Last December, as we prepared to welcome our descendants for the holidays, I felt disaster looming. There would be eight of us humans in the house, and three dogs. The dogs included one cranky geriatric grande dame–Lexi; one well-intentioned but large and boisterous young male–Wolfie; and the so-called Red Baroness, Bisou. Two German Shepherds, one Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy. Snow and sleet outside. Meals and creature comforts to be seen to inside. And Bisou needing round-the-clock supervision lest she disgrace herself on the rugs.
I decided that, if worse came to worst, I could always board Bisou, or Wolfie and Bisou, or Wolfie, Lexi and Bisou, for the duration. But first I would see how things went.
In fact, it all went swimmingly. The children liked Bisou, because she was smaller than they and didn\’t knock them over with her wagging tail, like Wolfie does. And my Montana daughter and her partner quietly took over the monitoring of Bisou so that she did not once mess in the house. \”Truly,\” I said to myself, \”it takes a village to raise a puppy,\” and cancelled my just-in-case reservations at the kennel.
In the course of that Christmas season, I noticed that, between house-training trips to the frozen backyard, my daughter and her partner were never too far from Bisou. They sat by the fire and read with Bisou on one of their laps, her red ears fanned sweetly across their thighs. They napped on the sofa with Bisou snoring in their arms. And periodically I would catch one or the other of them just sitting there, stroking that soft red fur, with a far-away Madonna-like look on her face.
Three days before they were scheduled to fly back to Montana I said casually \”You know, one of Bisou\’s littermates is looking for a home….\” A while later I added, \”He\’s a male, and Cricket would love a puppy to play with\” (Cricket is their elderly mixed-breed female). I scanned their faces and went on, \”I could call the breeder and see if she\’d let you have a look….\”
The next day, at the breeder\’s, I watched the faces of my daughter and her partner as Theo–black with tan markings and infinitely sweeter and mellower than Bisou–took turns on their laps. Sure enough, the Madonna look was there.
Now if it had been me, I would have stuck Theo under my coat and flown with him to Montana the next morning. But these are rational, deliberate women, and they went back home and thought about it, and conferred with vets, and corresponded with the breeder. And a couple of months later my daughter took a week off from work and came to Vermont to fetch Theo.
Theo is now a dog of the wide open spaces. He gets along with Cricket. He attends obedience class. And he goes to work every day.
My daughter is a clinical psychologist, and Theo is her co-therapist. He sits on clients\’ laps, letting himself be petted while my daughter asks the hard questions. He listens well, and if he yawns in the middle of a session, nobody feels offended. He gets Wednesdays off, to stay home with Cricket and be a dog.
Here in Vermont, a lot of people ask about Theo. They want to know how he dealt with the plane trip, how he adjusted to Montana, whether he is o.k. The reason for these questions, and the reason that Theo was still looking for a home at Christmas, is that he was born with a rare heart problem–sub-aortic stenosis–not the genetically transmitted cardiac condition that threatens so many Cavaliers, but a problem that affects many different breeds. The average life span of a dog with sub-aortic stenosis is five years–that\’s the bad news. The good news is that Theo will be able to lead a normal life until one day–two or five or ten years from now–he will suddenly die.
The thing about this problem of Theo\’s is that it makes him seem so extraordinarily fragile, even as it reminds those of us who know him of our own fragility. We all–dogs, cats, humans, the Gulf of Mexico–are hanging by a thread, and there are no guarantees. Learning to love Theo despite the likelihood of his sudden disappearance is a lesson for learning to love anybody and anything in this world–a lesson that we can never afford to stop learning.