Lily and the Octopus, by Steven Rowley
(Image from Barnes and Noble.com)
The little dog, Greta, sits restlessly beside me as I tap on my IPad. She is throat breathing urgently at me. She wants me to get up and get her a coin of chilly hot dog from the freezer. That’s her preferred treat for performing nobly her outdoor duties. She is being a pain in the neck, but I’m kind of glad to see it. Two weeks ago, I had her at the vet.
Then, I was worried. She had a lump on her shoulder. She’d developed a redness on her lower back, which meant she was itching furiously all night long. When she finally slept, she would murmur and yip.
Something is wrong with my dog, I thought.
And it occurred to me that Greta is elderly. We got her from the pound, a rescue dog who’d been dumped, ten years ago. One vet thought she was ten months then; another pegged her at two years. An eye-blink, and my rascally pup is a ‘senior dog.’ Another flicker, and she’s downright elderly.
But the vet trip was relieving. The lump is benign, and all the other symptoms are treatable. We came home, we dispensed medication, and then I wrote a blog post about realizing my ‘puppy’ was entering the twilight days. (https://pamkirstblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/dont-lets-go-to-the-vets-tonight/)
My niece Meg commented on the post. Have you read Lily and the Octopus? she asked.
I hadn’t, but I had read a review–a very positive one. So when I took Jim to the library and saw Lily sitting unclaimed on the ‘Large Print–New’ shelf, I snarfed it up.
Lily and the Octopus is the story of Ted, a gay man in his early forties, and Lily, his 12-year-old dachshund. One day Ted looks at Lily, and he sees the octopus sitting smugly on her noggin, tentacles extended around her cranium. Ted goes into full fight mode. The book is the story of his battle with the octopus. Time, that eternal referee, gets to decide the outcome.
Rowley has a website: http://www.stevenrowley.com. His bare-bones biography tells me that, like his protagonist Ted, Rowley is from the east coast and now lives in LA. He has worked as a screenwriter and as a freelancer.
I want there to be a blurb that tells us that Lily is based on Rowley’s own dog, and the tale on his own experience. I do a quick browse, and I don’t immediately find that.
I remember wrangles in English classes–does knowing the author’s history inform the reading or does that knowledge change–maybe even corrupt–the reading? Should the work be considered in the context of an author’s life, and of the times and culture, or should the work stand whole and pristine without an exploration of outside influences? The work’s the thing, said my prof. I always voted for researching the author.
Whatever: Lily and the Octopus is a compelling read.
I liked it because it’s an unapologetically gay, down-to-earth, male point of view. At the beginning of the book, the narrator and the dog are talking about hot male actors. So I, of course, assume the narrator is female. It’s not until the narrative voice mentions its shoe size–I believe it was a 13–that I think, Oh. Wait.
Privilege, perhaps, made me assume the voice I heard was female. Making the switch made me realize how much I had in common with that voice. It made me note the differences offered, too.
I remember a prof from my undergrad years saying you could mark a civil rights movement’s maturity and success by the vitriol in its literature. The literature of an emerging movement is harsh, violent, full of invective and obscenity. As the literature grows into acceptance, the voice becomes matter-of-fact: of course, I am reading the intimate thoughts of a Black activist, a Native American woman, a gay man. Of course I am, because that voice belongs to my neighbor. To one of us.
Apart from the rich and compelling story, Lily and the Octopus shows me that.
But the story IS the thing, here; it’s Ted’s love story with Lily, who has been with him from his late twenties to his early forties. Talk about a time of maturing. Ted has gone past a relationship that didn’t nurture. He’s defined friendships and family ties and career aspirations. He has created a life, a grown-up’s way of being.
Lily is firmly at the center of that life, and Lily is patently dying.
Ted’s battle springs mythic; he fights the octopus with medicine and with cunning. He fights it on the rug at his apartment and he fights it on the vast open sea of his imagination. He fights it through Lily’s seizures and her blindness and her pain. He fights until fighting any more would be cruel and wrong.
Lily and the Octopus is heart-breaking and hope inducing. Like another lovely dog book recommended to me by a special young woman, A Dog’s Purpose (my granddaughter Alyssa recommended that one), Lily suggests that our beloved dogs don’t leave us when we die. Instead, they find a way to herd us to where we need to be.
Lily makes Ted a promise. After her death, she keeps it.
I like me that kind of book.
I stretch my leg under the dining room table and my foot nudges Greta’s rump. She huffs at me, and I massage the side she’s presented to me gently. She is not an icon, this little dog; she is neurotic and anti-social and needy. But she is part of the fabric of our lives. These dogs: their stays with us are integral, and too, too short-lived.
Lily and the Octopus helps me appreciate that. I’ll take the current veterinary reprieve; we’ll administer the arthritis medication and we’ll shampoo for the itch. And I’ll try, every day, to celebrate these healthy, rich, annoying, loving days.
Lily and the Octopus reminds me: dog days don’t last forever.