this is my favorite story about heroes in a long time. My friend Neshama told it to me last week, and I have been thinking about it over and over. I savor it. It's like a Lifesaver tucked in my cheek for when my mouth is dry. It's about Neshama's regal little granddaughter Akela, who is 4 years old. Her face is big and has a rising moon quality, as it is round and fair, and she has huge brown eyes that take so much in. She is a wonderful mix of toughness and fragility on sturdy little legs, with a quality of attention and seriousness that -- as you will see -- also trips her up. She's very thoughtful, very composed and canny. She has shoulder-length golden locks that are really brown, but she tosses them as if they were golden, and she says that they are, and so we do, too.
From the very beginning, while still in her parents' arms, whenever she would see an animal, almost any animal -- see fur and movement -- she would clutch whoever held her and try to climb that person like a tree. Dogs were the worst. Maybe it was the cavernous red wetness of the mouth, those big sharp teeth, or maybe it was the unpredictability, the sheer animalness of the dog. Maybe it was that dogs are so in-your-face, and when you're so young, your face is so small and many dogs' faces are so big, just about big enough for your head to fit in.
When she saw a dog coming, her eyes went blank with terror. Then the agitation began, and the grief, and the panic -- the loud panic. Akela's parents couldn't go anywhere without anxiety, not window-shopping in Oakland, where they live, not shopping, not to parties, without it always feeling like a little stroll through the Mekong Delta.
And everyone always insisted that they had just the right dog to help Akela break through. Or they insisted that Akela's parents should get a puppy. And they had just the right puppy. But by this time, her parents had also had twins, a boy and a girl, and so here was her mother already surrounded by puppies. Akela was 3 at the time, and often there was no extra set of arms to pick her up. The world had been completely out of balance before -- just two parents and her against all those dogs -- but the babies truly signalled that the world had gone mad. Her terrors grew worse.
Finally her parents took her to a talking doctor. Akela loved her. She was someone who paid undivided attention to her, and listened. She helped her with the world. The talking doctor understood all sorts of interesting things about Akela, like how she secretly felt about the new twins, over whom she doted. And she gave her parents, who are not religious, a great faith that if they helped her to be brave one dog at a time, the whole universe would shift gently, and that tiny shift would be enough for her terror to be transformed.
The talking doctor taught her to watch a dog approach and say to herself, "Here is a dog; and it will pass." Every time she saw a dog nearby, she held her breath but did not disappear quite so far into the bunker of held breath because she was also talking softly to herself. She was whispering, "It will pass." She did not rise up newly healed but, flanked by her parents, she got a little rest here and there from all that had so scared her. Incrementally -- a quarter-inch here, half an inch there -- she began to make detente with the fearful red toothy place inside.
Then, on the Fourth of July, her grandmother had a barbeque out at the farm compound in the town where she lives, which is a very eccentric '60s kind of place. "King of Hearts" meets "Easy Rider." Lots of artists and writers, lots of former trust-fund radicals. The grandmother lives in the big farmhouse in a ring of smaller houses, cottages and shacks. It all looks as my son said once, a little broken.
The people who live at the farm and many of their friends came by in the afternoon, after the annual town parade, for the barbecue. Neshama had told people to leave their dogs at home or at least in the car, but the day was hot and besides, some of the people who live at the farm have dogs, and the dogs found ways to sneak outside. So there were dogs. Akela looked out at them grimly from the upstairs window.
A friend brought along the man she was dating -- who was also a psychiatrist, whom everyone liked a lot -- but he brought along his huge, white, well-behaved dog. The psychiatrist sized up the situation and said to Akela's parents, "I think you want to resolve this situation once and for all! This dog loves children, and children love this dog!"
The grandmother tells me that the dog was white as a cloud and almost as big. It had a red mouth, lots of teeth, bright eyes.
Her parents and her grandparent said the most amazing thing to the psychiatrist: They said they were doing it their own way, dog by dog, keeping Akela company each time so she could practice being braver. Then they said that everyone had to put their dogs away because now they were really missing Akela.
Can you even imagine such parents?
After a long while Akela came down to the yard hugging her mother tightly and whispering, "I'm scared." The babies raced around happily. Akela sat tentatively in various people's arms, and scanned the bushes out of which dogs might -- but didn't -- come tearing. Gradually she began to relax.
One of the people who lives at the barn went and got his rabbit, which was in a cage. The babies, who were now about a year old, were enchanted. The rabbit's owner lured it out with a cob of corn, this great shy lop-earred rabbit, and the twins cheered. Akela watched skeptically. Someone asked her if she wanted to try to touch it. She studied it for a while. After a very long minute, she reached out one finger, as if forced to stick it into an electric socket, and touched the rabbit. She touched the fur on its back, and nothing bad happened. She was pleased, in her quiet, firm, Queen Victoria way.
Then the party went on and everyone had lots of beer and stopped paying such careful attention, and one man's dog got out. The dog's name is Rudi Kazootie, and he's a little rat dog, black and white, cute in a homely way -- maybe some kind of terrier, the grandmother thinks, with an overshot jaw, buggy eyes and no tail. As soon as Akela saw it, she said firmly, "I want to go home." But she was sitting in someone's lap, who just sat quietly. The dog's owner, her favorite uncle, Robert, said, "Look at that silly dog!" Rudi Kazootie is so homely it's endearing; he's a real vaudevillian's dog, the dog of a tummler, who stirs everyone up and makes them feel like they're on vacation. Rudi was eating a sparerib that had fallen to the ground. His head disappeared, tucked down against his rib as he ate, and because he has no tail, he looked like a football.
And this was not so frightening to Akela.
The twins couldn't get enough of him, gaping at him, patting him. Then someone thought to ask Akela, "Do you want to do it too?"
After a long moment, Akela reached out the one finger, her forefinger, like God touching Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and touched the dog on the back. Everyone stopped what he or she was doing and cheered. She was holding her breath. Then someone asked, "Do you want to do it again?" And she did; she touched him eight more times.
Robert gave her an old photograph of Rudi for her to keep. "You can show it to your friends," he said, "and tell them you touched him 10 times."
"I will put it in my jewelry box," she said after a while. It is filled with jewels of plastic and glass and a swimming medal, which she won at her lessons for getting into the water. People walked by beaming at her with admiration, as if she had just hit their team's winning home run. Then it was late, time to go inside, and the kids got a bath and everything was very ordinary again. People wandered by the tub and said to Akela, "You touched a dog!" and each time she replied in her matter-of-fact way, "Yes, I did."
Everyone was rubber-legged with fatigue and effort, but buoyant too, and none of the children fought or cried, which is, for all intents and purposes, with three tired children under the age of 5, at the end of a very long day, theologically speaking, a state of grace.