For my fortieth birthday, I had a pool party at my sister’s house in El Dorado Hills. Friends from the Bay Area made the long drive up to celebrate, but none of us ended up swimming because, ironically, it was too hot. The temperature peaked at around one hundred ten degrees, and no one wanted to be outside. I had Mexican food catered that day, and felt badly about that decision when one of my friends commented, “What, no lumpia?”
Parties have always been a source of stress in my family growing up for the massive amount of cleaning and cooking and prepping that had to be done. Filipinos, including my family, felt the need to put on a big show, to have an impressive spread of everything from lechon and pansit to homemade desserts like kutsinta with fresh coconut and bibingka. Part showing off (we have a lot of money (even if untrue) therefore we can afford to provide this much good food), part cultural (food brings us all together, it’s nourishing, and there have been times in our lives or our ancestor’s lives when food was scarce, particularly during war), part prevention (if we don’t make enough food, which in Filipino culture means enough for people to eat twice or three times and take leftovers home (god forbid anyone leave without a paper plate covered in foil containing piles of food), people will tsis mis about how we’re kuripot). By the time the actual party started, we’d all be worn out.
Determined to end that practice, I kept the party as low maintenance as possible, which meant no cooking by anyone. We almost don’t know what to do with ourselves when we’re not chopping and slicing and frying and baking and boiling and steaming. In making that decision, I was aware that I was having a more Western-style party; white people cater all the time. Why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I just throw some money at the problem instead of sweating and toiling away near the stove? I had a good job at Stanford, I could afford it. But the uneasiness of the decision, the feeling that somehow I’d let myself and others down by not putting in ten hours of work for a party, stayed with me the entire day. I’d taken the easy way out, the first generation to do so.
Isso wasn’t allowed in my sister’s house (too big, sheds too much) so he must’ve been in the casita with the air conditioning on during the party. (I can’t imagine he would’ve been anywhere else in that heat.) That’s something always difficult to navigate—when your dog isn’t allowed in the house. As if they’re not family, as if they’re not an important part of whatever social gathering or party or celebration. I don’t blame my sister, it’s her house and she can decide whether large dogs are allowed inside, but, still, it’s hard to take knowing your best friend can’t be with you during a milestone birthday. He’s the one who stayed up until 3 a.m. with me as I worked on my stories or critical essays for my MFA program, the one who greeted me with so much love when I returned home from work in the evenings, the one who slept on my bed every night, sometimes at the bottom of the bed near my feet, sometimes right on my legs, preventing me from moving even if I was in an awkward position, and, a few times, right next to me with his head on the extra pillow. How do you describe this bond to a non-dog person? It’s inconceivable to me to leave the dog out of a party or celebration. They are the party, they are the celebration.
Once again, I found myself single on my fortieth birthday. I’d been dating someone casually, superficially, the worst kind of dating for me. Definitely not someone I could invite to the party, someone my entire family would scrutinize. To make myself feel better, I wore cute short shorts—black with a red medieval cross stitched on the back pocket and gold angel wings on the back waistband. I paired them with a shimmering gold bikini top with braided straps, my way of saying, Yes, I’m single but I can still get away with an outfit that some 20-year-olds cannot. That I exposed so much skin that day makes me uncomfortable now. That I felt the need to compensate in that way makes me sad.
The next day, it cooled down enough to spend the day in the backyard swimming. Relatives and a few friends had stayed the night, so, in true Filipino fashion, the party continued. With a dozen kids jumping in and out of the pool, Isso joined right in. He loved to swim, but mostly he loved to fetch. I’d throw a ball in the deep end of the pool, he’d madly circle around the perimeter, staring intently at the ball, blocking out all other distractions, noise, people as he made calculations in his mind on the best way to get at the ball. First, he’d pace back and forth near the deep end, and then sprint all the way around to the shallow end to see if perhaps this was a better way to get it. And then he’d make his way back to the deep end and propel his 70-pound body off the ground and into the water, keeping his focus on the ball the entire time. Once he retrieved it, he’d paddle his way to the pool stairs, jump out, find me, drop the ball at my feet, and assume his fetch position like a runner in crouch pose ready to start the race. If I weren’t available to throw the ball for him, he’d find anyone—a grandmother, a toddler, anyone capable of picking up a ball and throwing it for him. If the person didn’t throw the ball to his liking (not far enough, not fast enough), he’d abandon them in search of someone who could.
I made the mistake of leaving Isso to play with the kids in the backyard while I sipped cocktails inside. I could drink a lot back then, maybe three to four martinis or margaritas, and still hold my own. Never or rarely did I get sick from drinking, and never did I cry when drunk. I’m a happy drunk the whole time, socializing in a carefree way, unable to stop talking, laughing constantly up until the point I fall asleep or pass out. With quite a buzz on that day, I forgot to check on Isso regularly. I could see him playing in the pool with all the kids and knew they would watch over him or let me know if he needed anything.
In the early evening, after swimming all day, Isso’s tail went limp. In the five years since I’d adopted him, I’d never seen anything like this. His long black tail with the slight bend in the middle lay flat against his hind legs. I tried to lift it but it just dropped back into place. He showed signs of pain when walking and couldn’t sit down. I panicked and called the nearest vet to schedule an emergency appointment. When we got into the examination room, the first thing I said was, “His tail’s broken.” To which the vet replied, “His tail isn’t broken.” I felt so relieved. Still, I at once felt worried for Isso, bad that he was in obvious pain, and guilty that I’d been drinking all day and not checking on him. If I were a better dog mom, this wouldn’t have happened. If I were a better dog mom, I wouldn’t have drunk so much. If I were a better dog mom, I’d be a better dog mom.
“He’s got limp tail,” said the vet. He explained the condition as one that large dogs are prone to get when swimming in very cold water on a really hot day. Isso would need pain medication for the soreness and a bland diet for at least a week, which stressed me out knowing I was supposed to leave for Slovenia in a few days for my MFA residency. Do I cancel my trip? How could I in good conscience leave for Europe for two weeks when my dog needed care?
I brought Isso home to Potrero Hill, where I was living at the time with a roommate and her dog, and she promised to take good care of Isso so I could go away. After many hours of travel, I arrived in the small town of Škocjan, population ten, only to learn there was no internet access except at the local library that had very limited hours. So once a day, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., I’d make my way there to try to get online, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to get status on Isso. It was hard to concentrate and stay present on my trip knowing he wasn’t well. He occupied my thoughts on the plane, in my B&B at night, and during workshop during the day. It hurt being so far away from him knowing how much he needed me, not just for care but for the special comfort I give him by singing personalized songs that have his name in them. Only I could take care of Isso in the way he needed—physically, emotionally, spiritually. That’s the real bond between a dog and their person; the daily feedings and walks are the tip of the iceberg of an extraordinarily deep connection that gets formed.
After a week in Škocjan, I got the wonderful news from my roommate Kyrsten that Isso’s tail started working again! His pain had subsided, he could sit down and resume his normal diet. My Isso was fine. The news made me so happy, and I finally settled into my trip without worry or guilt.