I’ve had six rescue dogs in my life, and I’ve invented a special language – and voice – for each and every one of them.
For my childhood beagle, Racer, I spoke to him in Charlie Brown’s voice, as I firmly believed he was Snoopy come to life.
For Charlie, an abused Shih-Tzu my mother rescued, I spoke to him in a voice that very much sounded like the one comic Margaret Cho uses to imitate her parents (not PC, I now realize, but I was just a kid from the Ozarks at the time).
With Marge, the mutt that saw me through my 30s and early 40s, my vocal stylings reached Mariah Carey levels and my lexicon one that would have made Webster genuflect.
Gary and I adopted Marge from a city shelter because, as a happy, new gay couple, we wanted a family. Marge was from a litter of 14, unceremoniously dumped in a Tide box in an alley. We were fed a bunch of lies about her – including she would grow to be only 30 pounds, whereas she topped out at nearly 85 – but we picked her largely because, out of the hundreds of abandoned dogs at the shelter, she immediately responded to our voices.
Our falsetto voices, to be accurate.
When I met Gary, it was love at first skit: We both loved to create characters – much like Saturday Night Live cast members do – to skewer the world around us..
We did just that at the shelter, after touring the facility with a hard-edged, urban professional in a powersuit, a redneck couple whose wife was so hungover she kept pulling her Busch beer bandana over her eyes to “squeeze out the damn light,” and a woman in a glitter tube top who was in the market for a dog to provide “a little protection.”
Thus, that day, we created Ne-ne (the successful, professional city woman), Connie (the hardluck, hard-partying gal who couldn’t hold a job), and Trixie (the town whore).
It was while standing in front of Marge and her brood that we unconsciously began doing our characters, each of whom was defined by an oddly high-pitched voice and caustic, snarky, biting wit, almost as if Chelsea Handler had just ingested a helium-filled balloon.
Marge immediately took notice. And so did we.
“Mr. Tutwiler,” Gary said to Marge, as if he were Connie, “git’cher hands off the forklift and back on my bee-hind where they belong!”
“My God!” I screamed, as the tiny puppy scrambled up our chests and into our arms to kiss our faces, while the others hid. “She loves it! She speaks our language!”
It was a sign, because very few in either of our lives had, really.
My older brother, Todd, died when I was 13, and though he was the exact opposite of me – a true country boy who loved to hunt and work on motorcycles – we had a special relationship, and often communicated via a secret language.
“If you ever get into trouble and I’m nearby,” Todd would tell me, “yell ‘Suzuki!’ (his favorite motorcycle), and I’ll be right there.”
And I did. Many times. And he was always there to protect me.
Gary lost every man he loved, in quick succession, all of whom used their words as weapons, as lances to wound, as sponges to deplete Gary’s torrent of love and care and optimism until he was no longer needed, and he was left abandoned, empty, alone, unable to speak.
And – though Marge was just a puppy – it seemed nearly miraculous to stumble upon such a sign.
As a result, we created a huge, pre-Avatar language to which only Marge would respond:
“Potty-pee” = “Go tinkle!”
“Potty-poo” = “Go poop!”
“Bites” = “Food”
“Nink-nink” = “Water” or “Drink”
“Git-um-good-ums” = “Eat your food”
“Nink-nink” = “Drink you water”
“Seepy weepy” = “Time for bed”
“Wuboo!” = “I love you”
“Stinky-winky-woo” = “Time for a bath!”
People, of course, thought we were insane. Especially when they would speak to Marge, and she wouldn’t respond unless they elevated their voices five octaves and said, “Wuboo!”
“You’re like a doggy Sybil,” one of our practical friends, an engineer, told us. “You realize you’re insane, right?”
His reaction made me think back over my life with my dogs, all of whom were my best friends.
Racer helped me through a difficult childhood, growing up gay and overweight in rural America. Many days, he was the only friend that would listen to me and play with me after a traumatic school day.
Charlie eased me through the tragic death of my older brother. He forced me to get up and get out into the world, when all I wanted to do was hole up in my bedroom.
And Marge filled a gaping hole in my heart after I came out to my family and went through a painful separation from them. Before passing away in April, Marge saw me through five books without ever leaving my feet.
We now have Mabel, a silly, childlike Labradoodle-beagle rescue, whose voice is a vapid Marilyn Monroe ditz-fest. She has ushered me through the loss of Marge and my mom.
The dogs in my life have shepherded me through a seachange of triumph and trauma, and I feel more capable of handling life, thanks to them. My dogs center me, make me laugh, and re-teach me, every day, to love unconditionally, despite knowing the risk inherent in that act.
I wasn’t crazy, I realized. I was blessed.
We teach dogs many things, of course, but, really, they teach us the most important lessons during our short walk together on earth: That we all must live in the moment, and that we all must overcome great odds to find that perfect someone who loves us unconditionally, who embraces our quirks and neuroses, that special someone who, quite simply, speaks our language.