One of my first boyfriends announced after our fourth date that he would never consider marrying or even living with a woman who smoked. I was devastated (although I didn’t smoke).
Still in college, I was looking for a soul mate, and my boyfriend’s inflexibility seemed unromantic in the extreme. One of my glamorous ideals back then was a black-and-white picture of Albert Camus looking rumpled, intellectual and French with a cigarette tucked between his fingers.
I mention this only to establish that I never would have thought it necessary to establish criteria for boyfriends or husbands, especially one as seemingly unimportant as: Must love dogs.
As in: You must be able to share your waking hours and living space and a good amount of your disposable income on a four-footed companion that is basically a child in fur for 12 to 15 years. You must plan every vacation around its needs. You will trip over toys and pigs’ ears and chew hooves splayed across your best Persian carpet. You will be forced to walk it every day, rain or shine, or risk having your favorite shoes sacrificed to the god of canine frustration.
Having come from a line of dog people, I took these qualities for granted until I met boyfriends who had not shared this experience and did not want to. I also hadn’t realized that I could be as inflexible as that first, smoke-free boyfriend when it came to whom I could live with or marry.
Fast-forward to my first date with the man who became my husband. An acquaintance warned me, “He’s grumpy and doesn’t like dogs.”
Apparently her dog had done a little submission on his shoes, and he had become irritated. I love dogs, but if one were to pee on my favorite shoes while I was wearing them, I’d be irritated, too.
I later found out he did like dogs but he didn’t particularly care for this acquaintance. Thus, the grumpy, canine-unfriendly image.
3 cats, one house, first dog
After we married, we proceeded to get three more cats. And when we eventually bought our first house, we set about getting our first dog. He wasn’t just any dog, but a high-strung Gordon setter. Keeping the peace between the dog and cats was as fraught and fragile as Middle East peace.
And then fate streaked by in the form of a reddish golden retriever running across the street. I caught him, but he had no tags, so we posted signs. Days later a woman called. It was her dog, but she did not want him back.
We were at the point of sending him to a breed rescue, but my husband said he couldn’t send him to take his chances at finding a home. That’s when I really knew I had found the right one – man and dog.
Our living room became a dog romper room, our car was lined in fur, and I remember watching my husband chasing the dogs in the park when they refused to fetch the balls we threw. I wished that past acquaintance could see Mr. Grumpy now.
Our next dog was long planned for, but his arrival coincided with a rough patch in our marriage. I even considered not getting him but decided a new dog might serve as a weight rather than a burden, tethering me to a daily routine.
I remember standing in my pajamas at 2 a.m. to allow the puppy to empty his bladder. It was a miserable job, it was a job for one, yet my husband stood there with me.
Talking about things was difficult during that time, but the housebreaking of a puppy in the coolness of the night air under the milky light of the full moon was easy. Somehow those nights started us back on the path we had lost sight of. How the dog worked this magic between hikes, table begging, sock stealing and keeping us up at night with his snoring is a mystery I still can’t explain.
The difficulty of having dogs is that you don’t have them forever, and you must make peace with that even though the eventual pain will not be one degree less with this knowledge.
What dogs teach us
This is what dogs teach us: to love and to risk losing and to love again. I’ve met people who never want another dog after losing their first one, and I’m sympathetic. But what if after our first heartbreak we gave up on love? What if after the first fight with a lover we shielded ourselves? We would be protected, yes, but we’d also be done living.
As I write this, I’m sleep-deprived from a 10-week-old puppy. Although I have a pile of work and deadlines, I’m not at my computer. I’m sitting on the lawn under the shade of a plum tree that until now I didn’t realize had ripe fruit.
There have been too many summers when I never made it out onto the lawn, much less noticed the fruit trees, because there always seemed to be something more important that needed doing. Most years the birds have a feast on our neglect. But now my husband is coming down the driveway with a bag of sandwiches, a makeshift picnic. It has been years since we did something like this in the middle of the week. Necessity creates opportunity that can lead to bliss.
In my life, dogs have always been a part of that equation, a way to find the small, grounding moments in life – the grass, sunlight and sweet bite of plums – that we commonly call happiness. After 20 years of marriage, on our fourth dog, my husband and I are best friends, which must be at least as rare as soul mates.
We toast with plastic bottles of water, the puppy on his back in the grass between us. It tastes like the finest wine.
Tatjana Soli’s latest novel is “The Forgetting Tree.”
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