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Roni Beth Tower is the author of the memoir, Miracle at Midlife: A Transatlantic Romance, published by She Writes Press. She is also a clinical psychologist trained in epidemiology who did the below study about women and depression symptoms when she was on the faculty of Teachers College, Columbia University. Visit her at MiracleatMidlife.com. She shared her inspiring story with WomansWorld.com.
On a cold morning in January 1995, I arrived at my Pilates studio a few minutes before 9. I stretched out on the mat, ready to push through yet another demanding exercise of discipline. An empty metal box that looked like a small cage sat against a wall. I asked the woman tending the studio at this quiet hour what it was.
“Oh…that…Christine bought a dog,” she answered.
“Where is it? And where is she?”
“They are both in the massage room resting on the table.”
“Can I see the dog?”
“Maybe later. Perhaps they’ll be up when you are done."
I whipped through the routine with unusual energy. Just a few months before, I had announced to a friend, “I need a fur coat,” well aware at the time that what I really needed was a live, hairy companion to snuggle with me throughout the long Connecticut winter. The prior year had been monstrously difficult as I struggled to disentangle myself from a relationship that had turned painful and destructive. I was tired, discouraged, lonely, and, it being winter in Connecticut, cold.
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After stretching, lifting, and back-bending, I knocked on the door to the massage room. Christine owned the studio and, over the half dozen years I had known her, she had become a friend.
The first time I looked into Luke’s big black eyes, I fell in love. Chris explained that she and her fiancé had bought this bundle of fluff, huge black eyes and button nose, for his 75-year-old mother for Christmas, believing that she would like the company. Sadly, she feared she could not properly care for him with her potentially faltering health. Thus the bichon had been rejected. He was scheduled to return to his breeder.
“I need a dog, Christine.”
“You don’t need this one,” she responded.
“He’s expensive. He’s from a line of champions. His father is on the cover of the bichon book. We wanted a very gentle but smart dog for her. But she didn’t want the responsibility. She was afraid she might not be up to it.”
“How expensive is expensive?” I asked, knowing full well that the answer was irrelevant. I was in love, instantly seduced, my heart converted into some substance resembling quivering Jello, and inevitably ready to make another one of my highly impractical but excellent impulsive decisions.
She answered and I gulped.
The past years had been extremely costly, financially as well as emotionally, in part because I had been paying college bills, helping to fund a wedding, and doing some long-distance caregiving for my mother in California. But the real drain had been a relationship. Happily, I was single again.
“Can I take him home until Thursday?” I asked.
Christine looked at me, tilted her head, and nodded. “Sure. We don’t have to take him back until Saturday.”
After attaching his leash, his only other possession, I tucked the 17-week-old puppy under my arm and crossed the street to a park for what would become the first of more than 17 years of walks we would take together. Once in the car, he sat quietly in his crate during the two-mile drive home, managing to throw up before we got there. For many years to come, until my miracle-at-midlife lover brought him a canine nausea medication from France, Luke continued to get carsick.
Once home, I did a bit of research. “Luke” was the name of the patron saint of artists and healers. That sounded just right to me; besides, it fit him. Even better, the nickname “Luke Skywalker” described his future role. He was destined to enchant children, delight dog lovers, and charm those adults who thought they did not like dogs. My own personal angel, he helped save the heart at the center of my life.
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At a moment when I teetered on the edge of isolation, Luke brought meaning, understanding, comfort, and joy into my life.
Meaning. Without a human to feed him, walk him, teach him, play with him, Luke could not have thrived. Through caregiving, I could again believe I had sensibilities and capabilities of value to give to another creature. He quickly learned he could rely on me to respond to what he needed and we came to trust one another.
Understanding. We soon came to understand one another. Luke knew intuitively when I was sad and needed a nuzzle or frightened and could use a companion. He learned to make me laugh when I was angry and how to nudge me into giggles through play. Canine intelligence and intuition is now irrefutable.
Comfort. Luke greeted me with jumps and licks each time I came home. He watched vigilantly for my friend’s car to turn onto our street in the morning, knowing that our romp at the beach would soon follow. He slept above my head, his tiny heart beating rhythmically into my ears.
Delight. Luke brought laughter and joy back into my life. When he learned tricks like “dancey-dancey” (bichons are the original circus dogs) or “Jump!” he was as proud of himself as my children and I were of him. His infinite curiosity about sounds or sights inside and out helped me remember to live current moments and not get lost in memories or plans. His own enthusiasm in being alive was infectious.
A year after Luke’s arrival, David entered my life. I was initially worried about constraints that Luke might place on our new romance, but he captured David’s heart too. They became such great buddies that Luke would get depressed whenever David returned to France and ignored him on his return–for all of about five minutes. Perhaps I should have understood early on that David was ready to give up his bachelor life to be part of a family. Luke did.
During our courtship, with all of David’s comings and goings, Luke came to understand luggage. Years later, when the three of us were moving back from France, he actually sat on top of a suitcase and refused to move. He was making sure we knew that no one was going anywhere without him. After two years of going almost everywhere, even eating in restaurants and staying in hotels with us, he knew the three of us were a team.
Luke lit up my life for seventeen-and-a-half years. When he grew older, we bought a pet stroller so that he could still accompany us to the annual quilt show in New Hampshire. A wise woman who had become attached to him over the years reminded us, “They don’t cry when you leave the house because of separation anxiety. It’s because they are afraid you can’t get along out there without them.”
He has been gone for four years now, and I still miss him every day. I can imagine holding him in my arms, remember running with him on the beach, almost feel his tongue licking salt from my legs. He helped me remain anchored in the present and appreciative of genuine connection. Depression had become impossible.
A few years ago, in my role as a psychology professor and researcher, I was able to look at benefits of having a dog or cat for 2,291 Americans. Single women who had a pet had the fewest symptoms of depression of anyone, even after we considered age, education, income, and whether or not they had children. When we looked more deeply into the data, it was not so much that the pet helped minimize negative feelings; it increased the positive ones. Loving and caring for another creature can bring the meaning, understanding, comfort, and joy that transformed my tired, discouraged, lonely, and cold single self so many years ago.