A letter to Sully the dog

Sully, you were not in the plans.
Maggie with Sully
Photo by Nikki Hansen
Maggie Ginsberg with Sully

Dear Sully,

I often think about how if people told me, even one month before this COVID-19 pandemic got real, what our lives would look like — schools closed, businesses shuttered, millions unemployed, Olympics canceled, celebrities stricken, face masks and gloves, curbside pickup, refrigerated trucks outside of hospitals — I wouldn’t have believed it. If this were a Hollywood blockbuster or a Michael Crichton thriller, it wouldn’t ring true. I feel the same way about the fact that an 87-pound, silver-whiskered Labrador retriever from Alabama is now snoring lightly at my feet as I type this on a clear April morning.

Sully, you were not in the plans.

In fact, as you now know, I already had a perfectly good dog when you arrived. An adorably compliant little Boston terrier named Rocco who has no discernible tail to wag, whose facial expression never changes, and who frankly has never asked much of me — just the way I like it. This won’t make me popular, but after nearly 45 years of inevitable pet love and loss, I’ve grown stubbornly unsentimental. I don’t say fur baby or doggo, I don’t swap adorable pet videos with my kids. I’ve conditioned myself to feel nothing more than a practiced detachment when I see the daily postings of rescued dogs that come across my Facebook feed from Lindsey Lees-Decker. You know Lindsey, Sully — she works with Ma, Paws, & Me Pet Rescue and you are one of the more than 400 dogs she’s fostered in her life. She’s always helping place dogs like you with just the right people. Her social media pages read like the canine version of Match.com. But I wasn’t dog dating, and I had no plans to start.

I know you can’t tell, because of the remarkable way I’ve responded to you, but the truth is when I get stressed, I shut down. We all handle stress differently; I don’t have a fight-or-flight response; I freeze.
And for several weeks in the beginning of this pandemic, that’s exactly what I was doing. Even though so many people were suffering more than I was, I still let the uncertainty and fear for my loved ones and the threat to our livelihood paralyze me in place. To cope, I focused on only the bare minimum: helped the kids manage their heartache, met the handful of work deadlines that hadn’t been canceled, grocery-shopped for my parents. Started difficult conversations with my husband about wills and last wishes. Crawled in bed early but lay awake all night. Ran long miles lost in terrible thoughts, ruminated over every worst-case scenario. Tried, multiple times a day, to unclench my jaw.

Then I saw your face.

It was Easter Sunday. We’d just wrapped a family celebration over Zoom and I was feeling a little bummed (although not nearly as sad as after my uncle’s memorial service two weeks earlier, also conducted online). I was surfing Facebook, hastening past the doom-and-gloom news bites, when I saw one of Lindsey’s dogs. This time, I stopped scrolling. His golden eyes seemed to hold mine, and I couldn’t look away.

“Look,” I finally showed my husband, “this is my best friend.”

“Mmph,” he said, glancing briefly at my phone, then calling my bluff: “You should get him.”

“Absolutely not,” I said, meaning it.

We had you home by Friday.

The reason it took even that long to process your application, I’ve since learned, is that rescue centers across the country were experiencing unprecedented demand. This makes sense. Not only were millions of us stuck home with time and stress to burn, but the health benefits of pets are widely documented.

There’s evidence-based research for why you smile at me and I smile back — why I catch myself staring dopily into your face without realizing how many minutes have passed. We’re all craving that shot of dopamine right now. But it’s more than that.

What you’ve really done is propel us back into action. We prepare your food and take you on walks and scoop your poop, no matter the COVID-19 news of the day. We stand patiently in the rain teaching you recall while a thousand scenarios unfold beyond our yard’s borders, beyond our control. It doesn’t matter what plans we’ve lost, what milestone events have been canceled. It doesn’t matter what bit of news makes me want to cry on the couch all day. You still have to go to the bathroom.

Before you arrived, I’d gotten used to our new normal, excelled at keeping my distance. Waving instead of hugging, standing as far away as possible from everyone I greet. And so it was a pleasant shock when you came bounding into my arms, squealing like I’d forgotten you somewhere and we were finally reunited. You ran inside like you’d lived here all along. You still forgo whatever treat I’m holding for scratches and petting instead. They say dogs are threatened by hugs, but you press against my legs until I wrap my arms around you, and then you melt to the ground. Even Rocco seems happier, eager to perform all of your tricks (and snag your treats), rolling over for you, engaging you in chase. His face betrays nothing, unlike yours. You crack a smile at the slightest mention of your name.

So far our biggest challenge was overcoming your fear of climbing down off the backseat of my car. You’d go right in, but you were terrified to come out. I don’t know what happened to you in your first eight years, and you can’t tell me. I tried everything to coax and cajole all 87 stubborn pounds of you. Some of our standoffs lasted 10 minutes. But then one day you looked at me and hopped down, and you’ve been hopping down ever since. Whatever caused that fear in the first place, it’s gone. And somewhere along the way, I’ve stopped feeling so scared, too.

Now I bring you out to my parents’ house and send you bounding across the yard into their arms, to deliver them the physical affection and reassurance that I can’t. From a safe distance I see their eyes crinkle above their face masks and I know they are grinning as wide as we are. I take photos to reassure my brother in Minneapolis that our parents are OK, and this works. We all feel a little bit better with you doing our hugging for us.

Meeting your basic needs has reminded our family what’s most important; that right now we have all we need, with or without a pandemic. If you have the luxury of your health, food, shelter and love, you can shift your focus to fighting for those who don’t.

So we eat. We go outside. We drink our water. I get my work done while you nap at my feet, and sometimes I go hours without remembering to worry. You grin at me. I return the grin, then pass it on to the people I love. They grin back (Rocco, we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt).

We go outside and follow you down the trail, moving forward even though you don’t know where we’re going. Neither do I most days, Sully.

Thank you for making that feel OK, for now.

Love,
Maggie

Click here to find out if more dogs were adopted during quarantine.

Click here to read about some of our favorite dog Instagram accounts.

Click here to read more stories about how we coped with stress during coronavirus.