Thursday, August 31, 2006


My brother's dog, Rufus, got loose the other day, and when he gets away, he doesn't want to be caught. He goes from adorable family pet to snarling hellhound, and he snapped at my niece as she tried to catch him, biting her and drawing blood. Finally, the Humane Society was called, and they managed to round him up, but they issued a warning: since he had drawn blood, he could be categorized as vicious. If he he gets looses again, and they have to catch him, that's it for Rufus.

Rufus is a wonderful dog in so many ways, but he's messed-up. Is it just the way his brain is wired? Or is it how he was raised?

I was still married when Rufus came on the scene. Sue Ellen and I had just had another blowup, and I stayed at my mom's house for the weekend so we could both cool down. While I was gone, she bought a puppy. Possibly this was done to spite me, since I didn't want a dog, but more likely it was a manifestation of her bipolar disorder: the fact that we were apartment dwellers, forbidden by the terms of our lease to have a dog, was overridden by her immediate desire for something. Irrational purchases are common for bipolar people, but in this case, the purchase was a living thing, not so easily thrown away.

When I got home that Sunday night, Sue Ellen was gone, visiting her family. She had left Rufus behind, plopped in the bathtub, apparently the only place she could think of where he'd be confined. Our cat Scotchie sat on the hamper next to the tub, and every time Rufus would raise his head above the rim, she'd thwack him across the face, and he'd sink back down. But when I saw his oversized ears and beady eyes , and his nervous tremble as I spoke to him, I fell in love.

I took him for a walk, and sat with him on the steps outside, and held him as he collapsed into me. When Sue Ellen came home I asked her what we were going to do, and she insisted we were keeping him, but the landlord called--Rufus had been barking the whole time he was left unattended--and told us to get rid of him. But how?

The store where she bought him had a No Return policy, and I wasn't going to let him go to the pound, not my new buddy Rufus. The only person we could think of that was in the market for a dog was my mom, who had been saying she thought it would be nice to have a puppy. This despite the fact that she was already taking care of my dog Elinore. But Elinore mostly stayed outside, or in the garage, and Mom wanted a dog of her own, to be in the house with her. So she got Rufus.

She loved him dearly, but from the beginning, he dominated her. She was either unwilling or unable to train him in any way, and as a result, he developed no social skills, and crapped all over the house. She'd clean up after him, but the smell would linger. He grew incredibly fat, because Mom would feed him her leftovers, and she had a lot of leftovers. She'd fix a lot of food but eat very little, perhaps an early warning sign of her cancer that she chose to ignore.

But she was ignoring a lot of things then, venturing out of the house less and less, not realizing or not caring that her nutty dog (and four cats) were running her life, and entering a Grey Gardens phase as a crazy old lady. Was this by choice? Was there something else going on? Did she know the end was coming, and did she just say the hell with it? She was still sharp, she was still herself, just...different.

Last summer, Mom was in and out of hospitals, and responsibility fell to my nieces to take care of her house and pets. Initially they thought Rufus was totally crazy, that he'd have to be put down if anything happened to Mom, because who would want a dog like that? Eventually they came to realize no, he's actually quite sweet, just kind of eccentric. Kind of like his owner.

When Mom died, things were sorted, tossed out or kept. But cats and a dog can't be discarded so easily, not for anyone with a heart. John has a large house with a dog run, so that was it. Since he acquired him, he has come to love Rufus, partly for what he is and partly for what he represents: Mom's legacy, everything good and bad about her, all of her love and all of her quirks, an unstoppable force of nature, maddening, contradictory and wonderful.