Guest blog by Mary Dell Harrington, co-founder of the parenting blog Grown and Flown
Long ago, our house became a favorite destination for our son’s playdates, and we have a big, brown, furry family dog to thank. During our 20+ years of marriage, we have actually had four chocolate Labrador retrievers, beginning with a puppy when we got engaged and ending with the dog who joined our almost-empty nest three years ago.
Of all the dogs, though, Argus, a Christmas addition for our then six-year old son, was the rowdiest, matching up in temperament perfectly with the pack of energized little boys who came over to play. As he trained (somewhat successfully) his unruly pal, our son gained a playmate and confidante, alarm clock and buddy; in fact, he gained a brother. The years of puppyhood, with chewed possessions and indoor accidents, are distressing. But witnessing your grown child say goodbye to a now-aged dog as he leaves home for college is infinitely harder.
Author Willie Morris (1934-1999) wrote about the magic of a family dog in his wonderful book, My Dog Skip. We learn of how Morris blossomed from an awkward and lonely (only) child to a confident college student and recipient of a Rhodes scholarship, all with the help of his loyal dog. As the story ends, an ominous call arrives for him in Oxford telling Morris of Skip’s death. He writes:
The dog of your boyhood teaches you a great deal about friendship, and love, and death: Old Skip was my brother…. They had buried him under our elm tree, they said—yet this was not totally true. For he really lay buried in my heart.
As we packed our son off to college for his freshman year, my husband, daughter and I watched as he hugged his dog and told him he would see him soon. For 13 years, the enormous chocolate Lab who joined our household so many years before, taught our son about friendship and love. Like Morris’ dog Skip, Argus passed away during our son’s collegiate years.
No doubt our son will have other dogs, but he may never have a relationship quite like the one he had with Argus. When I think of him as a really young boy, in my mind’s eye, he is smiling broadly, running with his giant retriever. It is an indelible image.
Mary Dell Harrington, a graduate of the University of Texas and Harvard Business School, began her career in the media where she worked for NBC, Discovery and Lifetime. Most recently, she and Lisa Heffernan co-founded Grown and Flown, a parenting blog that looks at the entire arc of family life from the point of view of moms with kids 15-25. Their writing has appeared in Huffington Post, Atlantic.com, PBS Next Avenue and Lifetime Moms. Along with her chocolate Labrador partner, Moose, Mary Dell is a certified Pet Partners animal therapist and volunteers for New York-Presbyterian Hospital in that capacity.
It was a typical Saturday morning in Brooklyn. I was showering when my kids began knocking on the bathroom door, explaining that a pet adoption van was parked outside our building and “could we just go look? Pleeeeze?”
It had been a tough year. My nine-year-old daughter, Kate, was diagnosed with a chronic disease. As a family, we were still adjusting to Kate’s condition, and she was feeling pretty terrible, not to mention depressed, from her ailments. Her eyes lit up when I said, yes, we could “just look.”
Among the various adorable dogs and puppies was one grungy, older Chihuahua mix who had instantly bonded with Kate. They were face-to-face the entire time, and my kids pleaded and begged collectively to bring her home. A half-hour later she was ours, and we named her Hayley.
We learned that Hayley had been abused. She literally screamed in horror anytime any one of us picked up our hand to wave or scratch our heads. She also had a deep scar on the top of her head and a few ticks. Her fur needed serious grooming, and she was not housebroken.
We gave her a bath and a good meal and then, immediately after, Kate took charge of Hayley’s issues. When she screeched, Kate comforted her. When she had an accident, Kate walked her to show her the proper potty place. When she just seemed nervous, Kate reassured her, “It’s OK, Hayley,” and followed up with multiple hugs and kisses.
While Hayley surely benefitted from Katelyn’s love, I learned firsthand that there is perhaps nothing better than taking care of a dog and giving and receiving the unconditional love only a pup can bring to sick child (or adult). There was no better remedy for Kate than to care for this abused little dog. Seven years later, they have helped each other very much to heal. Hayley no longer is afraid of us or anyone else. Kate just turned 16, and she and Hayley are closer than words could convey. It’s been said that we save dogs when we adopt them, but I think we often forget how many dogs actually save us.
Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, has worked as a writer and editor in the parenting world for more than 10 years. Danielle also writes about pets and parenting for Disney’s Babble.com. Find her on her blog, Some Puppy To Love, Twitter or Facebook.