Stages of life

and the dogs that define them

Maris was the first dog that was truly mine. Before Maris, there were dogs in my life, but they belonged to my parents because they were responsible for adopting them. Nevertheless, these dogs are a part of my life’s journey in the roles they played, how I felt about them, and who I was at that time. Let’s just say that these dogs, pre-Maris, were background characters, and when I think of them, I am instantly taken back to the person I was at that moment in my life. Geez, get a load of these canine time machines!

First there was Joy, whom I have discussed in a previous blog post. She was a tragic character in my life – she endured neglect in a way no dog ever should, and in my memory, she represents a similar neglect that I experienced throughout my teenage years. As a human, I grew up to be an independent person with problem solving skills; as a canine, Joy was just simply neglected. As I have said before, the story of Joy makes me wince and cry. She and Maris had similar coloring, and I felt like I was making it up to Joy when I treated Maris the best I could. Then there were other dogs that joined Joy in our backyard. I won’t go into the details of how then a whole family of dogs ended up neglected on our property, but let’s just say that the dogs in that yard represent a difficult time for our family and the dark side of immigrant life. Perhaps that is a story for another time.

Then there was the mighty pug, Bokdori. His name meant “bundle of blessings” in Korean, and he was such a cutie pie lap dog who loved to cuddle all the time. My parents adopted him when I was in grad school for music, so I only really saw him once or twice a year. But boy did we bond when we were together! He would come sleep on the bed with me instead of his crate – what luxury for his snorting majesty! As long as I was in my parents’ house, he wanted to be by my side, and we were joined at the hip. True buddies! One year, after I went back to school, he clawed his way out of the pool house net cover and went out into the neighborhood in search of me. When I think of him, I remember the early years of my musical endeavors when I was getting used to the world of classical music (some good and some really catty) and trying to shed the geeky math student persona. To me, Bokdori represents a happy but confused part of my life – I was so happy to finally get to sing and dive into something I loved, but also very uncomfortable in a new world where I stuck out like a sore thumb.

The next dog in my life was Sonja. I am spelling her name that way but really, it was an anglicized version of when Koreans call out the name “Sunny.” So “Sunny-ya” became “Sonja.” She was a squeaky Maltese, who was very protective of me. Like Bokdori, Sonja was attached to me whenever I would visit home, and I loved to play with what I called her crazy conductor hair. You know, where orchestra conductors like to grow out their curly and frizzy hair and whip it around when they are passionately gesturing to the musicians… Either that, or Sonja’s hair made her look like the abominable snowman. But the important thing here is that she let me play with her hair and groom her because she trusted me so completely and truly loved my attention. One of my favorite memories of her is that she would sit in front of the guest room door, waiting for hours for me to come out on days I chose to sleep in. Another memory: one day, my mom got very angry with me and began to yell (this was a frequent occurrence… I probably deserved some of it, but not all of it). Sonja got in front of her and started barking at my mom. Funny because technically, Sonja was my mom’s dog, but she was protecting me. Sonja knew who would freely give her the sweetest love… a true dog lover. To me, Sonja represents the time in my life when things started to get really turbulent in my inner world. In my late twenties, I struggled to steady my rudder amidst the turbulence in my mother’s sea storms. The responsibility of finding my life’s purpose loomed large while navigating the tricky waters of my misguided mother who believed that she had the God-given right to the lifetime that was allotted to me. The internal struggle stemmed from my love and compassion for her, and nothing more. I knew I had to use my life wisely; it was just a matter of trying to keep my mom in it. Sonja’s protective barks from that time represent the very boundaries I would need to build in my family relationships to journey toward a fulfilling life.

Then came Maris, and you all know about my life with her. I think the reason why she is so precious to me is not only that she was a special dog. This amazing dog met me at a time when I needed her the most. I needed her more than she needed me. And she saw me through so many changes that would come into my life. Starting from the outside and moving inward: a head full of black hair to what I would consider a distinguished (ahem!) salt and pepper look; a career change and a mountain of heartache that went into it; hundreds of hours of studies for multiple designations; unlearning singing out of desperation and re-learning how to sing with joy; and discovering eternity by focusing on the present moment. Maris accompanied me through the most profound stretch of my life so far.

Starting on December 3, 2022, another phase of my life will begin which will be defined by Lucas. He finds me a little more mature than Maris did 11 years ago… hopefully. I need to be excited about what adventures may lie ahead of us, what Lucas will teach me, what we will experience together. We will play games, we will train hard, and we will explore the best that northeast Ohio has to offer. But I must admit that I am a little nervous. I lost my best friend who has all those memories of where I’ve been. And now I have to start all over again with this little wild-haired munchkin that doesn’t know anything about me. As much as I have been looking forward to dog-cuddles, sweet faces, and puppy laughs, there is some anxiety about how this relationship will pan out. I guess there is only one way to find out. Dive in!

I promise I will be a good boy and connect with you. Maris has been training me from the Rainbow Bridge. I already know so much about all your joys and sorrows.

The world through my eyes

in which I am the dog whisperer

Our family had a dog while I was an adolescent. Her name was Joy. She was a German Shepherd mix that we rescued. I remember that I was in middle school when the opportunity to adopt her presented itself. I was vehemently against it. I made my case to the family: owning a dog is a huge responsibility, and I don’t have the time to do it because of my academics. You might be asking, why was I putting all that responsibility on myself? Because I knew, even as a 12 year old, that I would be the one to take the duty seriously, but I simply did not have the time. But I was outvoted, we got the dog, and no one had time for her. Honestly, it is still traumatic for me to think about it. I have one photo of Joy from the early 1990’s, and I can’t even really look at it because I get so sad.

Can we make up for our past sins (no matter if collective) in the present? I sometimes thought of that during the 11 years Maris was in our lives. I treated her with respect for life I would have for any person I knew. She was my priority – I rearranged my social life, my schedule, finances, etc. around her happiness and fulfillment as a canine. I worried about her exercise routine, about her food… and during our walks, I let her sniff as many things for as long as possible because I knew that it would keep her canine brain active. I aimed for a fulfilled life for Maris. And sometimes when I looked at Maris’s face, I saw Joy. They were similar in some ways… the black-tan-white combo, and the big, kind eyes that would see through to your soul. It wasn’t too often, but I thought of Joy from 2011 to 2022 and hoped that my love for Maris would somehow make up for the love that Joy did not receive.

My young experience with Joy changed the way I interact with dogs as an adult. When I see a dog, I feel an immediate affinity to it… and I like to think that most dogs recognize this, too. Most dogs look right back and me and stare. I am sure there is a scientific explanation for why dogs do this, but in my eyes, they are connecting with me. In my world, they look back at me because they recognize that I am their ally, that I am communicating my deep love for animals to them. “Yes, dawg, I see that you are a beautiful soul… I know, I know… I get you. I love you, too.” That’s the conversation that takes place in my head. And this happens with most dogs – perhaps not the German Shepherd police dog I saw in Philadelphia airport who was all business and didn’t respond to me at all.

You might be thinking that I’m crazy, but from a psychological standpoint I think that my strong connection to dogs stems from my early trauma with Joy. Joyful her life was not, and her name was cruel irony. But it didn’t matter to her perhaps that she didn’t live a joyful life – to the end, she remained all loving and giving because that is what dogs do. It is the closest thing to unconditional love I have found in this world.

Happy together