Within a month of my parents divorce, my brothers brought home an adorable white and black furball and begged my mother to let us keep her. I suppose that the best time to get what you want from a parent is immediately after a divorce. Both parents usually are emotionally vulnerable and feeling a little guilty about the trauma they have just put their children through. So it really didn’t take much pleading on our part. A simple “Mom, can we keep her, please? She’s free! She won’t cost you a cent. We’ll take care of her.” Seemed to be the magic words. If you ever hear these words, don’t fall for them. They’re shameless lies. Good intentioned, but lies all the same.
Anyway, that’s how Buffy joined our family. And just so you know, Mom was the one who named her. We wanted a cool name like Duchess, or Beauty, or maybe even Rosalyn--after our then First Lady. Okay, Rosalyn was my idea, but I was only ten. I didn’t understand the implications of naming a dog after a First Lady. But Mom thought Buffy fit best for our puppy. “Duchess is a name for German Shepherds,” Mom said, “and the puppy is a mutt--we don’t want to name her Beauty in case she doesn’t grow into her name.” Mom needn’t have worried. Although our vet later guessed that Buffy was a Fox Terrier, sheep dog, and hound mix, she never lost her puppy cuteness.
Except on our first summer vacation together after the divorce. Mom took all of us up to Charlevoix, and the first warm day my brothers and I went swimming in Lake Michigan. Buffy had never been in the water before. She was only three months old, but in those three months at least one of us was always with her. We brought her to the lake with us, but decided that it probably would be best to leave her on the shore while we went swimming. Buffy, however, had other plans. She refused to be separated from us. She bravely negotiated the natural dock of giant boulders leading to our favorite swimming spot about fifty feet into the lake and boldly followed us into the cold water without hesitating. She started dog-paddling immediately, and we had to be careful not to swamp her with our splashing. When we had had enough of the Lake, Buffy followed us out of the water. She looked like a wet sewer rat. That is, until she rolled around in the sand. Then she looked like a dirty wet sewer rat. But even then, Buffy’s personality was irrepressible. She seemed to know she was a pathetic sight, so she just looked up at us with her soulful brown eyes and softly made crying sounds that no one with a heart could ignore. The four of us gave her a bath, shampooed her hair with Mom’s Body on Tap, and dried her with Mom’s hair-dryer. Most dogs hate baths--at least if television and movies are accurate, but Buffy reveled in every moment. She delighted in the suds and pawed at the bubbles. And the warm air from the hair-dryer seemed to propel her into sublime ecstasy. Or maybe the fun the four of us were having was simply contagious. Or maybe it was the growing bond we shared.
We didn’t realize how strong the bond between us was until later that summer when Dad took me and my brothers to Oshkosh to spend two weeks with our grandmother. From her very first day with us, Buffy was always at our side. The day after my brothers brought her home, the four of us went to a baseball game in the Carey’s backyard, eight houses down. We walked through our neighbors’ backyards, as we always did. Seven-week old Buffy struggled to follow us through the thick blades of grass that were at least as tall as she was. To you or I, it would have been like walking through a forest of cattails, or cornstalks growing in the wild--not planted evenly in rows. The going was a little slow, but Buffy wasn’t about to be left behind. Suddenly, in Oshkosh, our sidekick was missing.
We really missed Buffy. When we called home to talk to Mom, we learned that Buffy missed us too. Mom told us that Buffy wouldn’t eat. She hardly slept. She cried all the time. At other times, she would sit or lie by the front door, as if we might walk through it at any minute and when we did, Buffy would be ready for us. My brothers and I didn’t want to stay in Oshkosh any longer. We wanted to go home. To Buffy. Granny Bea couldn’t understand why.
That first homecoming after our two-week separation is indelibly etched in my mind. My brothers and I opened the door and we were assaulted by a furry missile with a whiplash tail. She raced around the house, either unable to contain her joy or to build up speed for a leap into our arms I wasn’t sure, but the five month-old puppy did not stay in one place long enough for us to even scratch her floppy ears. She would just run from one of us to the other, leap up, and use our chests as springboards to execute mid-air course corrections for a flying leap to the next closest brother. Brad, my youngest brother who was only five at the time, said: “Hi Buffy, did you miss us?” Did she miss us. Talk about an understatement.
After a few brief months together, Buffy was no longer a dog. She was our sister. Her favorite food was pizza. Her favorite game was tug-o-war but hide-and-seek was a close second. She loved riding in the front seat of the car, her head sticking out the window, the wind in her face. And she hated disco. Whenever Chic or K.C. and the Sunshine Band or some other disco singer or group was playing on the radio, Buffy would howl until we had to change the radio station or Mom made us turn the radio off altogether. Buffy had taste. Buffy also liked order in her home. She hated it when my brothers and I fought. Whenever a conflict arose, she would unerringly attack the pant-leg of the instigator with her formidable jaw. Buffy was medium-sized, only about forty pounds. But she was tenacious. She tore many holes in our Levis--irrefutable evidence any just court of law would uphold as grounds for groundings. As it turned out, we were in court a lot the first few years following the divorce. Buffy witnessed everything. She loved being with us. But every now and then, even she would need some time to herself. She spent that time lying in the sun.
I don’t know where she got it from. Maybe she was a movie star in a former life. But if the sun was shining, Buffy was lying in it. Especially later in her life when my brothers and I were older and we spent more time at school and Little League and the library and with friends.
One day when I was in tenth grade, I stayed home sick. Buffy was always at my side, either on the couch with me watching TV, or sleeping under an end table next to the couch. Well, that was until about one in the afternoon when the sun passed its zenith in the sky and began to shine in through our western windows. As if an alarm clock had gone off, Buffy abruptly got up and walked across the family room, picked up the blanket that Mom had crocheted for her--which was neatly folded by her toys--and dragged it to the growing patch of sun on the carpet by the window. She made a half-hearted attempt at spreading the blanket out, and then plopped down onto it and rolled over onto her back. I knew she wasn’t working on her suntan, but her behavior was too deliberate to chalk it up to instinct. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it. There is no doubt: Buffy was a sun-worshiper.
Every time I lie in the sun I remember watching Buffy soak up its warmth. Lying by our window in complete contentment. No cares. No worries. No concerns. As short as her eleven years were, sometimes I envy a dog’s life. Especially now as I’m reminded of it again, lying here next to Kip, in the bright sun of Waikiki, working on our tans. There’s nothing like the bond of unconditional love between a boy and his first dog. Except perhaps the bond between best friends. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trivializing human friendships. But they’re rarely based on unconditional love, admiration, and respect. When you find a friendship like that, you find proof of God’s existence. And when you’re in a friendship like that, and one of you is hurting, it’s possible to imagine the depths of God’s sorrow as man breaks His heart over and over again.
Thanks for reading.
technorati tags: Matthew S. Urdan, Authors, Writing, novels, River Metaphors
Posted by Matthew S. Urdan on Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 8:23 AM