Let’s begin with a dog named Max. Fluffy gray and white coat, a black stripe running from rump to forehead, almond-shaped eyes the color of clouds—the unmistakable markings of the Siberian Husky. His owner sits on the coffee shop stool alongside her boy, the leash relaxed in her hand. She faces in, he faces out, a sentry standing guard near the door of the Gaylord Street restaurant.
My brother whips past Max to find the barista. I get lost in thick, luscious fur, bypassing any thought of the quantities of hair that luxurious coat must shed, and slide right into WOW, rubbing his neck, rubbing his ears, those unblinking gray-blue eyes locked on my face.
Beauty aside, the animal seems extraordinary. The woman is facing me now. “He’s a sweet, gentle boy,” she says, “but he’s lonely.” She strokes his head. “He needs a playmate. We’ll get another pup one of these days.”
Will I get a pup one of these days?
A pup like THIS, heck yeah!
Hold on. To be clear, I’m not acting solely on impulse. I’d been thinking about getting a dog for a while. I’d get close to yes and then a trip would be in the works and what would I do with the dog. Or I’d hear about someone spending several thousand dollars to save their beloved pet after he helped himself to the raw chicken thawing in the kitchen sink, and think nope, there’s a situation I don’t need. Ditto for the stories I heard about pups digging up the yard, dismantling the irrigation system, and gnawing on the trunks of newly planted trees. No thanks.
A Google search that afternoon turns up a half dozen Siberian breeders in a six-state area. I email all of them, inquiring about the availability of a gray and white female pup. The first reply is tagged as a puppy mill by a subsequent breeder. Two kennels had stopped their breeding program; two never replied. I’d nearly given up when I hear from a breeder in San Diego. He has a female he thinks will go into heat around Thanksgiving. If she gets pregnant, the litter would arrive the end of January. The pups would be ready to go home in the spring. Perfect.
Having shamelessly fallen for thick hair and gorgeous eyes without knowing anything about the boy or his type, I decide to spend this time educating myself. I learn that Huskies are escape artists, born to run. They’re bred to make decisions. They need a job. Their stamina is the stuff of legends. They will scale five, even six-foot fences for a chance to run. If the dog spots a bird through an opening in the fence, he’ll push his way through the slats. If necessary, he’ll dig his way out. “But don’t worry,” said the San Diego breeder. “Huskies are smart; they find their way home… eventually.” Personality traits include independent, self-reliant, and aloof. A Husky would rather watch the front door than snuggle on the sofa. He’d rather run than, well, anything.
Task oriented. Willful and independent. Requires daily exercise. I see red flags everywhere, warning that a Husky and I might be too much alike for optimal compatibility. I email the San Diego breeder and pull my name from his list. Maybe next fall, I acquiesce, after the bike trip, before darkness comes again. Maybe then I’ll be ready for a dog of my own.
Three days pass. I’m in my internist’s office on a Monday morning. “I think I know you well enough to say this,” she says. “You’re a skinny white chick. Keep doing what you do for exercise. Weight-bearing activity is best. Do you walk?”
“I love walking, when I have a dog to walk with.”
She tears a strip of paper from the pad on her desk. “Two dogs in my neighborhood came from this breeder,” she says while she writes. She hands me the paper on her way out. “They’re great dogs.”
Back at my desk, I check out Durango Poodles, then call. The breeder and I talk for an hour. Before dinner I venmo my deposit on a puppy from a litter born the week before Christmas.
This is not my first poodle rodeo. In early 2004, four months after Tony and the kids moved in, we dialed the mayhem up a notch and brought a puppy into the fold, a poodle we named Molly. The black bundle of curly hair grew into a stately silver female, athletic and strong, weighing in at a lean 62 pounds.
Molly was a dream, a nearly perfect dog. Granted, once she realized the opportunities afforded by her height, she did her share of counter surfing. She devoured the flourless chocolate cake I’d made for Tony’s birthday one year, and polished off a platter of cookies the following Christmas. When she needed to throw up, she went to the stained, carpeted landing, never out the dog door to the grass. She learned at a young age how to depress the footplate of the bathroom wastebasket with her paw and lift the lid with her muzzle. She’d empty the contents and bring her favorite items into my office. I’d return from a meeting to a work space littered with shredded tissues and all manner of bathroom debris. God only knows what she ate.
Ok, so Molly wasn’t perfect, but she was French through and through and when we put her down ten years later in a spot she chose in the back yard, it nearly killed us. Molly’s passing was the first in a series of losses that summer, turning life on its head and upending everything in my world that was solid and true and real. With Pierce already out of the house, the letting go began in earnest with Molly’s death in May, gained steam when Tess moved into the dorm in June, and was in full force by the time Tony moved out in July. In August I moved Ali out of the neighborhood into campus housing twenty minutes away, and in September, the home I had built seventeen years earlier for Ali and me, the house that had comfortably held our family of five and a dog for a decade, sold.
Ali’s house across the street was empty so I moved in, feeling kicked to the curb and confused, less than whole, painfully aware of my aloneness. I would move from dinner at the island to supine on the sofa, laptop on my thighs, streaming Friday Night Lights and imagining that Coach Taylor had my back. I tried convincing myself that I really was ok, or would be one day, but only halfheartedly believed it. I couldn’t write. Life was too raw. I worked, I worked out, and every day I worried about money.
At night, when sleep wouldn’t come, I watched the thought that had dug a neuro-pathway the size of a trench in my little-girl brain. Up the thought would surface with the force of a geyser, planting itself front and center for another good long look: You can’t manage on your own. Your plate is too full. You can’t do it. Things will fall apart. You’ll fall apart.
It didn’t seem to matter that I’d managed on my own for nearly half of my adult life—working, relocating, changing careers, single parenting. I’d handled everything from buying Ali’s first wheelchair to building a wheelchair-friendly house. None of it mattered. The thought was there, triggered by loss and never louder or more insanely insistent than the winter of my sixty-fourth year: You can’t manage on your own.
The thought held her ground. I cried over her. I argued with her, cursed her, stomped on her. I tried negotiating with her and when she wouldn’t budge, I chewed her up and spit her out. Done. No more. A month later she resurfaced, battered and spent but still alive. Fine, I said, stay if you wish. I’m moving on.
And I did.
This past February I drove my eight-week-old puppy home from Durango. The poor thing threw up four times before settling into my lap and falling asleep. I cradled her bottom with one hand and steered with the other. The crate in the back held a dog bed, a lavender bunny with ears that squeak, and nothing more. Couldn’t do it, couldn’t put the puppy in there, like I couldn’t put five-month-old Ali in the car seat on the ride home from O’Hare all those years ago. I’d waited nearly a year to hold her. No way was I letting go.
I named my dog Scout. Our hair is similarly highlighted, although she’s a natural and me, not so much. Nothing about her cut says poodle, and never will. I don’t expect Scout to ever be as large as Molly, or as regal, but she’s every bit as athletic. Smart, too, and strong. At seven months, she runs with the grace of a gazelle. She loves scrambled eggs. Her favorite toys make noise. Our home looks like a toddler lives here. Chew toys, stuffed animals, and small cotton blankets—the kind a two-year-old snuggles with at nap time—are scattered throughout the house. Once Scout discovered she was tall enough to drink from the toilet, she never looked back. Rub her ears and she melts. Hands down, she’s the friendliest creature I’ve ever met.
On a Monday in June, we spot a woman walking her Husky on our way to doggie daycare. Scout’s riding shotgun, sitting tall and alert, clipped into her doggie seatbelt. I scratch behind one caramel-colored ear. She turns her gaze away from the Husky and looks at me.
“I’m glad you’re my dog, Scout.” I’ve not told her about my fleeting infatuation with another breed. I imagine the piles of fur coming off that Husky and smile at my non-shedding poodle, the fastest dog on the block, an extrovert whose best friend is a pug named Moo.
Early last Saturday, Scout and I walk up Oneida. We usually see a dog or two along the route, but at six on a weekend morning, nobody’s out. At the far end of campus, Scout slows down to sniff the wet grass. I drop the leash and walk another twenty feet, then stop and check in. She’s standing where I left her, perfectly still, watching for my hand to reach into the pouch at my waist.
“Come Scout!” She sprints past me and loops back, circling twice before coming to a stop. She makes eye contact and sits, a smile on her face, tongue hanging out. “Good girl.” She takes the treat and leans in for the head rub.
The thought that I can’t manage on my own still pops up now and then. She never stays for long. There’s no point; she’s lost her power. The grief and the fear I carried the year the thought hung on with a vengeance have lifted. I trust life again. I see the thought for what she is: a leftover remnant from childhood, no longer relevant—as if she ever were—and not worth the time or the energy it would take to engage. I’d rather go for a walk with my dog.