“God is beauty.”
— St. Francis of Assisi
Here’s what I expected to be able to rightfully call my own by the age of 35:
(1) an 18th-century farmhouse in the country and a corner brownstone apartment in either the Upper West Side or the East Village in New York City; (2) no less than five published books, at least one of which would be a New York Times best seller (if for no other reason than that I could say no to being in Oprah’s Book Club); (3) an ideal husband who liked cooking and traveling and could also fix computers; (4) yearly trips to Europe for wine, a tour of the Nutella factory that included free samples, and types of cheese that can’t even be found at Zabar’s.
On the morning of my 35th birthday, here’s what I had: A “one and a half” bedroom apartment and a 17-year-old cat (the “half” being a room big enough for the cat’s litter box and an IKEA bookshelf), and a nosy, intrusive neighbor across the hall who made Judi Dench’s character in Notes on a Scandal look like Fred Rogers. The good news? For $700 a month I had hardwood floors, an eat-in kitchen and huge windows on a tree-lined street. The bad news? It was three hours north of New York City, in Albany, where my Mom had died of cancer two years prior. I still lived back in my hometown, a graduate student and a freelance writer trying to move forward.
I had enough to pay the rent; just not in my beloved New York City. I was married to my work and to Netflix, though somewhat haunted by the socially-constructed cliché of, “Single woman dies alone in bed; survivors include Sallie Mae and a pissed off cat with a thyroid condition.” The fears had subconsciously been brewing in my mind since turning 30, when the “You’re supposed to be this” and “You’re supposed to have that” age comes around: the relentless cacophony of other people’s agendas drowning out your dreams. Society’s “must haves” included a marriage and a mortgage and at the very least — a dentist. But I wasn’t ready to commit to any of these things, preferring to instead follow the advice of author Ray Bradbury, who I had met a few years prior at a writing conference in California: “I’ve had my own loves, and gone my own way to find my own self.” Along the way, I found Assisi.
Love at first sight
The week before my 35th birthday, I fell in love with a rescued Jack Russell Terrier/Beagle who somehow needed me as much as I did her. Ironically, both of us were grieving the loss of a family member. “Adelphie” had been rescued from an abusive home in North Carolina where she’d been starved and beaten. She had untreated heartworm and severe anxiety; her sister was found in such bad condition that the rescuers couldn’t save her and she was put to sleep. I was later told that the rescuers named her “Adelphie” because it means “Dearest Sister” in Greek.
Adelphie was brought to New York in August 2007, and was sitting outside of a PetSmart when I first saw her, next door to Uncommon Grounds, the coffeehouse I frequented. I wasn’t looking for a dog, though I actually had wanted one for as long as I could remember. As a child, I refused to accept my parents “no” in regard to getting a dog. I had cut countless pictures of various breeds out of magazines and then taped them to the refrigerator and the windshield of our car. When this plan failed, I hid Milk-Bones that belonged to our neighbor’s Golden Retriever in random places around the house, even in my parents’ dresser drawers. My passive-aggressive “I want a canine now!” campaign officially ended on Christmas 1987, when my parents’ compromise was a calico cat. I loved Mistletoe, but she wasn’t a dog and never would be. I tried in vain to pretend that she was, hoisting her into a leash so that we could go on “walks” together. I even attempted to train her to “fetch” my slippers; she just sat there. I was a fan of the sitcom Frasier, not only because of the witty dialogue and Niles’ deadpan humor, but because I was obsessed with Eddie, the loyal and intrepid Jack Russell terrier that graced the screen with his very presence.
After college, I moved so often that getting a dog was out of the question. So in the summer of 2007 when I saw “Adelphie” among the dogs up for adoption, it was the only experience of love at first sight that I’d ever known.
My application to adopt Adelphie was initially denied. Her photo and story were posted on the rescue organization’s website and several people had already applied to adopt her. Homeowners with kids, backyards and stable incomes; people with dentists and attorneys and 401(k) plans; people more deserving of a dog than me.
In the meantime, Dan, the manager of PetSmart, was fostering Adelphie while applicants underwent reference checks and home visits. My building didn’t even allow dogs, so a “home visit” was out of the question. I was still convinced that Adelphie was my dog, so I had letters of reference from anyone of any local importance sent to the powers that be. I stopped by PetSmart every day to harass Dan. “How is Adelphie?” I would ask, plying him with coffee and banana muffins. “Please tell her that I love her,” I’d say, like a crazed stalker on a mission. I forwarded Adelphie’s picture to my landlord with the words “Help your humble tenant save a life!” in the subject line, while begging him to make an exception to the “no dogs” rule. I wrote a letter to the organization, saying that because I worked at home, the dog would have undivided attention, and, by the way, did you get the letter from my priest (who I had also coerced into helping me)? My efforts were indeed shameless. Later my brother Joe accused me of “Shawshanking” the “dog people,” a reference to Tim Robbins’ character in the movie Shawshank Redemption, who relentlessly wrote letters for help from his prison cell.
I didn’t want “any dog;” I wanted this one
“Why does it have to be THIS dog?” a friend said. “Many dogs need homes; you’ll get another chance.” But I didn’t want “any dog.” I wanted this one. If there is such a thing as a soul mate, this four-legged creature was mine.
When the answer from the rescuers was still “no,” I knew that I needed a miracle and I needed one fast. That’s when I turned to St. Francis.
I had never done a novena before. Nine days of prayers with a specific intention in mind seemed superstitious, and even if I were to pray for something, it should be for something important. Adopting a rescued mutt, albeit an abused one, didn’t seem up there with praying for world peace. I hoped that at the end of those nine days if the results of my prayer for Adelphie didn’t happen, then acceptance would, and I would be able to be satisfied with an aging cat with a thyroid problem. I found a picture of St. Francis along with “prayers to him,” and set it up on my kitchen table with a candle. Eight days later, I got a call from the founder of the rescue organization. “I’ve never done this before, but I’m going to wave the home visit. It seems that this dog is meant to be yours.”
I knew it had to have been divine intervention — and not my proof-of-income pay stub or my landlord who still wouldn’t budge (I moved in October) — and I started a new life as a dog owner. In thanksgiving to St. Francis, I named my beautiful girl Assisi. On Sunday, Assisi Adelphie Martone, “Sisi,” turns six.
I’ve told this story to friends who aren’t Catholic, some of whom aren’t even believers in God. Some call it coincidence; others just think it’s crazy. Yet the bond I have with Assisi began the day we met and my life is a much better place because she is in it. I’m still on the path of going my own way and searching for my own loves, only now there are four feet that walk with me. I will take Sisi to the Blessing of the Animals on October 4, even though it’s me who is really blessed, to have found this dog to know and love. Maybe “Dog” and “God” are one and the same word for a reason. St. Francis once said, “God is beauty.” I couldn’t agree more.
Originally published October 1, 2010.