Safe

We rescued River from a shelter in Virginia, to which she had been moved from a rescue in West Virginia, where they had found her wandering the street. Based on her behavior — because unfortunately she can’t tell us her story verbally — we guess River was beaten and had food withheld from her, probably by a tallish man with a deep voice. The shelter had her for five months and did not name her. They marked her as a risky adoption and she sat, overlooked, in a concrete box.

She’s lived with us for seven years now. For the first 72 hours after we brought her home she couldn’t relax enough to pee. It took a year for her to bark or indicate that she wanted anything, even longer to relax around strangers. She still startles awake if anyone moves near her, and it was only very recently she started allowing herself to fall into a proper sleep during the day.

Today, she demands love and cuddles, she lets us know when she’s hungry or wants to go out, she found her voice — barking and singing! — she’s even settled down around kids and tall deep-voiced men.

I thought she was pretty much recovered until we got Champ.

Champ was raised from puppyhood with a family full of love. He is bold, exuberant, straightforward, and has no fear. (Although he does have some separation anxiety since his dad moved away.)

Even after seven years of consistent love and safety with us, River sneaks off to hide in fear whenever we scold Champ, even if she did nothing wrong. I’ve noticed she still saves a little food in her bowl after meals, in case there’s no next meal while Champ wolfs down everything we give him in perfect trust that dinner comes next. Champ catches and devours any food I throw at him, but River dodges the treats, and cautiously sniffs it before eating.

River has lived in peace and love and safety for more than twice as long as she lived in trauma, but we still have to act gently with her scars. I was reminded this morning, when I scolded Champ and then automatically turned to reassure River that she wasn’t in trouble and I loved her, that tenderness for someone’s pain doesn’t have a timeline. We cannot rush one another to heal. Perhaps there isn’t an end date on healing. Perhaps we never arrive and the traumas of our past always follow us.

As I walk around these months, I feel the empty space my brother Josh left like a raw wound. It’s not gotten any better or easier, if anything it’s gotten worse. Grief metastasizes, opening other traumas of the past we thought were safely boxed away. I can’t connect with people in any way that feels real to me because a piece of me is missing, and the nerve endings on my ability to feel love are seared by many old and new burnings. I told a friend last night I feel like a plug missing one of its prongs. The current of human connection seems irreparably incomplete.

I look at River, so loved and so wanted, and know that inside she still feels like that skinny, terrified three-year-old: nameless and unadoptable. I feel like that. Nameless. Drifting. Unadoptable.

Our feelings, however, don’t change the facts of our circumstances. River is safe and fed and loved. Although her fight or flight impulse hasn’t fully adjusted, she can spend longer and longer spells of time enjoying the good of her life now. She thumps around playing with rope toys all by herself in my room upstairs and I hear her and smile. That is what healing sounds like.

I have unconditional love in my life that is safe. I know this in my mind, although my soul cannot feel it right now. I hope, like River, there’ll come a day when I can feel it again. For now, I look at her and know it’s true. Because nothing can make you feel unconditional, safe love like a dog.

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Successful life with chronic illness in poetry and prose.

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Amanda Malone

Amanda Malone

Successful life with chronic illness in poetry and prose.

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