It was the Saturday before Mother’s Day. I was 6 years old and my brother Miles was 4. He and I were pulling his red wagon around the neighborhood collecting newspapers for a school paper drive –a common activity of recycling and fundraising for schools of that day. The woman who lived behind us had four kids and a black Scottish Terrier that we had played with often. She welcomed us at her back door to come in and pick up their newspapers, but as she opened the screen door to let us in, the dog jumped over her shoulder, grabbed onto my brother’s upper lip in midair, landing both dog and brother in a pile on the back stoop. Seventy-five years later I can still see the red blobs of my brother’s blood splattered onto the white kitchen floor as she carried him across the room.
It all worked out but not before our nurse mother spent Mother’s Day weekend in the hospital with Miles, and the quarantine period of the dog insured that he did not have Rabbis, and the two plastic surgery operations had put Miles’s face back together. We were told, being a boy, he could wear a mustache to cover the scars, and he really didn’t need to. It’s worked out for me too, but my scars have meant that I’ve never really been a dog person, and that’s been a problem.
My son and eight-year-old granddaughter have recently adopted a new dog. I have not been as excited as they or I, would like me to be. This right dog for them came along after a year of COVID sheltering in place, a time when many families across the country have found a need to adopt a pet. An 11-month-old house broken, and leash-trained white husky, she is an answer to Krya’s prayers. I learned from Kyra’s mother that she has spent months praying, played and pretending to be a white Husky dog just like this one. And did you know white dogs are good omens and bring peace?
I do know that dogs are more often protectors than predators. When my children were small and we lived in a lovely fixer-upper home in Detroit, Michigan, our home was frequently broken into by teenagers looking for money or drugs. The police suggested if we got a dog, it might cut down on the foot traffic going through our house. “Just the fact that they bark is often a deterrent to avoid your house and move on to the next one.” I resolved to get over my terror of dogs and after extensive research on various breeds settled on a large white Samoyed dog, we named Samantha. I reasoned that since these dogs were bred to sleep with people to keep them warm in Siberian winters, she should be safe with my children and with me. The plan worked and we never had another break in until we were moving from that house and we had gone back to get our furniture. We left Samantha at our new home, and the house was broken into that night.
Since dogs and cats become members of our families their deaths are felt as the loss of a close loved one. For non-pet lovers this may be hard to understand. Their “it’s just a dog” comments are an example of what is known as disenfranchised grief, meaning a loss not worthy of grieving.
Samantha grew older along with the kids and by the time they were off to college she was some time past her life expectancy. Each time they left for school they would say goodbye and give the following command. “Ok Samantha, don’t die till I get back home.” But one weekend, when we were all out of town except Ken, she hemorrhaged, and after he got her into the car, she died in the back seat on the way to the vet. By now the funeral industry for people had expanded to include pet cemeteries and crematoriums, and sympathy cards for people grieving a pet. We had Samantha’s remains cremated so we could hold a back yard funeral when everyone was home from college.
Where I’ve turned dogs over to trainers who have spent a lot of time training me or loaned a young puppy who was chewing all the electrical cords in the house to a dog-loving friend in order for her three little dogs to train my dog–my son Kevin is a kind of dog whisperer. Some of the most meaningful and longest relationships he’s had have been with dogs. He used to tease, “I aim to be the kind of man my dogs believe I am.” He understands taking on a dog is a life-long commitment for as long as the dog will live and I’m proud of him for the willingness to do that. He knows as I do, there will most likely come a time and ceremony like the one we had for Samantha in our back yard. We’ll all thank the dog we are burying for all the joy and fun they’ve brought us and then maybe we’ll laugh and repeat what his brother Ken said at the end, “STAY Samantha-STAY.