by Chris Pady
“Is she even breathing?” My heart suddenly skips a beat. I peer in closer and detect a subtle rise and fall of the abdomen, proving there’s still life in the old girl. I exhale a sigh of relief. Flea’s still with us – for now. But one day in the not-so-distant future, my worst fear will become a reality: I’ll come home and that abdomen will be permanently still.
So, rather than wait for the inevitable, I’ve decided to write a living tribute for my best non-human friend while I can.
Her story begins, at least for our purposes, on a fateful night on the outskirts of Tainan over fourteen years ago. My wife, Michele, returning home from a camping trip in the mountains, notices a tiny creature attempting to cross the extremely busy road Frogger-style; a series of near misses before barely making it across to the other safely. Michele instinctively pulls her scooter over to tend to the trembling little stray puppy.
She scans her surroundings: only the white wall and barbed wire of a military base on this side of the road while shops line the other side. Her only play is to gently place the trembling ball of nerves into her knapsack and drive across the street to ask the local shop owners to see if any of them recognize her. They merely snicker at the thought, as if to say “Who cares about that filthy ‘rat’?” Michele feels she has no choice but to bring her home and the rest, as they say, is history.
Flea fun fact #1: Despite the fact that she was covered in fleas the night she was rescued, she is actually named after the Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player.
Though I happened to meet her on the night of the rescue through sheer coincidence (I happened to be visiting a mutual friend’s house), it wasn’t until Michele and I began dating six months later that I really got to know Flea. And though she looked adorable, her gargantuan trowel-shaped ears comically overshadowing the rest of her body, we didn’t exactly get along initially. Like Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney, we were both competing for the same girl’s love and attention (“She’s mine. No, she’s mine”), each of us stubbornly unwilling to concede to the other.
As the human in this scenario, I eventually conceded that it was up to me to take the first steps towards making peace. Flea, on the other hand, had no intentions of reciprocating my peace-making intentions. She continued to snarl and growl at me whenever I came over, unable to conceal her resentment. In the ultimate act of vengeance, she would summon all of her frenetic puppy energy and jump all over me in bed at the crack of dawn, mere minutes after crashing following another all-night Tainan party.
Flea fun fact #2: As a young pup, Flea, like many dogs, had a habit of humping legs. Yet, rather than discourage her behavior, our friends in Taiwan found it extremely amusing and would encourage her whenever she grasped onto an unwitting friend’s outstretched leg. Her party trick was an especially big hit at The Armory, the local bar we often frequented.
As time went on, my love for Michele grew deeper and our relationship grew more serious. Together, the three of us explored the southern half of Taiwan, from adventures down south to the beaches of Kenting to frequent camping trips in the splendid mountainous valleys east of Tainan. So many amazing memories come flooding back: narrowly rescuing Flea from the grips of an eagle’s talons in Jia Le Xue; putting up with an unfathomable stench for days after Flea rolled around in something dead during a break on one of our roads trips; suddenly being attacked in the dark on a country road by a street dog suddenly by another dog, resulting in Flea flying off the front of the scooter at considerable speed; watching her in awe from our campsite as she chased a wild mountain goat up an impossibly steep and slippery rock face.
Spending all this time together helped Flea and I get onto better terms; but I knew I had to step up my game with her to make it work in the long run.
I began to woo her by giving her extended belly rubs. I took her out for long walks along the canal. I even satisfied her insatiable appetite to fetch by tossing her squeaky plastic newspaper around the apartment when, believe me, I would have much preferred masterminding the mysterious disappearance of the world’s most annoying dog toy.
Essentially, I began putting her needs before my own and acting more selfless than I had ever acted in my life.
My efforts did not go unnoticed by Flea and she began to give me signs that she loved me back. The way she’d look at me with those deep, sad eyes of hers, legs sticking up in the air, pleading for a belly rub. Or how she would run to the door to greet me whenever I came home, tail wagging so hard it could be considered a weapon — even if I had just made a quick two-minute run to the 7-11 for a snack.
The power of love had transformed us from fierce rivals to cherished companions.
That was over a decade ago. Since then, Flea has made the move back to Canada with us where she has had to deal with a lot of change, primarily in the form of two disruptive tiny humans joining her pack and constantly diverting attention away from her alpha male and female (damn kids!). Yet she’s also learned the joys of chasing squirrels and the perils of scrapping with raccoons or being sprayed by skunks (twice). She and I have happily started each precious day together with a healthy dose of fresh air and serenely quiet early morning walks. After all these years, I can’t even fathom starting the day without Flea up ahead of me, trotting in her peculiar sideways gait, following her nose from scent to tantalizing scent.
Flea fun fact #3: Flea has always had a thing for birds. It was not uncommon for her disrupt our Sunday afternoon soccer games, alarming our surprised Taiwanese opponents, by spontaneously sprinting across the pitch, barking wildly, chasing some passing birds way up in the sky.
Recalling these memories of when she had boundless energy makes her present struggles all the more difficult. Her health continues to deteriorate rapidly, as the various illnesses have piled up to the point where she receives a daily pharmaceutic cocktail with her meals. She sleeps, and then takes a nap to recover from waking up.
It’s tough to see her this way and we’ll soon have to make a choice: Is it better to let her go than continue to watch her health slowly decline?
At least she’s had a good, long life - especially when considering the life she would have faced as a stray on the streets of Tainan. We often say that Flea hit the jackpot when we share her story.
Yet the invaluable lessons she has taught us - unconditional love, forgiveness, patience, loyalty and being true to one’s nature – convince us that we also won the lottery.
Flea has helped us become better people by simply being Flea.