Not even a week after our honeymoon, my husband announced he wanted a dog. That took me by surprise—Elliot’s family never owned pets, and the subject hadn’t come up in the 10 years I knew him. It wasn’t welcome news, either. I’d been uneasy around dogs since kindergarten, when an irritable boxer nearly took off my hand.
Besides, I didn’t see the need to complicate our new life together with something messy, expensive, and unfamiliar. So I countered with an announcement of my own—“I don’t want a dog”—and mistakenly thought that ended the discussion. Elliot stared at me in disbelief, then eventually found words: “But my mother said I could have a dog when I got married!”
That line got plenty of laughs whenever we shared the story with friends, but seeing it as a joke blinded me to what a long-standing bubble I’d popped. Over our 40-plus years together, Elliot would point out every golden retriever we passed, convinced I’d fall in love with the breed as he had.
But I developed an arsenal of excuses, starting with “Children are more than enough work.” Next, I saw what happened with friends: Despite promises, walking the dog (not to mention feeding, bathing, cleanup, and vet trips) invariably became mom’s job. And my most compelling argument: Our oldest child was so allergic to dogs that the briefest exposure left her swollen beyond recognition. In other words, I thought I was safe.
Children, however, grow up and leave home. When our nest emptied, Elliot began lobbying in earnest for a pet. I still had zero inclination but felt unfair to deny him endlessly. When he compromised on a hypoallergenic breed, my arsenal shrank to a single argument: “You can get a dog if you take full responsibility.” So Elliot, who’d just cut back to working three days a week, set sights on his approaching retirement.
Then he got cancer.
Immediately, the kids conferred. They knew a pet was the last thing I needed in my suddenly out-of-control life, but the grim road facing Elliot called for extreme encouragement. Deciding Pop needed a dog, they appointed the bravest sibling to confront me. Somehow, in spite of my reservations, I’d already reached the same conclusion.
So to fulfill her dad’s yearning (and, I’m sure, to feel helpful in a helpless situation) our younger daughter threw herself into researching breeds and visiting shelters. After several almosts, she found the dog—a tangly, sweet-natured Schnoodle in need of grooming and stroking. Lots of stroking.
Over our 40-plus years together, Elliot would point out every golden retriever we passed, convinced I’d fall in love with the breed as he had.
Jack lived to be loved and would linger in his new master’s lap, eyes glazed in ecstasy for as long as the petting continued. I thought their relationship would be less sedentary, but chemo fatigue set in rapidly. And so the daily walks fell to me. I was surprised not to mind; exercise helped clear my head after a stint in our strange new world of medication, infusion, transfusion, confusion.
Yet Jack himself was a strange new world to me. Twice, for example, he wanted out at midnight but then refused because it was raining. That left me befuddled (and, unfortunately, be-puddled). I had many questions: Should I withhold water after dinner? Is there some subliminal message behind the “present” he left on the carpet? And what’s with the tufts of hair throughout the house?
Elliot also had questions, including, “Is it okay for me to stop petting him?” Did I understand correctly—after just 20 minutes, my dyed-in-the-wool dog lover had had enough?
Day six was Jack’s first checkup, just 72 hours later than the shelter recommended (a triumph, I thought, considering what we were dealing with). The vet confirmed he was healthy—and then said the F-word.
“Fleas?” I gasped. (Who knew the shelter’s “recommendation” was based on when its flea prevention expired?)
But here’s the amazing thing: In those six days, Elliot discovered dog ownership didn’t meet the expectations he’d carried for so many years.
“Not to worry!” the vet cheerfully consoled me as she launched into instructions. Well, fleas may be routine for an animal doctor, but hearing “just” in the same sentence as “hot-water wash all linens, Borax every surface, and vacuum twice daily for two weeks” was just too much. There simply wasn’t enough Sandra to do all that and a dog and cancer.
But here’s the amazing thing: In those six days, Elliot discovered dog ownership didn’t meet the expectations he’d carried for so many years. And he was ready—eager, even—to simplify what little we could in our unavoidably complicated life.
I’d like to tell you that on the seventh day we rested, but the Borax-laundry-vacuum regimen lasted awhile. I also wish I could report that Elliot recuperated, but as three rigorous months dragged yet flew, we bounced like a pinball between the hopes, horrors, worries, and disappointments of terminal illness. One thing, however, was wonderfully missing: regret.
No one—not even Elliot—would have faulted me for nixing the dog idea at the outset; it really was the worst possible time to attempt something so foreign. Nonetheless, I wince to think how close I came to saying no and what that would have meant: Elliot would have missed out on a dream fulfilled and the tangible display of his family’s love; and I’d now be dealing with remorse on top of grief, wishing I could rewind four decades and relent.
Close calls can be a good thing—this one’s made me more deliberate about words and actions that won’t lead to wishing for a do-over. And I’m thankful God knew what I didn’t—that little Jack would have been a big problem as we faced emergency room runs and five lengthy hospitalizations. He also knew six days of dog would bless us all. So He mercifully led me to put love above logic and then sent fleas as a vehicle of His multidirectional grace: Elliot got his dog; our kids had the joy of making it happen; and I live free from the agony of “if only.”
Even the dog was blessed. Jack now resides with the friend of a friend—a seasoned pet owner, who gives him love and a whole lot of stroking.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory