I was surprised by the pediatrician’s interest in my dog. It might have been that since I called her a pit/Lab mix I received a lecture, not only by the nervous resident but also by the pediatrician, about dog safety. Did my kids know that all dogs weren’t as nice as their dog? Both looked at me nervously. They were ready for shots, but not for unlocking a new fear.
I asked them, “You don’t go up to strange dogs without permission, right?” They both nodded. It’s one of those benefits of owning an animal, the discussions that need to happen about permission and consent. We had to discuss that our dog is a sentient being that cannot communicate in the ways they understand and that for both their safety and for our dog’s, they must rely on body cues and caution. They’ve both learned that since they were little.
My daughter was a toddler, and we were in the process of buying a house, when my husband thought that then was the perfect time to add a dog into the mix. He promised he had found me a Labrador on Craigslist. When we met her in the park — leash held by an emotional man whose apartment wouldn’t let him keep her — you could squint and believe it might be a Labrador mix.
Kira came home and sat down at attention. In sitting, she inadvertently flaunted the taut muscles in her chest by which we all knew that there was a little more Mr. Worldwide in her. I was on edge, too, about her being part pit bull, and remembered my mom’s discombobulation at having a pet dog.
I was 7 when we got our first dog from a pet store, back when those were more common to find in malls. I had been petitioning for a pet, as you do at that age, and had been running a hard campaign on my two parents. When we went “just to look,” this couple-month-old black Labrador jiggled so happily on the cashier’s table that a pleading look from me, my dad and that dog steamrolled my mom.
Rex promptly peed all over my mom on the ride home in our Bronco.
My dad, who would go on weeks- and monthslong tours overseas, thought that having a dog would be a cheap investment in at-home security. Mom came from a background where animals were all tools for work.
Rex came from lanky and dorky Labrador stock; he was a pet and my mom had never had one. My dad received a phone call during a shift when she complained that the dog had just followed her around all day. “That’s what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
She worried the dog would bite me. He was never allowed in the bedrooms.
Fast forward to the next few years, where he would cower under the coffee table with me when I snuck in a new episode of “The X-Files” that I wasn’t supposed to watch. He was, for all intents and purposes, a brother. He knew my strengths at tug of war. He’d lean against me when I cried. He’d play fetch with me, his soft duck-retrieving bite pulling me back to the recliner after I raced down the hallway to run from him.
Rex died when I was in college. It was the most anguished I’d ever heard my father on the phone. I called my friend, who let me hug his confused Labrador while I cried. It is the last lesson a dog gives: how to grieve them.
I’m grateful for the lessons that Kira has given us as a family, but as she slows and the gray grows around her eyes, it foretells that last lesson she’ll be teaching my children, too. Even with Rex as a guide, I do not feel prepared. But I realized that all I can do, and what most of us can do in those looming moments where we cannot divine the future, is to have gratitude for now. So, I’ll take an extra minute to stare into her cloudy eyes and enjoy her as the extra heartbeat of our home before that beat is gone from our table.
Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at [email protected] To find out more about Cassie McClure and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.