Sunday, August 2, 2009

House Pets – Part I

The Unnamed

Sad to say, our family didn’t have a good history with house pets. Dad brought home an Airedale puppy one summer when I was about 3 or 4. The first evening, Mom took me out to the back yard to meet our new pup. It didn’t have a name yet. This was right before my bedtime when the sun was setting through the oak and pine trees.

The whole family was in the yard to meet our pet—my two older sisters, Mom and Dad. My younger brother wasn’t born yet. I had on my summer pajamas—cotton shorts and matching blouse with metal snaps for buttons. The new puppy had a long, rectangular face. He looked big!

Someone said, “You can pat him.”

I wanted to touch him but I felt scared and started running. In that same instant, the pup chased after me. Squealing with fright and delight, I ran in tighter and tighter circles. What if he caught me? Would he nip my bare legs and feet? I turned around to look and slipped on the grass, falling on my back.

Standing over me, panting in my face, the pup was all smiles and full of accomplishment. He’d won me over. I'd made a new friend.

“Okay. Time to say goodnight, now,” Mom said. She was strict about bedtime.

Upstairs in my bedroom, Mom read to me as she always did, then kissed me goodnight. I listened for the puppy outside and though I couldn’t hear anything, happiness squiggled through my limbs. I couldn't believe my good fortune: I had a pet.

Not long after, the light dimming outside, Mom came back up.

“Honey,” she said, sitting on my bed. She spoke quietly and looked sad. “I have something to tell you.”

Apparently, on the way to get something in the garage, Dad had tied the puppy’s leash to the back stair railing. During those brief, shattering moments —my father was gone for just a minute—the puppy in his exuberance slipped through the rails and dangled from his leash. The metal training collar functioned like a slip noose, tightening around his throat, choking him to death.

After my mother left again, I lay for a long time unable to sleep, going round and round, reliving the puppy’s chase and his short life with me. I wanted to cry but I was angry with my father and upset, my heart turned upside down.

How many times had Dad told us he wanted a dog? and now this unthinkable had happened. If I had been in charge, could I have saved our puppy’s life?

“I was gone for a minute, not even a minute,” my father kept saying the next day, and the next, and for days after that.

I was angry, but I also felt sorry for my father. I could see that he was torn and ashamed.—“Not even a minute. Less than a minute. Seconds.” He shook his head, beating himself for his mistake.

That marked the beginning of my divided self. One part of me surfaced like a shark circling toward the smell of darkness that I sensed lay ahead. Another part of me knew, even then, that to escape that darkness, I would need to learn how to forgive.


  1. Speaking as a parent, that fear of something terrible happening "in less than a minute" is ever-present. We try to be as vigilant as we can, but we all do our version of stepping into the garage with the puppy on the stairs, once in a while.

    I could feel that joy, then the grief and anger, and your father's anguish. So tragic.

  2. It's a sad story but perhaps it is one of the 'teachable moments' of which we've heard so much lately. I'm sorry you experienced it and that you carry the memory with you but I also feel confident that you learned from your father's mistake - both about vigilance and about forgiveness and humanity.

  3. Hi, Amy.
    Boy am I a slow learner. Teachable moments for me can take years! Thank you for your comments--Vigilence--I like that word. Doesn't seem we use it much these days.


  4. this is wonderful-horrible. I am still learning this lesson, every day.

    my first puppy died similarly! one night it was there, the next morning it was gone. I was told it got stuck in some exposed pipes where my father was fixing the bathroom the body was gone. my mother said it had been "taken up to heaven". I always wondered what really happened...

    you may have inspired me to write and explore it.

  5. Maryanne--amazing that something similar happened to you. I think my father buried the puppy in the back woods but I'm really not sure.

    Talking about death to a young child is a tricky thing.

    I hope that you do explore your story. Thanks for sharing it here.


  6. I'm feeling the pain of losing that puppy... interesting b/c this weekend past we have had an issue with our female Corgi, another issue with our older mare, and the recurrence of a seizure issue with an older cat.

    There was a period over the weekend where it all overlapped and I had the fleeting thought that living with children and animals can be so terrifying it's almost too much.

    Still, when I read about your joy and wonder and bit of fear as you ran in circles with the pup, I know why we do it.

  7. Hi, Billie. Life is messy, isn't it? Thank you for your insights.


  8. I too felt the excitement, fear, glee, then devastation and anger. However what really disturbed me was that your mother went back into your bedroom as you - a 3 or 4 year old child - were about to fall asleep to tell you the sad/bad news. What was that about? I'm interested in what you think.

  9. Hi, Mary.
    I've thought about your question and I don't have a good answer. It could be that she came upstairs and I heard her and called to her to ask how the puppy was and then she told me. Writing about this has generated strange feelings about truth and time perception. My child sense of time is not the same as my adult, and what I remember is ordered in my mind as I experienced it as a child. I don't think my mother came up specifically to tell me. Her bedroom was down the hall from mine. But the emotional experience and how it unfolded feels right.

    I think my mother probably wanted to speak truthfully. Also, perhaps she was in shock herself.

    What were your thoughts?


  10. Heartbreaking!
    My first pet was a little stray dog I named Trixie. I was four years old, and Trixie quickly became my best friend. Unfortunately, Trixie's real owners showed up a month later, and my dad--always one to avoid conflict--delivered her to them at night, after I was asleep.
    Next morning, I bounced to the breakfast table: "Where's Trixie?"
    She was gone. No goodbye, no closure.
    Question: looking back, do you feel sympathy for the little girl you used to be, almost as if she were a different person? I sometimes imagine gathering my four-year-old self in my arms, brushing the bangs from her eyes, holding her as she cries and singing to soothe her. Maybe it's the mom in me.

  11. Ashley-so sorry about Trixie. I think loss and death and how to tell a child that someone she loves is gone--forever--is obviously a hard task for a parent. I hear this so often--parents choosing not to say anything as a way to deal with it. Does that make it go away or better? Obviously not.

    Writing this story made me see something I didn't see before--a vulnerability that I've ignored or hid in myself and also my parents' vulnerability. We all have those places, right? I think your impulse to embrace your younger self is a wonderful idea.

    Thanks for your insights.


  12. Jennifer JeffersonAugust 4, 2009 at 9:43 PM

    Oh, Jessica---that is so sad.

  13. It is sad, Jennifer. What can I say? It happened.


  14. This is heartbreaking. So many people see childhood as this fun, uncomplicated phase, and I wonder if they have any memory at all of being an abstract thinker trapped in a person that can't yet articulate those thoughts to adults.

    That poor little puppy. And your poor father.

  15. Krebiz--I think you're right. It's tempting to romanticize our childhoods. Your comment (and other comments here)have opened up my head.

    What you said--being an abstract thinker trapped in a person who can't articulate her thoughts to adults-- floored me.

    Many thanks for stopping by.


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