Of dogs, and men, and growth.

Beyond merely having his permission, writing about this was actually his idea. His exact words were, “Mom, I know what your next blog post should be about: my puppy.” Here’s hoping he won’t regret that suggestion.

It was Lulu, more than any of the others, who taught us all what it is to love and to mourn a dog.

Lulu was a byproduct of Bernard’s slow, methodical, approach to the world and, in particular, to natural gardening. I wanted crape myrtles in our front yard, to replace the 100-year-old oaks we’d had to cut down. Because I am decisive and impatient, I wanted to go to the nursery and buy crape myrtles. Because he is careful and nurturing, Bernard instead cultivated crape myrtles from volunteer seedlings. He had six or eight of them lined up in pots by the front door, watering and pruning them, waiting until they were big enough to transplant.

He picked the straightest, tallest ones; he dug out the entire sidewalk median and filled it with compost and mulch; he measured and re-measured, then planted. It took all day.

Having spent so long raising the trees, he did not want to throw out the extras and instead decided to give them to a friend who lives in the country, near a state park. I don’t know that I was charitable about any of this; I had dinner to cook, children to feed. I was snippy and short-tempered when he got home, half listening when he said he had something to show me. It was a picture of a dog.

Driving to his friend’s house, Bernard looked out the car window to see a full-grown blue brindle Cane Corso, the breed he’d studied and longed for, standing alone in the middle of the field. He asked his friend’s wife, an experienced dog rescuer, about the dog and learned that she’d been in that same field for about a month, that she would not let any human near her. They had gotten close enough to see that she’d recently had a litter of puppies, and their guess was that a breeder had dumped her. This type of drop-off was apparently a common and frequent occurrence.

But the dog came, albeit reluctantly to Bernard, who has always had a way with dogs. He agreed only to foster her for heartworm treatment. He spent an hour coaxing her into his car.

Fostering was, of course, a false premise. Despite having three dog (and a cat, who had to live in exile), I agreed we would keep her – a ridiculous, insane, spontaneous decision. But the odds of finding her were incalculable, perhaps even miraculous. Never turn away from a miracle.

Lulu became our family project. She was very thin and a little spooked. The children agreed to take turns feeding her. We all took turns walking her, stroking her soft ears, drawing her out of her shell. The other dogs took to her immediately; she became the leader of their pack.

Every few days Bernard would attempt to lure Lulu out for a ride, to ease her fear of cars. He used peanut butter treats and bits of roast beef. He crawled in the back seat and talked to her, gently tugging at her leash, letting her inch forward when she was ready. What he had lacked in patience with our children and other dogs, he mustered for Lulu; and his patience grew. The edge wore off his crankiness, and mine.

Over time, Lulu gained weight and filled out her magnificent frame. Her silver coat sparkled in the sun. She was clever and quickly learned our routines. She guarded Bernard while he slept during the day and looked appropriately intimidating when walking with me after nightfall. She let the children bathe her with cold water from the hose. She loved ice cubes and tennis balls and sunshine. She rarely barked, except when the other dogs egged her on. She nudged my arm when she needed to go out and sat patiently waiting for her leash. She slept at my feet on Saturday mornings during my writing time. She accompanied Bernard whenever a car ride was an option.

We joked about whose dog she was, each of us laying claim to her loyalty. In truth she was our first real family dog, the one who belonged equally to all of us, together. She was a puppy, maybe two years old, when she arrived. She was still puppy-ish two years later when she died, unexpectedly, in my lap one Saturday morning. 

It looked at first like indigestion, a quick vomit of the previous night’s dinner; but it was followed soon after by collapse of her limbs and the kind of labored breath I recognized from sitting with my mother in her final minutes. Start to finish, it was over in less than an hour, a short, excruciating eternity.

I held Lulu’s big head in my lap. She let out a single, long, mournful howl before she died. I howled with her and wept while my children, 11 and 13 at the time, looked on helplessly.

In the years since then, my children have grown into college-aged young adults. They are old enough now to make their own decisions, to move through the world without my permission. But they still ask for my advice and are willing, mostly, to hear it.

So when my son called, shortly after Thanksgiving, to talk about getting a dog, we got to practice our new relationship. He had given the matter a great deal of thought, but he was concerned about making a mistake.

“How are you approaching the decision?” I asked, on our third or fourth call to discuss it.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve made a two-column list of pros and cons, like you always suggest. And I think I want to do it, but I’m scared I might be wrong.”

What I’ve learned, and am learning still, in seven years of working with family therapists, is that the subtle art of holding dear and letting go, of being dependable and stepping aside, is the hardest part of parenting. Learning to ask, “How do you want me to help you, right now?” is a thousand times harder than offering unsolicited advice or judgment.

“This decision belongs to you, kid. I’ll help and support you in whatever you decide. But I can’t make this decision for you; it’s yours.”

My son and his sister are home now for Christmas break, a month-long stretch in which we’re exploring the new dynamics of our adult relationships. We’re probing boundary lines and practicing — all of us — new ways of interacting. For my part, I’m trying hard not to future-cast, to take the moments as they unfold, comfort and discomfort alike.

And the puppy, a blue brindle Cane Corso, is helping.

Her name is Rita, because, as my son says, “I’ve never met a dog named Rita before, and it’s a two-syllable name with hard consonants, just like Dad said a dog name should be.”

Where all of this leads is impossible to see. I’m trying to get used to that truth. To practice, and fail, and try again.