Who teaches us how to love? Who do we love and why and how?

I love Gus. He is my golden retriever and he is the best and most quiet friend I’ve had for 10 years. He is quiet because he knows he does not need to bark (unless he sees a too big dog–a horse, or someone dangerous walking up our driveway). He is quiet because he listens. He listens when you laugh and he wags his tail. He listens when you cry and he wags his tail, hoping that you can laugh again. Gus is sick.
Aunt Linda hurt her head, Gus hurt his heart. I asked my mother why bad things keep happening and she told me to be safe. She doesn’t want me to get hurt by the world that seems to have stopped caring about the most caring beings in it. She told me that Gus may have a tumor on his heart, that he had seizures because of his heart. Then she told me to remember my laundry. I remembered my laundry and “tumor” seemed like a far away word until today, when it sunk in. When Gus finally turned into gooey, gussie, goo oney, big dog, sweet man. When my own heart felt sick. When I remembered that Gus is more important than almost anything. Because I love him.
I used to play with my cat Lil Bo and ask her: “Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?” She would scratch me then sprint off. Lil Bo has never been my favored pet. But Gus, Gus deserves that question. It would look different, though, more like: why do I love you so much? Gus is beautiful when he lies at your feet waiting for food under the dinner table because “what a patient dog he is”. My love for Gus is beautiful because it is requited. No boy has ever loved me back like gussie has.
In 6th grade I finally realized that I would suffer through years of being too nerdy and unfashionable to be “popular”. Middle school was horrid but I had a young dog who made it better. I would come home in the afternoon and Gus and I would play at the marina, where no one cared if I climbed rock piles and talked to myself in the woods. I distinctly remember nestling into his side one afternoon, thinking how wonderful it was that to Gus, I was the most popular girl in the world.
Whenever Mama picked us up from school in her red jeep with all the bumper stickers we laughed excitedly in hopes that Gus would be in the back seat, sticking his huge lion’s head out the window for all to see. At field hockey practices girls would stop and run to our car, oohing and aahing over “the prettiest dog.” He licked them in return.
Gus may have sired the strange little mutts that lived down our road. He loved to run around with the beagle, Molly, so we figured her litter was also partly ours. But Gus never had any puppies that were definitively his own, ones that we could pull into our arms and wish and hope to be as wonderful as their father. Instead Gus has baby dolls. If it’s a dish towel or a stuffed bunny rabbit, it’s a “baby doll”. When exiting your car Gus expects to help you carry some of your items, preferably a water bottle or flip flop.
…who teaches us how to love? Gus has taught me. He is faithful and so quietly compassionate that sometimes you wonder how he knew you needed him when he came to lay his head on your lap. He loves unconditionally. He looks past flaws and wags his tail at the good parts of people. He has only growled several times in his life. One time it was at a strangely dressed man who was trying to sell something to my mother. One time it was at a cat who had rabies. Gus has a “bad” detector.
Gus needs to teach me more. He can’t leave me yet. I am not as good as he is. I look at flaws and highlight them and wish that they could be fixed, rather than accepted or ignored. My bad detector is overactive. I trust no one; I can’t imagine a kind of unconditional love that I could have for anyone, anyone but him. I’m angry all the time, angry at myself, angry at so many people I meet, angry at the world for letting me get away with such anger. Gus wasn’t angry when we brought a puppy home. When we take him to the vet. When we yell at him for tracking mud into the house. We did and said bad things and in return, he loved us.
…who do we love and why and how? We love people. We love animals. We love them because we hope that in return they’ll love us back. We love them without caring if they love us back; we just want them to know that they deserve our love. We love them with words and with silence. We love them in big ways and in small ways. Mama told me that Gus could be gone soon. Gone from our house and our yard and our boat and our cars. Is that even possible? Did we not love him enough? Why does he have to leave? I love Gus because he is good and I love him in every way I can. I love him with my hands and my voice and now all I can do is love him with my words. I want, I want, I want the words to be enough to make it so that Gus can love me for just a little bit longer. I love Gus and I’m not sure if I’ll be okay without him.

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