Monday, September 20, 2010

Life With a Dog

by guest blogger Jay Varner, author of Nothing Left to Burn. He will be appearing at Flyleaf Books on October 2 at 2pm.

This past summer, my wife and I adopted a dog.

Both of us discussed adding another pet in our home for years, but had always come up with excuses—how would the cat react, we’re too busy to train a puppy, is our house even big enough? We’d always wanted one of those monstrous and strong dogs that could pull an ox cart—preferably while loaded with an actual ox. We’d investigated the Bernese Mountain Dog and the Great Pyrenees, sweet, loveable, huggable animals that would require a new annex to any home. A pure bred of either breed would have required an off shore bank account to pay for not only the puppy but the truck loads of food required. And, down the line, the therapy we’d need after the big dog’s relatively short life ended.

We’d grown up around pets and understood not just the love they give, but also the inevitable heartbreak. So we knew how important it was to find the right dog for us.

In 1979, not long after my parents married, my father drove to a breeder near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to buy a puppy, but what would really become their first child. There was never any doubt about what type of dog he wanted. When he turned sixteen, my father volunteered for the local fire company. By the time he graduated high school, classmates wrote in his yearbook, “Good luck and stay safe. (How many days has it been since a fire?)” Naturally, he wanted a Dalmatian.

During the days of horse-drawn carriages, Dalmatians came to be associated with fire service in America. The dogs interacted well with horses and often ran as the lead en route to a fire, clearing a path so fire fighters could arrive quickly. Though my father drove his pick-up truck to fire scenes, he wanted to honor the breed’s history.

As a young couple, my parents couldn’t afford the pick of the litter. Instead he saw a puppy considered defective by breed standards because of the large black patch on her head and ear. On the drive out of Harrisburg, they passed the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, where a near melt-down had occurred just days before. My father joked that the dog’s spots would glow in the dark. He named her Patches.

Dalmatians can be a tricky breed. They require a lot of exercise, are predisposed to deafness, and are sometimes difficult with children. When my mother became pregnant with me, people worried the dog would maul a baby. But the opposite happened—she started sitting next to my crib as though guarding me. She never seemed like a pet and, as I grew up, I called her my sister. Each day when I came home from school, she stood at the door, wagging her tail, waiting to see me. My father held her on his lap, allowed her to sleep in bed, and even bathed her in tomato juice when a skunk once sprayed her. One summer night, during a thunderstorm, Patches—who always quivered at the sound of thunder—ran down the cellar steps but caught a toenail in the carpet. After the crash, we saw her at the bottom of the stairs with blood pooling from her foot. We lived in rural Pennsylvania, long before the days of 24-hour emergency pet care, and my father called upon his emergency training. He wrapped her paw in a cold compress, pressed tight, and waited. Long after midnight, with a pile of bloody washcloths on the floor, we finally went to bed. I have no doubt he saved Patches life that night.

Unfortunately, nothing could save his. My father was diagnosed with cancer in 1988. He endured chemo treatments. He shed his hair, he puffed from steroids, and finally the disease reached remission. The bone marrow transplant was supposed to extend his life by twenty-years, but the cancer returned in the summer of 1990. A month later, he was dead.

My mother and I remained behind. And so did Patches. We’d always loved that dog, but knowing that my father had chosen her, we both understood that we had to take special care of her. As she aged, she started to wobble from hip dysplasia. Sometimes she didn’t make it to the door in time for bathroom trips. During winter, we wrapped her head with a bandana to shield her ears from the bitter wind and swathed her in one of my father’s old flannel shirts to keep her warm. She’d become an old lady, and my mother always said, she needed tender loving care. Part of that care was realizing when her discomfort outweighed the happiness we felt to have her in our lives. That was in 1996, and that had been the last dog I had.

That is, until this summer when my wife came home from a coffee shop one day and said, “How much do you want a dog?”

She’d met a young woman about to leave for med school. Unfortunately, she couldn’t take her beagle with her. Though she’d asked a few friends if they wanted to adopt him, nobody had given her a definite answer. If she couldn’t find a home for him in a week’s time, she would leave him at the ASPCA.

“He’s really cute,” my wife said. “And his name is Early.”

Early was at least a cute name. But a beagle? That wasn’t quite the beast of a dog I’d imagined. We’d try him out for a night or two and see what happened. Of course, once a dog comes into your home like that, it’s a foregone conclusion—he’s staying for good.

So now we have Early, the two-year old beagle. He nearly knocks me down with love each time I walk in the door. If my wife and I have had a bad day, he curls up between us on the couch and plops his head in our lap. He knows immediately when he’s misbehaved, such as eating the cat’s food or chewing on a pen. He’s nervous on car rides and stinks up the inside of my truck with pungent gas. Can you say any of that about people—except for maybe the gas?

And to think, we’d delayed this decision for so long, lost in the excuses of our daily routine. Let me tell you something—nothing you’re doing is as important as loving a fellow creature, and feeling his unconditional affection in return.

Each year for Christmas, I still give my mother a Dalmatian calendar. She opens it up and smiles at the beautiful dogs. Neither of us says a word, but we’re both thinking back to Patches. My mother looks at the pictures a bit longer and then always says, “None are as pretty as my girl. We lucked out with her.”

My parents and I did. I’m happy my wife and I now have as well.