My dog is not stressed by the shelter-in-place mandate. On his typical pre-pandemic morning the members of our household leave him, one by one, for our work places. He sits in the hallway, watching as we swig down the last of our coffee and head toward the door. He is both heart-broken and disbelieving: “So you’re ditching me again today?” I’ve learned to get down to his level to share a litany that confirms his worst suspicions: “Mama goes bye-bye. Hunter’s a good boy. Mama comes back. Hunter, stay!” His head droops and I head off to work wracked with guilt. Of course, our abandonment is magnanimously forgiven when we return hours later to a ridiculously joyful reunion.
With the shelter-in-place decree, we are all slogging around the house together now. In fact, one son decided to camp out with us rather than stay with a housemate in Ann Arbor. So there are four family members now who dote on him. He has three levels of the house to visit and often there are snacks tossed his way in each room he enters. He has known that he is an equal to us; that we, in fact, are privileged to be part of his pack. He sits on a chair at the dinner table and might even be fed table scraps at our level. I know. Canine disciplinarians, look away!
I wasn’t raised with dogs so I didn’t understand them. It doesn’t help that a dog bit me when I was a little girl. It wasn’t a deep bite but the lasting effect was a mistrust of dogs. My husband wished for a dog for many years. We finally struck a bargain 25 years ago when we were going to move. If I could purge some of our possessions so as to lighten our load before relocating, he could get a dog. A staff member at my farewell party negotiated the deal and Garrett and I actually shook on it. It was a big concession on my part but I was excited to dump off—I mean, donate—a bunch of our stuff to Goodwill!
Hunter is our third dog. I have figured them out. I am his mama and we love each other very much! My youngest child and I chose him at the Kent County Animal Shelter the day after we returned from our final vacation of the summer in 2009. We were ready to put down roots for the school year. We had “interviews” with four dogs but he was clearly The One. He was a 25-pound cocker spaniel, about 2 years old, who had been a stray long enough to have a matted coat. He wore a bandana with his name on it: Hunter. This was in the downturned economy when lots of folks had to downsize. Apartments didn’t allow pets so dogs and cats were either surrendered to local animal agencies by grief-stricken owners or let loose to fend for themselves.
We don’t know Hunter’s story for the first couple years of his life. We know he was loved because he was trusting. We know he was trained because we kept discovering words that he understood. Maria and I invited the rest of the family to a dinner where there would be a surprise guest. They all made bets but no one expected our visitor to come eagerly trotting in on four legs. We remarked that he walked right in as if he owned the joint. There was no looking back. He was ours and we are his. To honor his past we kept the name Hunter.
I talked with a friend about a year ago whose grandmother was not doing so well. She had been a very active person, contributing to her community and the life of her church. Like many of us she was accustomed to being on the giving end of things. But now she needed support after a stroke. She felt guilty that she relied on her family’s help and lost her sense of purpose. My friend tried to reassure her grandmother that this new stage was OK. In reflecting on this woman’s changed circumstance, the image that came to my mind was of an older dog who has faithfully served the family. He has protected them against intruders, mostly imaginary. He has swept the squirrels from the bird feeders and accompanied the family “pack” on countless walks. But now he is older and contented to be inside. His fur is patchy and his hearing impaired. But his place in the family is assured! We love him for who he has always been.
I shared this image with my friend but insisted that I was not comparing her grandmother to a dog exactly! She had dogs so she understood how a beloved member of a family is allowed to age with grace and support. Perhaps her grandma could be invited to settle into this new dependency with contentment rather than fighting her physical diminishment. She could role model for the younger generations what it looks like to raise your family with such devotion that your future is secure.
So Hunter’s place in our family is assured. He was the preferred confidant for our kids during their teenaged years. He never questioned them. He wagged his tail when they entered the room and looked into their eyes with trust. He’s got a place on any of our beds at night and sometimes migrates from one sleeper to another. He now needs a ramp on the side of our bed to get up to our level. He needed surgery to repair a torn ACL (the dog equivalent). Now he wears a brace on his back foot that endears us to him all the more. He still bolts out the front door several times a day. He’s sure that our home is under attack unless he patrols. He forgets his aches outside…until he hobbles back inside to a comfortable spot in the sun.
Our house burned to the ground on August 14, 2007. Our Brittany Spaniel, Freckles, had died suddenly just ten days before the fire. The best guestimate for Hunter’s age when we adopted him was that he was almost two years old. We like to think that he was born about the time of our fire but it took us two years to find each other. The summer of the fire we moved into a family cottage for a year while rebuilding our home. We happily claimed our new space the summer of 2008. I was considering a dog a year later but anxious about having one who would chew our new furniture (that had happened) or shred our couch cushions (that too). We hadn’t reinstalled an electric fence since the fire so I was worried that a dog could run into the road and be hit by a car (the death of our first dog). So I prayed. I don’t know that I actually articulated a request for the perfect dog. But, in my heart, I prayed for the next right furry companion.
God heard my prayer. Hunter was about two years old by then so he no longer chewed indiscriminately. He doesn’t shed. Because of the trauma of being homeless for a time, he has never strayed from us. We never had to reinstall the electric fence. He has worked with me in the garden, helping himself to stalks of asparagus. In the fall he bounds out the door to find pears or apples on the ground as a never-ending supply of juicy snacks. He has lumps and bumps but then, I’ve aged too! His life has been rich–is rich–and so is ours!
So sheltering-in-place? That’s just another chapter of our lives we share together. In this time of great uncertainly, his wagging tail gives me hope! Thank you, God, for our furry friends!