In May I started work on another dollhouse project, an Orchid House kit from Greenleaf. This was to be my Red Panda House. I envisioned it as home to an extended family of red pandas, to be painted on the house, inside and out. The red panda is a strong contender for my vote for world’s cutest animal. I first learned of the existence of this delightful-looking critter when it was featured in the Pandamania curriculum for Vacation Bible School used by our church in 2011. Since then, it’s become a fixture in pop culture, as in this year’s Disney Pixar film, Turning Red. Development and climate change increasingly threaten the animal’s native habitat, the high-altitude forests of Asia. As a result, the red panda is now considered endangered. I felt the need to build a little painted house that, in my mind, at least, would be a sanctuary for several of these distinctively marked, adorably furry charmers.
This summer, my thoughts rarely strayed too far from Kiko, as I watched his health decline precipitously. My formerly aloof little dog, who typically preferred his own, undisturbed space, had become my constant, needy, anxious shadow. I couldn’t concentrate enough to write much of anything. Few subjects seemed worthwhile or interesting. Plus, it was nearly always time to take Kiko out for another hot, uncomfortable walk. He would be miserable, but perhaps less miserable than he was pacing the house. My mind was a muddle of discordant and undisciplined thoughts. The task of stringing together even a few sentences was often too daunting to tackle.
But work on the Red Panda House helped unclutter my brain. I could cut out a few balsa wood pieces, do some gluing, a touch of painting. I could do it little by little, here and there, a few minutes at a time, yet still know I was making progress. It was slow going, but that didn’t matter. I proceeded methodically, step by small step. Assembling my Red Panda House became, therefore, a therapeutic venture.
In July, as I began to see that we’d be heartless and selfish to let our beloved dog continue to suffer much further in this life, my mother said, “When Kiko is gone, you should paint a picture of him.” She was right, of course. I started thinking about how best to memorialize him. I’d paint a big picture, at some point. But I could also, more immediately, give him a place among the red pandas on the house in progress. I’d completed the front, but the sides still needed inhabitants.
One of the reasons I find the red panda so emphatically appealing is that it reminds me of Kiko. They could be cousins. While the face of the panda is flatter, more like that of a teddy-bear, the muzzle less pointed, the distinctive, perfectly symmetrical markings are similar, as are the ever-perky ears. Like my dog, they have thick, primarily dark red, double-coated fur. Kiko would appear to be very much at home with a group of red pandas, at least when that home was a cozy painted dollhouse of my own creation.
Not long after we said our final goodbye, I painted Kiko onto the house, twice. On one side, he’s a puppy, at about twelve weeks. On the other, he looks as he did on his last day in this realm, at fourteen years, eleven months and three weeks. And like his companions the red pandas, he’s out of harm’s way among the brightly colored flowers and foliage. Never at risk, never worried, never confused. Always present, always confident, always content. And when I’m at home, never far from me.