Sometimes the family dog adds a love to the family dynamic in an unexpected way.
“Poor Toby,” John said one night as we lay in bed. We were listening to one of the kids cry into the dog’s curly white coat after an exceptionally bad day. “He didn’t know he was going to be a therapy dog.”
I smiled despite my stomachache over the unhappy child. It was true. We didn’t know he was going to be a therapy dog. Even in that moment, the dog was helping to calm me. I couldn’t find the words to make the bad day disappear, but I knew that Toby—enthusiastically licking the salty tears away—would help it fade into the background.
Toby came to us from a dog rescue in rural Tennessee. Along with dozens of other formerly abandoned dogs, he traveled to New England on an enormous tractor-trailer we met up with at a highway rest stop. A burly, tattooed man called out my name and beamed at me as he placed a shivering bundle of white in my arms. We knew we were receiving a gift that day, but we couldn’t yet appreciate its impact.
Brennan was nine at the time and his shaky quests for independence, his growing wish to be out from under our thumbs, found a focus in caring for Toby, in the early mornings when he snapped on the dog’s leash and negotiated how far he was allowed to walk him. Liddy suffers from anxiety, but she found new footing in helping to earn Toby’s trust—carefully cataloging his likes and dislikes, delighting in newly found ways to draw him out.
Brennan captured our situation perfectly one night at the dinner table. “I’m so glad we have Toby now,” he said. “It’s like he made every part of our lives better.”
John arrived home from work late one evening. Still wearing his suit, barely inside the front door, he wrestled Toby for a well-chewed, stuffed green Frankenstein doll. This is their nightly routine. “Daddy said he never wanted to get a dog, but it turns out he likes Toby as much as we do,” Liddy said. Not least of all, I expect, because the dog is the family member guaranteed to greet him at the door happily, without a single complaint or accusation.
As for me, the aspect of dog ownership I most dreaded — having to walk him, every day, no matter what — has turned out to be one of the very best parts. If it were my choice, I would hole up at home all day, and the solitary life of a writer often allows for that. But it turns out the long walks with Toby on the bike path, the encounters with other dogs and their owners, are just the thing I need.
On one of last winter’s most bitter-cold mornings, John was shocked when I offered to take Toby out. I piled on layers to protect the both of us against the elements, and we stepped out into the crystalline frozen snow when no one else was brave enough to be out there. The neighborhood was still and silent and as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it. If it weren’t for Toby, I would have missed it.
The kids and I were walking Toby on a warmer day this spring when Liddy asked a question that had been troubling her. She spoke in the slow deliberate way she has when she’s trying to find the right words. “Mommy,” she said. “If Toby dies — when Toby dies — will we send a letter to his old owner, to tell her? Because even though she gave him up I think she will really, really, really want to know.”
We do not actually know this former owner; we only know that she sent Toby spiraling into weeks of homelessness, trauma and shelter life when she met a man who didn’t like dogs. But Liddy’s willingness to look beyond that act, her belief in the anonymous woman’s continued bond with Toby, hint at the wellspring of faith and generosity that opens up with the love of a dog.
For Brennan, though, Liddy’s question — and the idea of losing Toby — triggered an angry reaction. “Why did you have to bring that up?” he said to Liddy. “It’s a stupid thing to say.”
I gave Liddy’s hand a squeeze, ready to intervene, but I didn’t have to. Brennan stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and crouched down to Toby. “Are you my crazy dog? Are you my fluffy puppy?” And Liddy laughed at the high-pitched squeal Toby let out, and knelt down, too, cupping the dog’s face in her hands. Toby began to wriggle and paw at them, anticipating the affection he knew was coming.
“Fluffy-fluffy-fluffy -fluffy-fluffy-fluffy-fluffy!” The kids rubbed his ears and neck and he rolled onto his back for a belly scratch. Then Brennan freed Toby from the leash and the three of them raced toward home, leaving me — and their argument —behind. Their little bodies whirled and bounded down the street, happy to simply be.
Photo by Megan Dempsey