Saturday, July 22, 2006

For the Love of a Mutt

It does not get much worse than a rainy day on a family vacation to Florida. That might be why 14 years ago, my mother loaded my sister, brother and I into the car and took us to a local animal shelter in Naples, Florida to escape the inevitable cabin fever.

I remember being startled by the miserable conditions at the shelter. We were lead down a dark hall to an even darker room where the dogs were kept. It was loud and smelled like…you know what. My siblings and I hung back, still unsure of what we were actually doing there. My mother followed a woman to the very back of the room, kneeled down, and reached into what looked like an empty black hole. Incredibly, she showed no fear even though all around her dogs were barking, growling and heaving themselves against the doors of their cages.

She emerged with what looked to be a puppy but we could not be sure. A small, homely dog covered with matted black fur with a white patch under its chin. The woman said that she had been adopted and returned. We all walked into the shelter's office where my mom placed the dog down. We all stared at her. The dog immediately found some gum on the ground, ate it, and then peed. "We'll take her", my mom said, scooping her up. Somebody named her Oreo.

The three of us kids were still in shock. We had never discussed getting a dog. And my mom was a certified "cat person". My father had grown up with dogs and used to dream aloud about having one someday. A Springer Spaniel – fancy, pure bred, aristocratic, outdoorsy…much like him. We came home and my mother presented him with Oreo, not much larger than a handful. My father was shaving in the bathroom, and he met Oreo eye to eye. My father – clean, pristine and perfectly groomed. The dog – filthy, panting and barely recognizable as a dog beneath a tangle of fur and god knows what. "Is this a rat?" my father asked, only half-joking. "We have a dog now" my mother announced. "This is Oreo". My father was less than thrilled. "She's a mutt" he said. "She's a schnoodle", she protested. "Half schnauzer, half poodle". We all knew that she was giving Oreo more credit than she deserved, and it would not be the last time. I could see my father's pure-bred fantasy of fishing trips in Eddie Bauer gear with his Springer Spaniel sitting beside him was dissolving. Oreo howled. My father turned away and continued shaving, pretending to grimace but we all saw a sparkle in his eye.

As the years went by, Oreo was a constant companion for my parents and particularly, for my mother. She stayed small, with a loud bark reserved for the doorbell, the cat across the street and any new visitor to the house. Oreo tried her best to serve as watch dog, though she was dwarfed by even a raccoon. My mother dragged Oreo everywhere, a fuzzy, drooling appendage. When my siblings and I left the house for college and beyond, my parents still had a child in Oreo -- to feed, to clean up after, to try and teach things to. Most of all, she filled the house with youthful activity and chaos that would have vanished in the absence of children. Oreo loved table scraps and when there were none, my mother would cook a chicken, allegedly for my father but we were never really sure. She also loved car rides, belly rubs and the sight of either of my parents first thing in the morning. She won my father over with her loyal and loving demeanor, and despite her lack of pleasing aesthetics, my father walked proudly beside her down the street, even when picking up poop in his business suit.

Oreo never got any better looking. She always looked somewhat unwashed even after a
visit to the groomer's, her eyes were often leaking something and she gnawed the fur off
of her paws. My parents live part time in an upscale New York condo where Oreo was confronted daily by Chihuahuas, Shih-tzus, Labradors, or any other chic dog-of-the-moment. But neither my parents nor Oreo ever shrank back in embarrassment. My parents were often stopped in the street and asked about her, because there was something irresistibly cute in her ugliness. "Is she a puppy?" they would ask, even as she reached 10 years old. "What breed is she?" It became clear that even in the dog-eat-dog city of New York, Oreo wore her mutt status stylishly.

Like anyone else, as Oreo aged into what would be her late eighties in human years, she required a cocktail of medications. She accepted them only when spoon fed by my mother, mixed with some canned food that was reserved for special treats – the veritable "spoonful of sugar". We were told that she had congestive heart failure for years, but Oreo's effervescence and zest belied that prognosis. Even when her walk slowed, and her eyes clouded, she maintained her "puppy personality", flipping over in the snowy grass, following my parents into their room at night despite her bed downstairs, greeting strangers with a bark that said "hello" and "you better not mess with my mommy" all at once. Seizures ensued – they could never really tell us why. My mother would hold her afterwards, often covered in urine, and tell her that she would be fine.

My daughter Chloe was born this past summer – the first grandchild. We did not know how Oreo would react. It became clear that she feared being displaced. She dragged her frail legs from room to room when my mother cared for Chloe – following her, as if to remind her that she was here first. We never needed reminding. "You are my baby too" my mother would call out, as Oreo would sullenly watch her every move with palpable jealousy. One night when my mother was out, as Chloe sat in her little bouncy seat and I sat on the floor beside her, Oreo limped over to us. I hovered carefully as any new mother would, despite the fact that Oreo never exhibited an ounce of aggression. She wagged her tail with as much fervor as she could muster at 13 years old, as if to say, "We can keep her".

Over the last few weeks, Oreo stopped walking. She used her bark to alert my parents to
carry her to the bathroom. She watched the family's hustle and bustle from her pillow in the corner, wanting to join in as she always had but opting instead to observe restfully. Bystanders would recommend that my parents put her down. But it was an impossible thought. After hundreds of car trips together, my mother could not conceive of putting Oreo into the passenger seat for a final journey together. We hoped nature would take its course – a divine intervention such as the one that brought Oreo to us in the first place.

Unfortunately, Oreo's doctor made a careless mistake that ultimately took her life. A rabies vaccination later deemed unnecessary and too lethal for her kidneys to bear. She held on for a few days. My mother fed her with a syringe, held her close and told her what a good dog she had been. A long goodbye culminated in Oreo's passing in her sleep, on her favorite pillow, defying the doctor who told my parents that she would not go that way.

What I did not know 14 years ago is the joy that a dog can bring into your life. The fantastic harmony of mutual unselfish love, the deliciousness of routines such as walks and baths and late night feedings. The irreplaceable gift of an enthusiastic greeting every time you walk through the door. These things never grow old, even when our dogs do.

Goodbye, little Oreo. I regret the times that I did not stop to pet your smelly head. I thank you for the love you gave to us and the laughs we had at your expense. I am glad that my mother took the risk of reaching into that black hole 14 years ago. For as is often the case, the brightest lights can emerge from the darkest places.


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