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My New Leash on Life - Jason Prokowiew

Growing up in the suburbs of Massachusetts in the 80s, watching new installments of the Golden Girls with my parents was a weekly tradition. During 1988’s “Mixed Blessings” episode, I raced to answer our ringing house phone.


A boy from my seventh grade class on the other end said, “Hi, I heard you were gay and I wondered if you would go out with me?” before laughing and hanging up.


Heart thumping, I returned to my spot on a red-cushioned couch next to my parents just as Rose, known for being the airhead amongst the four women who made up the Golden Girls asked, “Can I ask a dumb question?” and her roommate Dorothy quipped, “Better than anyone I know.”


I faked a chuckle, covering a secret identity aching in my chest.


Fifty miles away in another Massachusetts town, my future husband Dave, two years younger than me, watched the same episode with his parents. We each knew a loneliness we’d talk about as we got to know each other in our thirties: loved by our parents, isolated from them, fearful of telling them who we were. We relied on the Golden Girls, to at least make our shame bearable with a good joke.


***


The week my best friend Bones died, I was woken each morning before daybreak by a telephone call from the veterinarian, letting me and Dave know how our 85-pound, 9-year old greyhound was faring. On Tuesday, he went outside with staff and took a few steps. On Wednesday, he wouldn’t.


“It’s only been two days,” we reasoned after we hung up the phone, “He just needs more time.”


The weekend before, he’d run massive circle around us in our backyard, Dave and I and our other greyhound Ribs huddled close to each other in the middle of the yard, forced there as Bones penned us in with wild loops. As his tongue dangled from his mouth, we laughed the laughs of two once isolated boys who’d found each other, Bones’ energy always more like that of a puppy’s. Suddenly he lost his footing and skidded across the lawn, letting out a yelp that made me wonder what was stabbing him. Dave ran to hold him in a full body hug.


I carried him to the back of our van, his heart pounding near my hand that cradled his chest. Dave drove him to the hospital while I stayed home with Ribs. Three hours later Dave returned home. He couldn’t go into the hospital with our boy due to Covid restrictions, but needed to leave him there overnight to get help. I buried my face in Dave’s chest and cried, “I failed him. He hates to be away from us.”


When we brought Bones home six years before, his separation anxiety was so intense, he yanked down a curtain and rod with his teeth as soon as we stepped outside and he was momentarily alone. Another time, he gathered single shoes from our pairs and lined them up around his bed and waited there until we returned. When we brought home Ribs two months later, we never saw the anxiety again.


The phrase “heart dog,” the concept of a particular dog and its one-of-a-kind relationship with a particular human, the rough equivalent of human soul mates, would have struck me as saccharine, worthy of an eye roll, before Bones. He constantly loped into rooms to see where I was, a long-ago running injury causing a slight limp in one of his back legs. If I was sick, he’d climb on top of me on the couch, pressing all his weight onto me, and we’d sleep. Ribs in comparison didn’t care much for me if I wasn’t feeding or walking him.


One time when my husband fell asleep on the floor next to me watching TV, Bones squeezed between us, placed his head on my hand and I whispered in his ear, “You’re my best friend.” My husband snored and I said, “Okay, second best friend,” as Bones shut his eyes and sighed.


“I’m not sure which is true,” I said to him.


As a child I’d begged for a dog, but I was my parents’ thirteenth child, and they’d had their fill of pets by the time I came along. I wonder how my life might have been different if I had a pet by my side when my father drank and cornered my mother in another room, screaming at her that she was stupid, or I watched my brothers beat each other on the driveway, drawing blood from each other’s cheeks, or while shame festered inside me over a secret that might make my parents hate me. If I’d had a furry neck to bury my face in, a warm-blooded creature that would love me just as I was, how might it have helped me?


At least I had the Girls on Saturday nights.


***


Three days had passed since the doctors told us they saw an inoperable tumor in Bones’ fractured front left leg. Two days had passed since we consented to the removal of the leg: two days spent Googling for how best to help a dog adjust to life as a “tripod,” buying area rugs to cover our hardwood floors so he wouldn’t slip.


On Wednesday night, the doctor made an exception to the Covid restrictions, wondering if seeing us might encourage Bones to do what he needed to do: get up and walk. I lay on my belly in his cage, my husband standing and asking the vet tech questions, while I spoke nonstop to Bones, an old blanket pilling in front of me as I rubbed his knobby head. “We want you to come home, sweet boy, but you need to walk, okay? You need to walk to recover.” He barely opened his eyes.


As we drove home just the two of us, I squeezed Dave’s hand and said, “He looked so beautiful,” of our freshly sutured boy, his wounds red and puffy; his body swollen as though they’d treated him with bee stings.


That Friday, the doctor called before dawn and told us Bones’ kidneys were failing, unable to keep up with the flood of damaged tissue from the injury without some effort on his part; they could start him on dialysis, but weren’t optimistic of its efficacy. That night, we put him to sleep.


Nine months later, Ribs’ heart filled with fluid, the cancerous mass found on his heart belaboring his breathing, labored to breathe, and our vet found a cancerous mass on his heart. For seven weeks we tried to drain the fluid, the mass inoperable. At night, he sighed from a mound of dog beds on the floor in our bedroom, and we watched the Golden Girls. Though Dave and I had seen each episode many times over, the Girls comforted us from their salmon and wicker couch. The bright flamingo pinks and palm greens of the show’s faux Miami set held the four actors and transported me again to a world of comfort, while I again lived in one of fear. The Girls were pioneers, discussing lesbianism and gay marriage with their superpowers of lovability and humor; talking about us like we deserved to be seen and included in the world, at least the television one, at least theirs. When Blanche struggled in a 1991 episode with her brother Clayton’s impending nuptials to a man named Doug, he said to his sister, “Doug would bend over backwards for me.”


Dorothy, present for the conversation, instantly covers her mother Sophia’s mouth via an unexaggerated fake hug, knowing her propensity for offensive honesty.


“I love my mommy,” Dorothy says, squeezing Sophia into silence.


After the prank call from my classmate, I sank into the couch next to my mother, who usually sneered when one of my siblings said the word “gay,” like she was working a bad taste from her mouth before reprimanding with, “Don’t say that word.”


If I could have reached out and felt the warmth of any of the girls’ arms then, I would have. Even without that touch, their two-dimensional presence saw me through the moment.


Ten months after his brother passed, Ribs died at home, his two dads lying on the floor in front of him as a traveling vet pushed a needle into a pinch of his back fat.


“You’re such a good boy,” Dave and I told him as the life left his eyes.


***


Dave and I traveled abroad for the winter of 2022, rented a two-bedroom apartment on the island of Sao Miguel in the Portuguese Azores. We went to be escape a Boston winter. We went because we were sad, and hoped nature might help to heal us. We floated in hot springs, our bodies arching towards the skies. We drove down a major road and were charged by a menagerie of about 20 dairy cows being herded from one field to another, we pulled the car over and found ourselves surrounded. I laughed.


“You sounded so happy,” Dave said to me after the cows were pushed further down the road by their caretaker and we continued driving. In every deep dark cow eye, I saw Bones.


It was on the island, after two years of dodging the disease, that I contracted Covid. The morning I woke up feeling sick, Dave went and bought me a rapid testing kit that confirmed I was positive. We moved Dave’s things from our bedroom into the second one, and I pulled closed the sliding door that separated my new isolation chamber from the living room, waving to my husband as he frowned. For the next 10 days he cooked my food, washed my dishes, and met me outside in the courtyard behind our place each night. We kept our distance and talked about and to the dozens of snails that climbed up the walls and over the courtyard grounds at night.


Alone in my isolation, I scanned through television offerings and started watching, for the first time since its original run in the early nineties, Golden Palace. The single-season, oft maligned spin-off to the Golden Girls featured just Rose, Blanche and Sophia operating the titular Miami hotel they purchased after Dorothy married and left their quartet.


Betty White had recently died and Hulu was offering Golden Palace to those of us mourning the loss of the last Golden Girl. In “A New Leash on Life,” episode 19 of the series, the three remaining Girls greet a guest and his skinny fawn greyhound, Darling Flo.


When Flo hits the screen, Betty White’s Rose falls to her knees, embracing the dog with the same love she exhibited in animal-welfare PSAs I’d seen since the eighties.


I paused the episode, snapped a picture of Rose and Flo, and texted it to Dave on the opposing side of the broad white door. Betty hadn’t been gone long and there she was, reaching out from 1993, together with a greyhound of all animals, just as I faced a new version of isolation.


I texted Dave the picture and wrote, “Am I dreaming?”


He brought up the episode on his TV.


Above the competing laugh tracks from our adjoined rooms I heard Dave’s familiar “Awww,” as Flo came onto his screen and White buried her face in Flo’s neck.


In the episode, Rose took a hard stance against the greyhound racing industry’s killing of dogs no longer viable as racers, back when this wasn’t the hot button issue it’d become in the future; she bristled when Flo’s owner says if Flo doesn’t win the race, he’ll put her down. She argues for Flo’s intrinsic value, just as I had always felt she and the other girls argued for the intrinsic value boys like me and my husband.


Rose kidnaps Flo, tapes big black spots on her, and claims she’s a Dalmatian. Ultimately her pleas lead Flo’s owner to turn her over to an adoption agency for post-track life.


I felt the heft in my chest of Betty and Rose’s efforts, fighting a fight that wasn’t yet mainstream. Saying words once again into a society that wasn’t yet readily saying them. I felt the warmth of this legacy, of these women who put gays on my screen and named them as such, at a time when my mother and most of the world seemed to say in chorus, “Shhhhh, don’t say that word.” Here she was again, defending a vulnerable population at a time the world seemed to say, “We can live with how they’re treated, even if it’s badly, even if it hurts them.”


I heard Dave’s laughter from the other side of the door. In that moment—separated from Bones, Ribs, recently Betty, and now my husband—I was with all of them. Acceptance emanated from my screen again and I remembered the pressure of Bones’ warm body leaning against my legs, telling me it was just not me. I was alone—so much loss had come our way in a short period of time—but I knew even better now that I was not alone.

 

Jason Prokowiew is the author of War Boys: a Father and Son Memoir, a braided memoir about his Russian father’s adoption by Nazis during World War II and how his trauma carried into parenthood. Jason earned his MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University.

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