For thirteen and a half years, Peri was my constant companion. My husband—then a friend with uncertain possibilities—was with me when I got her as a six week old puppy from a North Dakota farm family. I knew she was the one when I picked her up and she licked me on the nose. She was mostly gray, although her floppy little ears were black and there was a heart-shaped white spot on her forehead. If that wasn’t a sign that I needed her, I don’t know what was. The child hovering over the litter of pups—about ten years old with a French braid in waist-length hair—told me at first that she wasn’t available but was contradicted by the mother. I didn’t help ease the child’s loss when I tried to console (what I thought was) her by trying to recruit (what I thought was) her for the Girl Scout troop my roommate and I had started, only to be told indignantly that HE was a BOY. Oops. I tried lamely to cover by saying I’d meant any sisters he might have could join, but he saw through me.
Despite the awkward start to our relationship, Peri proved herself the best dog I could possibly have asked for. Her name is short for Esperance—French for “Hope”—because I was battling a depression so bleak that I felt there was no real reason to be living. I had a crush on Paul, of course, but his signals were so unreadable that I’d given up on the idea that he might want to be anything more than friends. I felt alone, adrift, uncertain of anything but how little my absence would mean to the world.
That’s why I’d decided to get a dog. It was a stupid move; I was making $11,000 a year plus food stamps as an Americorps volunteer, and I didn’t know where I’d live when my year in North Dakota was up. But if I had a dog, at least I wouldn’t be alone. At least I would have SOME meaning. And I was right.
Peri’s presence was a comforting light that helped guide me through the darkness. She was a smart little dog—she almost housetrained herself, and true to her blue heeler ancestry, she heeled when I walked her without any kind of formal training. I don’t think she was a purebred heeler, but she had enough in her that that was my default description of her breed. And the name was significant because she did indeed heal me.
Over the rest of my Americorps year, Paul and I became more serious, but the year’s end left our status ambiguous. I returned to Wisconsin to take a job as an English and French teacher; Paul spent the next year travelling around the Southeast as an Americorps—NCC volunteer. Then he went to Laramie to attend Wyotech, so our separation entered its second year.
I knew I loved him, but I didn’t know how our relationship would turn out. He would occasionally write to me from Laramie explaining that he needed some money, and I would send him checks for $100, carefully scraped from my $23,000-a-year-before-taxes teacher’s salary. I thought I was being devoted and helpful, but there was always the nagging voice in my head whispering that I was being a sucker and nothing more.
This uncertainty, combined with the nightmarish frustration of trying to teach classes I’d never taught with no existing curriculum, few textbooks, and almost no experience, caused my depression to intensify. I truly wanted to die—accidentally, of course; I wouldn’t actually attempt to do it myself. Without Peri, I probably would have consciously or subconsciously gotten myself killed in car accident. I would put her in the car whenever I could because I knew that no matter how I felt about MYSELF, I would never harm my DOG.
Peri’s presence in the car, her quiet companionship, the peace of walking with her through the park—these were all things that pulled me through those two dark years. When Paul graduated from Wyotech and joined me in Wisconsin, things were still tough. It took him a long time to find a job, and my salary was hardly extravagant, and our relationship was still uncertain for a long time.
Things eventually worked out into as close to a fairy tale end as one could hope for in a mundane world. Paul and I married and had a smart, healthy, and wonderful son. We bought a house in the country south of Augusta, and we both love where we live. We went through a lot of changes, but one constant was Peri.
For thirteen and a half years, she was friend, walking companion, silent comforting presence in the night. She was near me in the morning; she knew my daily routine and would be waiting for me as I moved through the house; she would run out to greet me when I pulled up in my car after being away from home. Even if the roads were bad and a journey was particularly harrowing, I would see her eyes shining in the darkness and know that I was finally safe.
Then she was gone.