The Untold Story
Growing up with the family dog.
by kimberli wong
Ming Mei was my childhood Rottweiler; we got her the summer before my senior year in high school as a puppy. We got her with me knowing that I would only have one full year to spend with her before I went off to college. Even at seventeen, it’s hard to understand what that means. I’d never had a dog, so I didn’t know how much they can love you, and how every moment with them is a precious opportunity to create a memory that will stay with you forever. How you are raising a life, and how that life becomes a part of you. A dog is a member of the family.
That summer and the rest of that year, my sister and I learned how to raise a dog. We took turns waking up for her at night when she cried, we potty trained her, we tried to teach her how to swim, and of course we played with her.
We did all the things you should do with a new puppy. I remember holding her one afternoon with her licking my face madly. I could feel how much she loved me, and I never felt like I loved anything else quite in the way that I did with that dog.
The summer before I left for college, when Ming was just over a year, I took her camping with me and my friends in Tahoe. I remember her crashing down through the bush on a hike, galloping through the wilderness like any young deer. She loved camping and sleeping in the tent with me.
But the year was up, and I had to leave. I sat next to her on the floor in my cute college going-away outfit and I cried. We’d had a wonderful year, but never again would I live with her under the same roof for months at a time. Or so I thought.
Over the years, I would come back often, and every time I would take her out for her walks, to the river and the parks. We would go looking for stones that smelled of fish during the salmon run—one of her favorite pastimes was to grab large river rocks in those powerful jaws of hers and pull them out of the water. She would neatly place it on the river bank, then eagerly go in for another.
After I graduated, I spent just under a year at home before I was away again. At that age, you think—this is what I am supposed to do, go out and start building my life. I missed my dog a lot; that’s probably part of why I would come home back to my parents’ for extended periods of time. Still, I didn’t really connect in my heart and mind that a dog’s life is shorter than a human’s. I had never had a dog before, and I don’t think you can really understand what that shorter life span means until you have gone through it at least once. Compared to the entirety of our own lives, our time with our dogs is so short, and because of that it is so important to make each moment count.
I had left home for four years for college, and that was OK. I had been back for vacation plenty, and still had the opportunity to make up for any lost time with Ming in the years following, if I chose to. Those were the years after I graduated but before the true responsibilities of adulthood began—I was free. I could go on any adventure with her I wanted. And while I did do things, like take her to the Bay Area to visit my sister, who was now in college, and take her to the river every chance I got, I also spent several years mostly away. Like any twenty-something, I was focused on my life.
I didn’t really get it, not really, that precious time was passing, the only years I would have with her. And while I had been so sad leaving her after one year and being away for four, I had sort of forgotten that, and how I had yearned to spend more time with her. Don’t get me wrong. For someone who didn’t live there, I was at my parents’ a lot. Ming and I—we did do so much together. Everything was exciting. At the mere mention of a walk, she would tear around the house, looking for her leash. And there were so many of them. She also loved to eat. Endless treats with peanut butter. Lettuce and broccoli, her favorite. Watching television. Playing frisbee and tug-o-war. Trips to the mountains and the beach.
But nothing can substitute for the special moments that happen when we live together in our daily routines, just hanging out and being with each other. I know now she missed me, perhaps was even waiting for me to realize this. And probably wondered, once I had come back from school, why I went away again so soon.
The universe works in strange ways. When Ming was nine, she developed a back injury that caused her to be unable to walk. I came home to her one day with her on the ground, her back legs twitching. After a successful surgery, she was left with feeling in her legs and the ability to walk with physical rehabilitation. Due to the stress of the surgery, though, Ming developed diabetes, which was controllable with insulin but would require her to receive shots daily for the rest of her life.
Rottweilers are incredibly strong dogs, both physically and emotionally. They don’t show pain and they can tolerate a lot. Through all of it, Ming was so good-natured and positive. She seemed to be recovering nicely.
However, a family conflict during her recovery time forced me to leave my parents’ house. I had devoted myself to taking care of Ming, and I decided I would take her with me. I traded in my burgundy sports car for an SUV that would fit Ming and all our stuff, and away we went. Ming was so strong that even with two hind legs that didn’t work, she would jump up with her two front legs and I would boost her behind up into the back of the car.
At the time, I was working my first real job as production assistant on a feature film in Placerville, a small town at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Twelve to fourteen hour days, five days a week. At first, we lived in the little motel where most of the film crew was staying. But Ming, like a good Rottweiler, would bark at every little noise while I was gone, and the hotel complained. So I rented a small, renovated tool shed secluded in the back of a couple’s house. It didn’t have heat but had a nice wood-burning stove and a shower. Ming couldn’t walk as she was still recovering from surgery, so she stayed there during the day to rest while I worked and then I came back to her at night.
And that’s where we lived for almost four months, and it is some of the most wonderful time I spent with her. Because it was just us. We finally got our adventure. I would wake early, feed her and administer her insulin shot, then take her out for a brief walk. She was such a strong dog, even without the use of her back legs which I held up for her in a sling, she would pull me as she roamed through the back woods, sniffing, sniffing, sniffing. One morning, it was so misty—just a gorgeous, silvery, magical mist—the kind that fairies live in. She stood at the top of the hill near our tool shed looking out, and I could tell she was in rapture. Completely present. Ears perked, shoulders up, listening to everything. And I thought to myself, here is a Rottweiler who has been through so much, who literally can’t use her back legs right now, who is still standing here loving the world and all its mysteries. There was no thought of her disability, no regret, no feeling sorry for herself or our circumstances, just a pure presence and enjoyment of the moment we were in. It was as if the whole world was new and she was seeing everything for the first time.
I will never forget that.
At night I would come back and I would fire up the stove, and we would share a roast chicken and veggies. Then sleep together on the double twin mattress which happened to be on the cold stone floor. After a while, she would be the one hogging the bed and I would often find myself half on the floor anyway.
Ming seemed to understand that she was with me, for now. And I needed her, too. The altercation I had witnessed at my parents’ was traumatizing. All I had wanted was to work my job and take care of my dog, but that didn’t seem possible there. Bringing her with me was the only alternative I saw at the time, but it also gave me strength and purpose.
It didn’t feel dire though. It was the two of us, having new experiences every day, eating meals together, exploring new territories, meeting new people, and taking care of each other.
Winter came and Placerville was getting cold. We literally—and figuratively—kept each other warm.
Ming rested. It was the kind of quiet she needed for her back to heal. And heal it did.
After the job was over, and a brief, three-week visit to Santa Barbara, then Folsom, things had cooled down enough in my family to bring Ming home. She could walk by then, and the vet was amazed when I brought her in for her check-up on a leash, without the use of a sling.
But life isn’t always fair, and soon after that Ming, like many Rottweilers, developed bone cancer in her front arm. Radiation treatment dulled the pain and allowed her to live for another 6 months, this time back at my parents’ house, the house she grew up in. I cooked for her, and we sat together, and I stayed. It was difficult, for all of us, but Ming was able to enjoy a lot of things and she seemed more or less fine. Not sick.
She was surrounded by her family that loved her, and was happy to be back.
When I think back to the final year which was pretty much just me and Ming, I know how difficult it was, but what I feel is the gift it was to spend so much time with her. I was balancing work at the time, but my focus and priority was my dog. She was the one I hung out with, the one I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with, who I devoted my time to taking care of. We had a daily routine and I was there. Perhaps it was making up for lost time. I owed it to her nonetheless. I wanted to do it. Everything—from the living together in the shed, to sharing meals and beds, to the vet appointments to the endless driving—it was all just time I got to spend with her. And I cherish that more than anything. We had fun. She had fun. We were on the road, and we went where we wanted. The heartache is there too, because the thing I wanted most was for her to get better, and heal completely, and live another five years. That didn’t happen. The end was hard, because we were so close. She was recovering from her surgery and would have been back to walking and running if it weren’t for the cancer. But what I remember from that year was how I got to be there for everything. And how good that was—for both of us, I hope. We were on a journey, and we got to do it together.
Ming Mei saw everything with love, no matter what the circumstances, because we had each other. And I can’t help but see it that way, too.