Lessons in Love from My Dogs
I met Fletch in a dirt driveway in Moab where we were both living at the time: me in the back of a truck, Fletch in a small camper trailer with her current human, Scott. The driveway belonged to my best friend Lisa, a desert climber with a tendency to foster strays of all species. Scott was the brother of Lisa’s ex who stuck around after the ex took off. Scott was a handy guy to have around the house and the driveway — he supported his passion for travel through construction and electrical work. He had once declared over a beer that if he ever got a dog, he’d name it after those Chevy Chase movies, so that’s how Betty M Fletcher got her name.
About a year previous, a climber traveling to Moab picked up a starving Betty M from the Navajo reservation, and that’s how she ended up in Lisa’s driveway and then in Scott’s trailer. He raised her with love and significantly more discipline than most Moab dogs saw, and he vowed she would never be on a leash. I worked nights as a waitress and climbed and ran in the desert during the day, and tried to figure out if I should go back to law school the rest of the time. At first I didn’t notice Fletch much because she was so quiet and self-sufficient — most dogs I knew seemed to spend all their time running around the crags kicking up dust, barking, stepping on ropes and stealing lunches.
Fletch was a beautiful little cattle dog mix — white, brown and black — with a thick ruff of white fur and loose skin around her neck that you could gather up with two hands into a big ball. She was independent, dignified, and smart as a whip, and often dismissed dogs twice her size with a single, lofty growl. Fletch was known around the driveway as the “poster child for dogs,” because even people who claimed to dislike dogs offered to take her anytime Scott talked about wanting to travel somewhere out of the country. Gradually Fletch started spending her days out in the desert with me instead of at Scott’s jobsite, and when he set off for a work trip to New Zealand via Antarctica without a return date, she moved into the truck with me. The life of a traveling climber can be lonely, but Fletch and I shared hundreds, probably thousands, of miles of highway and trail. We grew up together.
When Fletch was only 11, her back legs became unsteady. The vet diagnosed her with spinal arthritis, and within the year I needed to carry her or pull her in a wagon to the crags where I would settle her on blankets while I climbed. After a while, she needed a diaper at night because the arthritis also made her a little incontinent in her sleep, and it was cleaner that way.
My husband Mario constructed carpet-covered ramps around the house and converted an old baby jogger into a cart for her back legs to see if that would make walking better for her. It didn’t help, so he carried her in his backpack to take her on hikes.
Fletch had become uncharacteristically affectionate and wanted to be together all the time, which both broke and filled my heart. Fletch was so stoic physically, it had always been impossible to tell if anything hurt her. She still wanted to eat and she still wanted to be together. I thought she was still happy, which was what really mattered.
But one morning, I knew she was going. I spent the day crying and cuddling with her, and then the night lying beside her bed on the floor, listening as she breathed until she stopped. When day came, Mario helped me carry her little body to the vet’s office, and he held me up as we staggered out without her.
For well over a year, I couldn’t even imagine the idea of having another dog. I didn’t want another dog. I wanted Fletch, so much it hurt. But over time I had to admit that not having a dog sucked.
One day a small and very strange looking puppy ended up in my driveway. She had been picked up off the Navajo reservation — starving and miles from anywhere — by a guy working on electrical poles. I had four requirements for any potential future dog I might ever have: must be female, must be a res dog, must have pointy ears like Fletch, and ABSOLUTELY no puppies. This creature in my driveway was possibly 3 months old. She was a bedraggled black, grey and brown. Her ears flopped. She looked like a tiny hyena having a bad hair day.
Cajun ate frantically for a month until one day she was full and had no further interest in food. An odor of cow manure emanated from her for weeks despite frequent bathing — we could only assume she’d been eating cow pies to survive. Cajun was nothing like Fletch, in all the worst ways. She was rambunctious, ungrateful, rebellious and chewed on us ceaselessly. I didn’t know much about puppies, but Cajun seemed to be the archetype of all things awful about puppies, without any of the good things. I wondered if we could take her back to the res and swap her for a more appreciative critter. Mario was perhaps the most kind and patient person on the planet, and yet there were moments when he seemed to be at his wits’ end in how to manage this whirling dervish of a dog. But despite all of her awful qualities, Cajun was Mario’s first dog, and he fell desperately and hopelessly in love with her.
Every night when I went to bed, I fantasized that an angel would come down from heaven and offer to let me trade Cajun and get Fletcher back.
When Cajun was about a year-and-a-half old, I realized one day with a start that I kind of liked her. And she was getting cuter. After two years, I had fallen completely in love with this leaping, prancing, exuberant creature, who could sprint like a cheetah and climb like a goat.
I remembered my angel fantasy with horror, almost sick at the thought of being asked to choose between my dogs. Fletch was my sensei. Cajun was my wild child. For the first time, I understood that I loved Cajun with all my heart and I also loved Fletch with all my heart, and love doesn’t have math. I realized that love is not “or;” love is “and.”
A year later, Mario died in Italy as we flew our wingsuits from the top of a mountain. I was in front and Mario left the cliff behind me. When I landed, he wasn’t there. Since the day we’d met, I’d never even imagined a life without Mario, though occasionally I worried we might not get to share our 90s together since he was 7 years older. Through the first black weeks and months of grief, Cajun and I huddled together at night in a bed that was too big and tried to understand this new, empty version of life. At first it didn’t seem worth it to me. We kept going, and slowly I found it was.
When I fell in love again, with Ian, I didn’t question it or second guess, though I’d been warned by many that I would. I didn’t struggle with fear or sadness or doubt, thoughts of how life ends and begins, of how to fit together the past and the future, because Fletcher and Cajun taught me something about love. Love is the one thing that has a beginning but not an end, that makes more space the more it grows. It’s the one thing that lasts forever.
Steph Davis is an adventurer, climber, base jumper, wingsuit flyer, and story teller. Follow more of her adventures on Instagram.