We had done our homework. Scott and I met at the Barnes and Noble on 5th and 46th Street halfway between our offices at lunch for a week straight. They had a whole section of big, shiny coffee table books on dog breeds. Costing upwards of $100 or more and many of them too big to lug all the way back to Brooklyn, we opted instead to become one of those people who used the bookstore as their own public library. I swear we saw a guy put a bookmark in a novel once when he returned it to the shelf.
We had it narrowed down from two breeds, an exhaustive back and forth between a beagle and a boxer, both of which were smaller dogs necessary for city living but whose size didn’t inhibit the big dog traits necessary for Scott to feel like he was getting a “real” dog Then we narrowed it down to two names. Archie for a boy and Murphy for a girl. Snoopy was out for obnoxious and obvious reasons. The breeder would also not allow it. And there was the fact that we weren’t 6 years old anymore.
When we picked Murphy up as a pup at 11 weeks old, Scott was in the front driving back to the city from the breeder located somewhere upstate a bit. Where exactly I don’t remember. What I will never forget, however, is how batshit crazy scared we were. Murphy was shaking uncontrollably in the crate that she would never step into again while simultaneously throwing up and then eating it and then throwing up again. That pretty much is the definition of batshit crazy scared and I was getting an idea of what the breeder meant when he said that a beagle will literally eat herself to death with enough access to food. They have no off button.
They had forewarned us of this by way of an incident they had where one of their dogs had gotten into the feed unbeknownst to them. When they discovered him, lying on the floor near death, his belly was ready to burst. Luckily they were able to pump his stomach before that happened and he lived on to sire many puppies. Sitting in the backseat on the way home watching our new pup eat her own vomit again and again, made me believe Murphy was one of them.
The whimpering wasn’t helping. My instinct was to open the crate and pick her up – poop and puke and my cashmere sweater be damned – and hold her so she felt safe but we were given very strict instructions on keeping her safely in the crate while we drove home. There were a lot of instructions and I wasn’t about to fail on the first one. Also, somehow I had the disturbing feeling that they would just know and be disappointed in us like our parents or Jesus. Except I imagine Jesus would let it slide.
Breeders are a scary and intimating lot and just a little bit cuckoo. I was convinced, until the moment we drove off the farm, that they never intended to actually give us one of their precious pups. That they could see right through our facade of nonchalant competency to our true inadequacy as parents of anything. That we would completely and utterly not fulfill the expectations they had laid out for us so painstakingly. Moreover, if we did somehow manage to make it off the property (alive) with their uneasy blessing, that we would obviously fail quite quickly and return her within a week, $1000 poorer, tails between our legs and humbled for the experience. Obviously.
What I didn’t count on was the accuracy of this truth hitting home for me just 30 minutes into our ride home somewhere over the span of the Triborough Bridge.
“Turn around!” I yelled at Scott. “We have to take her back, she is so scared! She is going to have a heart attack! I am going to have a heart attack! I can’t take it another minute, this was a mistake! She misses her mother!” It continued, “This is cruel to separate a baby from its mother this early. She will hate us the rest of our lives. Turn around! For the love of God, turn around!”
“We are not turning around”, he informed me, in his you are being dramatic and I am the voice of reason voice. I hated that voice. “She will be fine once we get her home. Calm down. If you are calm, she will calm down eventually.” Scott assured me. Eventually can send you to the brink of despondency and then nose dive you right into the deep waters of depression. Eventually your skin will clear up, eventually justice will prevail, eventually you’ll get it all together. If you’re lucky.
To make a long car ride short, let’s just say I wasn’t assured, I did not calm down and we did not turn around. Besides the fact that we were on a bridge, Scott had been wanting a dog his whole life, unable to have one due to his mother’s terrible allergy to them, and he was not going to let a little thing like our new pup eating its own poop and puke and the hysterical woman beside it stop him. Looking back, these are just the qualities necessary to be a good parent because where there are children, there is poop and puke and of course, there is no turning around.
Eventually we made it home and the car ride home notwithstanding, I think we ended up making good parents. Maybe too good. Murphy ruled the roost from the first day she arrived home. We were told to absolutely not let her sleep in the bedroom with us. That she must be crate trained and that is where she should sleep. And that if we didn’t follow any other of their instructions, that this was the one to not screw up. I will only tell you she had us separated by her tiny body in our bed by night two and her crate was never seen again.
Nothing was too good for her, nothing she did was ever too bad. We each took a week off from work the first weeks she arrived home so that she wouldn’t be scared alone in our big apartment. We hired a dog walker to come twice a day to take her to the dog park up the hill when we begrudgingly had to go back. Since we now equated the crate to a torture chamber, she was instead left in a closed off portion of our kitchen that had a sofa in it for her lounging pleasure. Repeatedly she tore open and ripped apart that sofa, at first finding an old small cigarette burn as her only instigation. As we stuffed the foam back in night after night, our only admonishment was, “bad girl” only in the “good girl” tone. She was always our good girl.
Friends of ours were having babies at this time, getting together they would proudly show us pictures of their human offspring. We would just as proudly show them pictures of the canine kind. We were unabashedly annoying. We knew it. We didn’t care. So sue us. Murphy was our first child and she was teaching Scott and me how to be a family.
But here’s the thing about families, sometimes it can seem like the sole purpose they were put on this green Earth is just to push all your buttons. And if your hope was to walk around with no one ever pushing one of your buttons, as it was mine, then you are on the wrong planet. No one said being a parent was going to be easy. Being a son or daughter isn’t always a walk in the park either. We are all doing the best we can. Unfortunately, sometimes the best we can do falls short of expectations. Neither one of you get the relationship you wanted or intended. You get paint-by-numbers when you were shooting for Norman Rockwell. And so it was with our little starter family. For it was only after a few months as new parents that I realized what was happening, what in fact, had already happened. Murphy loved Scott more.
Jealously is not something I was used to feeling. Especially towards a dog. Mainly because I never felt the need to compare myself or my life to others. Let me reiterate, especially towards a dog. I never saw my self-worth as outside myself, contingent on how I measured up to the world. I credit my parents for this. Consciously or not, they distributed their love, support and time or the lack thereof, equally among their four daughters.
I would like to say that I took this surprising turn of events like a crisp glass of rosé on a warm summer’s day. I’d like to say that. The fact is it was more like a shot of tequila in a hot, crowded bar with a back of injustice and a just a squeeze of bitterness. And make it a double. Afterall, wasn’t I the one who was doing most of the hard work of parenting? The mother’s work. Betty White observed, “It’s not easy being a mother. If it were easy, father’s would do it.” The grooming, the accident clean ups, the housebreaking, the searching for just the right dog walker and vet? Didn’t she see who was the hand that fed her?
But you don’t always get what you want, you get what you get. This was a real problem for me. Life on its own terms? Nah, I wanted to renegotiate the contract. So I took it up a notch. I did everything in my arsenal to try to make Murphy love me at least as much as Scott, but truth be told, I was aiming higher. I wanted her to love me best. Growing up was not going nearly as well as I had hoped. And maybe I needed to redefine what a good parent looked like.
I would play with her more. Take her on longer trips to the dog park. Throw her a ball until my arm ached. I would give her more treats when Scott wasn’t looking. I always tried to be the one to dish out her meals. I would agonizingly let her mark her territory on our walks every few feet. Never pulling her leash to move her along. I’d like to think I was dignified in my neediness and eagerness to please and win her over but it is a sad moment when your dog looks at you as if to say, you are better than this and you look back at her as if to say, I’m not so sure.
Acceptance is the sigh of the soul. It’s that moment when you let go of the way you want things and accept them the way they really are. It’s the moment you breathe out that long-held breath of wanting things to be different.
It was the way he talked to her when no one was around. Early in the morning when I was still half asleep, he would talk to her so sweetly it made me fall in love with him all over again. Sigh. It was the way she followed him wherever he went, her big puppy ears hanging nearly to the ground. Sigh. It was the way she snuggled up in between his legs all pretzel-like when she slept. Sigh. It was the way she licked him when he was having a low blood sugar, doing what she could to make everything alright, standing right by his side until the threat was gone. Sigh. It was the way he was a little boy again around her, an only child who just received his very best friend in the whole world who would love him no matter what and would make the world a little less lonely. Sigh.
I can’t pretend that this happened for me in a flash of grace. That I have a mainline to epiphanies and I receive them as often as I do the Pottery Barn catalog. For me, this acceptance was more of a slow leak than a blown tire. Acceptance happens slowly, barely, imperceptibly. Until eventually the last gasp of air escapes. Grace happens little by little, day by day. Eventually.
When Murphy died, holding out just 6 months after Scott, I knew that she was anxious to be back with him and that she held out the last few months for me and the kids or more likely, the possibility of his return. In the room at the vet where the kids and I said our last good-bye, it smelled like wet dog and disinfectant. She didn’t have much strength or eyesight left but her nose was still actively taking it all in lying on the cold, metal examining table while the doctor went to get the injection. The kids gave her one last hug and kiss and left the room. There had been so much crying over the last months I wasn’t sure there were any tears left. I was wrong. I fell easily back to my default emotion, hysterical.
I wrapped her in the blanket I carried her in with around her. I talked to her and hugged her and kissed her and thanked her. I thanked her for holding out for us these last months because we needed her even though I know she was ready to go a long time ago. I thanked her for filling the hole of a lonely little only child and that I was so sorry it took me so long to see this was what she came to us for. I thanked her for being our starter child and teaching me how to be a better parent to Ryan and Harry by trial and error with her. I thanked her for teaching me that second best is still a really, really good place to be. But mostly, over and over again, I told her she was a good girl.
I never made it to the driver’s seat with Murphy. But sitting in the backseat watching Murphy and Scott’s relationship from that vantage point for all those years ended up being one of the greatest joys of my life. One of my biggest blessings.
When the vet came back in, she said they were ready. She asked if I was ready and I said, “Wait a second.” I ran out to the reception area. On the desk they have a bone shaped ceramic container filled with bone shaped treats and I grabbed one. I ran back to the room and asked if I could give her one last treat. She said, “Sure, if she will take it.”
Murphy and I knowingly looked at one another, as if!, and she gulped it down.