The Suicide Dogs

Nonfiction by Telaina Morse Eriksen

EriksenClement jumps in the air and puts his paws on the upper rail of the fence surrounding our yard. His tail wags and he gives a deep full-throated bark as he tries to get closer to the two squirrels who have evaded his pursuit by taking to the highest branches of a winter-bare tree. Clement’s chest is powerfully muscled; the sheer physicality of his build is enough for him to be called a beautiful dog. He is 59 pounds of strength, loyalty, and resolution. I walk him an hour a day whenever I can and when I can’t, I hire a friend or trustworthy college student to do so. His face is square, his brown eyes are expressive with what I swear is the full range of human emotions. He is an American pit bull terrier. Cities in America quake in terror at his alleged ferocity.

On the other side of the yard, Sprite sits on our snow-spotted deck. She weighs 29 pounds and is a ball of walking fur. She is a Shetland Sheepdog (Sheltie) and her herding instincts are strong. I have seen her try to herd children, frogs, squirrels, other dogs, and even crickets. She has a different way of thinking than Clement—she was bred for independent thought, to be away from her master or mistress for long periods of time, and to keep her herd safe on her own.

Clement was bred for loyalty and companionship.

Sprite is almost 12 years old and I see her energy fading, though she still will run with Clement and chase squirrels. She is on daily arthritis medication and when she gets up in the morning to greet me her legs lock and tremble a bit. As she begins to move, she shakes it off. My husband and I don’t often walk the dogs together. I compare Clement to participating in the Tour de France and Sprite to riding a tricycle—their exercise needs are that different. But occasionally on a warm day, we will walk them around the block together after dinner. People who don’t know the story of our blended dog family often comment “A pit bull and a Sheltie? What an interesting choice to own together.”

*

My friend Lorin had dark hair and blue eyes and a pixie-ish face. She didn’t care for fashion or make-up but loved her long graceful fingernails, which she never polished, but kept beautifully shaped. She never carried a purse, instead choosing jackets with many pockets to carry her wallet, her phone, her Chapstick and anything else she might need. She enjoyed reading everything from young adult fiction to biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. She was fascinated by the mystical, by serial killers, by how people learned, by Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, the Amish, and by all things related to psychology—the area in which she held her PhD. Lorin had many health concerns—asthma, migraines, thyroid issues, depression, insomnia—but she would still try anything, from fencing to tai chi. She could sew and knit and embroider. She was one of the few people I knew who actually tithed—giving 10 percent of her gross income each year to charity, split between colleges, the Methodist Church, Planned Parenthood and a variety of other worthy nonprofits.

We loved to watch post-apocalypse and doomsday movies together, as well as anything with Hugh Jackman, Gerard Butler, or Russell Crowe. We would quote the movie Gladiator to each other as well as the more cheesy Van Helsing. Because I have two children, we couldn’t get together as often as I might like, so instead we spent hours on the phone talking about politics, gender, pedagogy, and family gossip while I made dinner or changed diapers or picked up the living room.

Lorin had never owned a pet but in 2010, a friend of a friend of hers found a lightly brindled pit bull wandering the streets of Lansing, Michigan. He was unneutered but friendly and could sit on command. His left paw, chest, and under his chin were a striking white. His ears weren’t cropped and his tail wasn’t docked (as the tails of fighting pit bulls sometimes are, so their opponents have less to hang onto) and Lorin’s friend of a friend didn’t see any scars on him from dog fighting. Lorin had been thinking about getting a dog, and had called the local shelter about a couple of pets.

When Lorin visited the found dog, she gave him a treat and he took it delicately from her hand and thumped his tail in affirmation. Treat good. I like you, human. Lorin had another friend who was a vet student, check him out. The vet student declared the dog well-behaved with “a sweet personality.”

Lorin believed in signs and omens. She adopted the dog and named him Clement after Clement Clarke Moore who wrote The Night Before Christmas. “Clement makes me happy. Just like that poem,” she said.

She left notices with all the local shelters with a description of Clement. He had no microchip and no collar. He also had untreated heartworm disease. Lorin and I would often comment that we wished Clement could talk. He was such a contradiction. He seemed to be a stray, and yet was impeccably house-trained. He could sit on command and Lorin easily taught him to lie down. Her vet told her that after 30 days if no one claimed him, Clement was legally hers. She had him neutered, began the expensive heartworm treatment, and settled into living with a pet.

*

I let the dogs back in the house and Clement dances around for a treat. Sprite stays close to me just in case treats are in fact being handed out. Clement is top dog, much to Sprite’s chagrin. Sprite has the personality of a dog who wants to be in charge, but she knows she is too old and too little to take on Clement, so instead she just stands back and barks at him when he is doing something she disapproves of, like cutting in front of her or being too rambunctious.

Owning two dogs is more work than owning one. It isn’t as big of an adjustment going from no dogs to one dog, but it is still an adjustment. They are both on different daily medications and have the needs of all living things—attention, exercise, fresh air, food, water. Clement for some reason when he came to live at our house showed a marked preference for the cat’s water bowl. I know by taking the little bowl away from him, he would be forced to drink out of one of the larger dog bowls but I am unable to do this. He has lost so much in his life and he likes the little bowl. I fill it up, three, four times a day. Maybe it is my way of telling him I miss Lorin, too. With Lorin gone we must go on and find pleasure where we can—even if it means drinking water out of a cat bowl almost too small for a pit bull muzzle.

*

My sister Tonya, like Lorin, had many health problems. Tonya had once fallen and broken her back. She had hypertension, was borderline diabetic, the endometriosis in her uterus had turned precancerous. She had suffered depression since her teen years and her psychiatric nurse practitioner had tried almost every single psychotropic medication she could think of on Tonya.

No one uses the word “beloved” much anymore. If it is used, it is usually in overwrought vampire fan fiction. But no other word describes how much I loved Tonya. Tonya who helped raise me. Tonya who always believed in me. Who had a sly and quiet sense of humor, also much like Lorin.

Tonya had rescued Sprite from a puppy mill and while Sprite is extremely bright—physically she has almost every congenital defect a Sheltie can have. She has an underbite, early arthritis. She is prone to allergies and benign tumors on her skin.

Tonya loved her dogs, Sprite and Sammy, more than many people she knew but as her depression grew worse, it was all she could do to feed them and pet them and go to work. Their coats grew matted, they got behind on their vaccinations, and they gained weight from lack of exercise.

I miss Tonya’s laugh. It was mostly silent, but when laughter would engulf her, she was helpless and would throw her head from side to side and move her hands. When things were really funny, her whole body convulsed. Just seeing her laugh would make me laugh even harder.

*

Lorin and I met at my first job out of college. I underestimated her at first. She was so quiet. I thought she was “nice” but had no idea of all the interesting things going on in her mind. Lorin was introverted and it took her time to open up in our noisy breakroom filled with 20somethings.

Everyone loved Lorin once they got to know her. She had five close friends.

I was one of them.

*

A few years ago I watched Clement for Lorin. At the time, our eldest sister Terese and my nephew were also visiting. I was amazed at how relaxed and easy-going Clement was. Even though I tried to not let the mainstream media and hysteria inform my opinions I couldn’t deny the conventional wisdom of “pit bulls=savage maulers/killers” and I wondered if Clement would turn on Sprite, knock her down, and tear open her neck. Because of this fear, I kept Clement in his kennel at night when I was babysitting him. I could tell his feelings were hurt by the wounded look in his eyes. Each night I dragged him to his cage, away from my 13-year-old nephew and my 13-year-old son who were camped out in the living room, enjoying a week-long sleepover. Clement wouldn’t eat the treat I would put in his bed as a reward and sighed as I closed the door to his kennel.

After spending four or five days with Clement, I was impressed by his sweet playfulness. When Lorin picked him up after her work conference I jokingly told her, “If anything ever happens to you, I would totally take this goofball off your hands.”

“Thanks so much,” she said. “That means a lot to me.”

*

The last time I saw Lorin in August 2014, I thought something was wrong. She wasn’t as talkative. She looked at me like she wanted to say something but didn’t. I wanted to ask her about it, but I also didn’t want to make a big deal about a one-time interaction. We had been friends for 24 years, through so much in life, I knew she was occasionally depressed, just like me. I hugged her and we made plans to meet halfway between Ft. Wayne (where she now lived) and my home in Lansing for lunch and a movie sometime in the fall.

*

I received this email from Tonya on March 31, 2009. Tonya was 49 and living in Colorado and struggling with her health and her finances. I had emailed her the previous day and told her if she wanted to move back to Michigan, she could live in our guest bedroom until she found a place of her own and a new job. She replied.

I really appreciate it. My life is sucky beyond belief. No point in going on and all that. blah, blah. I need to find out about the diabetes and if I’m going to have my reproductive organs pulled, so I need to work through another 5 week session. I’m trying. Love, Tonya

 

Tonya’s coworkers found her on April 1, 2009, barely breathing after ingesting around 60 or 70 Ambien the night before. Sammy and Sprite stood guard by her bed.

*

I took Sprite. My brother Tracy took Sammy. Sammy, a double-merle Sheltie who my sister had adopted through Sheltie Rescue, was a couple years older than Sprite and mostly blind and deaf due to birth defects. He died in 2015.

*

Lorin texted me on October 28, 2014. Her migraines had been horrible and she went to a new neurologist to try to find answers and some relief. “I just got home from the pharmacy with 4 new meds and I can’t remember which ones the doc said to take in the morning because they interfere with sleep and which ones to take in the evening because they cause drowsiness. So damn frustrating.”

I texted back, “Did you get it figured out? Maybe you could email a pharmacy friend?”

She responded, “I looked them up online. The doc told me I didn’t need to write anything down because the nurse would give me everything I needed. I’m just angry and frustrated about everything right now.”

I emailed (too much to text):

“Ugh—I seriously cannot believe that. Actually, I do. I think the MRI is a great idea and I agree that the lack of sleep is probably not helping this situation at all!

A couple of things—I wanted to let you know to feel free to bring a friend to my little get together, if you feel like coming. You are also welcome to spend the night! Let’s try to set a date to meet halfway or for me to drive down. Since water polo is over my Saturdays and Sundays should be a little freer? IN theory?

I also wanted to invite you for thanksgiving. No pressure. I think Amy & Bill and Neil and Trent are coming. Clement and whoever else is welcome too. 🙂

More soon—just wanted to say I’m thinking about you and hoping you get some relief and some answers soon. <3”

Lorin’s good friend and former roommate found her dead in her bedroom from an overdose three days later. She had been dead a day or two. In her suicide note, she said Clement was boarded at his day care, and to please make sure that I got him.

*

Lorin once took Clement to a pet psychic. “How did it go?” I asked. I didn’t believe in pet psychics but Lorin was a seeker—she turned to science, to new age, to religion, all with equal ease, believing there was truth everywhere you looked. I accepted this about her. Who was I to judge? Strange things happen in the world. More things than I can ever hope to understand.

“She said he left his former home.”

“Did she say why?”

“It was the next step in his journey. To find his way to me.”

*

Sprite was damaged when I got her. There is no other way to describe it. One day, about six months after I had her, she went to her bag and pulled out a stuffed squirrel and brought it over to me. “Do you want to play?” I said. I didn’t even know she liked to play with the squirrel. I threw it a little ways across the family room and she trotted to get it, faux growling, wagging her tail. She brought it back to me. We played for about ten minutes until she stopped. Then she just wanted to be petted. I didn’t realize until then how depressed she had been. I wondered what else she normally did that I had never seen.

*

Tonya also took Sprite and Sam to a pet psychic once. I don’t remember the details Tonya repeated to me. I do remember the psychic said that Sprite missed Rafferty (another Sheltie that Tonya once owned, who had died of old age when Sprite was young) but that Sprite was happy to be in charge of their little pack now.

*

Lorin knew what happened to Tonya. She was a good friend to me through the aftermath of my sister’s suicide and in the four-plus years that followed. I told her how traumatic it had been for Sprite, seeing Tonya like that. Waiting for someone to come and help.

I know that this is why Lorin boarded Clement.

*

Clement looked for Lorin. Particularly at staircases—as if he might go up or down and catch her hiding from him.

Lorin’s parents brought him straight from where he was boarded to my home. He didn’t seem depressed like Sprite, but he seemed puzzled. I think he remembered us, our house and Sprite; he had visited us many times, but he didn’t seem to know why he wasn’t with Lorin.

*

Cliché says we are supposed to live each day as our last. Eat the ice cream! Hug the ones you love! Walk outside! Watch the sunset! Has anyone ever really tried to live each day as their last? Imagine the hypervigilance. Imagine the reality. Who would care about their finances? Or going to the dentist? I wouldn’t do laundry, or make dinner, volunteer at my kid’s school, or take the dogs to the vet. I would tell a large number of people to fuck off. If it were truly my last day, and it was winter in Michigan, I would probably hop on a plane to see the ocean one more time. If it was summer, I would drop everything and go sit on the beach of Lake Michigan with my family and eat a couple of really good tacos. I wouldn’t go to work, return emails or texts, clean my house, or even put on pants.

How do you live a busy and mundane life but be ever-ready for a loved one’s suicide? How do you get your mail, shovel your walk, unload the dishwasher, get the car’s oil changed, fill out paperwork, return phone calls, knowing that two of the people closest to you in all the world could be taking pills to make this day their last day? And not a last day filled with ocean views and ice cream. A last day full of pain, bewilderment, resolution, and loneliness. A last day wondering why no one cared enough to stop them.

*

Clement hops up onto the couch and digs around in the pillows and settles down with a huff. Lorin would only let Clement up onto her couch when he was invited. I’m probably too indulgent.

Sprite settles in on her blankets on the floor, an old purple bedspread of my daughter’s and a fleece blanket that had been a Christmas gift to me from a friend, which Sprite had promptly confiscated.

I sit in the family room with them, trying to grade my latest batch of papers due back to my students tomorrow. I have another hour until it is time to pick up my son from swimming practice.

I have such a life of privilege—a good job, a nice home, wonderful friends, a caring family. But sometimes this sorrow I carry inside me prevents me from seeing any of that.

*

It has become a stereotype in TV shows, novels, and poorly written movies that those left behind by suicide will feel guilt and anger. I don’t know what to do with the fact that I was one of the last people with whom both Lorin and Tonya communicated. Why didn’t I call? Why didn’t I love them better? Can I use life as an excuse? The demands of two children, graduate school, and then a teaching job? The errands? Dinner planning? Volunteering? Can I say that I have many people I love and it is hard to balance the needs of all of them? Can I say that sometimes I am so depressed myself that I can barely manage to take care of my own needs and the needs of my husband and children?

*

Lorin’s parents are both in their 80s, in good health, but unable to keep up with Clement. Lorin knew if Clement were to go into a shelter his chances of being adopted were almost nil.

I have seen people online and in person, spew hate about pit bulls. One person said letting a pit bull into your home was like inviting in a psychopath wielding a knife. Another person said pit bulls “will always turn. Something about the breed.” These comments remind me of racism. Of xenophobia. Many of these people have never even seen a pit bull, let alone lived with one. Contrast our society’s hysteria about pit bulls to our silence and shame about mental illness. Yes, pit bulls have killed people. But I’m pretty certain that suicide has killed more.

I’ll take my chances with Clement.

*

I am not prone to self-pity. I’ve had more than my share of pain in this life but also more than my share of luck. But when I got the call from Lorin’s parents that Lorin was dead and I was to take Clement, I couldn’t believe it. Who does this happen to? Who inherits two dogs from suicides? A few days later I asked this same question of a close friend. She responded, “It happens to people who take good care of other living things.”

I don’t believe her. If I take such good care of living things, why aren’t Lorin and Tonya still here?

*

Pets are worshipped on the Internet. Memes with pictures tell us how they love us unconditionally, expecting nothing in return. Like most instances of sentimentality, there is truth to this. But pets are also a lot of work. And in my case, the dogs are exhausting. I am not only taking care of two aging canines with health problems, but the relationships that pre-dated my responsibilities to them.

Sprite might have Cushing’s disease, but I have too much anxiety about her staying 24-hours at the vet’s office for the test. The vet, who knows my circumstances, is understanding. Both dogs have had to undergo anesthesia and those days it felt no different to me than if a human loved one was in the hospital.

I’m not just a pet owner. I’m a guardian. A sentinel. A keeper. A conservator. I hold a continual canine vigil. Day after day.

*

I look at the clock. Almost time to get my son. I put my papers aside and stand up. Sprite stands up too, rickety on her old legs but a Sheltie smile on her face, her ears at attention. Her internal clock knows what time it is. I walk to the kitchen and pour a half a cup of food in Sprite’s bowl and a cup of food in Clement’s bowl. When he hears the food hit his bowl, he jumps off the couch and bounds out to the kitchen, his tail lashing back and forth like a whip. He enthusiastically plunges into the bowl and devours his dinner.

They both take long drinks after they finish their kibble, Clement once more draining the cat’s water bowl. I hold the back door for them to go outside again and I feel a now-familiar pang of anxiety. What if I’m not looking and someone steals Clement for fighting or as a bait dog? What if Sprite falls on the ice and hurts herself?

What if they die while I’m supposed to be taking care of them?

 

Photo credit—Telaina Eriksen

About Telaina Morse Eriksen

Telaina Morse Eriksen is the author of Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child (Mango Publishing, April 2017). Her essays have been featured in Under the Sun, The Manifest-Station, poemmemoirstory, Role Reboot, and many other online and in-print publications. She is an assistant professor in the English Department at Michigan State University and lives in East Lansing Michigan with her husband, two children, and their two dogs, Sprite and Clement.

Telaina Morse Eriksen

Telaina Morse Eriksen is online at