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In February, my boyfriend Aaron got us a puppy we named Cleo. He arrived at a tender 8 weeks old, all amber-colored and teddy bear-like. Cleo was a gift of life and love and licks –- the cockapoo baby Aaron promised me for completing the first draft of my memoir.
Like many new puppy parents, I basked in the newness of Cleo's presence: in the cuddly nature of his naps, in the way that he sloppily drank water, in the clumsy bounce of his walk, in the notion that everything was new to him and I was his guide. He was a dream come true, the baby of my choice.
With Cleo in my arms that first night in our home, I whispered a vow: I promise to take good care of you, to always protect you.
After a few weeks, the novelty of Cleo's presence became a norm (there's only so many doggie selfies one can Instagram) and this puppy became work, an adorable responsibility that I had to add to my overcrowded to-do list. There were the every-other-hour walks while housetraining, the changing of soiled wee wee pads, and the tug-of-war for my socks in addition to revisions for my book, multiple speeches to write, endless emails to return and friends to schedule drinks, coffee and dinner with.
With these tasks occupying my mind, I rushed out of our apartment one Saturday afternoon for Cleo's lunchtime walk. I had him cradled in my right arm and the week's recycling of magazines and Coke Zero cans in my left. Descending three flights of stairs, I basked in the impending reward of multitasking, the kind of thing that borderline Type As like myself credit to our success.
As I approached the final flight, Cleo jumped out of my arm and as I dropped the recycling in an effort to catch him, his little mouth -– the one I kissed every chance I got –- produced the most alarming sound I had ever heard. It was a shriek, a cry of discomfort, pain and shock. He began shaking there on the tile floor and looked at me, with those black button-like eyes, pleading that I make it stop.
I was powerless as I cradled him in my arms, racing up the stairs to our apartment where I called Aaron, who was out running errands.
"Baby, something bad happened," I cried into the phone, out of breath. "I'm pretty sure Cleo broke his leg. He won't stop shaking."
Within the hour, Cleo was on our vet's examination table, silent. His face was soaked with drool and the fur on his belly drenched with urine -– the side effects of trauma. As the doctor examined him, I couldn't control my tears and Aaron held me as I watched our baby, defeated and helpless.
"It's not good for you to hear him yelping as I treat him," our vet Dr. M said as he detailed Cleo's treatment: anesthesia, X-rays and a stint and cast for his hind leg. "You two go for a walk, get some coffee and come back in 45 minutes."
I didn't have the words to apologize to Cleo before we left, but I remember kissing him and feeling the sense of having failed him in a major way.
I'd broken my promise to always protect him.
Over coffee and pastries, Aaron assured me that it could've easily been him, that it wasn't that serious because Cleo didn't have to undergo surgery, and that it was an accident and accidents happen. Despite his kindness, I rolled my eyes because I was certain Cleo's injury was my fault.
"I have a confession to make," I told Aaron at the café. "I'm not sure if he jumped out of my arms. I know I keep saying he jumped because it sounds better than saying I dropped him. I was carrying too many things and he fell out of my arms. It's my fault."
Cleo came home with us that afternoon with a bright green cast in honor of St. Patrick's Day. He was inactive for two days –- just lying in his bed, only getting up to urinate and lifting his head to nibble on treats and kibble. It was a pathetic sight of my creation.
When he was finally mobile, giddily dragging his new cast along with the help of his unharmed limbs, Cleo and I were met on the street by the sympathies of our neighbors who'd asked, "Aww what happened to him?"
"Oh, he fell down the steps," I'd say, as they offered concerned empathetic nods. "But he's getting better."
But it was the rare look of judgment from strangers that stuck with me like the remnants of yesterday's red lip stain. It was just a flash of a look, one that told me I should've been more careful with him and how could I have allowed something so careless to happen to such a baby. Aaron told me I was too sensitive. Most likely what I saw was my own judgment reflected in the faces of passersby.
Often times to avoid those looks, I'd exaggerate Cleo's fall, making sure no one thought I had any fault in the incident. I wanted to camouflage my guilt. I literally masked it online as well by cropping his cast from photos or using angles that ensured no one asked about his injury through his Twitter account.
The guilt followed me for six weeks as Cleo gamely dragged his fractured limb around downtown Manhattan. When Dr. M finally cut the cast off his scrawny leg, I was able to begin releasing myself from that shame and come around to writing this essay and uncovering what Cleo's fracture taught me.
Silence in any form fuels shame, helping it build and take residence inside you. Speaking about the mistakes that we don't want others to see releases us from that burden. In the process of unpacking my shame, I've learned to slow down, to concentrate on what I'm doing now, to be present.
When I think of being present, I'm reminded of one of my favorite movie lines from Meryl Streep in "The Hours." Her character Clarissa, a do-everything-now and impeccable multi-tasker, is reflecting on a moment from her youth:
"I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn't the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then."
Cleo is the embodiment of presence. I watch him play now as if he never broke his leg. He's not dwelling on what happened to him, on the pain inflicted on him or what he has to do next. He's just there. Present. Happy. Content.
This fluffy, ever-loving being has taught me to bask in the joy of presence, in that sense of not concentrating on what I did wrong or what's coming, but on the moment that I'm living in now with him on a cast-less walk around our neighborhood.
Janet Mock is a writer at work on her memoir about womanhood, coming February 2014 from Atria/Simon & Schuster.