TALES OF PEPPER
by Bettina Rotenberg
June 27, 2018
Pepper was my heart, my soul, the spirit of my life. He animated my bed, the red easy chair in the living room, his bowls on the kitchen counter. He left a half-eaten bone on the carpet in my study. Gina came in from the balcony and Pepper knew the peace of gnawing his own bone was over because Gina would soon commandeer his bone remnant. He rushed Gina with an angry growl and I rose from my seat and closed the doors to separate them, to sequester Pepper with his bone in the study. But soon there were scratching noises on the double doors of the study, and it became apparent that Pepper preferred my company and Gina’s presence over sole possession of his bone. This was Pepper. He’d let Gina take possession of every one of his bones so that he could challenge Gina when she came close to me. And Pepper possessed my heart.
At the end of his life, he was scraggly. Hair fell down and eclipsed his lovely eyes. His fur was locked in tight ringlets from being exposed to successive rains. The bones of his back protruded when I tried to stroke him. His plump belly had receded from keeping up with Gina on many long walks. He looked scrawny and frequently refused to eat his kibble, so I heaped on wellness wet food for breakfast, and small pieces of chicken and steak for dinner. I hoped that these foods, which he gobbled down, often choking and coughing because of his speedy ingestion, would encourage him to eat the more healthful dog food. Towards the end of his life, I’d pick up a handful of kibble, bend double, and hold my hand to his mouth. This method worked from time to time, and the last time he ate, he licked my hand for a long time, I thought to taste the steak juices, but I realized that he was just licking my hand, kissing me.
He said goodbye in so many ways. On the Sunday before he died, he was uncharacteristically lethargic, and rested on the brown leather chair in my study without moving. He did not jump down and follow me wherever I went, as was his wont. This was the sign that something was very wrong. I congratulated myself afterwards that I did not leave Pepper that day to go with Gina to her second obedience class. There were heavy rains and so I had that added incentive to remain at home with Pepper.
He told me silently that he was dying. Such devastating news, I didn’t know whether to believe our telepathic communications. But he was preparing me. And he went through my list of friends, telling me who to avoid, because he or she wasn’t kind to me or Gina, and who to befriend. It was his parting gift. He took care of me all the time and part of that care involved imparting advice to me about how to deal with the people in my life.
Now he’s gone and his sweet eyes are not visible to follow me everywhere I go. I feel lost. My confidant and advisor is missing from my consciousness. Gina lies on the furreted floor of the vestibule or on the carpet in my study. But her eyes are closed, and she dreams of Pepper. Pepper, who sniffed her constantly, and put his little furry paws up on her haunches, humping her tail, or the thin air. And Gina would look around at her eager lover, and growl briefly. She would try to bite Pepper’s legs, which were small enough for Gina to take in her mouth. But Pepper deftly jumped aside and avoided Gina’s teeth.
I am bereft. My little dog died and now he is an invisible spirit of holiness, healing my hands and wrists so I can walk his beloved dog Gina on a leash. He quietly tells me secrets only for my ears. He tells me what to do. He is my guide. He tells me he will heal the pain in my body, the extravagant pain of his loss.
Pepper, who watched me constantly. He would leave my side and my petting him just to lie opposite me and look at me. I was cared for all the time, awake and asleep. I used to watch Pepper completely relax with his head down at the foot of our bed; and then five minutes later, his head was up again and he was awake until I fell asleep. I’d watch him, his back to me, the black swaths across the white of his body, and I’d feel great pleasure just in looking at his back as he lay on one side of the bed or the other.
I longed to touch him, to stroke his back or his belly. And he loved to spread his legs and have me pet him. But at night he didn’t want me to touch him. He wasn’t that much of a physical dog. He was an eager spirit, and when he was excited to see me enter the door after I had been away, he’d jump up and down against my legs. I always felt missed and welcomed home again. It was a lovely feeling even though it seemed like Pepper must’ve suffered from my absence but he was so joyful to see me that I could forget about the pain I’d caused him by leaving him.
Pepper had a serious case of separation anxiety. It manifested itself in his getting very upset and anxious when I was preparing to go out and his howling as soon as I closed the door, or even before I left. It was heart wrenching and I could never be sanguine about him after I heard his cries. If he was being held by someone else on a leash and the look of extreme distress came over his happy face, and he jumped towards me, straining at the leash, I’d hurry away to do my business without him as fast as possible and never let him out of my mind.
I went to Yorkdale shopping centre to find a winter coat and Henry, my caregiver for my dropped foot at that time, drove me and Pepper there. Pepper wasn’t allowed to enter the mall, so he had to stay behind with Henry. He looked so panic stricken that I rushed through the mall with the sense that my presence was urgently needed back with Pepper. I was very worried about him. When I got to the store, there were shop helpers standing around. Rapidly I picked out the colour I wanted and asked one of the young men to bring a coat in my size immediately because a friend who was not well needed me. I found the coat, bought it, and was out of the store in a matter of minutes. I had memorized the place where the exit was and rapidly returned to Pepper with a terrible sense that something awful was happening to him. When I saw him, he greeted me with great joy, and to my anxious questioning, Henry assured me he had been all right. I didn’t believe him. In my heart, I knew that Pepper was attached to me as much as I was attached to him. That was the state of affairs.
In the last couple of months, Pepper would lift up his head and howl shortly after I got out of bed in the morning and was briefly absent from the bedroom or the study or the living room. I grew to like the sound. It was so pure. But the neighbours were disturbed at an early hour; so I rushed back to Pepper and put my hands on both sides of his body, and he stopped his lamentations. Most mornings this occurred, and I never figured out if it was because I was briefly gone from the room or I hadn’t petted him enough when I arose or because he was suffering some pain that I didn’t understand. Frequently Gina came running to Pepper too with the natural compassion that dogs feel for each other. But it was always my hands on Pepper’s body that intercepted the howling.
Pepper was a favourite at our local Starbucks. Henry would walk with us if we awoke by 7 o’clock and frequently paid for my coffee. He was a sweet man who was in love with me for a while, and initiated taking us to dog parks on Saturdays and not charging me for his time. He loved Pepper, who returned the favour royally. At Starbucks, they agreed to allow Pepper inside, come the cold winter months, and he got a lot of attention and praise from the staff, in particular, Deborah, who was an older woman with dyed red hair cropped short who loved my little dog and always greeted him.
The squirrels that appeared on the front lawns of the houses we passed on our walks were initially my bane. Gina would stop her ambulation and stand very still, or sit, and even lie down to watch these little furry creatures. They would often stop too and there would be a standoff between Gina and the squirrels. In the first couple of months, I would quickly become impatient. First I tried yelling, “come, Gina, come!” She was impervious and wouldn’t move. Then I pulled; but frequently I hurt my thumbs or my wrists. Pepper cautioned me to be patient and wait for Gina who usually only moved when said squirrel was out of sight. When it became very hot, I was angry at the squirrels, and sometimes had the misfortune of encountering a squirrel, or even a rabbit who wouldn’t move. I’d yell at the squirrels and this outbreak had the opposite effect that I wanted. Often the squirrel wouldn’t run away in fright but actually approached closer.
But lately, since Pepper died, and I’m in communication with him constantly during our morning walks when the squirrels most frequently appear, I have more patience, and I watch the squirrels with Gina, trying to figure out what about them fascinates her.
Yesterday I spoke silently with a squirrel, and to my amazement, he answered me. He said, “we heard about you. We’ve been waiting to see you.” I countered, “run up a tree and disappear, so we can continue our walk.” The squirrel did what I said!
This morning a squirrel sat by the edge of the road and munched on a berry or a nut. He said, “we heard you didn’t have breakfast; so I’m eating for you.” He sat there, eating, obviously relishing his meal. He ran towards Gina, and then ran up a tree, and Gina moved on. Gina was particularly pushy this morning, and initially pulled me along at a fast pace. We went to a park in front of a church that smelled of garbage as we came closer to two large garbage cans with open holes. Uncharacteristically Gina pulled me as she got closer and closer to some squirrel she must’ve seen in her vicinity. I was able to leave the park eventually, only to encounter a fat beagle that Gina played with. She crouches very near the ground, then jumps and crouches again. I’m fearful that she’ll pull a muscle in my wrist or my thumb, so I don’t like these sudden movements when she naturally acts like the puppy that she is.
Towards the end of our walk, Gina broke away from walking with me and pulled me into a yard with red poppies. To my dismay, the local rabbit was sitting in a flower bed. Gina charged the rabbit and she ran to the end of the flower bed with Gina following. I got a little angry because she was really pulling me, and yelled, “bad girl!” And she hates that. I was able to pull her out of the garden and continue our walk. Later on she looked really distressed and I told her she was a “good girl” and she relaxed. When she’s upset, furrows appear on her brow and her eyes look very sad.
Gina is a wonderful bed partner. Before she goes to sleep and when I wake up, she licks my lips and my nose, and sometimes my ears. One gesture I love is she puts her paw on my back, as though she is holding me. Since she came into our lives, I’ve been able to fall asleep without sleeping medicine. My dreams are not so disturbing either. Last night I dreamt that I jumped over two wire fences with a woman friend. I didn’t think I could make the second one because it was very high; but in my dream I realized I made it, for I was on the other side. In the middle of the dream, I ran into a woman that I knew, but my friend told me not to worry because my appearance had changed so much that I was unrecognizable. We had made it over the fences into foreign territory, but somehow a woman from our former lives was there. The fact that I was unrecognizable was an accomplishment. I had passed through experiences that had changed me.
Often Gina leaves the bed in the middle of the night or early in the morning. When she returns, she’s up for kissing me. She frequently puts her head on my pillow and her legs extend to my back. If I turn around, to give her the message that she’s in my space and I want her to move to the other side, she usually doesn’t respond, or she leaves the bed altogether. Then between 4 and 6 AM she returns and barks at me to get up. I’m usually awake and resting and she’s in a hurry to see the squirrels. When Pepper was here, I’d hurriedly get out of bed because Gina’s whining betokened a need to pee, and if I didn’t respond with alacrity, she’d often urinate on a rug in the living room. Lately Gina’s vocal missives do not mean a need to pee right away, just a pressing eagerness to go on a walk out in the morning air.
After Pepper’s death, I went to Starbucks somewhat reluctantly. I had the feeling someone would ask me where Pepper was. Sure enough, Deborah was taking orders, and she leaned over the counter, looking for Pepper. She asked, “where’s my friend?” I answered, “he died.” She was shocked and aghast and said, “I am sad.” I said, “me too.” I ordered an American Blanco and went outside. A tear fell on my cheek as I thought of all the times Pepper had gone there with me. Everywhere he protected me from sadness and loneliness. Now Gina and I really miss Pepper. I have pains in my knee and my ankle – Pepper says they are from grief.
I went next to get a pedicure at Nail Boutique. Mio gave me a very good very gentle pedicure, and she too asked for Pepper. He used to jump up on my lap when I had a pedicure. One time he insisted on getting on my lap when I had both a manicure and pedicure at the same time, and the soapy water that the manicurist was using fell over onto my hip. Everyone loved him, and they continued to ask about him long after his death.
Pepper was the most loving presence wherever I went. We would go to a woman’s dress shop together, and like Shuggie, my former dog, he’d encourage me to buy some of the clothes I tried on. He’d lie on a couch covered with a black fur cover, and always drape himself over the clothes I took off to try on store clothes. He was loved by all the sales girls for his sweet demeanour and his way of looking so lovingly at me. Even where there wasn’t a couch to lounge on, Pepper would enter the cubicle with me where I would try on clothes and pronounce judgements about different outfits. I always followed his advice about whether to buy pants or a top or a skirt or a dress. Sometimes he knew ahead of time, before I actually tried on boots, for example, whether they’d fit. I bought a pair of shiny silver boots last winter that fared very well and took me trudging in the snow and ice without any ill effects.
When I was very angry with my father, Pepper encouraged me to go to the dress shop on Yonge Street. I bought an expensive green leather jacket but I felt guilty about it afterwards, and returned a dress and a blouse and some pants to accrue some credit. There had to be a psychological reason for dealing with fury with my father by buying something that he’d disapprove of. Pepper knew the justification – I just indulged the rebellious spirit.
Pepper advised me to do some things that were very surprising. For example, I spent a lot of time drafting a series of course proposals for Continuing Studies creative writing department at the University of Toronto. Finally, the director approved one of my proposals and invited me for an interview. I was accepted as an instructor to teach a philosophy and experimental poetry course the following winter. Then one night Pepper told me to email the guy and cancel. I was very shocked. I told Pepper, “it’s so prestigious.” When I was invited to teach, the prestige meant a lot to me. I’d suffered the previous year from depression and been bedridden for months because of dropped foot. A succession of caregivers left me with an impaired sense of confidence in myself, and getting a university course to teach was something that impressed everyone I knew.
Pepper asked me, ““is prestige the only reason you want to teach the course? Do you really want to teach the poets you chose? You’ll hate it and you won’t like your students. There’s something else you’re going to do. You need to make room for it.” I was more or less convinced. In any case, I trusted Pepper, so I emailed the guy that I had other priorities than the course, and wanted to postpone it. I wrote up a statement about communicating with dogs, and tried to figure out where I could conduct a class with dogs and dog owners about talking to animals.
As with every one of Pepper’s startling pieces of advice, I waffled, and wrote the director a second time, asking to teach a poetry course. He agreed to hire me a second time. Yet again I turned the course down, enrolled in a fiction writing course which I suffered through for eight weeks. I hated the way the teacher and most of the students critiqued my stories, and abandoned one story after another, without “correcting” any of them, with the sense that my interiority wasn’t comprehended or appreciated. I came out of it with ideas about teaching psychological dreamlike fiction, but Lee Gowan by this time was fed up with an applicant who shifted her expertise from poetry to nonrealistic fiction, a category they didn’t entertain in the creative writing department anyway. So I wrote Mr. Gowan one last time, asking to teach the original poetry course he’d accepted, and he summarily turned me down.
I had thought that fiction writing was the pursuit that was replacing the teaching of a university poetry course. At the same time, I became very absorbed in looking for a second dog. I had learned a few months prior to this that Pepper was diagnosed with heart disease and only had a year to three years to live. Pepper knew that his days were numbered and we threw ourselves into the search for another dog. I was popular because I already had one dog and I was a stay-at-home “mom.” I now realize that having two dogs, which all of a sudden made me very busy, was one of the things Pepper had in mind. He knew he was going to die; we didn’t know when; but he wanted me to have a companion for when he was no longer here.
Pepper also advised me concerning the friends and help that I had. He kept me up-to-date about the way the dog walkers and housecleaner treated him and Gina. Some of my friends and family he disliked for the way they treated Gina or their patronizing attitude towards me. On the Sunday before he died, he went through a list of my friends and told me whom to reject and whom to embrace. Once again, I was very surprised. He criticized people who I thought were devoted friends and guided me in sending angry and critical emails to them. Some of them wrote back and asked me what they should do, or told me I was right. I felt kindness and gratitude toward these people. In others, I saw clearly the flaws Pepper mentioned and tried to refrain from apologizing to reestablish contact. The people that Pepper told me to see immediately started calling me and setting up dates to get together. As usual, Pepper had shown wisdom and foresight.
One of the people Pepper counselled me to stay in touch with and go visit was my mother. We had gone together to see her two weeks before Pepper died. It was a day I regretted because I walked Pepper a couple of miles from Yorkville Avenue to our apartment, only stopping at my mother’s house for a short while. It was hot and I felt guilty one night after Pepper’s death that I had exerted him too much and caused his death. But Pepper walked without difficulty. I was glad he saw my mother, who adored him, one last time. While we were there, mommy wanted to see Pepper jump up on my lap, the way he had before. But he stayed down by my feet.
In the middle of our visit, a terrible storm erupted and there was a crashing downpour and heavy winds. We left as my mother was yelling in pain at a caregiver, and I had an awful sense of old age and failing health. We went downstairs to her living room and stayed inside until the storm passed. Then we walked out Cottingham Street down a back way to St. Clair Avenue. Many branches had broken off from the storm and blocked our way. Trees had split as well, and the walk was scary. Cars lined up on the back street we walked along and the exhaust fumes bothered me.
I was wearing a white skirt and the sleeveless black-and-white check top I had bought, and was still hot. The June weather in Toronto was oppressive, frequently rising to 90°F. But my companion walked along beside me with no apparent trouble. After his death, I worried that this walk caused a resurgence of Pepper’s cough; but I’m not sure. The vet asked me if Pepper had been coughing when I brought them into the clinic the day that he died. I said, “yes, the same cough you examined him for.” But afterwards I berated myself for not bringing Pepper in to be examined again.
I wrote Dr. Franklin after Pepper’s death, asking him if there was anything he could say to help me deal with the awful guilt I felt. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and remember some pain or symptom that Pepper had and be attacked by guilt feelings. I remembered that I had similar feelings when I learned about Shuggie’s death while I was in the hospital.
Thankfully Ryan Franklin wrote me an email that consoled me. He said that Pepper’s death was sudden, rapid, and couldn’t have been foreseen. He wrote, ”Pepper was exquisitely lucky to have you as his owner, you did EVERYTHING for him. There was nothing that you could have done to prevent it.” My friend, Annie, in Berkeley told me, “Tina, you’re not God. You can’t control death.” Those two assuaged my spirit and I stopped being tormented by guilt. Pepper’s spirit joined me and we resumed our talks. When I walked around my apartment, lost and bereft, he guided me to sit down and listen to him.
I miss Pepper sorely. Gina sleeps most of the day, and when she isn’t sleeping, she is prowling around the apartment like a young panther. She looks for diversion in her toys, but unless she has a satisfying bone she’s never entertained for very long. She often barks at me and whines to be taken out. She is very insistent; and then when she gets outside, she is very happy.
She turns her head from side to side as she walks, looking for squirrels I suppose, noticing everything around her. On our walks together, Pepper watched me and Gina, and was not concerned with squirrels or even other dogs. I remember the days when he trotted along ahead of me, faster than I walked. Then he slowed down, and when we walked with Gina, she slowed her pace to accommodate Pepper. Now she walks fast, pulling me along, her powerful back legs ready to spring into action.
Tomorrow I go to the Pet Memorial building to be with Pepper’s body. I’m nervous. I don’t know if it’s going to be painful or whether there will be an opening to being with him. I wrote a prayer:
May I always be with you, Pepper.
May you come close to me.
May I feel your tender and passionate love always.
May you join Gina and me in our loneliness for you.
May you find peace and joy wherever you go.
May you accompany us on our walks and protect us.
May we feel your presence with us waking and sleeping.
My dearest Pepper.
Pepper followed me everywhere. If I went from the bedroom into the dining space, he’d come and lie beside my chair or directly under my chair. When I went to the living room, he’d lie down on my left side or jump onto my lap. When I adopted Gina, he set up his quarters on my lap, and he was so warm and cozy. But when Gina came close, he growled at her, and my lap became the scene of a quarrel between them. When I sat at my desk, Pepper lay on the purple pillow at my feet. If he had secured a bone, he gnawed on it which attracted Gina to his spot. She would consider him and the bone for a few seconds, then let out a loud bark. Pepper would growl, and then abandon the bone. All this activity took place so close to my feet that I’d have to leave my desk chair and try to manage their quarrel at a safer distance.
But Pepper growled much more furiously if Gina approached while he was lying near me on the bed. Pepper would climb on top of me and growl at top speed from his perch. Just before he died he was beside himself, growling repeatedly, jumping off the bed and making as if to bite Gina, he was so angry when she approached. Gina partially capitulated and, instead of lying at the head of the bed beside me, lay at the foot of the bed. Pepper even slept one night on the pillow beside me, which he never did.
Pepper knew he was dying and told me so two days before he actually did. Perhaps he wanted sequestered time with me at the end and that’s why he objected to Gina entering the bedroom.
Whenever I spoke to Pepper in my mind silently, he always responded and concluded with “Tina, dear one.” Immediately after he died, I could still hear him clearly. Then his silent voice became very quiet and barely discernible. There was a period when I thought that he had gone somewhere else. Then he told me he was in the “hollows” and this is the place that I could look forward to being after my death. There was another time that I thought that he had disappeared altogether, and I grieved. But I called on him a little later and he responded again.
It has come to me recently that the divine spirit entered Pepper when he came into my life. He comforted me as no one else has, assuring me that I would never enter a hospital again. And when he died, Pepper the dog disappeared, and once again he was the divine. But I can’t think of God, if Pepper was God, as an abstract Spirit of heaven. He remains my little poodle mix animal I love so much.
About the Author:
Bettina Rotenberg grew up in Toronto, attended Radcliffe College, studied painting for three years, and received her PhD in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley. She taught art, literature, and creative writing at colleges in the Bay Area, and between 1995 and 2015 was the founding Director of VALA (Visual Arts/Language Arts). She sent visual and performing artists into public schools in the East Bay to work with poets to teach low income minority children poetry in conjunction with the arts. She wrote a book about her work, I Dare to Stop the Wind, which was published in 2010. She now writes, draws, teaches, and takes care of her dog.