Four years ago, I was in the dairy section of a supermarket when my cell phone rang. My then-23-year-old daughter was on the other end. “Which would make you angrier,” she asked. “If I told you I was in jail or if I told you I bought a puppy?”
“How long would you be in jail for?” I said. “Dad, she’s the cutest puppy in the world,” Kate said.
I stood and stared at the different brands of cottage cheese on display and knew the plans my wife and I had made in anticipation of having a life of our own again, needing to care for no one other than each other, had just vanished. We were not those parents who dreaded the empty nest. Quite the opposite. We embraced it.
Don’t get me wrong, we loved our two kids, doted on them, gave them the best home and education we could. But now, we were ready to move on. Their lives as adults were about to begin and ours were ready to re-emerge after more than two decades of parent/teacher conferences; flighty babysitters; play dates; teenage tantrums; countless drives to an endless array of birthday, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations; weeks devoted to college tours and applications; flights to and from cities we would never have visited had our kids not been in school there; meals with parents we would have never met and probably will never see again.
All of that now sat in our rearview mirror. We were free to travel, sell the house and move back to the city, eat in restaurants we had read about, go to the theater and to concerts, get hockey season tickets or just sit on our favorite chairs, reading or viewing a rented movie. It was there waiting for us.
A week later, Willow came to visit. She was then a four-month-old miniature Australian Shepherd with an awkward body but the cutest eyes and warmest disposition. Kate was working as a production assistant in the film business and had landed a job on a Bruce Willis movie that required her to work 18- hour days for the next three months. There was no way for her to take care of a puppy.
Soon, I was walking Willow several times a day, learning to house-train a dog, something I’d never had a desire to learn. I played ball with her in the back yard and was amazed at how she easily adapted to the game of running and fetching, never tiring, just loving the idea of playing, always very eager to please. As much as Willow and I bonded, she had grown completely attached to my wife, Susan. Willow followed her everywhere she went in the house and ran to the nearest window whenever she ventured out to head for work or run a few errands. And Susan, an even more reluctant dog owner than I was, never seemed happier than when Willow was by her side, sitting next to her while she worked at her computer, or curling up on her lap. Within weeks, the two were inseparable.
Two days after the movie wrapped, Kate came by to tell us the great news. No, she wasn’t taking Willow back. She had been accepted in the Teach for America program and would be gone for two years.
Willow was now our family dog.
By this time, our house had sold and the Manhattan apartment was ready for us to move into, and we found ourselves with a very active dog in need of more exercise than an Olympic athlete living in the city. What to do? The solution was found in Biscuits & Bath, a seven-day-aweek full-service dog gym. We signed Willow up and reserved weekends for trips to our home in Bridgehampton, where I quickly discovered she was a natural swimmer and would spend hours in the pool doing laps or chasing a tennis ball. “Well,” I said to Susan one night, Willow curled up between us, “this will work. She’s good company. The cat doesn’t seem to know she’s here, and we have a lot of Kate’s friends willing to housesit if we want to go anywhere.”
Besides, I had really grown to like being with Willow. There was a serenity about her that brought with it a relaxing comfort. I appreciated the rare feeling of unconditional love, of how Willow cared for us, wanted to be with us as much as we wanted to be with her. I felt better knowing she was around. She was a good friend to have, even if I did need to ice my arm on some nights after a long day of ball tossing in the yard. The call from my son, then in his senior year at Vanderbilt, came a few days before the end of fall semester about two years later. “I got a puppy,” he said.
“What’s his name?” was all I could manage to ask.
“Not sure,” Nick said.
“How about Gus?”
When my son was a boy and went through the gamut of lizards, gerbils and other caged rodents kids seem to acquire, Nick named each of them Gus in one form or another—Gus, Gus/Gus, Gus, Jr., Gus the Third. Why break the pattern now? It also seemed the perfect name for an Olde English Bulldog.
Nick finished college, landed a job within a month of graduation, and we were once again confronted with one of our kids having to work long hours and a puppy in need of care. So, Gus packed his bags and moved into our apartment, along with me, my wife, Willow and Casper, the oldest living cat in America.
Gus is the exact opposite of Willow, John Belushi to her Audrey Hepburn. Where she is gentle, he is rough. Where she is refined and shy, he is hyper and eager for action. He is big, strong and stubborn and pouts if he doesn’t get his way. In less than three days, he knew he had me and I knew my life would never be the same.
We signed Gus up for Biscuits & Bath and he took to the playtime like a pro, never tiring, eager to run and rumble with the other dogs. The crew at B&B grew to love him almost as much as we did and forgave him any indiscretion. Gus was a charmer, born to please, never giving the slightest indication he had done anything wrong.
In Bridgehampton, I put up a fence along part of the yard, allowing both dogs freedom to run at will: Willow chasing tennis balls, Gus barking and chugging the length of the fence trying to scare away the deer and the rabbits surrounding the property.
I can’t say it’s been easy. Gus suffers from skin allergies and gets a medicine bath once a week and injections to keep the problem under control. Willow has a sensitive stomach. Even with pet insurance, it’s a hefty freight.
My wife and I have not traveled much since we got the dogs, certainly not as often as we had planned. We leave dinner parties early because we need to get home to the dynamic duo. Our living room furniture will never be the same and we make sure not to invite non-dog lovers over for a meal.
When we drive to and from Bridge - hampton, Gus takes the front seat, next to me. Willow rides in the back, snuggled next to my wife. The sight of that always brings a smile to my face. Gus loves to look out the window, eyes taking in the action, on the watch, reminding me of an active street cop on the job. Where Willow is indifferent to the outside world, content to keep her inner circle close to her side, Gus wants to know what he can about anyone who ventures near, earning the visitor either a low growl or an invitation to pet his head. He looks fierce but is gentle as an infant. Willow is the one with the temper, losing patience with anyone who comes between her and the pack she feels her duty to protect. Gus is always up for a party. Willow prefers quiet nights at home.
And they are crazy about one another. I feel as close to Gus as I do to any person in my life. I trust him as much as he trusts me, which is to say completely. He is a good friend and great company. He has changed my life and I am convinced it’s for the better.
I have become what I never thought I would, what an old friend (his wife bred Neapolitan Bull Mastiffs) used to call with affection “those people.” I am a dog person, certified. I would rather spend a night in front of the TV, Gus asleep on one corner of the couch, Willow no more than six inches from my wife on the other end, the two inseparable, both at ease, relaxed and happy. The outside world nothing more than an annoying distraction.
This is my family now—Susan, Gus, Willow and Casper. They are my world, my friends, the ones I turn to for comfort, reassurance and love. Four years ago, I could never have imagined my life with a dog, any dog.
Now, I can’t think of a day without Gus and Willow in my company. They have my loyalty and respect and I have theirs and, living in uncertain times in an uncertain world, we give each other much needed comfort and reassurance.
They have won my heart.
And my life without them would be a sad and empty one.
Illustration by WACSO