So many people I know who love graphic novels describe being able to finish them in one sitting as part of their appeal. I like that feature, too, which is why I regularly recommend graphic novels and comics as good choices for readathons, quickly adding some “Read” books to your Goodreads Challenge, and overcoming a reading slump. Certainly it’s true for some graphic novels, but not all. Some should be savored, like Nicole J. Georges’ Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home (2017).You know what is going to happen to Beija, the idiosyncratic and high maintenance but absolutely loyal canine companion of Nicole J. Georges, a cartoonist (Calling Dr. Laura) and professor. You know she will have passed on to pet heaven by the end of the memoir. To read Georges’ graphic memoir is to commit to confronting devastating loss. But it is also a celebration of how pets help us find a purpose to live anyway, to stare down the existential crisis where the one certainty is an ending—because first, you get a beginning, with an animal companion, a furry familiar. This book review of “Fetch” will explore Georges’ relationship with Beija through the lens of my experiences as a pet owner.
Georges grew up as the daughter of a single mother who she often had to care for, restoring her spirits when her mom was around just like she tried to care for a huge menagerie of animals and insects she collected. Raised by a revolving group of women in her mother’s babysitter rolodex, Georges could not yet identify the abandonment issues that were starting to take root within her psyche.
Back in childhood, the creatures Georges collected were companions (“friends”), though she was too young to know when she was helping them or hurting them, whether she was transferring her own emotions onto her pets. Fortunately, her older sister would often drop by and free the creatures from their well-intentioned but smothering owner. Enter Beija. In her teens, Georges felt inspired to buy her boyfriend a dog. She goes to the local pound and is drawn to just the dog you’re supposed to avoid adopting, the one that is most withdrawn, has boarded there the longest… in other words, the most vulnerable pet, a perfect match for someone who is very vulnerable herself.
Everything did not go according to plan. The boyfriends’s parents did not want the dog, so Georges had to take her into her own home. She couldn’t imagine sending the dog back. They were in life together from now on. Georges and her boyfriend move to Portland with Beija in tow. Their big house becomes a revolving door of tenants, many kids from nearby Reed College or members of the local punk scene, a subculture Georges gravitated towards and found a source of community. Georges and her boyfriend split up, and he lives in the basement while she occupies their old room. Georges often has to be the responsible adult in the house, and in fact, people call her “mother” half-jokingly. Georges’ seems to have felt a compulsive need to act as a caregiver for other people, almost as if she unconsciously flocked to broken friends and, in particular, lovers. As is often the case in these situations, Georges couldn’t immediately see how she was being taken advantage of and victimized by much verbal and emotional abuse. Georges would be almost aggressively cheery while she stifled her pain and developed a cluster of neuroses that became her “rules,” like banning people from talking to her after she woke up / ate / got in the door. Of course, the toxic people she was around mocked her rules as if she was the problem.
While the cast of characters keeps changing, Beija remains a steady and constant presence, albeit a companion with just as many quirks as her owner. Beija is extremely temperamental, and she has a list of rules, too. For example, Beija becomes upset every time attempts physical contact, actually every time someone even bends down in front of her, among many other tics. Beija is almost a magnet for other dogs to attack her and target her adorably unique face. Beija’s behavior alienates her and Georges from other people as haters are aggressively suspicious of Georges and her “crazy” dog. The best friends create a forcefield around their little unit. Georges seems to almost welcome her dog’s instinct to protect her, and the people Beija tends to dislike often turn out to be the parasitic lovers who drain Georges of so much happiness and joy. Beija is a buffer to isolate Georges from intimacy, but she’s also a bouncer with a tenacious mission to guard her person—her mom—and an incredibly accurate judge of character. Indeed, if there is anyone who Georges is the true “mother” of, it’s Beija.
Their relationship grows closer through Georges’ twenties and early thirties while Georges’ artistic gifts turn from hobby to career. Meanwhile, Georges becomes more confident after going to therapy and getting out of unhealthy relationships. Beija ages and suffers a series of illnesses late in her life before her health declines beyond healing.
Georges’ visual style is intricately detailed with an almost childlike vision, a whimsy. She is especially gifted with illustrating expressions. Based on the way she drew certain characters, not only herself but also the punks and Portlanders around her, it’s almost easy to imagine what they sounded like. There’s a sense of almost manic repression between Georges’ inner pain and the positive and cheery face she wore to the world. This is especially effective when Georges’ character mirrors her dog’s emotions, like suspicion, vice versa. It’s another reason why Georges’ memoir is one to be savored.
Reading Georges’ story across her dog’s lifespan reminded me of my experiences losing pets. The first time I witnessed a cat pass away, it was devastating. Salem was a stray we had taken in when I was 10. She died over the course of a few days the week before my freshman year of college. Salem’s death just before I left home to move to New York City for school was an unfortunate match between my private anxieties about growing up and leaving my home and friends. When Salem died, so did my childhood. It represented a finality, the closing of the door. I felt like I was also dying, and in some ways a part of me was doing just that. The natural process of moving away from home and starting a new life should have been an opportunity to rise like a phoenix and embark on an exciting chapter in my life. Instead, I was suffocated of joy by living under such extreme psychological distress. My depression was so intense anyway and eventually just bubbled over into a full-on crisis when I got to campus. Fortunately I got an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder early on and was treated for it.
Later, in my mid-twenties, the two cats we adopted when I was four, Lightning Bolt and Allie, would also die at home after long battles with failing health when they were 18 and 20, respectively. Both cats overcame elderly health crises. At several points, we could have chosen to put each of the cats down. Instead, they kept enduring until they died at home. Older by then, I was bothered by the experience of watching an animal slip away into the afterlife, but I was better able to deal with it after coming to terms with Salem’s death and my existential crisis. By that time in my mid-twenties, I was ready for it. We were prepared for our cats to cross the rainbow bridge, and so were they. I’d grown into someone who was more okay with death. I accepted my own mortality. But instead of obsessing about it so much, I began to snub that fear. I started to live more in the present rather than the past or the far future. I was also ready to move on from my younger years, a period in my life that I never was fond of anyway. The deaths of my childhood pets eased that process along.
The cat I adopted the week after I moved into my first apartment at age 24, Bagheera, did not live such a long life. His death was unexpected and sudden. He jumped off the bed after I woke up, cried out, and fell limp onto the floor. I watched life leave him in a matter of seconds. I woke my parents up, but it was too late. He was gone. I found out later that he had a heart attack. He wasn’t overweight. He was only four years old.
Reading Fetch, I reflected on my own experiences with living with and losing a pet and Georges’ well-fought battle to save Beija’s life. Georges realized that her best friend was no longer functioning in a comfortable way. The decision to lose Beija was also a watershed moment for Georges. Beija had loyally stuck with her owner (her best friend), and Georges felt she owed Beija that same kindness to end her suffering. I wondered when I read this memoir, what was worse. To be forced to make decisions to pursue surgery and treatment that had no guarantee of working and were many thousands of dollars, to keep the pet alive (for you)? Or Bagheera’s swift death, which was extremely traumatic and unexpected, but his suffering was over for him in a manner of seconds? It was horrible to lose Bagheera. He represented a time in my life when I was first becoming an independent adult, and he also represented my future. It was going to be us against the world. But no medical treatment could have stopped him dying from a bad heart. There’s no surgery for that. I didn’t have to make the decision no owner wants to make, that Georges had to make.
Georges’ memoir is so powerful by making you feel her loss deeply. That despair. That hopelessness. That choice. Reading her book made me relive some of those losses—but also the amazing bond we have with animals. Knowing what happened with Bagheera, I would still make the choice to adopt him again, even if I knew that I would have him as my buddy, my child, my friend for just a couple hundred days. I would do it again. Because even through the short time I had him, he changed me for the better. For a cat that wanted to escape so much, his master finally called him home and delivered him from his time on earth, and maybe even gave him a relief from whatever abuse he suffered before I knew him, since he clearly suffered from lingering trauma in his past, and whatever future pain he could have endured if he lived into old age. His suffering—emotional, not physical—was over. He was released.
That loss changed my life. I became so depressed that I couldn’t leave the house. I resigned from my internship at an academic library. I started seeking work from home. Without his death, inevitably, my bipolar disorder would come to be so intense I would have had to give up working full time outside the house anyway. Bagheera’s death put me on a path towards my freelance career, one that has been infinitely more rewarding than the full-time jobs I had held and, more important, something I can do with an often disabling illness. And it gave the two kittens I adopted immediately after a forever home, or “The Golden Ticket,” as my mom always says, a nod to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
In my longwinded way, what I’m driving at is that reading Fetch means you start knowing the end and you keep going. There’s no reason to binge read to get there since you begin the book already knowing that Georges’ beloved dog will die. And still, you put yourself through it.
Another way to think about it is how Gus puts it in The Fault in Our Stars. Analyzed in another post here on Broke by Books about The Fault in Our Stars and mortality, Gus writes in a letter that:
“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers” (313). In response, Hazel addresses Gus directly: “I do, Augustus. / I do” (Green 313).
When I adopted Jon Snow and Minerva almost immediately after Bagheera’s death, I knew what I was getting myself into all over again, even though my heart was rubbed down raw. I could lose them while they were young. I knew that. I could lose them while they were old. I knew that. They will die, and so will I, and I’m choosing to love them anyway. I’m choosing to let them in anyway. And why? Why would anyone go through this again when you know how it’ll end? Because you want to give a creature unconditional love and devotion. Because they are your children, your best friends, a source of unending affection and comfort, and even if you think you’re too bitter and hardened and scarred to care for anything at all, by God, you are going to love that pet hard and give it a damn good life. They will save you just as much as you save them.
I’ve driven through a snowstorm to buy a humidifier at Target to make the air easier for my sick cat to breathe. I’ve been desperately broke, overdrawn my checking account at the grocery store, and put back just about everything but cat food so my kitties could eat. I’ve sifted through my cat’s poop to make sure he passed tulle fabric from a dress I caught him eating. I let Jon Snow sleep with me, even though I only have a twin mattress and he takes up half of it. And when I’m too depressed to move, I get out of bed and feed the cats. I’m tied to them. I’m invested in their future as much as mine. You know these stories because you’ve lived them, too.
One day, my heart will break again. But I keep going knowing that the pain will be worth it to know such love and give it back. We live every day with the knowledge that the end will come. Years later, having worked through some of my fear of death, having witnessed my cats’ passage to the beyond, I see that as a rallying cry. Not to live by death, but by the present. To keep going. To keep living. To keep letting love into your life.
Thank you to Nicole J. Georges for the opportunity to be reminded of that with her incredible graphic novel memoir, Fetch.
Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges. (c) Mariner Books, 2017.