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On the Corona Island with a Dog

In a draft of my memoir Soul Mate Dog: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Dog, I write: “At the risk of being ridiculed, if I were banished to a deserted island for the duration of my life, and could only choose one being to accompany me, I would pick Brady.” Although I knew that a human would surely outlive Brady, I wrote that my ideal companion was my beloved German Shepherd. In the era of extended corona quarantines, these words resonate with me more than ever. The isolation feels a lot like being on an island away from all of our humans. But when we can’t hug, when we have to stay at a six-foot distance from one another—wondering if it will be good enough, or if we will succumb to the virus anyway—we still have the right to touch our animal companions close-up without masks.

Dogs across the United States have benefited from the virus insofar as animal shelters report a surge in adoptions and fostering. New York City shelters are receiving ten times the usual number of applications to adopt and foster, partially because the city that never sleeps has become the city that never goes out. That’s every dog’s dream: unlimited time with their humans. The increase in adoptions also reflects the human capacity for compassion in an era when rent and food are challenging to cover, let alone dog food and veterinary bills. People have discovered what I have: dogs make good soul mates. 

Dogs’ affection is unconditional, and it is reciprocated. When Brady jumped onto the bed to nest with me, his velvety cream and cinnamon ruff tickling my cheeks, an unmatchable warmth spread through me. I stroked the black and tan fur on the top of his head while he licked my cheeks in return. “Have I told you today that I love you?” I would ask him softly, knowing that I had. 

In my memoir, I write that I had never loved anyone before like I loved Brady. And I proved it. I recount the harrowing story of how we went to the brink of death while he was in an extended doggy lockdown at the emergency hospital in 2013. “I will go to the moon to save you if I have to,” I kept telling him as he battled Leptospirosis—a spirochetal bacteria oddly similar to the Lyme disease I fought. The days multiplied in his unanticipated confinement at the hospital with no end date in sight. Losing him was my greatest fear, in an era where discrimination, climate change, economic and political volatility plagued the earth. 

As I contemplate why I was so afraid of losing him, and why I had never loved anyone like I loved him, I wonder why I picked Brady to be my one companion on that hypothetical island that is no longer a fantasy in 2020. Before I submit the memoir to yet another round of literary agents, I must answer this question: Brady was unquestionably my soul mate dog, but why was my soul mate a dog? I realize that something in him touched me that humans don’t. 

When I was a child, I had parents that frequently told me they loved me, and I knew they meant it. But they were the happiest when I showed signs of being a child prodigy as a saxophonist. I had a loyal husband, albeit one that spoke to me sometimes in harsh tones reminiscent of his Soviet origins. Brady did not expect me to be a super star. Thank goodness, because I’m not. Brady didn’t growl at me in Russian upon occasion. Good, because I would have hidden in the closet. What Brady did have was limitless reservoirs of attention, love, respect, compassion, and kindness at his disposal. He generated this reservoir because he radiated love. I didn’t have to do anything, be anything, achieve anything to receive his love. He gave it to me freely. 

In turn, I got to know him, much like kindred spirits take the time to learn one another’s traits, capacities, and personalities. I learned that he was a lot more than what scientists and Western philosophers said he was. And I never took out my own character flaws on him; he brought out the most admirable traits in me. That’s the story I tell in Soul Mate Dog, a story that shows why I gave Brady everything I had from my love, time, and money. 

Today, I am sheltering in place with a one-year old Swiss white shepherd named Genji who has been a light-filled member of my family since he was ten weeks old; I would take him to my Corona island, too. His name means “shining prince,” and Genji does shine light on all who encounter him. Every morning we have a reunion ritual that involves him licking my face with abandon while I kiss his nose, and we throw distance to the wind. I catch my husband whispering nonsensical endearments to him. I watch my baby crawl over Genji and pull his teeth and ears, and I marvel that he doesn’t flinch; rather he treats her with as much patience as my husband and I do. When I see them sharing bones and Montessori wooden toys, I think he is like the Buddha in a puppy’s body because he is so gentle, so compassionate. When we swim in the ocean, I see that he didn’t get the memo on social distancing because he swims up to every child in the ocean to play, and he runs down the beach to greet every dog and human walking by. I watch Genji race through the water at low tide experiencing a freedom that no human can know right now.

I’m elated for Genji to have broken out of doggie lockdown. I’ll live vicariously through him right now since scientists claim that dogs cannot transmit the virus to humans, so while I can’t hug, he can offer affection to all. “I’m sorry; he is friendly!” I offer to beach walkers when he bounds up to them with a wagging tail and a smile. “We love it! He’s beautiful,” they reply.

Genji and I make ideal Corona island mates because we commune without arguing, without grumpiness, without residue from childhood wounds creeping into adult interactions. When we run together to watch the sun rise, we have an understanding about pacing and rhythm. We radiate nothing but love for one another. As I did with Brady, I communicate with Genji through what I call the language of Dog in Soul Mate Dog, which relies on animal communication techniques that I explain at length in my memoir.

Dogs merit being our companions on deserted islands—especially on the metaphorical ones we are all on right now with no end in sight. So, to all the dogs and humans out there: snuggle up and celebrate your interspecies love; find comfort in one another in the era of Corona vicissitudes. 

By Michelle Slater, PH.D

An emerging writer, I have written two memoirs: Soul Mate Dog: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Dog, and Starving to Heal in Siberia: My Radical Recovery from Late-Stage Lyme Disease. I am currently seeking representation for these manuscripts, and I am in the process of editing my first novel: The Lunatic. A former professor of French and Comparative Literature, I founded the Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanities, a non-profit program for adult artists.