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A story about best friends

I’ve been reading a book titled “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez — for the last year. I am typically a rapid reader, but this book prompts reading a few paragraphs and then reflecting, sometimes for days, before I revisit it.

I have it on my Kindle to make it easier on my aging eyes, but I know it’s available in a colorful hardback form. There is a large dog on the cover.

“The Friend” is a National Book Award winner. It is described as “the moving story of love, friendship, grief, healing and the magical bond between a woman and her dog.” But, as one reviewer put it, “this is no shaggy dog story.”

I find myself memorizing certain passages. For example, the author quotes Isak Dinesen when she says, “You can make any sorrow bearable by putting it into a story or telling a story about it.”

At the core of this particular story is a woman who loses her lifelong best friend and mentor to suicide and finds herself responsible for his huge Great Dane, a dog who weighs more than she does and, at least initially, does not like her very much. Perhaps because she keeps telling him she’s “a cat person.” Perhaps because a 500-square-foot apartment in a building that does not allow dogs is a little confining.

The “massive, traumatized, bereft, stinky dog” plays a major role in this tale, but the book is not just about human-canine friendship. It is a “mediation on loss and a celebration of devotion.” It’s about friendship. And it’s about frustration — from a dog’s perspective, “the endless trouble of making yourself understood to a human.”

For readers with previous or current pets, it’s perfect pandemic reading. I am almost done. At which point I suspect I will reread it.

I am the devoted mother of an unwell dog. Our Lucy, a spaniel, has a progressive neurological condition that makes her anxious and erratic. She has nighttime terrors and daytime neediness. Lately there’s a lot more persistent phantom scratching and relentless paw-licking. She moans in her sleep. Her condition was identified over a year ago but has gotten worse in recent months.

Perhaps that is why I find “The Friend” affects me so profoundly. The author reminds me how little we know about animal suffering and anxiety.

“They don’t weep. They don’t commit suicide, but they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken.”

Lucy comes into the room as I type this column and heaves herself down on the floor by my chair, edging herself slowly close so she is between my feet — she snorts and offers up a wide-awake snore, then rolls over on her back in the hope I will rub her tummy with my foot. I do.

Sometimes, as Ingrid Nunez does in her book, I read to this four-legged, 6-year-old friend and member of our family knowing we will do whatever it takes to keep her happy and comfortable. The reading does not seem to interest her — the tummy rubbing definitely does.

Ingrid Nunez has a new book out soon. There is a cat on the cover.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.