The perfect reflection of God
This is a story I wrote in 2009 that ultimately appeared in Chicken Soup for Soul: What I Learned from the Dog. It’s about learning to love my mom’s dog and part of my journey in coming to terms with my mom’s untimely death.
“Look at that adoration!” the woman with the enormous cat said about the dog, who was wandering around sniffing at things while trailing his leash. She had been interjecting questions to me while fawning over him. I was standing at the reception desk in the veterinarian’s office getting my latest dose of dog-owner encouragement from the vet tech.
“What kind of dog is he?”
“I don’t really know – I think part Lhasa Apso.”
“How old is he?”
“We’re not sure, he was adopted.”
“What’s his name?”
“Benji. He’s my mom’s dog. Was…”
I answered distractedly. I was trying to keep everything the vet tech said straight while keeping a straight face over the amount of the check I was writing for the exam, vaccinations, specialty food, and medicine. I had inherited a dog with special needs.
I never knew I wanted a dog. A single mom, I had three young children already. And now I felt like I had a new baby: he woke me up at night, sometimes more than once. For what, I didn’t know.
He wouldn’t eat food out of his dish; it had to be on the floor. And he didn’t seem to be able to eliminate unless he was attached to one end of a leash. He was used to going out in the morning, mid-afternoon, and at night. But that didn’t work with my telecommuting and childcare schedule all that well. So, I was often impatient with him, frequently muttering, “Tick tick tick, dog, I’ve got a 3:30 conference call!” as he stopped to sniff, root, and “scroot,” as my grandmother used to call the doggie-dirt-kicking thing which always sent ground matter flying in a perfect trajectory towards the other end of the leash to which I was attached. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr!
I tried putting him out into the side yard and would sing in a falsetto through gritted teeth, “Go potty, doggie! G’wan, go potty!” But apparently he did not go potty on command like my mom’s former dog. He would barkandbarkandbark at the side door, which was distracting during my conference calls, and no doubt annoying to the neighbors. The kids were too young to a) walk the dog and b) stay alone while I walked him at night, and as a result, I often found a puddle somewhere the next morning.
And, even though I gave him a bath once a week or so, I didn’t really like how he smelled. “Stinky little beast,” I thought to myself, no doubt scowling, as I cleaned up the aftermath of the bath – wet floors, wet walls, and enough wet towels to trigger just one more load of laundry. I didn’t want him on the furniture and I certainly didn’t want him in my room. That was the cat’s domain. My sons didn’t mind him in their room, though, and often fought over whose bed he’d sleep on.
“God help me,” I frequently said aloud, and would then add, “right,” because I could hear my mom’s voice in my head reminding me, “He will.”
One day, I had been brought to my knees yet again to clean up a mess on the kitchen floor. “This is it!” I grumbled loudly. “I just! Can’t! Take it! Anymore!” I resolved to ask the vet about finding a new home for the dog at our next appointment. Surely he deserved someone who was more enthusiastic about dog ownership.
The vet was understanding and compassionate, telling me she could imagine I’d be overwhelmed. That’s an understatement, I scoffed inwardly, and tears threatened to spill over anew as I remembered the time when I had flung myself face down on my bed, sobbing, lamenting that I felt completely alone and resentful that I was in charge of “everything.” I could no longer call my mom to ask “How do you cook leftover lasagna without drying it out?” Or “Can you take so-and-so to soccer practice?” Or “Do these shoes work with this skirt?” Or “Do you want to come over for dinner and ‘Family Movie Night?’ ”
But I couldn’t indulge in self-pity for too long; I know I’m not really in charge anyway. That much was perfectly clear when my mom, who was healthy and vibrant just the weekend before she was hospitalized, became sick overnight, slipped into a coma the next day, and passed away less than two days after that. People asked me, “How?” “Why?” “Had she been sick?” “I don’t know,” “I don’t know,” and “No,” were all I could answer. Doctors couldn’t explain it either. Only God knew.
The vet assured me it would be easy to find a new home for the dog. What a relief! But after the comment from the cat-woman, I cried all the way home. I knew I couldn’t go through with it. It would break my kids’ hearts.
The vet pointed out that there may be some housebreaking “regression,” likely because I couldn’t indulge the dog the same way my mother could. May be? But then I imagined how Benji must have felt going from being an “only child” to one of four (five if you count the cat) – and an orphaned one, at that – needing my love and attention. Thus I made up my mind to begin actively loving him: greeting him, petting him, smiling at him, and singing to him, as I did my children (and the cat).
Indeed, having a dog prevented me from hibernating that winter and isolating in my grief over the sudden an unexpected loss of my mother. A friend at church had asked me if I had been away because I looked like I had “some color.” I told him, “No, but I am outside with my dog every day for at least half an hour.” If I hadn’t been out one day in February, I wouldn’t have seen the buds growing on a tree that had been felled and left for dead during a December ice storm. As I stood in the cold drizzle, waiting for Benji to finish sniffing a pile of leaves at the base of the tree, I was grateful to have a reason to get out, and yet one more reason to go on.
The day Benji and I walked to the town hall to get a new license, the town clerk asked me, “What kind of dog is he?”
I knelt down on the floor and rearranged his overgrown puppy cut. “He’s mostly Lhasa Apso.”
“How old is he?”
“Probably eight to 10, but I’m not sure, he was adopted.”
“What’s his name?”
“Benji,” I said, distractedly, admiring how his long silky tail curled over his back.
“Look at how he can’t take his eyes off of you! What adoration!”
My dog wanted to love me all along – it was me who needed to open my heart. I came to understand what my mom meant when she said that a dog is a perfect reflection of God.