Rest Well, Buddy Fuzz

Written Thursday, April 20, 2023

Content Warning: pet loss, relationship abuse, various illness, processing grief.

This is not an entry I was expecting to write.

But sometimes, memories take a while to surface. Sometimes, we need a while before we can let go of certain kinds of pain.

I met Thor in September of 2014. He was a large, black and white mottled Alaskan Malamute - 54 kilos (120 pounds) of excited, energetic, loving dog. Standing on his hind legs, he could put his front paws on my shoulders and look me in the eyes. We loved to "dance," even though we could only to it sparingly to avoid hurting his hips and back (not to mention terrifying other people who weren't as keen on waltzing with a woof).

We bonded instantly, the very first time we met, in an open pasture field used by a kennel facility in the area. I was being evaluated by a rescue organization that worked with Malamutes, finding them new homes and new lives.

Like most rescues, Thor carried his fair share of trauma. So did I - although I didn't quite understand that, at the time.

All I knew was there was this intimidatingly massive pile of fur and life that looked at me - someone he had never even seen before - and decided I was safe.

I knew I wanted a dog. I knew I wanted a Malamute, even. I was looking for something specific - after seven years on a truly staggering array of psychiatric medication, I was slowly beginning to feel like maybe I had some control over my life. I wanted to prove to myself that I could handle actual companionship. That I could live well enough to share my life with another.

My psychiatrist strongly encouraged all this, although she was (understandably) taken aback when I announced I wanted to rescue a Malamute. Therapy dogs don't usually come in large, high-maintenance, active breeds. And Malamutes are infamously among the highest-maintenance dogs there are.

Someone from the rescue agency came by, one summer evening in 2014, to look at my home and talk to me for a little bit about getting a Malamute. He decided I was a great candidate and told me the group would get in touch when they had dogs for me to meet.

As it turned out, I met exactly one.

We were introduced in that meadow field, a way to give him safe space to decide if he wanted to interact with me, and how much. We managed a very cursory sniff-intro before his classic Mal energy took hold. He ran circles through the grass for a few minutes, enjoying his freedom. After a good stretch, he wandered back over to me.

I knelt to say hi, and he sniffed a bit. The first tentative pets - always from below the chin first, to show him I wasn't interested in controlling or scaring him.

And then he flopped over on his side, legs flailing in the air, and fixed me with an unmistakable stare - give me belly rubs, human.

It was an auspicious beginning, and a ritual that became a part of my life for the next four and a half years. Chase Thor. Wear him out. Belly rubs.

Good boy, buddy fuzz.

I brought Thor home on a Friday afternoon - September 19, 2014. It gave us a weekend to settle in with each other before I had to return to work the following Monday. He was slow, cautious, tentative - exploring new circumstances after a series of ordeals that were undoubtedly confusing and stressful.

I'll never forget the first sound I heard him make. We had just arrived at home for the very first time, and he was gradually starting to move around the living room. He found the couch, first; I patted the cushion to indicate he was welcome to curl up there. It took some gentle patience, but he eventually took a very hesitant hop up onto the surface - and let out a tiny squeal of pure delight.

The couch became a fixture of Thor's life. It didn't take long for him to feel comfortable leaping onto it from a full-on sprint, coming from somewhere else in the house. He learned to bury toys under the cushions to come back and find later. Within a few weeks, the couch stopped being a piece of human furniture. It was Thor's, now.

The first time I left him alone for more than a few minutes, he searched the house for something that smelled like me (a very nice pair of studio headphones, as it turned out), dragged his treasure back to the couch, and nuzzled and licked it until I came back.

The headphones were totally destroyed by this, of course, but it was a powerful reminder of how much he wanted me around. Over time, he kept finding ways to show it - ways that were often confusing and stressful for me, but that I learned to understand as his own language.

You're a good human, and I like being here with you. I'm your buddy fuzz.

It didn't take long for Thor to live up to his reputation as a Malamute. I found out, during the course of the adoption process, that he'd been surrendered from his previous home because they couldn't get him to stop chasing the horses.

True to form, he always wanted to roam free. Even the comparatively luxurious yard of my suburban home was hardly enough. I realized quite soon that there was no way I could come home from work often enough to let him out of the house and take him for a walk; he needed, at the very least, free access to come and go on his own terms.

I had a friend-of-a-friend, who had experience as a general contractor, come by and kick around some ideas. We settled on cutting a hole in the dining room wall - a rather large hole, big enough for a hulking dog like Thor to dart through on a whim. It opened into a small lean-to that a previous resident had tacked onto the outside wall of the house, and from there into the yard.

Thor began his relationship with the dog door in much the same way as he'd been approaching everything else so far - slowly, tentatively, cautiously. But within a few hours, he gained confidence, charging back and forth through the heavy burlap flap over the opening. Outside, at the slightest hint of a bird or squirrel to chase; back inside, to get a drink and maybe visit the couch again.

All was well, for a time. Run free, buddy fuzz.

Eventually, the yard ran out of excitement and interest for Thor. He soon realized there were plenty of sounds and smells from beyond the fence-line - things he couldn't see, but was very curious about.

I continued to have to work, often long days. Even coming home over lunch wasn't enough to keep him occupied, and I couldn't even do that consistently. I lived alone, which meant most of the time, Thor was too. Being a very smart dog, bred to stay active and working, Thor got bored easily. And so, like many Mals with not enough to keep them thinking, Thor began to dig.

In my quests to figure out how to keep him from tunneling under the fence, I spoke with the rescue agency. They suggested a common tactic: a low-power, small-livestock electric fence. A small, bare wire, run along the wooden fence-line near the ground; not enough to cause any real pain, but enough to be a surprise to any enterprising Malamute trying to dig a hole under the fence itself.

The very first time Thor encountered the wire, it did the job all too well. His nose brushed the metal just long enough to catch a short pulse of electric charge, and he certainly left the fence-line alone after that. But the howl of shock and betrayal that he let out, that one and only time, nearly broke my heart. I came damn close to ripping the entire setup back down after that - shaken by how much I felt like I'd hurt this wonderful dog who had trusted me, sickened by the idea of scaring him like that. I held my resolve only because I was afraid of what other harm might befall him if he continued to be able to escape into the nearby streets.

Setting up the fence was an immense project, well beyond something I was prepared to do alone. As it happened, it was the spring of 2015, and I had just met someone who had expressed willingness to help get it set up. I'd met him on a business trip, a few weeks prior; during that trip, I'd tried to have Thor stay with a dog-sitter in the area, who proved to be even less successful in keeping Thor contained than I was. I despaired of using the services of strangers to look after such a headstrong dog, but I had someone who would help me set up the electric fence, so I finally took the plunge.

It was the first time this other person had come to my house. I didn't know enough, then, to recognize what he was doing, or to predict the nightmare I was about to embark upon by allowing him near me and my life. Thor hated him, from the very beginning; but then, he wasn't ever shy about disliking Thor, either.

The full story of his overlap with my life does not belong here. I may tell it someday, and I might not. But he came into my life, then, and as much as I wish to permanently forget that man and everything he did to me, he's a part of the story of Thor, too.

And so I ran the electric fence. Maybe you'll be safe now, buddy fuzz.

Four more years flew by. Hikes, car rides, training, tricks, puzzles. a couple more occasional escape stories and adventures, and a stressful and prolonged side-chapter involving a series of allergy treatments for Thor - but mostly just a very happy dog, and a very happy me.

Well, happy as far as I could be. Or I thought I was happy. I certainly thought I should have been.

The man I'd met in 2015 moved into my home too, not long after. He never made friends with Thor, in any of those four years. He often expressed resentment and disgust for Thor, complained about how I spent time with the dog instead of him, whined about the way the dog door's open flap let in cold air (or hot air, depending on the season), constantly grouched about bits of dirt and shed dog hair on the floors. He insisted on locking the bedroom door to keep Thor out, even though Thor and I had established a morning ritual of him poking me with his cold, wet nose at five in the morning to remind me to get up.

There was plenty more going wrong, between the two humans in the house, over those years. I have no doubt that Thor, on some level, knew this, insofar as a dog can know such things.

For the most part, Thor avoided the man and hung around with me, and it seemed ok. We still had our good times, and plenty of them. He still loved trying to solve the puzzles I made for him out of scrap wood and hinges, collapsible boxes that concealed treats inside - but only if he could figure out how to poke the flaps to make the whole thing open up.

I wasn't happy.

I told myself I should have been. The man living with me certainly told me I should have been. I had everything I was supposed to have - a stable job, a home, a dog, a domestic partner.

I was fucking miserable.

The man grew tired of me, and began to spend less and less time around me and Thor, searching for new victims to abuse and hurt and exploit. I did not understand it at the time. I just felt a strange, empty ache - wishing he wasn't always gone, dreading the moment when he eventually would wander back home.

I began to collapse. My health degraded, at first slowly, and then suddenly. All the progress I'd made - physically, emotionally, mentally - that had led up to me seeking out Thor seemed to have gone away.

In the first few days of January 2019, there was a huge wind storm overnight. Lightning struck a tree in the back yard and split it in half. The wooden fence was utterly obliterated. The electric wire shorted out in some bit of debris and never worked correctly again after that.

I awoke, the next morning, to see the fence tattered and pieces of wood littering the yard. It was a clear shot from the back porch to anywhere an excitable, adventure-prone Mal could possibly want to go. Utter freedom.

I was prepared for the worst - but Thor was there, curled up on the porch, huddled against the sliding glass door and looking completely shell-shocked.

I often wondered, after that night, why he didn't bolt. He'd never been shy about taking the opportunity to roam free before. But he didn't walk through the dog door, either - just a couple of short meters away, an access to the safety and warmth of Inside, one he used dozens of times in a given day. He was soaked through to the bone by the rain, just smushed into the patio door like it was the only thing he understood in the world anymore.

It took me a long time to understand that he'd stayed where he was because it was the safest thing he could do.

I couldn't comprehend this, until long after he and I had parted ways. But I, too, know what it is to face something so incomprehensible that I am frozen into place, stuck in a suboptimal situation, falling back on the strangest scraps of solidity in a desperate attempt to survive an experience that defies everything there is within me.

I'm sorry, Thor. I'm just glad you're still here. Stay safe, buddy fuzz.

I've told this bit of the story before - the storm, the aftermath, the unspeakably fraught weeks of trying desperately to get a new fence installed and take care of Thor while he was effectively both house-bound and deeply traumatized.

Or at least, I've told parts of it.

I've mentioned how I was sick, and how that complicated my efforts to tend to Thor in an already-messy situation. How he got sick, too, and things got even worse. I've even given voice to the final aftermath of those awful, fucking irredeemable months.

But never the entirety of it.

The truth is, there was even more horror going on than just the struggle to hang on to my fuzzy friend, trying to nurse the both of us back to health amidst a logistical nightmare.

The other human in the story played his own role, too.

I know now, after years of hindsight and recovery, that none of this would have happened without him, and that the worst of it was entirely the result of his actions in those few months.

That's not to say he planned or orchestrated any of it; he never quite had the mind for that level of scheming. But he did take advantage of every chance he got, especially that winter, to try to hurt me.

He saw the destruction of the fence, and used it as an excuse to bully me even more about Thor. He pretended to help with the repairs and even occasionally take Thor for walks - but only when I was literally bed-ridden with a fever, utterly shattered physically. By all rights I should have been in the hospital for much of January of 2019, but he insisted that I be the one to walk Thor, multiple times a day, sub-freezing weather and everything else be damned.

Every now and then, he'd lift a finger to "assist," but only as an excuse to lambast me even harder for my struggling and my failures. He stopped even bothering to disguise his resentment and disgust for Thor. I quit asking him to take the dog for walks after I saw him hitting and choking Thor with the leash, barely half a block away.

I spent more time at the local vet clinic than at my job, in those weeks, desperately trying to find a way to help Thor recover from the ordeal of the storm and his own sicknesses that followed. Without a repaired fence, I had to resort to making Thor sleep in a giant crate inside - the only thing that could hold him, prevent him from trying to run out of the dog door and into the yard, and on to who-knows-where his curiosity might take him in the middle of the night.

My imaginings of hell will forever be haunted by the sound of Thor, ramming his head into the metal mesh sides of that crate in frustration and panic, over and over again.

I slept in the crate with him, more than once, trying to help him endure a situation I wasn't sure I was able to survive myself.

The fence got rebuilt, but after that, nothing could deter Thor. He didn't even bother waiting until the house was empty to try and dig out under the newly installed perimeter. I never got a chance to try the electric wire again, or any other protective measures, for that matter.

After several consecutive days of picking him up from Animal Control, I was completely undone.

The man who lived here certainly encouraged me to give up. Over and over. I got to the point where I'd try to leave the house, just get in the car and drive to nowhere for an hour or two, just to get away from him.

And then there was no more resisting. I had nothing left.

He'd been planting the idea, since sometime back when the January storm had obliterated the old fence, that maybe Thor needed to go. Maybe I should give him up. Send him back to the rescue agency.

After a month of hell - most of which he created - I couldn't fight him anymore.

And so I agreed. He called the rescue group, had a representative come out. He stood over me, not even hiding his gloating, as I signed the paperwork that surrendered Thor back to the organization that had brought him into my life, four and a half years earlier.

I fucked up my own signature as I sobbed my way through the moment.

Thor knew something was wrong. He always knew. The pure scream of anguish he let out, from his heavily-sedated stupor in the crate, will linger in my heart until the day I die.

The rescue agency couldn't take him, not that night. They had no way to transport him. But they had a contact, far out of town, who could come part-way to pick up Thor in the morning. Someone just needed to meet them and make the handoff.

I was in no condition to get up off the floor, let alone drive a huge and terrified dog a long distance to meet a total stranger. I couldn't see how it could be done.

But the man I had let into my home was not afflicted with grief, or illness, or exhaustion. He almost seemed to have planned for this in advance. Knowing what I know now, he very well might have.

He sent me off to a nearby motel to spend the night. He'd take Thor to the drop-off in the morning, and then I'd come home. He made me use his car, claiming that mine was the only one big enough to transport Thor (but they were the same size vehicles; really he just didn't want to clean up the dog hair). He had some flimsy bullshit excuse about it being easier on me that way; and in my condition, I couldn't do anything to protest.

So I handed the tear-spotted papers to the agency rep, piled myself into this man's car without a word, and disappeared into a numb silence in the motel room.

And after all this time, the part that still rips a chunk across my soul is that I never even got to actually say goodbye.

I never got to say goodbye, buddy fuzz.

I never saw Thor again.

The months that followed will always be a blur to me. Thor was gone. I slowly recovered my physical health, but everything else seemed to be permanently broken.

I staggered through a round of layoffs at my job, barely even aware of what was happening, too overwhelmed by everything else to really feel relief that I hadn't been fired, or to feel enough resolve to properly take care of the team I was left in charge of afterwards.

I finally realized enough of what was going on in my personal life to recognize what was going on with the man I'd first invited into my home to help me build a protective fence for Thor.

It took a couple of years, even after that, to fully understand the depth of abuse and violence he had subjected me to, in the four years he'd been in my home. But that March, in 2019, I told him it was over. He was no longer welcome. I did not love him, and probably never really had, and he needed to get the fuck out. Forever.

I didn't have the heart to try to find Thor after that. I did contact the rescue agency, once, and learned that he'd been placed in a new home and was doing well. But by then, I'd begun untangling knot after knot after horrific knot of my own past - and my own identity. I knew that the name I'd used with the agency, when I first met Thor, was not my own, and I would never answer to it again; but I wasn't ready to tell them about any of it. So I let Thor go, reassured that at least he'd found someplace new. Someone new.

I fantasized a lot, for a few years, about what it might be like to try and find him again. To go explain to some utter strangers that we'd shared a past. To see if he would still recognize me - looking different, sounding different, smelling different.

Would he know it was me? Or would he just see a strange new person? Would I get the greeting he always offered strangers - enthusiastic sniffs and maybe a leap up for a hug? Or would he know it was me? Would he reveal that he'd somehow kept track of me, through all that change?

Would he see the new me, and let out that squeak of excitement and approval, and roll over for belly rubs, now that I could finally give them as myself?

I wish I could have actually met you, buddy fuzz.

I did not plan to write this.

I've remembered all of these things before, in bits and pieces, now and then. I've felt all the ache, the pain, the grief, the mourning, that has flooded back as I've struggled to assemble this stream of words.

But sometimes, memories take a while to surface. Sometimes, we need a while before we can let go of certain kinds of pain.

I did not know, until I was half-way done with this piece, lost in the jumble of happy memories of excited barks and a sniffing nose and an eager tug on a leash at some random smell out in the forest. Lost in the stabbing recollection of every whimper of hurt and confusion, every look of pain in those gigantic brown eyes, every moment that felt like something had gone wrong and I'd hurt or betrayed this giant, fuzzy ball of life and love that had only ever wanted to trust me and be near me.

I did not know how much was left to feel, how much was left to remember.

How much I needed to put all of this somewhere besides in the deepest recesses of my own soul.

How much I've been waiting to forgive myself for things that were never even my fault.

How much I loved that dog, and how much it will always hurt that he's gone, and how much I will forever cherish the time we did get to share - as complicated and messy and fraught and imperfect as it was.

I ran across a stranger, earlier this week, who - as it turns out - could use some toys and treats and supplies for their own Malamute friend. I still have a box of things, leftover reminders of my suddenly-aborted relationship with Thor, just waiting for a moment when I can pass them along.

And in opening that box back up again, getting ready to tape it closed for the last time and put a shipping label on it, I realized I wasn't quite done with my own story of Thor.

He's almost certainly truly gone, now. We never knew his age when I first met him, back in 2014, but he wasn't exactly young. And given the typical life-span of malamutes, and the fact that the rescue agency no longer carries his records, there's really only one conclusion.

I will never see Thor again. I have given him his last belly rub he'd ever get from me. And I didn't even get to do it as myself.

I will never know anything else about what happened to Thor, after that damnable night from hell when he was stolen from me, taken out of my world forever, without my consent, under unthinkable duress.

But I do know that he will always run free, in my memory.

I will never forget the dog that chased horses, and I choose to believe he never needed to see, hear, or smell me as I truly am in order to know who I always was.

I love you forever, Thor. You never heard the name Amelia, but you always knew it was me. That's what that first belly rub was for. You knew.

And now I do, too.

Rest well, buddy fuzz.