First things first: Amir is our dog, a mainly Australian Shepherd who came to us via my father’s housekeeper. This is what happened: years ago, my father adopted Amir’s brother, Dylan. Soon thereafter, when we were visiting my father in Virginia, our then-teenage kids fell in love with Dylan, and decided they wanted a puppy from the same litter. Next thing we knew, my father’s housekeeper called to inform me that the last of Dylan’s siblings was on his way north, to New Jersey, where we live, and we were to pick him up at such-and-such an address. We already had a dog, but Marion was getting older, and we figured that a puppy might be just the thing to keep her young in spirit and heart. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and we drove about an hour into the hinterlands to pick up Amir, who, like all puppies everywhere since the dawn of time, was super cute. As he was placed in my arms for our first cuddle, he bit me. On the way home, he peed in the car. A minute after getting home, he pooped on the living room rug.
Our son Jonathan was the one who gave him the name Amir, which in Arabic means something like “Prince.” (My vote was “Oscar.”) Suffice to say that a prince he’s not. Marion—our elder dog—she was truly noble: dignified, intelligent, elegant, polite, intuitive, appropriate. Amir was a terror. Not only did he engage in typical puppy misbehavior—chewing shoes, jumping on the furniture, and pretty much destroying anything he could get his paws on—but he was prone to sink his sharp little teeth into anyone who startled or otherwise displeased him. In his great and abundant enthusiasm—because after all, he was bred to herd sheep—he often engaged in behavior that for him was sheer if overly exuberant fun with other dogs, but for other dogs was perceived to be aggressive dominance. Once, after my husband and I pulled into a rest stop on a two-hundred-mile drive north, Amir managed to escape our car, gallop across the parking lot, and terrorize a couple of small dogs who were out for a wee-wee break. Not only did the human owners of the small dogs go full scale ballistic, which actually didn’t help calm the situation, but Amir did indeed manage to do physical harm—mainly to my husband, who was trying to pull him away. Suffice to say that the incident wasn’t pretty.
Oh, the additional stories I could tell, which I won’t, because by now you probably get the point. But I will say that soon after the unfortunate event which our vet said was a classic of “big dog on small dog interactions” Amir’s barking—did I remember to convey that he has a rather high-intensity and insistent whine of a bark? —necessitated that my husband and I hire a lawyer.
So here’s the thing about bad dogs, or at least bad dogs who belong to you. They’re sort of like poorly behaved, hyper, rude, or otherwise difficult children. You might think about trying to find someone way out in the countryside who would welcome an unruly, loud, rude, smelly, and unemployed putz into their home, but you’d never do it. Or at least we never did. Amir was our dog and we loved him the way people who love dogs love their dogs.
Thirteen years later, his powers diminished and his baby cuteness little more than a memory, we still love him, and in some ways feel more tenderly towards him than ever. Blind, significantly hearing impaired, with yellow teeth, halitosis, arthritis, and tendency to mewling confusion during the sundown hours, Amir is fading away before our eyes. Though he’s only too eager to go up the stairs, he slips and panics on the way down, and sometimes can’t be convinced to go down at all, which inevitably leads to the kinds of tense negotiations that typically occur between enemy states wary of igniting a border war. Meantime, my father—who, having adopted Amir’s brother Dylan all those years ago, is the root cause of Amir’s moving in with us in the first place—is also old, though unlike Amir, he uses English to get his points across. Okay, he sometimes uses Hebrew too, but his English is better.
Amir, at 13, is 93 in dog years, making Amir and my father the exact same age, which is a joke my father doesn’t find funny at all, I don’t know why. But with these two old guys close to my heart, I’ve been thinking about the frailty of the flesh, and aging in general, much more than I did when I myself was fresh and bouncy. (Would someone please tell me what my mother is doing in the mirror staring back at me?) What do you even call it when you’re in your sixties, as I am? Post-middle-aged? Pre-old? Still ambulatory? Whatever you call it, I want to live while I’m still alive, and thus, as I observed Yom Kippur 5783, I hoped that this year, the holiday would do what it’s designed to do, and wake me up to my own mortality. Not that I’m not cognizant that my years are numbered: but do I feel that reality in my bones? Not so much.
After the chag, I called my father, and we compared notes and exchanged ideas about the manifestation (or lack thereof) of what our liturgy calls “the awesome power of this day.” My father davens at the same Orthodox shul in Washington DC that he started davening in before I was born, and in many ways the place, as well as what it represents, is at the center of his very being. And yet, as we talked, my father told me why for him the day is significant and even urgent, but not transformative.
I suspect that whatever might be lacking in oomph for my father is compounded in me. Raised in the Virginia countryside, I didn’t really grow up inside Judaism, and as an adult had to find a way to claw myself back to it. On occasion, I still feel like an outsider, a person who neither belongs nor gets it. I do it anyway: fast, beat my breast during the al chet, seek forgiveness for my transgressions, pray to be sealed in the Book of Life. And I pray also that when the God and God of my Ancestors sees fit to take my beloveds away, He will have mercy on me, and let me weep.