For most of my life I told others that I was allergic to cats and dogs. It was a story I’d turned into truth, convincing myself most of all with this matter-of-fact declaration. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized I wasn’t ever allergic, I was simply afraid.
The sun was shining brightly the day I was carried away by a group of older neighborhood girls who grabbed my arms and legs and shoved me beneath a fenced-in porch and held the door closed to prevent my escape. I remember trying in vain to break free and then turning to the far end of the tunnel, dark except for the small patches of sunlight that leaked in through the lattice wood slats, and seeing two large, bright eyes staring back at me. The eyes belonged to a lone black cat, frozen from fear. I fought hard against the door with new desperation.
I don’t think the cat ever moved from his position at the end of the eave and I eventually was freed without physical harm, but somehow the incident was enough to plant in me a fear of both cats and dogs. Forever after whenever one came near I’d position myself behind my mother’s leg and feel my heart pounding through my chest, my breath heaving.
Not long after, my brother was diagnosed with dozens of allergies including one to animal fur. I started to tell people that I was allergic to cats and dogs too when I discovered that this admission would cause them to graciously contain their pets in another room. And this is how I moved through life without getting mauled by dangerous house pets from childhood on through being an adult.
A high school student of mine once shared with the class a bucket list that she’d written during one of our Freewrite Fridays. One of her goals was to someday hold a dog because she, like me, was afraid of them. Inspired, I began taking small steps toward acknowledging my long held and irrational fear and letting myself be in the company of animals.
I started simple, just allowing myself to be in the same room as my friends’ pets, then kneeling and offering my hand for them to smell, finally reaching out to pet their backs or the top of their heads.
Last year, I went to visit out-of-town-friends who had two cats, both declawed. My first night there I sat on their living room floor and the cats circled around me, finally coming to settle by my legs. I extended my hand and one of the cats lifted her paw and placed it lightly on my palm a tender peace offering opening the possibility for four legged companionship.
At a weekly class I attended the teacher’s dog always lounged docile by her side. He’d occasionally trot around the room, curl up on the couch beside me, and let me timidly reach my hand out to smooth his long hair. One night I arrived before everyone else and had barely entered my teacher’s home when she had thrust the leash into my hand and asked if I wouldn’t mind taking her dog for a quick walk. I stuttered an unsure “sure” and followed as the dog leaped happily out into the cold December air.
He ran around the front yard, stopping to sniff patches of grass before sprinting off in another direction. After a few minutes, assuming he’d had enough time to relieve himself, I tried to coax him back indoors with little nudges on the leash and a soft spoken, “Come on, time to go back inside” that he promptly ignored. By the time he ran back toward the front steps and into the warmth of the house I was both relieved and in love.
Recently, my housemate asked me to look after his dog for the afternoon and evening. Having been in a slump all morning, I found myself eager to spend time with her. In the garage, I knelt before her, carefully emptying the contents of a can into a bowl for her to eat. She watched me quietly and I stood back as she lapped up every bit of food. After, I slipped a leash loosely around her neck, grabbed a plastic bag, and set out with her leading the way through the neighborhood. She stopped to relieve herself on half a dozen lawns and I talked to her the whole way like she was a good friend or an infant who hadn’t yet learned to speak. Cars slowed as they passed us and everyone smiled and waved. I felt like I’d been indoctrinated into some secret dog-loving society.
Hiking alone in the woods one day near my home a dog appeared on the path ahead of me. We both stopped after seeing each other. The dog bared his teeth, growled, and began clawing the earth with his front right paw, prepared to attack. I stood still and tried to even out my breath. Suddenly he charged, running toward me at full speed. I held out my hand, palm open, watched him bounding toward me and thought, I will not hurt you. I planted my feet and imagined releasing my fear down into the earth below. I stood my ground and braced myself for attack.
The dog came to stop inches from my outstretched hand. I felt the wave of air from his wake press against my palm. He stood before me, motionless. We stared at each other in silence. His owner came around the corner moments later and called him away. The man apologized to me and scolded the dog. “It’s okay,” I said, “he was just trying to protect his owner.”
I’ve come a long way from the fearful girl, locked beneath a porch with a cat. Sometimes we repeat the stories of our lives, of our pasts, so often that they become who we are at present. We begin to believe the words that pass over our lips so readily without thought or attention. For years I skirted around my fears by convincing myself and others that I was allergic to animals. It was only after acknowledging my fears that I began to work through them, release them.
No longer ruled by what once was, but instead living by what is, I will soon by moving in with my good friend and her cat and hope that someday I will have a dog of my own.