When our children left for college, my husband and I would lie awake and listen for the whispered phone-talk not coming from our daughter’s room or the slam of our son’s car door not echoing in the circle drive a minute before his curfew. Their rooms sat empty now of scattered clothes, backpacks, stacked books and CDs. Our house felt empty as well. We had gone from family of four to a couple again, but without the excitement and innocence of young love. Instead, we had arrived at old love. For 18 years our conversations had focused on our children —what they did, where they went, who they saw, and what we thought about it. But after driving one to UC Santa Cruz and a year later the other to UC San Diego, we exhausted our talk of them quickly. We knew only what they chose to share with us in weekly phone calls.
To combat my feelings of loss, I returned to Fresno State to earn yet another degree — a master’s in English composition. As if my high school teaching did not fill enough time (grading a 150 student essays each week), I added my own reading and writing to the few hours remaining in the day. My husband did what men usually do — ignored his feelings through physical work, farming and harvesting our peach orchard. Each evening he fell asleep on the sofa, exhausted, while I sat on the loveseat, pen in hand and my head buried in a book.
Within a few months, however, I noticed a subtle change in our household. Our dog, Max, seemed to take on a new role. Max had become our child, readily receiving the love and fawning we needed to express. For those of you shaking your heads at the thought of a pet replacing a child, be assured our children were mightily loved, but no longer as children. We had to love them now as young adults, which required side-stepping our ingrained habit of giving unsolicited advice. We remained quiet about our worries such as our son riding a Vespa scooter to and from school and our daughter driving with her dorm friends to Tijuana on weekends. We had done our best, we reminded ourselves, and now it was time to trust them as they navigated their own lives.
So, our parental love fell to Max, a Norwegian elkhound we had acquired as a puppy when our kids were in high school. For 14 years Max lived in the backyard, his double coat keeping him warm in winter and cool in summer. My husband believed large dogs belonged outside, especially ones that shed. So, Max guarded our house, played ball with me, went for walks with my husband, and lay near me on Saturday mornings as I sipped coffee and wrote in my journal on the wood deck. When I think of him now, I realize Max spent most of his life waiting: waiting to go for a walk, to play ball, and for our company in the backyard.
Max had lived his first few months with us in the laundry room until we felt sure he would not fall into our swimming pool (Norwegian elkhounds do not like water). Then we “booted him out,” as my husband put it. “He’s a guard dog,” he insisted. “He belongs outside.” And guard Max did. Every night he slept near the back door where the tall wrought iron gate gave him a clear view of the street and my husband’s truck in the driveway. Any noise around the truck brought on Max’s angry bark. He barked at roaming cats, people walking on the street, and loud engines, especially motorcycles, but we knew his serious bark and rushed to check the disturbance.
I did bring Max into the house occasionally. He lay on a rug in the laundry room, resting his head on the kitchen step. There he stayed, watching me iron or load the dishwasher or read the newspaper at the kitchen table. But soon he would feel claustrophobic and head for the backdoor and open air.
I share this information about Max as a contrast to how we treated our new puppy, Berend, also a Norwegian elkhound. A year after Max died, we knew we needed another dog to love. We were easy targets for Berend’s big, brown eyes and clumsy puppy paws that scampered toward the sound of our voices the first time he saw us. And I’m embarrassed to admit our treatment of him reflected the relaxed behavior of parents with their last child.
Berend began life in our home as an 8-week-old puppy. “He’s an outside dog, you know,” the breeder informed us. We smiled and shook our heads in agreement. Once home, we set up a sleeping cage with a soft rug in the kitchen and bought him a blue stuffed dog with which he played and slept. We also purchased a wooden gate to block the doorway from kitchen to dining room (which we removed when he learned the command, “Stay”). He was never allowed anywhere else in the house, but our kitchen provided him with plenty of space, and he preferred the cool tile floor to carpet.
I laugh as I look at pictures of our burly, teenage boy with one ear up and the other still flopping. Clearly, he gave us someone to love. He rode in the car; something Max never did. His chew toys and balls littered the patio where he played while we were at work. And he went for daily walks with my husband, graciously accepting compliments from passing motorists. Oh, yes, cars stopped to inquire about Berend’s breed. He was a handsome boy, especially with both ears up.
And Berend talked to us. He called out upon awaking and greeted us with his vigorously wagging tail. He arfed when he wanted our attention, bow-wowed when someone walked by our house, and woofed when he saw or heard another dog. (Seriously, Norwegian elkhounds have many voices). And eventually he stayed in the kitchen without a gate. He was such a smart dog.
“Did you give him love today?” my husband would ask upon returning from work. I asked him the same question if I were the last to arrive home.
Having a dog to walk got my husband out of the house and exercising, and Berend kept him company while he worked in the yard. More importantly, having a dog in the house made our pet a family member. Our trips to the refrigerator ended in pats on Berend’s head, a few kind words, and sometimes, the sharing of an apple or carrot stick. From his lamb’s wool bed in the kitchen, he could see us in the den watching TV or reading. And he could call to us before heading to the back door if he needed to go outside.
Sadly, animals have shorter lives than we do, causing dog and cat lovers to mourn their loss multiple times over in a lifetime. Last year, Berend died a month before his 15th birthday — that’s a long life for any dog. His hind legs could no longer hold him even when we lifted him up. We miss him so, but try to keep his memory through a series of photographs posted on the refrigerator. He was our fourth dog. Will we get another dog? That remains to be seen. But as any dog or cat lover knows, animals certainly give a person someone to shower with love and a sense of being needed.
Dr. Pauline Sahakian taught high school English in Clovis Unified School District and for the CSU Fresno English Dept. She also taught in the CSUF Kremen School of Education. She recently retired from her last job as director of the UC Merced Writing Project. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.