There was a time I would've rolled my eyes at the thought of someone spiffing up Fido and hauling him off to the pet supermarket to have his picture taken with Santa. I know now that it was stupid and short-sighted on my part. In my own defense - I never realized people did it for charity (not to mention fun) or I might have looked on the whole thing differently.
Fortunately, I remember exactly the moment when it all changed. It was a Sunday afternoon and I'd been hired by a local magazine to photograph a dog wedding. You read it right. A dog wedding. The wedding of a dog. To another dog. It was long before I had a dog myself. I had maintained the company of cats throughout my adulthood; in fact, there was no thought of ever having a dog and this particular assignment, I believed, would seal the deal from this point forward.
This is going to sound like I'm making it up but the bride, a Dachshund named Lucy, arrived in a horse drawn carriage. She was dressed as most brides are and her handsome beau Reno, also a Dachshund, stood with a small band of onlookers, sniffing the air as his dearly beloved arrived. Just beyond my own nose, the shutter methodically carved off frame after frame and I found myself not only looking for the perfect angle but cultivating the numerous ways by which I could effectively commit suicide.
After the ceremony, the guests enjoyed wedding cake, their canine companions - their little doggy party favors, the mother of the bride (and groom) approached me in the stable. She found me alone and chatting up her favorite horse. She thanked me for coming and asked if I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. I remember a loud humming noise in my head. I wished for some distraction, a stampede maybe, or a short-lived barn fire, but my wish wasn't granted and ever the diplomat, I drew in a deep breath and lied my ass off. The funny thing though was that when the words left my lips, it didn't feel like a lie at all.
"No, of course not," I said. "People love their animals like children. I totally understand.And, it's actually been fun."
I averted my head then and waited for the lightening bolt that would no doubt solve my suicide dilemma. I would miss my cat Louie, I thought. Louie had spent the last seven months on a death spiral of his own. Diagnosed with kidney disease, the vet had given me ample warning. She said I should enjoy my time with him and be prepared to say goodbye before the end of the year. I had said goodbye to him a number of times already, tearful and heartsick, wishing painfully for the miracle that would reverse his fortune, I told him everyday that if I could give him a kidney, I would. I meant it too. He was the animal love of my life and it was already October.
When the lightening came it wasn't exactly in the form I thought it would be. The mother of the bride spoke again. She said, "That dog [Reno] and that horse there behind you - have been with me through the darkest moments of my life. Nothing makes me happier than spending time with them. I'd do anything for them. Anything."
I got it. It all made sense. The spectacle, the funny costumes, toys, the best pet food, unbridled love and affection, even dogs themselves became symbolic of something bigger something more mature, that prior to this moment seemed quite the opposite. I was ashamed of myself but better for having realized it.
I wrote this nice woman a note after I got Stella. I thanked her and told her that she was part of the reason I decided to get a dog after all these many years. I asked if her dogs were still happily married. She assured me that they were and now each time I see her I'm reminded of that dark time in my own life, the loss of a magnificent cat on New Year's Eve, the marriage of two wiener dogs and the gift of a corn dog. My, how things have changed. Who could've predicted that just two and a half years later, I'd be shooting Santa pictures at PetSmart without thinking even once about driving off a bridge?
(Half of the proceeds went to the Nashville Cat Rescue, my own dog was terrified of Santa, we (the elves and I ) were nearly thrown out of Pet Smart for surrounding Santa with squeak beer bottles while he pretended to be passed out on the pedestal. I've saved that photo for your imagination... Happy New Year!)