Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I Love My Dog Less

Mine was one of those baby showers where the womenfolk gather around the mother-to-be in a tight, perfumed semicircle, cooing and ahh-ing as each bib or tube of nipple cream is unwrapped. Cards were dutifully read aloud and passed around the room.

Fortunately, my family and friends have a wicked sense of humor. An old college pal bought me breast pump parts and a six pack of milk stout. As I unwrapped a training potty, someone yelled, "Welcome to your future!"

Then I read off a card from another girlfriend, the wife of a grad school classmate. This woman has a dry, brilliant wit. She is also the type of mom who exudes an alarming competency. Her card read: "Prepare to love your dog a lot less."

The roomful of women let out a collective, albeit polite, gasp. I laughed, but shook my head. "Noooo," I whined. "Our dog is the best."

My girlfriend smiled at me, but it was a stiff smile, a smile meant to convey compassion for the hopelessly dumb.

My husband adopted our lanky, shaggy mutt from the pound long before he met me. Shelby said that, once he discovered her — her flapping, flag-like tail and keen eyes — he stood outside of her cage, starring down anyone who gave her an admiring glance. At noon, when adoptions officially opened, he made a beeline for the front desk and made Sarah his girl.

Her name is Sarah. Has been since her pound days. My youngest sister is also named Sarah. The running joke is that, if we ever get another dog, we'll name it Kim, after my middle sister. Except, it's not really a joke, because I'm willing to follow through on that threat. Then again, I can't imagine getting another dog, at least not anytime soon.

I fell for Sarah as quickly as I fell for Shelby. She is gentle, smart, and impossibly well behaved. If we pass a swimming pool in the summertime, Sarah whines and yips, straining at her leash to "save" the splashing kids. If we leave a few crusts of pizza on the table, if we leave the lid off of the garbage can, Sarah won't disturb a crumb. When guests stay overnight, she dutifully creeps from room to room, accounting for every sleeping soul.

We call this trick, "Hide your ugly face." For real.

When I got pregnant, the dog napped with her head atop my ever-growing belly. I imagined Sarah keeping steadfast watch over our infant. I imagined her trotting after an unsteady toddler or playing ball with our little boy. Forget the fact that Sarah has never, in her entire refined life, deigned to fetch a ball. My dog and my son: future stars of Instagram!

Then, when Pork Chop was born, he cried. He didn't stop crying. Then I cried, and I didn't stop crying. For 3 months.

Sarah paced the apartment, her tail tucked between her legs. While I nursed by son, Sarah would slip her head into my lap and sigh and whimper. If the baby lay on the floor or bed, cooing and drooling, the dog might sneak a sniff of his tender baby scalp and then dart away to hide behind my legs.

Two years later, dog-child relations have not improved. Toddlers are unpredictable. They slap, grab fur, pet eyeballs, and steal rawhide treats. My dog is, unequivocally, better behaved than my son. She's calmer, more loyal. She often smells better.

But my friend was right: I love my dog less. Not less than before. Just less than my son.

In the winter, as sleet slashes at the air, my concern for Pork Chop's fingers and toes trumps my dog's love of meandering strolls. In summer, Sarah would happily molest every chipmunk and squirrel in our suburban woods from dawn to dusk, but I just can't chance my son getting heat stroke or poison ivy or lyme disease. Then there's nap time, during which barking is a capital offense. And at the end of the day, after 13 hours of being pawed by sticky fingers, of being covered in spit and tears, I need space, just when Sarah wants to curl her 37 pounds of black fur and unspeakable dog breath into my lap.

"Please, please, pleeeeeeease! Just 4, maybe 5 more hours in the snow."

I love my dog less. Even today, when my son is in timeout. The kid wanted fish sticks for lunch, not a turkey sandwich. In protest, he launched his metal sippy cup at the floor, first catching the boney top of my foot. The dog is hidden beneath the kitchen table as Pork Chop wails at the injustice of being asked to apologize. I hold his hand in one of my hands. I rub my bruised foot with my other hand. I want to whimper. I want to hide under the table. But I love this irrational, howling beastie. Even as he swats at me, screaming, "No, Mama!" into my drained face.

From her hiding spot between the banquette and the table legs, Sarah raises her head, shifts her weight like she's about to stand, to come toward me, but then settles her greying muzzle back onto her paws. She knows I'm a lost cause.

Reincarnation is the belief that, after biological death, the soul is reborn into a new body. Some hold that, if we lead a good life, free of attachments, we come back again as humans, maybe even happy, healthy humans. Lead a less savory life, and you'll be downgraded — to a snake, a bird, maybe a dog.

So, was Sarah a fantastic groundhog in a previous life or was she a miserable failure as a woman? My gentle, bright, protective girl? And if she was a failure, then what's to become of me in the next life? I don't have much use for stuff, for gadgets or jewelry or cars. But I am utterly, hopelessly attached to the crazed child in front of me, the one gone red in the face, snot pooling on his upper lip, yelling at me to "Let go! Let go! Let go!" Chances are, I'll be demoted to a chicken, doomed to watch my offspring be turned, time and again, into quiche.

After another 10 minutes of hysterics, my son suddenly sits up straight and mumbles, "I'm sorry, Mama."

"Sorry for what?" I prompt.

"Sorry for the um, the um, the um."

He doesn't remember.

"The um. The hitting Daddy?"

Daddy's not even home, but I don't care. I'm exhausted.

"Okay, buddy. Gimme a hug."

He swats his tears away, smiles, leans in for a hug, and asks, "Snack?"

I creak into a standing position, sigh, and open the pantry. ("Cluck cluck," Jessica.) Pork Chop is already on the banquette, jumping up and down and shoving puzzle pieces between the cushions. Sarah pads up to me, her nails clicking delicately on the wooden floor. As I scoop Goldfish into a snack cup, the dog sits at my feet, then stands, then sits — one of her many nervous habits. During thunderstorms or particularly loud toddler meltdowns, she hides in the bathtub. Today, though, she sits, she stands, she sits, unsure how best to convey that she is both troubled for me and troubled for herself.

Later tonight, I'll slip her dinner scraps while my husband isn't looking or let her take up nine-tenths of the couch while I try to type on my laptop. I'll scratch her ear and whisper, "Who's the best girl?" But what Sarah really needs is a long, late Saturday morning spent snoring on the bed while we listen to the radio. She needs whole afternoons devoted to dirt and rabbits and underbrush, ticks and burrs be damned. She needs my attention. She needs the old me. But right now, my kid is an inch away from toppling off of the banquet. I nearly trip over Sarah as I run toward my son.