Moments like these are why it’s great to have a dog and a kid at the same time.
I loved watching Lassie re-runs as a kid. I dreamed about having a beautiful, noble dog like Lassie. I have always been a dog person, always craved feeling tufts of fur between my fingers, wet noses pressed into my palm. Few things can cheer me more than soft brown eyes and a frenzied tail.
I am jealous when I hear about my husband’s experience being raised among collies from infancy. Growing up, my family didn’t get a dog until I was nine. Not a bad age to get a dog, but it meant that she would be the only dog our family would have, since my dad was adamant: just one. I loved her, but she was not Lassie. She was the anti-Lassie. Prone to fear biting and that most charming of cocker spaniel traits, defecating when nervous. But most of all, she was my mom’s dog, thoroughly devoted to one person and one person only.
Yet I loved dogs, and I loved her. I trained her and showed her during junior high school and it became clear when her limits were reached. At which point I begged my dad for another dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. After learning about all 250+ dog breeds, I had determined that was the one for me, and something about training and showing a dog made me come alive, even though it did nothing for Taffi but make her miserable.
That’s when I found Alfie. Or you could say Alfie found me. It’s a story like the best love stories, full of close calls, intuition, and pinch-me, too-good-to-be-true coincidences. That story cannot be done justice in a few sentences.
Suffice it to say, Alfie turned out to be my Lassie. He had a depth to him, the gravitas of an old soul. He sought connections with people in a way that inspired me. But what was most humbling was that he chose me as a companion. Because it was clear that I didn’t just go buy a dog. He was meant to be with me.
Alfie saw me through the rocky years of high school and college. When I was most unsure of who I was or who my friends were, Alfie was constant. His friendship was a blessing given to me before I could ever earn it, and it was it was offered to me anew each day. His devotion continued past college and into a new marriage and, finally, new motherhood.
The timing of his passing was no accident. It was exactly when he meant to go.
I got another dog, Butter, several years after I got Alfie. A couple months before I became pregnant with my son, Butter was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Her heart failure rapidly progressed, until I had to put her down two months to the day before I gave birth to my son. In her final months, I was incredibly emotionally fraught. I hadn’t seen it coming–her previous heart checks were totally clear and she was the younger of my two dogs. I constantly monitored her medications and her food and water intake, even taking her to work with me so that I could give her medications and give her the frequent potty breaks she needed on diuretics.
There were many sleepless nights spent listening to Butter’s labored breathing in the corner of our bedroom, wondering how I would know it was time to say goodbye and whether she or I would be the one deciding when it was time. As my due date neared, I also wondered how I could tell whether I was making a decision for her sake or for mine, because I couldn’t imagine how I would manage my emotions and attention, split between my dying dog and my first born baby.
When we were at our son’s two week old checkup, our doctor must have noticed the weary, anxious look in our eyes and told us, “Don’t worry. Once he gets to be about six weeks old he’ll start smiling and interacting with you and it will be a lot more fun.”
I looked at her and thought, But I like him now. I was tired, but I didn’t want him to change. To me, there was not a single thing wrong with him staying as he was. My love was stronger than the pain in my body, the circles under my eyes.
I was new-parent weary, but my love for him was so big I couldn’t imagine how it could get any bigger.
Before I became pregnant, I actually couldn’t imagine myself with a newborn. I thought I would be better with an older baby, one with large curious eyes and soft, squishy chub. I didn’t know what to do with squinty-eyed newborns, who seemed so fragile and apparently cried or slept all the time. But as soon as my son was born and lying on my stomach, I saw his beautiful face and all I could think was how perfect he was.
Watching a child grow is like watching a flower bloom. My son started out a tight little bud, and as he gets older he blooms out, revealing the beauty inside. As he blooms, my love stays as strong as that first day, but my appreciation for his loveliness grows.
I have a friend whose baby was born just a couple months before my son. We shared our excitement and fears about pregnancy, and then parenting once our babies were born. When our sons were just a few months old we talked about how we didn’t want them to get bigger, how we loved them so much as they were and we were weepy when they outgrew their clothes. But we discovered as our babies grew how exciting each new milestone was. How just when we snuggled our babies close and smelled their heads and thought, “Don’t grow,” they surprised us with some fascinating new development and we couldn’t tear our eyes away. Suddenly, we were cheering them, saying “Go on! Do it again!”
Nothing can prepare you for the ordinary miracle of your baby doing something for the first time. I’ve thought about why that is. All healthy babies follow the same general pattern of development. Why should it be more exciting when mine learns to roll over or crawl or walk? But as his parent, I’ve been with my son from the beginning. I’ve been on a journey getting to know him since I first saw his heart beating on the ultrasound. As his parent, my every daily activity is done with consideration for this little being that I am responsible to grow. So when suddenly he does something that he’s never done before, it feels like my world is expanding right along with his.
When my son took his first steps, even though I had been expecting it for months, I felt as though something impossible was happening. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he was spoon bending, Matrix style. It was breathtaking that he should stay upright on his own, even for a brief moment. I cried, seeing him walk. Because my baby is almost not a baby anymore. But also because I got him this far. And also because I’m so excited to see all the things he is going to do next.
So if you asked me every month of my son’s life what my favorite age was, I would always say “this one.” It’s true now, as he practices walking while holding a large ball, or uses rudimentary sign language to ask for “help”, or holds his dog’s paw while he watches Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. I hope that no matter how difficult things get, whether I’m losing sleep because of toddler nightmares or teenage escapades, my love continues to be stronger and my appreciation richer. I hope I can always say, “This is my favorite age,” because he is my favorite boy and I wouldn’t have him any other way.