I picked up “When Harry Met Minnie,” by Martha Teichner, thinking it was a story about dogs. I was wrong. While the dogs, two adorable but quirky bull terriers named, obviously, Harry and Minnie, are part of this story — it’s so much more. Teichner writes about serendipity, chance meetings that change lives, our love for our dogs and how they enrich our lives, the utter failure that our medical system can be for us in times of need, and above all, a friendship that arose quickly but became of supreme importance and changed the lives of both friends.
Serendipity is strange. As Teichner knows, and as many of us in animal rescue know, often, chance encounters lead to fabulous outcomes for animals and rescuers. In the case of Harry and Minnie, no animal rescuers were involved. Only Stephen, a good friend of Carol Fertig, an artist who was dying of liver cancer and desperate to find a home for her beloved bull terrier, Harry. She was resigned to having him euthanized if a home could not be found because there was no alternative for this senior dog on many medications and with many health issues. Harry was her joy, and a truly emotional scene in the memoir that we (dog lovers) can relate to is when Carol talks to Teichner about telling her doctor that there was no joy in her life. That she was tired, exhausted all the time. He told her, “Every day, do something that brings you joy.” When Teichner asked her what she had been doing, she said, “Every day I lie down on the floor next to Harry. I stay there with him and pet him. That brings me joy.”
So when Stephen, during their conversation, finds out that Teichner’s dog Goose had died and she only had one bull terrier, Minnie, he asked if she would take Harry when the time came. And that’s the beginning of the story. Teichner’s telling diverges into other instances of serendipity in her life, and we learn a lot about her and the other dogs she’s had and loved. We also learn how important her dogs are to her and the lengths to which she goes to make sure they are well loved and cared for even with her vagabond life as a traveling correspondent for CBS.
One of the quite lovely parts of Teichner’s memoir is that in spite of their differences, she and Carol truly developed a strong friendship in the short time they knew each other. Teichner, a plain dresser whose life was spent dealing with wars, insurrections, travel, and hard news, met Carol, an artist whose life was all about design, beauty, and the pursuit of art. Two very different women — a common love of their dogs, both bull terriers.
One of the very difficult parts of the memoir is reading about Carol’s ending, and how our medical system is all too often likely to fail. When Carol was very ill, she fell and broke several bones in her back. The young intern at the hospital came into her room the next morning to give her the results of her tests. He told her she needed major surgery right away to fix her spinal fractures and that there would be months of intensive rehab. Carol was astounded. She responded, “I won’t be alive in two months. Didn’t you read my history?” Cruel, incompetent, horrible. But perhaps even worse was when Carol was told that because she wasn’t going to be treated for the broken bones in her back, they couldn’t admit her to the hospital. She had to go home. Mind you, she was dying of cancer, had pneumonia, and couldn’t stand because of the pain. No matter. Medicare regulations said no. She needed twenty-four hour care, and she had wanted hospice services at home, but she wasn’t considered close enough to death for that. She was sent to a hospice facility, but then, after more mistreatment, incompetence, paper pushers, and frustration, she was told she couldn’t stay. Be prepared to get angry at how the elderly are treated in our country in the final days of their lives unless they are wealthy enough to be able to afford around-the-clock care. Most of us, like Carol, are not.
And there are the dogs: the hook that made many of us read Teichner’s memoir. The adorable bull terriers, Harry and Minnie. And they are adorable. And quirky. Teichner gives us the lowdown, and many dog lovers will realize after reading about the foibles of bull terriers, boy am I glad I have a (fill in any other breed or mix). Their antics make us laugh, and their passing makes us cry. Reading about the importance of these dogs in the lives of both Teichner and Carol hits home, and causes us to reflect on the truth that no matter how different we are, there are so many of us with this in common — the utter abandon with which we love our dogs and cats. As an aside, I hope that this book encourages all pet loving readers to make plans for their pets in the case of their death. As rescuers can attest, there are far too many animals who end up in kill shelters because their owners died and had made no provision for them. Too often, children or other family members refuse to take in the now homeless survivors. And they too often are killed because they are seniors or have health conditions that haven’t been treated or are just too big, too unruly, too much. Carol made sure that wouldn’t happen with her careful planning. And Harry’s remaining years were made wonderful because of that planning.
While the story Teichner tells is lovely, the writing is what makes this memoir compelling. The manner in which the story is told, the dialogue, the descriptions, all combine to create a tale that is engrossing. We want to know how it ends even though we know from the start that Carol is going to die. As is often the case in life, it’s not about the ending, but about the journey. And we are all the better for having met these two extraordinary women, Martha and Carol, and their two extraordinary dogs, Harry and Minnie.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Celadon Books, for review purposes.