I can’t remember when my dog finally stopped screaming. This fact may be one of the most remarkable things about our relationship: I have already forgotten how it feels to be steeled against Millie’s screams. For months after we adopted her from a nearby rescue organisation, Millie screamed all the time. It was her response not just to every unexpected touch but to every almost-touch, too. If you merely walked past this dog, a sound would erupt that could freeze your blood and turn your heart to shards of ice.
One night last week, she scratched at our door until she pushed it open. Millie doesn’t leave her bed at night unless something outside worries her, so my husband got up to check. When he bumped into her in the dark, the little yelp that ensued was close enough to the traumatic screams of old that it brought me out of a sound sleep, heart pounding. Then I remembered: It’s just the dog. A screaming dog lives here.
Only she’s not a screaming dog anymore. Instead of bolting blindly for the farthest point in the house from the offending foot, she hopped into bed with me. A long stroke down the length of her scruffy back, and she was comforted.
Millie came to us severely traumatised in August of 2018. She was afraid of everything. A gentle pat from a toddler or the friendly sniff of a tiny puppy could make this full-grown dog pee on herself in terror. The blinking lights of a mail truck sent her into a panic. A siren wailing two streets away meant there would be no enticing her outside for hours. So many sights and sounds terrified Millie that she once went 36 hours straight without relieving herself. I had to sit on the floor and hand-feed her, one piece of kibble at a time, to get her to eat.
Last week we walked past the lot where a monstrous mechanical tyrannosaur was scooping up the remains of a house it had just demolished. As we passed the cacophonous destruction zone, Millie picked up speed but didn’t bolt. She didn’t even look up to ask for the treat she knows she’ll get for not freaking out in the presence of something frightening.
It would be absurd to turn this one little rescue dog into an analogue for a troubled country, much less for humanity as a whole. This little rescue dog isn’t even fully rescued herself.
Lately it’s been dawning on us that we might have turned Millie into a bit of a brat. Early on, trying to convince her that the world contains good things, my husband started saving her the last bite of his scrambled egg. This dog who for more than a year was almost entirely silent now barks impatiently if she believes he’s taking too long to finish breakfast. This dog who had to be tricked into eating now knows exactly when the clock strikes five and paws at me unceasingly until I feed her. This dog who feared all strangers now greets guests with a level of exuberance that not all guests actually welcome. She drinks out of unattended coffee cups, makes herself at home on the afghan my great-grandmother crocheted, rifles through open drawers in hopes of discovering a cough drop. She has stolen a lot of cough drops.
People who haven’t seen her in a while invariably make some version of the same observation: “This is not the same dog I met last time.” But she is the same dog. She’s just a happier, braver version of herself. Perhaps most remarkably, her fears continue to fall away, day by day, the longer she is here. Even now, she is not yet the dog she is in the process of becoming.
Millie reminds me that I am also a creature in the process of becoming. I, too, am still learning to be brave, still trying to understand a world that holds so much cruelty and so much pain. Maybe we’re all creatures in the process of becoming. Against all immediate evidence, I hold out hope that the nation itself is in the process of living up to its own promise — unacceptably slowly but nonetheless still becoming. The arc of the moral universe will always bend toward justice. The Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr said that, and I try with everything I have in me to believe it.
It would be absurd to turn this one little rescue dog into an analogue for a troubled country, much less for humanity as a whole. This little rescue dog isn’t even fully rescued herself. She will always carry within her the life she endured before us. The brutality, the hunger, the fear — they will always be there, deep inside, just as they are for any other living thing who has suffered terribly. The body remembers pain. The brain holds on to trauma. But we also cling to kindness. A stumble in the dark may elicit a yelp, but a tender touch will always bring Millie back to us now. When cruelty is all the news ever seems to hold anymore, I try to remember that too.
— Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.