litter, he weighs just over twenty pounds, one-third the weight of a true Lassie replica. He does have similar coloring: an oak brown coat with white markings in the Irish pattern, white feet and legs, white collar and forechest, white muzzle and chin and a white-tipped tail. Only Cody is mahogany, his standard sable coloring shrouded in a thin veil of black. My mom calls it his halo.

Shelties are intelligent and energetic, fiercely loyal and occasionally mischievous. When Cody goes missing every now and then he is usually sleeping in an obscure location, upside down on top of a heating vent or curled up beside the toilet in the bathroom. He favors that corner behind the burgundy chair in the living room, the one where the tree used to be. Cody is not a cuddler, not the sort of over-eager canine that slathers your face in dog tongue or plows you down before you can get through the door. He is selective with his affections. We are similar this way.

I stroke the baby-soft fur at the tips of his dark brown ears, surprised that he is still in my lap.

“It’s just me,” I say to him. “Just me and you, Baby.”

I find it strange that this title is such a common term of endearment. Boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, lovers—all of these people roaming the world and calling each other “Baby.” Only one person has ever used that name with me—a man who took seven-minute showers and smelled of Old Spice all hours of the day; who cleared his throat every ten minutes and used words like “indubitably” in every day conversation. He used to lay his head on my lap too. I’d look into the pale blue of his eyes and run my fingers through the uneven waves of his hair. But now he is gone.

Cody stays with me, his dark brown coat spilling over the edge of my leg, melting into the browns of the blanket between us. I think maybe he has forgiven me for that time that I dropped him as a puppy. That night my parents moved his plastic red crate into their bedroom and stayed up with him till midnight, until his whimpers warranted a visit to the emergency vet. Cody hadn’t really been broken, at least not from what you could see in an x-ray. My parents brought him home within an hour, and the next day he was walking. He took the stairs just fine, but seemed cautious when he was around me. They say that animals are quick to forget, that their small brains don’t even retain these sorts of memories. Kick a dog, then give him a treat. Soon he won’t even remember it happened.

I am inclined to disagree. I think we all have to choose to forgive.

Cody shifts in the criss-cross of my legs, his own legs unfolding as he rises to his feet. I look into his small dark eyes like I am waiting for him to teach me something. Though he has nothing to say, we reach an understanding. He is not withdrawing his affection. He just needs a little space. Cody lets out another puffy sigh, reminding me how to breathe.

Dogs are special in their consideration—intuitive in a way that humans rarely are. They know when they are wanted and when they are needed, and they know the difference between the two. This is something that some humans never learn—the importance of being present, of simply showing up and saying nothing. No judgment. No advice. No “it’ll be alright,” “they’ll be others,” “give it time.” Just the simple gift of being another body in the room, of letting the other body know that she is not alone.

I sink my face into the white ring of fur that frames Cody’s neck, my tears soaking into the deepness of his coat. I am grateful for the home that this little dog has made as his silent quiet presence fills the room with warmth. It is what makes the difference between going to my parents’ house and coming home. I breathe deeply once more, exhaling as Cody rises. He moves to turn a circle beside me, leaving an empty space in my lap and lowers to the ground as I pick up my book. Cody rests his chin on the top of his legs and I return to my reading.

 

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