7 scenes of grace

3. I've been thinking a lot about grace lately. Regardless of your creed, at its most basic, it's a gift given freely to the undeserving. It can come into our lives from sources we might not expect—the kindness of a stranger, the love of another living being. It can set our whole world ablaze with light and beauty.  As Thomas "The Puritan Shakespeare" Adams put it four centuries ago, “Grace cometh into the soul as the morning sun into the world; first a dawning, then a light; and at last the sun in his full and excellent brightness." We only seem to notice after an especially long stretch of sunless days.

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5. She's ricocheting off the sides of her crate and I can't get her to stop. She whines, paws at the gate, imploring—I implore right back. We're both exhausted. I've been awake forever, schlepping boxes through a snowstorm; she, at nine weeks old, has just travelled for 24 hours from Buenos Aires to New York. An intractable impasse: Neither of us can give the other what she wants.

Sprawled on the floor alongside her crate, I sing her Nika's lullabye. She quiets, but I'm a crying mess as I finish the tune. I hadn't realized until this moment that the last time I sang it, Nika was dying in my arms. 

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1. I dreaded Christmas this year. Time was, the holidays meant flying home, being with loved ones, replaying well-worn traditions around the familial hearth. But twice in a row December has brought tragedy: first with the passing of my grandmother, and then with the death of Nika, my two-year-old puppy. Subconsciously, I was bracing myself.

And then I saw Claudia's news: a new litter of ridgeback puppies had been born on her farm in Argentina. Clicking through the images, I paused at one curious expression framed in tiny, velvety ears. Burgundy ribbon at her neck, flowering of white on her chest. "Miss Bordeaux, hembra correcta," the caption read. Without knowing why, I knew she was ours.  

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2. We moved apartments for her, and there's nothing like the act of moving to make all your belongings seem like useless crap. Ponderous, useless crap. (Why do I own three different Complete Works of Shakespeare?) In the days before her arrival, we ferried old wine boxes stuffed with books, toiletries, paper clips, soy sauce packets from the old apartment to the new, through busy streets choking with snow. We never even noticed it fall. One moment it just appeared, two feet thick and grimy.

How will she take this, I wondered, going from summer on an Argentine farm to a frigid, pickled New York winter? I worry about how we can give her the best chance in life, help her adjust so she isn't wracked with fear like Nika was. I worry about her health. What if it's some cruel trick that all my animals will die of cancer? I think of Tully, the dwarf bunny I had as a kid who succumbed to liver cancer after only a year. As we buried him beside the azaleas, one of my sister's friends joked that he'd drunk himself to death. Terrified, I stopped drinking water for awhile. 

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6. The contradictory demands of puppy-raising seem sadistically engineered to make our lives impossible. She needs to be well exposed to the world before the golden window of socialization closes (at 16 weeks), but she cannot set foot outside until fully vaccinated (also at 16 weeks). She needs to be tired out so as not to turn bored and destructive, but can't run too fast for fear of damaging her joints. She needs to be trained consistently but only for tiny intervals, lest she lose interest. We need to provide structure, safety, leadership, build a lifelong bond, and be constantly mopping up pee, somehow without completely losing our minds along the way. The exhaustion that is seeping into our bones has less to do with her early morning howling than with the constant despair that every choice we make is somehow simultaneously good for her and terrible for her.

And yet, when she isn't nipping at our fingers or chewing the corners off our books, she is all velvety wrinkles, huge paws, quizzical eyes. Curled up, she is so small and glossy she looks like a terracotta bowl. She lies in our laps, she dreams. 

7. She isn't Nika. She's far more outgoing. She seems braver, unfazed by the noise of the city or the long trip from South America. She wags her tail more. She also barks more, where Nika vocalized only three times in her entire life. She is naughtier, less pliant. Docile only when she sleeps. My greatest worry before she arrived was that she might not love us as much as Nika did—mercifully, in this, they are the same.

While she snoozes in my lap I examine the white patch on her chest. Four points, almost perfectly symmetrical, two faint, mirrored flecks of brown like spots on a butterfly's wings. In Japanese folklore there is a beautiful story in which a white butterfly embodies the soul of a departed loved one. In my mind, she carries a part of Nika with her, just above her heart. 

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4. Thanks to my PhD thesis, I'm mildly cratylic on the subject of names—considered in this way I'm not exactly choosing a name for her. If a name expresses an innate truth about its bearer, only one can be correct (I just have to find it). Hopefully it's nothing too cumbersome, nothing that can't be shortened, nothing I would feel awkward shouting in public. She's an African dog so I sift through words in Mende, Krio, Swahili. Google translate helps, but I check with a friend in Zambia just to be sure. "Yes," she confirms, "Neema means grace." 

 Image by Rosie Hardy

Image by Rosie Hardy