My little dog Abby lost her right eye yesterday.
“Lost” is a funny term for it—implying that she misplaced it somewhere and can’t for the life of her remember where, like you might car keys. Maybe, in time, “lost” will be enough to define the visceral brutality of what happened. But not quite yet.
Then again, I’m not entirely sure what happened, exactly. I do know this much, in the way that your mind tills over and over the details leading up to a terrible thing, as if to search for clues that things were about to be altered forever: My daughter Caroline and I were in the backyard. I was combing the surface of a new garden with a steel rake. Abby and her canine sister, Maisy, were with us, too, roaming—as they often do—amid a thick bed of flowers and ferns some 50 feet away. Abby stands only about a foot tall from her shoulder to her paws: When she’s in the garden it swallows her whole. Rabbits and chipmunks and voles and other small creatures take refuge in that garden, and Abby and Maisy track their punky smells, noses to the ground.
Abby is a rescue dog who came to live with us just shy of her first birthday: First as a foster, and then later as a permanent part of the family. She is the kind of dog you like even when you don’t like dogs: She is gentle and meek around people, and she melts the disinterested shell right off of strangers, who can’t help but bend down to pet her as she sidles up to them; “Aww, aren’t you a good girl?” they’ll say. “Yes,” I always respond. “She’s something special.”
She seems to know, intuitively, which people are most in need of a dose of her, and those are the ones that she parks herself in front of, gently pawing the air before them, as if she’s waving a small peace flag, her soulful human eyes seeking theirs.
You can see how, if you do like dogs, a dog like Abby would grow like a wild vine around your heart, wrapping herself around your organs until after a while your hearts together beat in wordless understanding. I’ve had sweet dogs before. But what makes Abby uniquely rooted in my heart is that soulful intellect cross-wired with a spunky streak. It’s a lively bit of pluck that Vahe calls charajiji, using the Armenian to describe a kind of naughty impishness. That’s what drives her sense of fun and adventure that—the first time I set eyes on her—had her strolling the back of the sofa like a cat, as if she owned the place. (She didn’t.) And today, almost six years later, still sends her swooping and diving at tennis balls around the dining room table, and running at top speed to scatter flocks of gulls on the beach. It’s what has her stalking chipmunks now in the garden.
From the new garden nearby, I see only the tops of the flowers swaying in huffy complaint as Abby and Maisy tramp through. It went on for the better part of the humid June afternoon: Maisy and Abby patrolled. I raked. At one point I watched the dogs for a minute, leaning on my rake, and mused to Caroline: “It’s funny, isn’t it, the way that the girls in our family are the motivated ones?” Our two male dogs, Chile and Simon, were splayed on the cool tile indoors; Caroline’s brother, Evan, was inside, too, himself splayed on the sofa.
Suddenly I heard a quick, decisive growl. Maisy. It’s the sound she makes when she’s been startled or agitated by something. I guessed Maisy had cornered a terrified little critter, and I pictured a frantic little paw swiping at Maisy’s big black snout nosing beyond the lip of a burrow.
“Maisy!” I yelled. “Abby! Come!” Maisy came trotting out of the thicket right away, but Abby is not as easily deterred from prey. Charajiji. I headed toward the garden, calling her name again, a little impatiently. “God I hope it’s not a bunny…” I said to Caroline. Suddenly Abby popped out of the brush.
There’s that moment when you look at something so unexpected, so surprising, so shocking, that your brain can’t quite compute what it is, exactly, you are looking at. With Abby trotting toward me, I looked only long enough to work out what I was actually looking at: which was her right eye hanging out of its socket, like some Halloween zombie display at a party goods store, bobbing with every step she took.
I guess I should feel lucky to say that it was the singularly most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen, but yesterday it didn’t feel that way. Instead, I felt not just revolted but inexplicably terrified, and much as I’m not proud of it now, I screamed and turned away from poor Abby and ran full-tilt into the house, Caroline at my heels, bolting the door behind us, blinking in the cool air and hoping the gruesome visage of our beloved little dog would somehow adjust itself back to its proper order.
Why, exactly? What was so scary? Did I think it wasn’t really her? That instead she’d been twisted into something bizarre and dangerous? Did I think her freakishly exposed eyeball was going to sprout legs and chase me down? I have no explanation for my response: Animals react to threats with a primal discharge of the nervous system, priming the animal to fight or for flight. Clearly, my primal neurons instructed me to flee.
But poor sweet Abby! If she was in pain, she didn’t seem it. She trotted after us, waiting to be let in first by one door and then the other, and seemingly unaware of the chaos, the screaming. It was the boy on the couch who sprang into action, swaddling Abby in a beach towel and depositing her in my arms, where I held her close and cooed to her as the boy sped—with no license and no shoes, I realized later—to the emergency vet clinic a few miles away. By then, in me, another primal urge had taken over: To fix, to care for, to squeeze every drop of essence from my own body and pour it into hers, willing it into her as she sat panting on my lap, the towel around her head. The boy stood with me at the clinic, his size 10 feet shoved into a pair of his sister’s silver flip-flops he had foraged from the back seat of the car.
They couldn’t save the eye. It turns out she was already blind as she emerged from the garden, even as she was trotting after us. I don’t know exactly what the stringy bits are called that attach an eyeball to its socket, but whatever they are, hers included an optic nerve that was severed in the accident.
There was a small puncture wound above where her eye was; the vet presumes that a larger animal bit her in the face, and happened to catch her just so, causing her eye to shoot out like a pinball from its coil spring. It might have been Maisy, who perhaps snapped to warn her away from a critter hole she wanted for herself; it might have been another larger animal lurking in the brush.
We picked Abby up early this morning from the clinic. I know she’ll recover quickly and adapt; I’ve seen plenty of one-eyed dogs. Still, I’m sick over it: For her pain and trauma, for the loss of her pretty little face, and the way she turned her one remaining eye on me this morning and moaned, searching for something I didn’t have.