I was close to 40 when I discovered how love really feels. The object of my affection was a French bulldog, sold to us as Oliver and rechristened Grisby. His color was officially designated "fawn piebald," which meant he had very pretty markings of light brown and white, about half of each. His fur was short and soft, and his large, expressive ears were light brown on the back, dark pink inside and could seem almost translucent in the sunlight. His mouth was wide and when he trotted along with his pink tongue hanging out, it formed a permanent smile. His face was joyful, his eyes bright, his expression either playful or craven.
Forty-something, childless women who dote on their lapdogs are often seen as lonely and unfulfilled, their pet a replacement for a child or a lover. It's an unfair stereotype, of course — all kinds of people dote on their dogs, including men — but rather than debunking it, my first impulse is to distance myself from it. I feel compelled to make it very clear that, although I loved my dog to distraction, I was not one of those women, and Grisby wasn't one of those dogs. He wasn't a Chihuahua or a shih tzu, he was a tough little bulldog, too heavy to ride in a carrier or snuggle on my lap. I want to deny and disavow, to insist how different my situation was, instead of thinking about why is it's so hard for a woman who buys sweaters for her dog to be taken seriously.
In some ways, after all, I am one of those women. I'm middle-aged, childless, not officially married, and I doted on Grisby, who was a lapdog in all but size. He was certainly spoiled. I let him run off the leash, jump on the furniture, eat from my plate, sleep in my bed and lick my face. I kissed him on the mouth all the time.
In the summer, we'd spend all day together at the beach, and I loved driving back with a fat bulldog, warm and wet, tied safely in his harness on my lap. On these drives, we'd connected at a physical level. Strapped to my body, Grisby would press heavily into my stomach, and our bodies would respond together to the jolts of the car. At those moments, with Grisby snoring on my lap, it was as though we'd merged together organically, a hybrid creature of flesh and fur, a single animal with two beating hearts.
I was so inspired by Grisby that I wrote a book about him and about people who love their dogs to distraction. In April 2013, The Great Grisby was sold to an enthusiastic publisher, and I'd just finished copyediting the proofs when suddenly, at the end of January, Grisby died. He was 8 years old and was spending the night at Falls Road Animal Hospital being treated for pancreatitis. Around midnight the vet called to say he'd gone into cardiac arrest, and her attempts to revive him had failed.
In a way, Grisby's death came just at the right time. He was a joyful dog in the prime of life, alert and playful, always happy, with little knowledge of pain or suffering. And although I'd long dreaded losing him, it was nowhere near as traumatic as I'd imagined. In fact, he died at midnight on a Saturday, and the following Monday I managed to teach my morning class at MICA. Looking back, I think the loss was manageable precisely because I'd written down everything I loved about Grisby; I had a record of our love affair and of his every little move — his small sighs and grunts, the sound of his claws on the floorboards, his jingling collar, his soft ears rubbing against my knees.
I often dream about Grisby, and I still think about him every day, but always in a good way. I remember how unaware he'd always been of his own mortality. As far as he was concerned, things would simply go on as they were forever, the two of us together every day. Reminding myself to follow his example and live in the present, a month after Grisby's death, we welcomed another small guest into our home, and in memory of his predecessor, we named him Oliver. He's a little fawn French bulldog, with a handsome black mask, just as cute as Grisby but twice as smart and half the size, and he's sitting on my lap as I write.
Mikita Brottman is a professor of humanistic studies at MICA and the author of "The Great Grisby," which goes on sale Friday (HarperCollins, 2014). Her email is Mikita.firstname.lastname@example.org.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.