I hadn’t planned to rescue a dog that day. It was an ordinary day for me; a mid-January Wednesday, full of work, after-work errands and being tired. As it turns out, it was an ordinary day for the dog as well: full of hunger, cold, fear and being targeted by teenagers who thought it was fun to throw bottles at a stray. That our paths crossed was the only extraordinary part of the day – for either of us.
When I say our paths crossed, I mean that they literally crossed. It took every bit of power my brakes had to stop in time, as he darted in front of me on the busy highway. For a split second his terrified eyes met mine through the windshield, as I skidded to the side of the road. Darting into the nearby bushes, he cowered, breaking my heart. Yes, the drivers behind me were ticked. Their horns serenaded me, accompanied by some heartfelt hand gestures, as I slammed into park and jumped out to check on the dog. What’s that phrase? Once you save a life, it’s your responsibility? Something like that. Well, if it wasn’t me that saved him it was certainly the divine universe. A believer in that divinity, I approached cautiously, remembering another well-known phrase about cornered animals being dangerous.
“Here boy!” I called out gently, hoping he would see I meant him no harm. I was going to help. And if any animal needed help, clearly it was him. We were in what they call a polar vortex, meaning the temperature without wind chill was well below – very well below – zero. Skin and bones, at first I thought he was a dark brown Labrador retriever. Getting closer, I realized he was lighter colored and the brown was actually layers of filth. Sad eyes gauged me suspiciously, as he crouched further into the bushes, shaking not just from the frigid temperature but from intense fear. Why should he trust me? The last person to get close probably gave him a good, hard kick. “Come on. It’s okay. I promise,” I cajoled. But he would have none of it.
As a social worker, my strength is problem-solving. (That, and knowing where all of the food and clothing resources are in any city, within 60 miles). I knew the way to a guy’s heart was through his stomach – human or canine. It’s how I snagged my ex. Surely it was the way to win the trust of a traumatized and starving pup six feet away from me.
Back to the car I went, ignoring the biting wind as well as the horns and gestures of less-than-good-will from my fellow man. I have a thick skin. Another part of being a social worker meant if I rummaged in the front seat, I’d come up with my leftover lunch. The spirit animal of a social worker is the raccoon: we are up all night, have dark circles under our eyes and eat junk. That junk was about to come in handy.
Half of a Big Mac in hand, I returned to the dog with something more concrete and valuable to offer him than kind words. Sitting on the ground (what the heck – it was only snow and social workers don’t own clothes that need to be dry-cleaned), I made yummy noises. It took him a good two minutes but eventually he decided maybe I wasn’t so bad. Maybe he could take a chance. The burger was gone in a bite, but in that bite trust began to form. First a touch on the head. As he moved closer, a full pet. When he made the final step, and rested up against me, my heart broke open again…and so did my nasal passages. He smelled even worse than he looked. I couldn’t actually feel the fleas biting me yet, but I knew that would come. While my body hadn’t completely frozen to the ground, it was only seconds away. “Come on boy,” I whispered. “Let’s get you to a V-E-T.”
Armed with resources, social workers almost always have some spare coats and blankets in the backseat. Snuggling in, the dog let out a sigh that came from his depths. It’s a sigh every rescuer has heard and it means, “Okay. I know I’m going to be all right now. I know I’m safe.” The life I had saved had just become my responsibility. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet…
“He’s malnourished, anemic, has frostbitten paws, the fecal shows worms and a few parasites, and he has fleas,” the vet reported to me. “He’s going to need surgery to fix a broken leg that never healed correctly. That’s just from the initial exam.” Catching my breath, my bank balance flashed before my eyes. We social workers live paycheck-to-paycheck. If we’re lucky.
“How much is this going to cost?” The vet smiled kindly, “I’ll work up an estimate.” An estimate. That was never good. What was I going to do? How was I going to swing this?
Remember that strength in problem-solving? I needed it more than ever now. And I knew what I was going to have to do, even though I dreaded it. Out to the car I trudged, the bitter January cold air was nothing compared to the bitter pill I was about to swallow. Rummaging underneath the spare coats and blankets, which now smelled as bad as my new faithful companion, waiting for me to save the day, my hand closed over the little black book. It had everything in it – my whole life. All of my passwords, contacts, resources, friends and even an enemy or two. It was the latter of these I would have to reach out to for help. My ex, whom I hadn’t spoken to in, what, 5 years, 3 months and 12 days (but who was counting)? Engineers and social workers should never fall in love. Ever. Someone who deals in facts and equations, black and white, has no business entering into a relationship with a therapist who wants to talk about feelings all the time. No business whatsoever. And when it ends, it ends in a big ball of crazy. Good thing he loved dogs…
So I swallowed that bitter pill and ten minutes later my phone notifications went off. “Your recently unblocked contact, Forget About Him, has sent you $20,000 via Quickpay. Your account balance is now $20,072.” I clicked on the Notification and read the note: Use whatever is left over for the next dog you nearly hit. Start that animal rescue you always wanted. I miss you. And I’m not seeing anyone.
One week later, Kia (in honor of the vehicle that brought us together) laid on the couch with me, clean, flea-treated and warm with a full belly. “Well buddy,” I sighed, applying the cream to his raw paws, “you sure had a guardian angel looking out for you.” My black book was next to me, initial plans for my new “Have a Little Faith” dog rescue sketched out. As the doorbell rang, my text messages buzzed. I’m outside. I brought dog treats. You know I love Labs.
I guess you’re a bit of an angel yourself, Kia, I thought, as I went to answer the door and the love of my life. You, and a Little Black Book. Maybe sometimes it was okay for a social worker to love an engineer. Even if he did drive her crazy. After all, everyone deserves a second chance.