The week I returned from my first trip to Auschwitz, I felt like my soul traded places with my skin. There was no barrier between my mind, will and emotions and the rest of the world—I was fully exposed and I felt everything. Walking through Auschwitz was like walking through mud with a helmet on my head: every step was met with some resistance as moving forward was not easy against the blows of story, sights and sounds. Every new piece of information seemed to stand reluctantly on the sides of my cheeks in a struggle not to enter my ears. Against this tension, I waded through history and devastation. Thus, when I returned to the United States, I was tired, exposed and different.
During this first week I was taking a walk through the little town in which I live, Warrensburg. Missouri. As I tread the familiar ground, I noted that the lush, green fields and tall, old trees that mark the landscape of my home looked similar to those in Auschwitz. And yet, they were so different: I felt like they were “happy trees” painted by Bob Ross, made of oil pastels affording them the freedom to melt and roll off the canvas should they choose to do so. The fields seemed fluid, like they could flow back and forth across the pavement of the street. They seemed liquid . . . neither the picket fences nor the sidewalks could keep them in their place if they decided they wanted to move. This was in contrast, of course, to the way the lush greens and browns of Auschwitz seemed to be drawn into place—static—inside the boundaries of barbed wire, steel and wooden guard towers as high as the clouds. The environment in Auschwitz felt fixed, stuck, and drawn-on like lines on a map: claustrophobic.
It was amidst the ebb and flow of memories between the concentration camps and my familiar surroundings that I noticed a little beagle mix dog following me on my walk. I was about one mile into a 4-mile journey when the clicking of four poorly groomed paws joined the sound of my own two feet. Hearing my fellow cardio enthusiast I stopped, turned around and said, “Hello.” The little dog walked right up to my shoes and leaned his body into the front sides of my shins. I quickly rewarded his trust by spending a few moments scratching his ears and smoothing out his fur. As the moments drew to a close I stood up, wished the dog a good day and continued along my familiar path. The little beagle mix decided he would join me and he followed me all the way home: a 3-mile walk.
By the time we arrived at my apartment I had named him, promised him food and water and assured him that I would ask my husband if we could keep him. As promised, I provided him with food and water, and I brought his case before my husband, who also loves animals but who preferred we not bring a dog into our lives. His final judgment was simple, “Please bring him to the shelter so he is safe. Then, we can talk about it.” My husband is the rational, circumspect one in our merry duo, especially when it comes to bringing animals into our home. If it were up to me, I would house at least ¼ of the animal kingdom in our two-bedroom apartment.
So, the little beagle mix and I got into my car and we headed toward the shelter. Immediately upon our arrival, a woman behind the desk said, “Oh boy! There’s Eisenhower, again!” Apparently, my little workout partner had a reputation for escaping his backyard and visiting the shelter, much to his parents’ chagrin. I was both relieved and a little bummed out to know that the young man known as Eisenhower was already taken.
Then, a series of seemingly innocent words poured from my mouth, “May I take a look at your other dogs while I am here?” Fatefully, the woman responded, “Sure!”
As I opened the door to the large room in which the dogs were housed, my senses were immediately assaulted: the smell of dog urine and feces, the sound of 50 different voices barking their loudest version of “TAKE ME,” the feel of the slippery concrete floor that had just been mopped in vane, the taste of my own sweat running down my face and past my lips, and then . . . the sight. The sight of one dog in the last kennel on the right. She was clearly a black lab mix and she stood in stark contrast to the other tenants who were rattling their cages all around her. She stood in stillness, backed up against the corner of her cage with her head lowered toward the ground.
I stood in front of her chain links for several minutes, watching her. Every few seconds she would lift her head toward the sky, sniff the air around her and when she could sense my presence she would let out a feeble growl that sounded more like a question than a warning. Her cage was relatively clean and I wondered why she hadn’t yet eaten any of her food.
As the dogs around us grew slightly more subdued—probably due to the boredom my stillness thrust upon them—I kneeled down in front of the black lab mix’s steely home. “Hi there. My name is Jill.” She growled in distaste, either for my name or the fact that I was kneeling in her space. “Don’t worry, I am a nice lady,” I told her. I knew better than to put my fingers inside the cage of an unknown dog, especially one whose eyes appeared to be somehow damaged. Her left eye had a blue tint over it—it almost looked like a marble—while the right eye bore total blackness. “Can you see me?” I asked. She lifted her nose into the air once more and then backed as far into the corner as possible.
Suddenly something happened. I began to cry. My mind began to race: fences, barbed wire, sickness, flies, disease, death, prison, lostness, powerlessness, loneliness . . . abandonment. There was something about the absolute helplessness that I had been experiencing during my research and subsequent travel to Auschwitz that suddenly fell through my eyes and rolled down my cheeks right there in front of the black lab’s bowed head. I wanted to save her.
I stood up and told her, “I will be back for you.”
I walked through the chorus of requests that once again began to swell around me until I found the woman behind the desk. “Can you tell me about the black lab who seems to have a problem with her eyes?” She answered quickly, “She’s blind. She’s been here for 10 and a half months. She’s been on the kill list this whole time but we just can’t kill her. She’s had enough trouble in life.”
I leaned in a little closer, “Where did she come from?” The woman behind the counter told me that she had been brought to the rescue along with 20 other dogs that were discovered at a woman’s house who was not only hoarding things but also animals. The black lab was the only dog left from that group as all the others had already been adopted or euthanized. The woman continued the story, “That dog lived under the porch and at some point she contracted a sickness in her eyes that was never treated. It was the lack of care that caused her complete loss of sight.”
“So, she’s totally blind?” I wondered aloud.
“Yes, ma’am,” she confirmed.
When I arrived back home I tried to tell my husband about the black lab mix I had just met but I had to keep starting over. I couldn’t stop crying. My husband, being the kind-hearted and supportive man that he is—who didn’t want a dog—asked me if he could have a couple days to think about whether we should bring her into our home. My response to his request was short, “That is just fine. But can you just come meet her today?”
About 12 hours later, the black lab walked through our front door and into her forever home. We named her Duchess.
Duchess spent the better part of her first two weeks in our home standing with her side pushed up against a wall in our living room. She did not wag her tail. She did not know how to climb stairs. She did not know what treats were or how to get up on the couch, and she certainly did not know whom to trust. She was quiet and still and listening.
Today, Duchess lives up to her royal title. With the help of her sister, Gracie, whom we adopted about two months after Duchess’ arrival, she now knows how to play, run up and down stairs, she loves treats and bones and her spot on the couch. She lives a cozy, spoiled, cushy life and she loves every minute of it. Duchess follows me around everywhere I go and if she isn’t exactly sure where I am, she will walk the entire room until her nose bumps into my leg. Once she finds me, her tail wags, she spins in a circle and then falls into a ball at my feet.
Often I look at Duchess quietly resting or busily chewing on one of her toys and I remember the journey she took from being a neglected animal with no name who lived under a porch to becoming a member of our family. I am grateful for Eisenhower who led me to the shelter where I would find Duchess, and I am grateful for my husband who agreed to welcome her into our home. I am grateful for the lessons Duchess teaches me every day: lessons about courage, patience, laughter and contentment. Mostly, I am grateful that she no longer lives in a cage with her head pointed toward the ground.
Now, Duchess takes walks with me. She knows where all the best potty spots are and she holds her head up high. She enjoys the journey and she loves coming home.