By Tanya Ward Goodman
The creature is deformed. Maybe it has only three legs. I don’t see a tail. Or maybe I see a lump where a tail should be. It’s hunched down at the river’s edge, dirty tan fur, ears back against its skull, head down as though ducking a blow.
“It’s a dog,” my son says.
“Let it be,” I say. “Keep riding.”
We’ve had a great morning tooling around on our bicycles up into the park and down the path by the river. The physicality of biking keeps us from talking too much so it’s easier to enjoy each other’s company. Peaceful co-existence is sometimes a rare commodity for my near twelve-year-old son and me, so I’m happy to ride forever.
But now Theo is off his bike. He’s crouching down, making his body as small as he can. He’s pouring water from his bottle into his cupped hand. He’s reaching out to the dog.
“I don’t want it to bite you,” I call out. The dog is so small, he isn’t a huge threat, but I’m a worrier, so I hop off my bike and stay ready.
My son puts his finger to his lips. “I’m being careful,” he whispers.
“Here boy,” he says to the dog. “It’s okay.”
My son is not an animal person. That title belongs to my nine-year-old daughter who weeps over the death of a moth and makes up names for every dog or cat we glimpse in passing. My son has been known to shoot at bees with his squirt gun and is afraid of spiders and horses and even butterflies.
“Hey there,” he says. “It’s okay.”
And it is. The dog knows it, too. I watch as the creature unfurls itself to the sweetness that is my boy. The dog has four legs and those legs carry it up the hill toward my son’s outstretched hand. The dog has a tail and that tail emerges from between his legs and begins to wag as my boy murmurs encouragement. And then, suddenly, this little Chihuahua combo platter of a dog is offering up his golden belly to my boy and my boy is smiling up at me with pride and affection and accomplishment.
“He likes me,” Theo says. “He knows I’m here to help.”
We have a dog at home. And a hamster. We don’t need another dog.
“Can we keep him?” It’s a predictable question.
“We’re riding bikes,” I say as a way not to answer. “We’ve got to be five miles from home.”
“We could call Papa,” my son says.
“Let’s ride back a bit and see if he follows,” I suggest. I’d like to spare my husband the discomfort of this moment as long as possible. He’s not big on pets, but moved by love, he accepted two old cats as part of the package that included me and later opened his heart to our current dog.
My son nods and remounts his bike. “Ride slowly,” he says to me. He whistles for the dog. The little guy perks his ears and trots alongside Theo’s bike. My son’s smile gets a little bit wider.
The dog trails us for nearly a mile. I call my husband.
“We found this dog,” I say. “Theo’s really attached.” I wonder if he can bring the car. I’m not really sure what I’m asking. I don’t want another dog. I know my husband doesn’t want another dog, but I can’t think past this moment on the bike path. My husband is quiet on the line. I can hear him breathing. I imagine he’s thinking about the simple, clean life he would have if he hadn’t married me.
“I trust you,” he says.
I’m not sure I should be trusted. I’ve been unbalanced by a summer of conflict. My son craves independence and responsibility, but can’t seem to end a disagreement with his sister without using his fist. He loses shoes and water bottles and back packs and leaves damp towels in his bed. He is, in turns, angry and dismissive, weepy and clingy. The turmoil of the twelve-year-old has blurred my own thinking.
“His name is River,” Theo says. “Tell Papa that I saved him.”
When Theo was three, he would sometimes bite me. He once knocked my sunglasses off my face with his fist. He was three when he first tested out the fierce phrase, “I hate you.” This summer, that angry three year-old energy fills my son’s big, strong near-man body. Though he no longer bites, he shoulders into me with the force of linebacker. When he slams the door, the whole house shakes. He argues every choice from breakfast cereal to bedtime. From his point of view I am a brick wall waiting to be torn down. It is a balm and a blessing to see his search for autonomy lead him to the gentler role of dog savior.
The dog comes home after a quick trip to the vet where we find he has fleas, but no worms. He hasn’t been “chipped” and is still “intact,” which makes everyone believe he has been abandoned. “He has a good heart,” the vet says. “You’re both lucky.”
That first night, I wonder exactly how lucky when River cries and cries in his crate and Theo cries and cries in his bed.
“We’re torturing him,” my son says.
“It’s okay,” I say. I realize that as flexible as I am about the “idea” of another dog, I am more rigid in the face of reality. A puppy has as much respect for parental sleep as a new baby. It’s been almost ten years since I had an infant and need a full night’s rest. My patience wears thinner with the waning of the hours. River’s cries grow shrill. Theo sobs uncontrollably. Exhausted, we let the dog out of the crate and close him in Theo’s room only to wake a few hours later to the smell of shit and the sound of frantic nails against the wood door. It’s a long, long night.
In the morning, Theo takes it upon himself to scrub the carpet and take the dog for a walk. He’s trying to be responsible and mature.
“You’re working really hard,” I say. He smiles with pleasure.
“I will totally take care of River,” he assures us. “If you let me keep him, I will do everything.”
I ask my son to make a list of pros and cons. On the pro side, Theo adds “first personal pet,” “more exercise” and “learn to be more careful.”
“Having a dog will be gratifying,” he says, “because I’m his father and it’s a lot of responsibility. It will teach me not to put things off.”
The con side of his list reads: “adds stress/anxiety” and “worry.”
The dog pees and poops on the floor of my son’s bedroom every night. He chews the pillows on the sofa. He eats one of my daughter’s stuffed animals and at least five pencils. I tell Theo he needs to keep the dog on a leash in the house. He’s got to keep him near so that he can teach him how to be good. I remind him to take River out for a walk and to feed him and check his water.
“Riv,” my son says over and over. “Riv.” His voice is a little shriller each time, his tugs on the leash more insistent.
“Do you think this is a good thing?” my husband asks. “I’m in favor of him having some responsibility, but now I’m wondering if that dog isn’t just a mirror of our boy. Maybe it’s too much.”
I’ve been thinking this, too. River and Theo both lack impulse control. In their own ways, they are loud and destructive and maybe a bit wild. There isn’t much difference between a puppy and a twelve-year-old boy, and everyone is suffering in the comparison.
When the dog has been with us a week, Theo decides to build him a home of his own. I’m told it will have a toilet that works, a water bowl, two stories and a ramp. Theo has attached walls made of scrap wood to an old drawer. My daughter glues plastic butterflies to the edge of the drawer and has placed a circle of bright pink feathers beneath a square of fabric for a “feather bed.” It’s not the most practical of dog houses, but River seems happy curled up inside it as they work around him.
“I love to see you two working together,” I say as I go back to my own project. I experience about thirty seconds of satisfaction before all hell breaks loose.
Sadie has been fired from her job as decorator. She is sobbing. Theo is shouting.
“This is my dog,” he says. “This house was my idea. I know what’s best. Sadie says he won’t be able to use the toilet. And that’s a lie.”
His lip is trembling and his cheeks are brick-colored with emotion. He scoops up the dog and stomps into the house.
My husband offers a consoling shoulder to our daughter. I follow Theo inside.
“You seem really upset,” I say.
He throws his body into a dining room chair and wraps his arms around River. Tears roll fast and silent down his cheeks.
“I thought if I he could live and eat and poop in his own house, you’d let me keep him,” he says. And then he’s crying hard. River squirms out of his arms and Theo watches him go, his streaming eyes bereft.
“I thought I could make a perfect dog house,” he says.
“Are you a dog house architect?” I ask gently.
He shakes his head.
“Then cut yourself some slack,” I say.
He cries harder. His words come out slowly, squeezed between the sobs. He is so worried, he tells me. He just wants River to be okay. He worries that the dog is so small. He worries that he’ll get hit by a car or eaten by a coyote. He worries that someone will step on him.
“I just want to make sure nothing will ever happen to him,” he says.
Minus the coyotes, this is almost the same list of worries I bawled out to my husband when Theo was born and I held his tiny body in my arms.
“I thought if I made a house, he could stay there and be safe,” Theo says.
I understand the need to crank down hard on the things you love. When my anxiety increases so does my need for control. It’s a terrible confluence of two fierce and powerful emotions. It’s been happening with my son all summer. I’ve been so afraid that my son will make a bad choice that I haven’t let him make any choice at all. I recognize myself in Theo every time he clips the leash on River, every time he shouts, “Riv.”
When Theo was a baby, I often went to the beach with friends who had boys around the same age. We would sit on blankets and eat a picnic lunch, watching, as the little guys dug holes in the sand at the water’s edge. One day, when he was about two, Theo ran straight into the sea. I shouted his name and sprinted after him. As I carried his squirming body back to the blanket, I could barely catch my breath. It was all I could do not to pack everything in the car and drive away never to return. As I sat there clinging to Theo, my friend Alexis turned to me. “I’m a good swimmer,” she told me. “I grew up on the ocean. I’m keeping watch. I’m here, too.
So this is what I say to my son.
“You aren’t alone. We don’t expect you to do this all by yourself.”
“I love him so much,” Theo says.
I remember my son, at the river’s edge, cupping the water in his hands. I remember the way his body mirrored the dog’s body, the way they opened together, beautiful as dandelions growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. They were both creatures tentatively allowing fear to be transformed by love.
River had been with us for over a month when we had his name and our address engraved on a shiny tag for his collar. But on that first day by the river it was pretty clear he was already home.
Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown,” winner of the 2013 Sarton Memoir Award and recipient of the 2014 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Best Book. She is a regular contributor to TheNextFamily.com and her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Brain, Child, Perceptions, Literary Mama and The Cup of Comfort anthology series.