I wish I’d loved my dog more: Teenage nostalgia, first loves, and pining for the wrong past

I often want to relive the past, knowing what I do now. But the person who should live smarter is me right now

Topics: Books, David Shafer, Parenthood, Nostalgia, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Honduras,

I wish I'd loved my dog more: Teenage nostalgia, first loves, and pining for the wrong pastA photo of the author with his dog.

I wish I had appreciated it more isn’t the kind of self-criticism that can be reverse-engineered into actionable advice. You would need to walk around appreciating things more. Which is fine and well for unbusy Buddhists, but not for me.

I should practice. Right now the janky jangle of an ice cream truck is drifting in my window and I can also hear my 3-year-old daughter splashing gleefully in a plastic kiddie pool in the backyard. My wife has put our baby boy down for a nap on our bed; he sleeps in the zephyr of an oscillating fan. A week ago, our old dog was given days to live; there is a sarcoma running riot inside the soft brown barrel of her body. But she hangs on, because we’ve started giving her rotisserie chicken for dinner. I’m in a sweltering attic, writing this. Let’s check back in 20 years; will it seem then that I appreciated today enough? This is the sadness at the heart of things – that we left the fresh fruit unfinished; that we did not suck and savor its every fiber, down to the stone, down to the pith.

When I was 19 years old, I spent three months working at a Moravian mission hospital in a town called Ahuas, in the easternmost part of Honduras, a place North Americans may know as the Miskito Coast. There are no roads that will bring you to La Mosquitia; it is accessible only by air and water.

I arrived by air. Immediately, a serious and embarrassing mistake became clear: The doctors of the Clinica Evanglica Morava – there were three – had been expecting a medical resident; what debouched from the single-engine plane was a 19-year-old EMT on a gap year, a teenager who said he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up.

Some of the confusion might be explained by poor communications between Ahuas and the outside world – there was only the hospital’s radiophone and mail that reached the post irregularly. But the more likely cause was my patron in this arrangement, a dashing and dynamic civil engineer who kept homes in multiple Latin American cities. (His passport was thick with extra pages; he drove an open-top Jeep; he knew people everywhere, and everyone he met greeted him heartily. I was in awe.) He had arranged the hospital internship for me as a favor to my father; they were old friends. I suspect that he may have left the matter of my qualifications somewhat vague.



Whatever the cause of the confusion, I had enough sense to be embarrassed by the situation. After a couple of days during which I could see the hospital staff wondering what to do with me, I presented myself to the chief and I offered to go home. I think he was impressed, because after that they did find work for me. I cleaned rooms, I watched children and I assisted the physical therapist, lifting and handling young men who were partially paralyzed as a result of decompression sickness, rubbing oil into their inert limbs. (The only commercial industry in La Mosquitia is diving for lobsters. Most divers receive no training in scuba, and many are injured. The hospital operated one of two hyperbaric chambers in Honduras. That is to say, I operated one of the two hyperbaric chambers in Honduras.)

I listened closely, I took instruction, and so the doctors let me do more. I helped to deliver babies. I was allowed in the operating room, and then I was allowed to assist; to read numbers off the indicated gauge, to pull traction for the obstetric surgeon as he delivered stillborn twins to save the mother’s life. One night I heard a strange and beautiful sound that went on for hours, and only learned in the morning that it was ritual keening for deceased kin. I traveled into the interior with a visiting dental team; we went up a wide brown river, stopping at the sparse and separated villages along its banks. The dentists examined the mouths of hundreds of children every day; I carried their trunks of equipment from the longboat to the shore. At night we slept on the floors of one-room schoolhouses and I heard the grunts and roars of howler monkeys and, once, the growl of a jaguar. I contracted malaria, and hosted an intestinal parasite. On Sundays, I went to the clapboard church and tried to sing hymns in Miskito.

Do these count as memories? Even to me, the one who made them, they have the polished quality of an alibi. They are the stories that I told when I came home, and through repetition, they have become my Official Record of the events, because they show me in a certain light.

But there was a slim journal that I kept at the time – gone now, I think, or not recently seen anyway – that I know would throw light from a different angle. It would remind me that I wanted to leave. I was at the time deeply in love with a girl in Berkeley, California, and I was counting the days until I could be with her. I did a lot of chin-ups to prepare. I didn’t like the food. I seem to have cared a great deal about the clothes I had brought to La Mosquitia. (A pristine Knicks cap ruins the few photos I have of myself in-country, and I insisted on wearing – go on, write it – Tevas, those sandals then de rigueur for hippie preppies. Likely I can blame the intestinal parasite on the Tevas.) And though I believe I was helpful around the hospital, it seems unlikely that I was net helpful. The doctor who decided to let me stay was essentially taking on a liability, a keen but unskilled young man who needed to be fed, housed and kept from death, and who would take more from the place than he would give.

Perhaps I should be kinder to the 19-year-old me – his self-awareness deficits and his sartorial choices. Is there any way around the fact that our brains buzz from the inside, mostly engaged with sending out little worrying parties into the very near future? (Though I’ll say that the pining for that girlfriend need not even be forgiven – she was a great first love and I was lucky to have her to pine for.)

But give me a time machine and – right after I undo some of my more egregious mistakes – I would like to shazam myself back to 1992, to that tiny town on a slow river on the baking coast of a remote land, so that I could take myself by the shoulders, and shake myself, and say: You may think that it keeps going like this, but it does not. This will be the adventure apex of your life; this is the most exotic place you will ever be, will ever have been. Dial every sense up to 10. And take off that stupid hat.

It has cost me a week to write this, and the old dog has died. It was the opposite of sudden – she lived longer than they told me she would; we took her camping one last time. But when she began to bleed we called a vet who came to our home and did the deed here. And so my true friend went slack in my arms, only the second time in my life that I have seen the flame go out. It was a death not only foretold, but decided upon, and ordered in like Thai food. And still it came too soon. I did not give her enough affection in her last years, when she got so lumpy and dandery. Even less once the children came along, though she accepted her demotion with grace and kindness, and would lie close beside my daughter and happily endure the rough grabs and pokes, hoping only for some dropped banana. When the rug incidents became a problem I banished her from the playroom, though I see now that the incontinence was down to the cancer, and anyway she just wanted to lie beside her newest pack mate, the baby boy, who only got to touch her soft ears once or twice. I yelled at her when she ignored my commands, though likely she was deaf; I yanked her lead when she dawdled on walks; I would not let her lick the plates in the dishwasher.

Now I would settle for a chintzier time machine, one that could bring me back six months, a year. Then I could take myself by the shoulders again but this time say: She is an excellent dog. Feed her rotisserie chicken and fling wide the playroom gate and lift her into your bed. She will be gone soon and you will wish you had appreciated her more.

That still misses the point, though, doesn’t it? The me whose shoulders I should be shaking is the right now me. The man-boy from 20 years ago living on the bend of a river in a strange and wild land is an abstraction to me, a character in a story. Maybe this is not a great sadness, or even bad news. The Honduran sojourn formed me, but probably in a manner that will forever elude my understanding – the child is father to the man and all that. No jaguar growls in my life today; I travel by minivan not bush plane; the house is dogless. I walk to the preschool, and I have a baby to bathe.

David Shafer is the author of the novel "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...