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Best Boy

He’s a mama’s boy, though he tries (and fails) to downplay it. Ever since he was a pup, I could say in a certain tone of voice from across a crowded dog park, “Who’s Mom’s best boy?” and he’d stop whatever he was doing and come running, tail wagging his whole body, as if to volunteer “I am! I’m your best boy! That’s me!” I yell it now in hopes he’ll follow the sound of my voice and find me.

Lately, when we go to the park, he rarely leaves my side. He sits next to me with an air of maturity, as though scoffing at the puppies tackling each other, doing all the things he used to do. He had a very long puppyhood, an extended and difficult adolescence. Yet I miss his puppy energy. I miss the feeling of endlessness to his life, our love for him. This dog has been with us since the beginning of our marriage, has seen me through some of my toughest times—infertility treatments, miscarriages, surgeries. I never needed a hot water bottle because I had my Beagle to keep me warm, to cuddle with.

The wind whips up and there’s a snap in the air. I’ve been looking for him for almost a half-hour, and it’s getting cold. This is a dog who burrows under the bedcovers every night; how will he survive in the wild? How disappointed will he be when he realizes there’s no one to pour chicken broth over his dog food, or give him a neck massage while watching TV? How will I ever sleep again, knowing he’s out here, lost, hungry, looking for home?

And how would I live without him? I thought about it when he got sick last year, but it was the sort of thought I had to quickly shake off for fear it would swallow me whole. I can’t—won’t—imagine life without that face, the face we fell in love with the moment we saw him peeking out of the empty plastic baby pool in the home of a crazy breeder in the San Gabriel mountains. He was the only puppy left.

“The runt,” the breeder had said between a puff on her cigarette and a hacking cough. Already feeling protective, I had lifted him up, covered his huge ears and said, “Nonsense. He’s perfect.”

Running around the neighborhood now, I’m feeling frantic, going hoarse, but still screaming. “Bowie! Cookies! I have cookies!”

Nothing.

I stub my toe on the uneven sidewalk and trip. My toenail is instantly throbbing and bleeding around the edges. I lie down on a lawn and curse, my face hot and wet with tears. He wasn’t even wearing his collar. I had just given him a bath and he was drying himself in the afternoon sun. When we adopted him, we had him microchipped, the “lojack for dogs,” but that assumes someone finds him, then actually makes the effort to take him to a vet’s office or shelter to be scanned.

It’s hopeless. He’s gone.

I remember 10 years ago when my parents’ dog died. My mother wailed into the phone, “That dog was my best friend.”

Though a lifelong dog lover, I was dogless at the time, and not only didn’t understand, but secretly pitied my mother, thinking that it was an imprudent overinvestment on her part. You enter into an agreement when you get a pet: you know in all reason and with near certainty that you will outlive this creature and will someday have to let it go—will have to endure heartbreak. And yet, you do it anyway.

Eight years into my own dog ownership, I get it now. He’s not just my best friend, he’s my first-born, and my love for him defies reason. He has his own room in my heart—a room not far down the hall from the space reserved for my children and husband. It’s not just that his love is unconditional in quality. It’s the quantity of that consistent love, which I haven’t felt before, or enough. My husband and I have the occasional fight and ensuing silent treatment. My daughters will grow into teens and hate me on and off for years.

This dog has never been mad at me.

I’ll never forgive myself for letting him get away. I should have paid more attention, but I’ve just been so busy with the babies. I feel like I’m failing everyone, especially him. I forgot to give him belly rubs, or decided that it was easier to navigate the behemoth of a twin stroller when I didn’t bring him on the walk as well. Most of the time when I talk to him lately, I’m scolding him. He has been acting out, developing an appetite for crayons, baby dolls, poopy diapers.

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