by Abigail Thomas
A Three Dog Life is not a sentimental book, a near-miraculous feat considering Thomas writes about dealing with her husband’s traumatic brain injury. Emotional yet practical, she’s no saint and not more of sinner than any of the rest of us.
The book is a meditation on impossible things that are in fact possible. I was surprised by the strength of my identification with her story, the way it set off associations in my head. The title (and the idea behind it — she cites Wikipedia in the epigraph, a three dog night would be a cold, cold night) spoke to me.
Not that I have a dog. I don’t, though there was a time after Mom died that Lisa said we could get a dog. I love animals, we both do, and had cats at the time. We each had a dog growing up. So it wasn’t that we weren’t animal people or even dog people. We were people who were in an office all day and couldn’t get home to walk a dog at lunch people, people who couldn’t really afford a dog walker or the regular vet bills that seem to come with dogs people.
So I knew she was really worried about me when she said I could have a dog. I was stuck in a fog of grief and depression, and there were times I just sat on the couch holding the teddy bear that had been my Mom’s. Cats are wonderful creatures, but they aren’t dogs, and ours weren’t lap cats. It’s mammal comfort Thomas understands and writes about. Of course the title works as a metaphor, but when it comes to unbearable circumstances one must find a way to bear, comfort needs to be more immediate than metaphor. Ideally, it has a heartbeat.
Thomas’s narrative isn’t linear, it loops and jumps and leaves things out, which is probably the best way to talk about loving a person who’s consciousness shattered along with his skull. Stories make sense, but his experience isn’t one chain from past to present to future:
“I don’t know who I am,” Rich says over and over. “There are too many thoughts inside my head. I am not myself.” Yesterday he said, “Pretend you are walking up the street with your friend. You are looking in windows. But right behind you is a man with a huge roller filled with white paint and he is painting over everywhere you’ve been, erasing everything. He erases your friend. You don’t even remember his name.” The image makes me shiver, but he seems exultant in his description. There are days when he’s grounded in the here and now and days when his brain is boiling over in confusion.
So Thomas writes about comfort, pain, and having a life that isn’t what anyone would plan for. She moves out of Manhattan, discovers a passion in Outsider Art, knits an incredible amount, and has dogs. She’s got a clear-eyed view of things like guilt and frustration that most of us would rather not look too closely at.
It probably says more about me than it does about her that I thought the most hopeful sentence in the book was “I didn’t start writing until I was forty-seven.” Yet it’s one of the reasons I’d recommend reading it. A Three Dog Life is not what I think of as one of those triumph of the human spirit books. It isn’t a movie of the week story. It’s about being human and having a life and making mistakes, making bad choices and sharing the stories anyway.