I was supposed to outgrow my separation anxiety. People expect small children to cling to Mommy, but as you get older, not so much. Except that, I grew up afraid that my mother would leave. My father would yell, and yell and yell some more, until she ran out the front door to get away from him. I could hear the door slam from my bedroom upstairs, and I was afraid that this time she would leave and never come back.
But she always did come back. And when I was twenty-three and she was truly ready to leave him, she took me with her. I wasn’t ready for graduate school yet. I needed a cave to hide out in, and I needed my mother. I was like a little mouse, scampering up and down the stairs, terrified of being caught, and eaten.
Our dog, Dina, a black Labrador mix, was almost eight years old, and Mom wasn’t sure about bringing her with us, but I insisted. I had made a commitment to Dina and I couldn’t leave without her. My father didn’t even ask if Dina could stay with him. I would have said no. I would have screamed and run away with her in the middle of the night. But he didn’t ask.
We left behind most of the things my mother had accumulated over thirty years of marriage, but we did take the living room couch. Mom had picked it out from a charity shop to replace the faux leather couch Dina had destroyed during her rampaging-puppy years.
We found an apartment that accepted dogs, and the couch was now our central gathering place. When Mom and I sat down to watch TV, Dina climbed up to be the glue between us.
My father had refused to let Dina get fixed, even though she’d been having hormonal problems and false pregnancies for eight years, tearing up carpets to create bedding for imaginary puppies. One of our first priorities when we moved was to find a new vet and get Dina her operation. They shaved her belly pink and left a long black scar, but even though she was woozy and sore, I knew we’d finally done right by her.
Within months, something changed: Mom and Dina started to bond. My mother woke up early to take Dina outside for the first pee of the day, now that we had no backyard to let her loose in, and then my fifty-five year old mother would get down on the floor with Dina and pounce and growl and throw dusty tennis balls every which way.
Mom became the fun sister, and I was the fuddy duddy, the disciplinarian. In our new life, I was responsible for cooking and cleaning. I put out the garbage and made up menus and shopping lists and budgets. I made sure Mom ate healthy food and had lunches to take to work. I planned TV watching and other entertainment. I also took Dina out for long walks every day; two or three miles of wandering around the neighborhood, with poopy bags and fresh water and paper towels to clean off her drool.
And yet, when my mother came home from work each day, Dina’s ears perked up, and her tongue stuck out and she made guttural sounds as if she were trying to squeal, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”
I knew that Dina had been out to pee at three PM and again at six, and I knew that she could actually hold her bladder intact very well for eight to ten hours without incident, but Dina’s manipulative brat persona would surface – Bam! “Oh Mommy, I just have to pee or I’ll die!” and then, “Oh Mommy, I am so hungry I could faint!” even though she’d been eating Twizzlers and string cheese with me all day long while I was supposed to be writing. She’d even eaten a few stray chunks of her own dry dog food.
I think that, finally, Mom felt like she deserved to be loved. By both of us, because Dina’s excited greeting was pretty similar to how I felt. I couldn’t begrudge her this joy which was suddenly part of her every day life.
My separation anxiety didn’t go away, though. I still worried that Mom would die. She would have a heart attack on the train into the city, or get into a car accident on the way home from the station. Something would happen while she was out of my sight and I wouldn’t be able to save her.
And Dina started to develop similar separation anxiety symptoms, around me. When I left the house without Dina, even for an hour, she would run up to my room and sit on my bed, releasing hair and drooling until my room smelled like stale dog breath. I wonder if she, too, was imagining all of the awful ways I could die and never return to her. I’m pretty sure her scenarios would have involved squirrels, and cats. An assassin cat and his squirrel assistant were clearly plotting ways to get me as soon as I walked out the door. That’s why Dina had to push past me, and bite my leg whenever I tried to leave. To protect me.
The fact is that I don’t think I could have handled sitting in an empty apartment all day while Mom was at work. I needed Dina as much as she needed me. Even if all she wanted was to rub her head against my leg when her nose itched.
As a result of her operation, and with the addition of her extended walking schedule, she wasn’t tearing up carpets anymore, and her remaining neuroses were manageable, as long as I never left the house without her. And, actually, I could live with that.