When he screamed for me in the middle of the night I knew indignity would be the one obstacle my dog could never overcome.
DJ came into my life in 2005, after I’d just written a best-selling gay wedding book while single, turned 40, and started working from home—when I could get work, that is. (Believe it or not, queer nuptial guides don’t lead to offers to publish the Great American Novel.)
I was depressed and lonely, but then a three-month-old pair of eyes, ears, and one curly tail crawled up on my shoulder and turned my life into a kaleidoscope of color. “I don’t have time to be depressed, I have DJ,” I would tell family and friends, almost affronted that people could still be concerned about my mental state. Worrying about getting the next gay writing gig or whether or not a guy checked out my online dating profile were piddling concerns of the past. Did I want those things? Yes. Did my happiness depend on it? Not for a moment.
I ended up writing a book, DJ: The Dog Who Rescued Me, in 2013, and the first major publisher who rejected it, an openly gay man, said no one would read an animal story written by a queer man. Because, apparently, even our love of dogs is unequal to our straight counterparts. He was wrong, thank goodness, but more importantly, my writing was now of my own choosing.
My dog and I were inseparable, him curled up in his bed next to my desk while I wrote, us hitting the local dog park to play fetch, where DJ transformed into the most competitive canine since Cujo—he didn’t get his athletic prowess from me—then home for “snuggles!”, an announcement that prompted him to spin and leap and bark and whimper and fly onto the bed so he could fall fast asleep on my head. His snoring was like protective cloud cover.
Pugs are notoriously co-dependent, shadows often, and DJ followed me to places like Miami and San Francisco and the Hamptons, frantically running up and down stairs or indoors and outdoors or skidding across freshly polished hardwood floors (my mom’s house in California), to keep me forever in his line of sight. But he seemed the most comfortable in his New York high-rise apartment, because that’s where the most stimulation lived.
The doormen knew him like a resident, and he didn’t have to go farther than the elevator to run into other dogs, dog parents, and admirers. Stoop-sitting was common, playdates were routine; after an hour or so, he’d climb up on the chair behind me and give me The Look, a sign that it was time for guests to leave his protected territory. Did I mention he was possessive?
DJ loved to run after a fresh snowfall, and, in his prime, could outpace me like nobody’s business. I slipped and fell on the ice one morning, unable to get up, and he stopped, sat down next to me on frozen water, and waited. It was as if he didn’t quite understand this new game we were playing, but, whatever it was, he was in it to win it. We both spent the days, seasons, years, learning the other’s language. DJ was the perfect companion to keep this loner from loneliness.
I’ve never been particularly comfortable in groups (my gay tribe is “N/A”), and I dive into relationships about as often as aquaphobes dive into swimming pools. DJ was there for me in that department, too, as a sort of a surrogate father figure. If the two “men” didn’t hit it off, I had no interest in going on the date.
One guy I went out with brought DJ toys, treats, and even offered to walk him if I needed help. Sweet. Until about a month later when I got his ultimatum; either DJ slept in the next room or he did. You probably can guess which one ended up in the doghouse. Everyone has different rules for where dogs sleep, sit, play, and I respect the choices. I’d decided early on that DJ was allowed to sleep in my bed, and to demand that my dog suddenly adapt to nights in the living room was an insensitive proposal, not to mention one that disinterested me as well. In retrospect, I probably should have caught on when DJ destroyed the stuffed animals he brought within the hour. Did I mention DJ was a “chewer”?
From that experience I learned that I had no interest in pursuing relationships with men who were dismissive of dogs, or, worse, treated them as things, living furniture to be displayed, polished, routinely and, unfortunately, walked and groomed and cleaned up. Then tucked away when important matters are at hand. “Master” and “pet” may work at the Black Party, but are archaic terms when it comes to dog care. Animals aren’t owned by us, and they are not at our disposal. It’s a shared life, and, in many cases, dogs spend more time in the home than anyone else in the family. They burst with more love than a pressure cooker in a microwave, and it’s with honor that we give it back.
I gave DJ all I had for more than 14 years, and by the time I knew it was time to let him go—a decision I don’t wish upon anyone—he and I had so many adventures together, each falling leaf was like a piece of our wondrous puzzle, now ripped apart at the seams and scattered along the windy streets. His life was in the brilliant decay, and I could only put it back together with memory and time. And the un-breath of winter ahead.
Over 14 years, my dog survived a malignant tumor, retinal detachment—and blindness—in his right eye, disk disease that was cured by having a spinal operation in his neck, and, last spring, full blindness from cataracts. His hearing had been impaired for about a year prior. Like all animals, though, he didn’t really survive his alterations as he did conquer them, always adjusting, whether it be learning how to walk minus two disks or, once fully blind, scour every corner of the apartment a few times a day to map out destinations sightless. His first stop was the food bowl.
While I cried when I learned DJ could no longer see, he bumped into a few things, reworked his steps, and promptly figured out how to crawl back up to the bed for his nightly “lick Dad’s face to death” ritual. Once again, our days ended with me simultaneously squirming and laughing, then DJ settling in, his 22-pound pug-loaf self backed up against me, his face toward the door. Even blind, perps were not to be tolerated on his watch.
The middle-of-the-night scream came shortly after his legs had gone out, first the back, then the front. My vet had warned me this would be the final chapter, and I when I found him lying down by the front door, where he’d fallen, it was like he was telling me it was time for both of us to go our separate ways.
DJ left this earth on October 7. Up until the last moment, I spent hours holding him, clutching him in my arms when we went to the elevator, then on the street looking for a place where he could do his business without the interference of hurried New Yorkers, talking and texting and too busy to notice a tiny dog no longer able to greet them or see them or catch their adoring glances. His life was now in my hands, and my hands alone.
Inside, I’d plop him on my lap so he could feel textures, along with the beat of my heart, and the scent he knew so well. When I had to leave the apartment, he’d sleep on a pillow of my clothes. He was put to sleep on the bed, after one last morning of snuggling, his breakfast, and a little ice cream. My arms were around him until the end. I watched the zipper go up and over his face and thought I’d betrayed him.
Being a gay man in New York is not always easy, being a single gay man over 50 often a struggle. My family lives on the West Coast, I’ve no children or house in Connecticut or, currently, no serious relationship, legal or otherwise. A dog is not a substitute for emotional connections, nor a Band-Aid for pain. They’re additions to life—gifts, creatures that help us to see the world with a child’s eye, and to appreciate, with temerity, every tiny joy placed in front of us. And they never waste time.
DJ’s little corner of the universe is now my corner alone, and every day I live in the place, the streets, the park, the apartment, where my guardian of 14 years ran amuck with spirit and love, and kept me in a jacket of branded warmth. Now there’s just air.