L'AMERICANA & LA FORMAGGINA
A year ago, our 11-year-old yellow Labrador, Brie, died of cancer. I never wrote her a proper obituary. But, she deserves one, because she was a member of our family and a friend to many. Below is an anniversary tribute to one of the great losses of 2017:
The day Brie died, I sat alone on the radiator in our living room at night and ate an entire pint of peanut butter ice cream by myself. My family teases me for my love of peanut butter, and my Italian husband believes that Nutella is a far better substitute.
But, Brie didn’t care. She supported me first, unconditionally, in everything I did. She would have nudged me to eat that entire pint had she been there. And I would have shared it with her.
Because she was my ally -- from the moment my husband gave her to me in Rome as a three-month-old puppy. To her last day in which she fell limp in my arms as she drifted into her final deep sleep in San Francisco. She was our first family pet, and my first attempt at parenting.
Losing her felt like closing a chapter in my life that I wasn’t ready to shut.
My husband gave Brie to me when we were newly married. I was freelance writing from home, and lonely without colleagues and coffee breaks. Brie kept my feet warm as she lay on top of them under my desk, often knocked out computer cords with her whiplashing tail, and got me out of the house for long walks to clear my head.
At the start, I didn’t think I could take on the responsibility of a dog. I didn’t know how to be a mother, and I was convinced that little kids never liked me as a babysitter. So I took her everywhere with me, and rarely left her at home alone. I drove a second-hand Smart car in Rome then. She proudly sat upright in the sliver of the car’s back trunk and rested her head on my shoulder wherever I drove. We became known around my Roman neighborhood as “L’Americana e La Formaggina” or “The American and The Little Cheese.” She waited for me outside supermarkets, bookstores, libraries, and pharmacies. She often sighed whenever I ran into a friend on the street and chatted longer than foreseen. She lay on the bathmat whenever I took a shower. She forgave me if I forgot to feed her. Or if I spent an extra hour out longer than I’d promised, and she had to cross her legs tight until I returned home. She was always there waiting for me, patiently, with a wagging tail, as if every walk around the block was a honeymoon cruise.
I experienced loss when first trying to get pregnant. A diary entry I found recently about her during those trying times reminded me of her healing powers:
“My Labrador puppy rests her soft, luscious head with velvet ears on my empty stomach as we lie next to each other in bed. She lifts her head only when my silent weeping suddenly erupts into sobbing and forces her to shift her head from my bellybutton to my navel. She wags her tail with a hesitant thump-thump-thump, as if I struck her funny bone. Her brown eyes resemble chocolate chips, and I ask her every morning if she could please, oh, please, tell me the name of her smudge-free mascara. I stroke her coat the color of her French cheese’s namesake and smell the muddiness of her morning swim. She places her weathered paw over my freckled hand, always my fortuneteller. She whimpers at me, telling me we need to get out of the house, and uses her noble Roman snout to throw back my duvet covered with coffee stains and dog fur. She licks my hand, telling me to believe that my time will come in being a mother to a newborn baby one day. I hug her thick, leonine neck of fur. I scratch her Adam’s apple and she moans in reaction as if devouring a butcher’s bone. She takes me out for a walk and, we both sigh to each other, resigned to explore the world again together.”
Eventually, she’s right, and I bring home a beautiful baby boy. And, then, a few years later, after more difficult moments, with Brie always by my side, a beautiful baby girl comes home. At first, Brie slept outside the kids’ rooms as their bodyguard. Then, she moved inside their rooms next to their beds. In her later years, she slept on their beds, rolled up like a snail, as if wanting to prove she really didn’t take up much space after all.
Over the years, she chewed Ferragamo flats, Converse low tops, Persian carpets and empty plastic water bottles. She inhaled smelly diapers, lice-infected hair, and soccer uniforms that littered the house. She tiptoed over the kids’ Lego cities that monopolized entire playroom floors. She endured hours of cacophonous music lessons, and howled in a duet with my son whenever he played his saxophone. She went berserk the night the kids had a sleepover at a friend’s house and forgot to hug her goodbye before leaving home. She kept us up all night long that night, fluttering around the house anxiously, questioning why we weren’t worried about their empty beds.
I often wondered what she thought about the four different countries we lived in over the past eleven years. As a puppy in Rome, she walked for miles with me at Villa Ada, and dove in its muddy streams, prancing home the color of a butterscotch brownie. She chased squirrels at the Villa Borghese, sipped water from Roman aqueducts and waded in Bernini fountains. She ran after ducks around Les Etangs of Brussels and frolicked among blooming bluebells in Les Ardennes.
But her happiest moments of all were in Israel, where she had a pack of canine pals whom she ran with three times a week. A dear friend, Tamir, showed up in a mini van, popped open the trunk, and displayed his menagerie of borrowed pets for the morning. Brie hopped in the dog-mobile like an Olympic hurdler and stretched her limbs in her morning workout. She was the most fit of all of us.
Sometimes Tamir would take her for evening walks to watch the sunset overlooking the Herzliya Beach on which she and I clocked hours walking and swimming together. She watched the sunset with her best friend, then a pit bull named Ebby, whom she loved to French-kiss. I often wondered what she thought as she watched the Mediterranean’s gentle waves tickle the toes of swimmers and surfers below or gazed at either seagulls or military planes overhead. And I questioned if she was ever aware of her magical touch as she licked a wary hand of any of the juvenile delinquents whom she visited in a pet therapy program she joined while in Israel.
On moving day in Rome two years ago, when we moved back into the house she had lived in as a puppy, she ran away. She couldn’t handle the boxes, chaos, strange movers in our home, and all the change. The woman running the hardware store down the street had seen Brie wandering alone, checked her dog tag, and called to assure me that Brie was safe.
When I retrieved Brie, I knew exactly how she felt: moving countries every four years is exhausting. I knew she was looking for the beach, for her friends, for an open field to escape to, that she didn’t feel like starting all over again, even though Rome was familiar to her. She was back in the same space in which she had grown up in as a puppy: but, now, she was different. She was older. She had experienced living in other lands; she had grown attached to its different climate, its land and its people. The sound of masking tape being stretched across a cardboard box irritated her as much as it did me. But I could lash out at my journal, my computer or my poor husband – she just had to continue following us around, led on a leash. But I saw eye to eye with her: her chocolate chip morsels revealed it all.
At times, in Israel, she ran away, too. We often found her at the local mini-market hanging out near the freezer. It was her way of telling us she was hot, hungry and fed up. In another hungry-angry moment, she ate my father’s birthday cake, which was on the bottom shelf of a fridge in the playroom (and my daughter was her open-sesame-accomplice).
My dream had always been to bring Brie to America – but we only took her on a plane whenever we moved. My dream came true when I found out that we were being posted to San Francisco. But getting Brie to San Francisco from Rome was no easy task as there were no direct flights then.
So, she ended up splitting the American journey in half, and started by spending The Summer of Her Life in Maine with my mother’s West Highland white terrier. We all noticed Brie was walking slower than usual but she inhaled the pine trees and wood chips of Acadia National Park’s trails as if she had found heaven. Once she eventually made it to San Francisco, she struggled on the steep hills of Pacific Heights but reveled in the bracing waters and sandy beaches of the San Francisco Bay’s coastline. For three months, she went to the office every day with my husband, and his colleagues kept dog biscuits in their desk drawers in anticipation of her morning visits. At the staff holiday party, she wore reindeer antlers, a red and white collar with bells on it, and was nicknamed “Jingle Brie.”
In January 2017, we took a family trip to Monterrey to show our kids its magnificent aquarium. Used to taking Brie everywhere in California, we hadn’t stopped to think that she wouldn’t be able to enter the fish museum. With our tickets in hand, we stood outside the aquarium with Brie and our children, and debated taking turns inside while one of us held on to her outside. A security guard overheard our conversation and melted when Brie started wagging her tail at his caresses.
“She’s a service dog, right?” he said to us.
My husband and I looked at each other and wondered whether we should tell a lie in front of the children.
“Well, in fact, she has serviced many, many people in her lifetime,” I said.
“I thought so,” he winked. “She has ‘service-dog’ written all over her: calm and well-behaved. Follow me.”
So Brie got to visit the Monterrey Aquarium, too, as an undercover service dog (advised only not to attend the live albatross show). Her eyes looked like poached eggs as she watched fluorescent jellyfish, sea lions, sharks, and penguins swim in front of her. To see the underworld up close was about as good as it gets for a dog that loved the water. But she never barked inside at the foreign aquatic life. She just wagged her tail and sighed.
She died five days later. It was if she had seen that her family was finally settled, the boxes were unpacked, the kids were sleeping through the night, and we’d made it through our first Christmas in San Francisco. She knew we were going to be alright.
On her last day, I whistled that tune which signaled to her that we were going out. But she couldn’t even lift her head from our wooden floors anymore. Her chocolate chips revealed that she’d seen it all and seen enough. Her tail didn’t thump anymore. Tamir had always warned me that she would tell me when she was ready to go. I finally understood what he meant.
The responses I received from friends on Facebook when I announced her death blew me away. Friends from all over the world, from Africa to Asia to America, sent in stories about her, many of which helped me grieve.
Her dog walkers who became her godparents and my eternal pack of Brie’s friends wrote the most poetic of missives to her and I’ll never forget all they did for her: Marzia in Rome who christened her “La Formaggina,” Momo in Brussels who always made rainy days seem sunny, Joe & Luisa Coppola who let her lick homemade foie gras straight out of the pan, Tamir The Dog Whisperer of Israel who let her run wild, and Lovely Lisa in Rome who made her feel young when she was growing old.
As my kids worked through their own tears, my son said it best:
“She was a mother to all of us.”