Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Best Christmas Present Ever

“He sure does have some stinky toots,” my husband said while we played cards with friends. We all wrinkled our noses in agreement and waited for the air to clear.

“Maybe it’s his food,” I muttered later, as I walked past a dog dish full of canned organ meats. The smell hung right there in the air, all fingers pointing to our new pup’s putrid digestive system and unappetizing menu. Then I noticed the jar of freshly fermenting sauerkraut overflowing onto the counter above his bowls. I had no idea homemade sauerkraut and doggie toots smell identical.

Our new puppy, recently adopted from a pretty nasty animal control facility in the Phoenix area, got sick two days after we brought him home. I know—shocker. Somehow, surrounded by dog cells adorned with “This dog is sick but adoptable” signs, our little lab contracted a nasty case of kennel cough. But he wasn’t coughing. He just had . . . tummy issues. Which morphed into an eating and drinking fast (who knew he was a religious dog?) and landed him in two vets’ offices the same week.

“Where did he come from?” they asked us.

“The pound.”

“How old is he?”

Blank stare.

“Is he a Labrador/shepherd mix?”


As best we can tell, he has absolutely no medical history and has left no paper trail. He just appeared on a street corner on Christmas Eve somewhere in Phoenix and was delivered to the pound sometime on Christmas Day. Which wasn’t a very nice present for him, if you ask me.

But I’d been praying for a new dog for almost a year. Specifically, I prayed for a dog who needed us. It’s hard to figure out how to find a dog like that. I did have some important specifics, though.  First, he/she needed to have a kind heart.  Second, he must be allergic to the following: 

Garden hoses
Lawn chairs
Household furniture
Extension cords, and
Chocolate truffles. 

By the time our first dog dissected all of the above, my husband figured out Harmony suffered from a PVC deficiency. I discovered she loved Lindt’s truffles when I dropped one and, before I realized it wasn’t in my mouth, it turned up in hers.

I never forgave her for that, by the way.

So, how were we gonna find the perfect dog? Our last two pets were both pound puppies. They each had a history we were forced to figure out one weird experience at a time. Harmony, our redheaded beagle mix, had clearly been abused by a tall, dark man wearing a baseball cap. Either that or she just didn’t like my brother-in-law. But she loved riding in the car, especially if we took her to the junipered hills of Payson. Sound asleep for the two hour ride to the mountains, the first whiff of pines and burning woodstoves that floated in through the car vent woke her up. That’s the first time I ever saw a dog smile.

She was perfectly portable.

Our next pet, like the first, was the quietest dog in the pound. She had exotic eyes seemingly enhanced by black eyeliner, faint brown spots beneath a silky white coat, and the agility of a ferret. For her whole life, she had the playful spirit of a puppy and didn’t care whether we joined in on the games or not. But she hated the car. Was terrified of travel. Taking her anywhere spelled torture, so we stopped doing it. This afternoon I found her collar and tags and cried all over again.

See why we needed a new dog?

“Well, maybe we should find a puppy who has no history or baggage and doesn’t need a therapist,” Rob suggested.

“Yeah, a dog with a clean slate,” I said.

“Or a lopsadoodle who doesn’t shed so we can keep a clean floor,” my husband answered.

I’m absolutely positive those of you who own doodle dogs are thrilled with them and the frugal way they keep their hair to themselves. But they remind me of those little metal dog pieces in a Monopoly game. I’d have to name it Park Place or something. 

Nope. No doodle dogs.

I’d found a few lovely labs online that were so precious their breeders wanted between $300 and $2300 for them—and wouldn’t throw in food or toys for that amount. Even I choked on those prices. Which makes sense. The same way we search out new cars is the way we find family pets—used dogs with low mileage.

Puppies were definitely out. My husband is now and forevermore on blood thinners. Puppy punctures and Warfarin are not a great combination. Rescue dogs didn’t make the list, either. As much as we love our dogs, at the end of the day they are still dogs. We are not co-parents of canines with a rescue organization calling the shots. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Once again, we wound up at the nasty Animal Control facility where sixty dollar dogs are at a premium.

“I thought we preferred females,” my husband said as we peered through the bars at convict number 361.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” I answered. “We can figure out how to cope with boy dog bathroom habits.”

“But this one isn’t a chocolate lab,” he pointed out.

“We can paint him.”

“Are you sure he’s the one?”

I was so sure. We’ve discovered that I have a talent for picking out great pups. The next day, after a lot of anxiety (mostly revolving around an impromptu raffle at the last minute for the yellow lab everyone recognized to be a great find), that brave little stray took a chance on us and became ours. We brought him home, named him Buddy, re-named him Brody, normally call him a “her” and wonder why he doesn’t answer to Body (“His name is Brody!” my husband keeps reminding me.)

Now you know why we needed a dog. We were shriveling up into old retired people.

Brody the Brave got well. And I think we’re getting younger every day he’s here. I don’t know who loves who more—the creamy young lab we rescued from the clutches of five other people who probably would have adored him as much as we do, or my husband and me who are laughing and moving more than we have in the year since we lost Sydney.

So what if he toots as bad as homemade sauerkraut? And even if, between specialized dog food and dog toys and beds and blankets and two vet bills and double antibiotics and vitamins, our $60 dog is now valued at more than ten times that much, we still saved $1700 over the price of that cute little piranha toothed lab I read about online.

I prayed for a dog who needed us, but all the while I knew what I was really asking for was the buddy we desperately needed. We found him. Maybe we found each other. 

It looks like Brody had a merry Christmas after all.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Brody, The Big White Dog

We’ve had Brody, the Big White Dog, living at our house for three weeks . . . today. It’s been a learning curve. But we expected that. You don’t live with a mass of clean floors, boring quiet, and a sweet smelling lawn for a year without noticing some changes after a puppy shows up. It’s just that this puppy fooled us for the first week.

We picked him up at the pound two days after we won him in the Greatest Animal Rescue Raffle of All Time. He looked a little shell shocked. A week before, he had been a free agent, roaming the highways and byways of some street in Phoenix, when suddenly a concerned citizen saw him, reported him to Big Brother and, just like that, Brody was locked up behind bars in the Big House on Christmas Eve. You might think that snitch probably got coal in his stocking the next morning, but if I ever get to meet that guy, I want to shake his hand. He did us a favor.

This may turn out to be the best dog we’ve ever had.

But things got off to a rough start. Our seven-month-old yellow lab/German shepherd mix got neutered, inoculated with half a dozen vaccines, chipped, and handed over to strangers all in less than eight hours. He seemed in good spirits in spite of a pretty Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day—right up until we tried to convince him to jump up into the back of our Chevy Tahoe, directly inside the open door of a dog crate we’d brought with us. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Just in case during the hour long drive home a fifty pound Labrador tried to climb into the driver’s lap, we thought “containment” was a good option for a nervous animal who’d just spent the last week of his life in “containment.”

Not our brightest moment.

The three of us compromised, though, on a ride home on the floorboards behind the front seats where Brody behaved like a perfect gentleman and never once acted like a backseat driver. When we got home, he inspected his new place like a kid seeing Disneyland for the first time, overwhelmed by a basket of toys and too busy looking around to want to eat. Considerate of the beautiful condition of the backyard lawn, he chose instead to christen our living room carpet when nature called.

“Okay,” I admitted to my ever patient husband while I knelt on the floor and scrubbed at the soiled spot, “we’ve all learned something important today.”

“And what is that?” Rob asked.

“Brody’s not housebroken.”

But he adjusted quickly, tolerated his crate at bedtime, and never complained to the authorities about the way he was being treated. And then he got sick. Two days after he came to live with us, on a holiday weekend when even vets have locked up and gone home to be with their families, he went downhill fast. We didn’t know what was wrong, only that he had an intestinal problem, stopped eating and drinking, was clearly wasting away to skin and bones, and became lethargic.

Finally, when it was clear that something more than PTSD was affecting him, we found a nearby animal hospital that worked him in and learned that Brody brought home a souvenir from the pound.
Kennel cough.

This is nasty stuff. We’ve never seen it before. And we didn’t know he was coughing. We thought he was gagging. Who knew dogs don’t cough like people? He was sneezing like people, but I just thought he was allergic to our carpet. So he got the mother of all antibiotic shots while we bought fancy canned food and probiotics and more antibiotic pills and yummy pill pockets to hide the pills in and, three hundred dollars later, brought our pound puppy home to recuperate.

I’ve added up the costs of dry dog food and canned dog food, dog treats and dog toys, dog beds and a dog blanket, antibiotics and two vet bills, and so far our $60 pound puppy has cost us close to $800.00. I sort of overlooked the possibility of spending our kids’ inheritance on a dog when we decided to adopt another one.

But he got well. And then he turned into a puppy. A giant, fifty pound, creamy white puppy with a huge Labrador head and a German shepherd tail, feet the size of coffee mugs and an appetite the size of Clifford’s. He looks like he’s full grown until you peer into his deep, dark eyes and realize you’re staring into the mind of a toddler canine who has no idea that my red polished toenails are not tiny toys asking to be chewed on or that he’s four times too big for anyone to think of as a lapdog.

We’ve got our hands full over here. It’s awesome.

I’ve laughed more in the last three weeks than I have in the last two years. This dog is Hilarryous—I should have named him “Larry” for short. I’m pretty sure when they found him in Phoenix that he’d just run away from the circus. If we’re too tuckered out to play tug of war with him, he doesn’t care—he can throw a football and catch it mid-air in his mouth all by himself. He’s already chewed and gutted three and a half stuffed animals—yesterday he chewed the ear off of an innocent squirrel, but squirrels are tougher than elephants and giraffes. Those last two were drawn and quartered in just under thirty-two minutes the very first night.

He’s the reason we’re getting up off the sofa thirty more times a day than we did a month ago—because he’s learning how to stand at the back door when it’s time to pee instead of taking the matter into his own hands in our living room. He’s become our physical trainer. Walks in the park are no longer an option—they’re a necessity if we want this overactive roommate to burn off his energy with exercise instead of chewing up our furniture. And you should see us chase the ball for him! Labs fetch but they don’t share.

Everyone thinks it’s so great when you turn up your nose at dog breeders and go to an animal shelter to “rescue” a dog. But that’s just because they don’t know the truth. We didn’t rescue Brody.

He rescued us.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Madonna Has Fallen

"I want to see something old," she said. "Really old."

Well, you’re kind of looking at it, I thought, while I dug around in my junk drawer looking for something that qualified, past the stacks of antique Hallmark cards I’ve been saving since 1976, the plastic snake my husband and I take turns randomly hiding in shoes or cupboards as a joke, and an empty box with instructions on how to use a set of earbuds I haven’t seen in two years.

It’s not like I meant to get old. It’s nice of her not to mention it every time she drops by for a visit. That’s probably because it goes with the territory since I’m her grandmother. But I used to be eight years old, just like her. Once—not that long ago, when I was twenty-five—I gave birth to her mom. I had a two and a half-year-old and a newborn back then. And then I got old.

Motherhood can do that to you.

Here’s the other thing that happens when you get old. Er. Old-er. You forget what it’s like to be in the trenches where raising kids happens. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. It’s like my mom always told me. The same way you forget labor pains, child raising pain is something else you forget.


No, both of those things are bald faced lies. I remember excruciatingly what labor pain felt like, and it’s pretty much the same memory whenever I think about the fear and naiveté of raising human beings. That’s ironic. Because once the kiddos grew up and got ready to leave home, the whole “you need your space and I need you to have your space” experience felt exactly the same way it did at the close of a nine month pregnancy. I needed that kid out and living on his own. That might have been the last time the two of us ever agreed on the same thing at the same time again.

Until they grew up. And had kids of their own.

At that point, it’s really hard not to be like some of my friends—who are also old—and point and laugh while our adult children endure their own stand-offs with our practically perfect grandbabies. In a way, it seems like sweet revenge. Once upon a time, our kids tormented us, fertilized our crop of gray hairs, and stole at least eight and a half years of irreplaceable sleep.

But now, it’s their turn to grow old. “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well,” some guy named Sam Levenson said, “is they have a common enemy.” That’s completely true until it’s our turn to have the granddarlings at our house for a sleepover. And then it all comes rushing back in like the tide.

I can have unlimited patience for about, oh, let’s say three hours, laughing at all the carelessness, immature reactions and forgetfulness of toddlers and preschoolers. Every time they visit I’m thrilled to see evidence of life in our boring old grownup house again, with dolls and cars all over the floor, every sippy cup we own filling up the top rack of our dishwasher, and dress-up clothes scattered from one end of the house to the other. That’s what a great YaYa I am—right up until it’s time to gather up the kiddies and their woobies and blankets and dolls and trucks and toothbrushes and shoes and get them to put away the thousands of toys I couldn’t stop myself from buying the very moment our kids announced that we were going to become grandparents.

And then, suddenly, I run out of energy and patience and good humor at exactly the same time I realize we’re thirty minutes late leaving the house to take them home, no one has used the bathroom before we buckled them into their car seats, I can’t remember who got to sit in the zebra booster last time, and I didn’t bring a cup of water for each kid so they’d stay hydrated during our twenty minute drive across the Arabian desert we call Arizona.

And the poor kid in the middle of the backseat doesn’t have a window to call his own.

That’s the moment when I understand what my daughter saw while she stood staring at the nativity scene on our front lawn on Christmas night last week. It’s just a simple, sparkly, colorful arch representing a stable, a backdrop for its equally sparkly Mary, Joseph, and The Babe Lying In A Manger. Only, on this night, a rare winter storm had blown through, playing havoc with our precarious holy family. Joseph managed somehow to remain standing on his feet. The Christ Child was cozy in his metal manger, and the stable protected two of the three lead players in the Christmas story.

But the Madonna Mary, the Virgin Mother herself, lay face down in the mud at the feet of the baby who probably caused it all, her husband’s arm pointing somehow in her direction as if to say, “Hey! Get up! The kid is hungry again.”

My daughter, on solo duty while her firefighter husband was working, stood exhausted after loading her three little munchkins and their entire Christmas haul from Grandma and Grandpa’s house into the family car, plus an armload of leftovers from the holiday dinner. With slumping shoulders, she sighed in commiseration at the fate of the virgin matriarch who lay prostrate in our front yard.

“That,” she said, “is the picture of motherhood.” She paused before adding,

“There was no Xanax in Nazareth.”

No matter how old I get or how many times when my kids were growing up I imagined revenge arriving someday in the form of grandkids, I’ll always remember what labor and childrearing pains felt like. I just can’t bring myself to laugh when my adult kids are exhausted and ready to throw in the towel. Once a parent always a parent—it’s a solidarity even grandkids as delightful as ours can’t bust up.

I gave my daughter a big hug and a bag of chocolate. It wasn’t Xanax, but this much I know.

It was more than the Virgin Mary had.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Winner

“What’dya want for your birthday?” he asked me last spring.

“A new dog,” I answered.

“What else would you like?” he said, hedging the inevitable.

We sent our exotic-eyed, playful girl, Sydney, home to Jesus in February. It was time. It was painful—for us. She was the lucky one, though, bounding across heaven and chasing birds with my Best Friend while we missed her like crazy and forgot every night when we went to bed that we didn’t have to let her in and out the back door anymore.

“What’dya want for our anniversary?” he asked in the fall.

“A new dog,” I answered.

“Isn’t that what you wanted for your birthday?” he asked with a smile.

“I’m a woman with limited imagination,” I told him.

But we had a big cruise to Alaska planned to celebrate our 40th anniversary and we didn’t book the doggie suite.

“Whatd’ya want for Christmas?” he never asked this winter. He just quietly went shopping, wrapped some presents too small to be a puppy, and watched while I opened a bright red envelope perched in our decorated tree on Christmas morning.

I began to cry.

It’s time to go find you a new best friend,” the card read, with a photo of somebody else’s Labrador taped inside. I practically kissed Rob’s face off.

Two days later, we wandered the noisy, smelly halls where they keep the fortunate and unfortunate strays and castoffs at the animal shelter, looking for the one gentle hearted animal who would stop us in our tracks. We weren’t sure what he’d look like. Rob thought he’d be dark, with brown fur that would blend in with the floor. He also thought he’d come in a portable, lapdog size.

We zoomed in on a nine month old cream colored yellow lab who was bigger than our four-year-old grandson and only half grown.

“You would fall in love with another big, white dog,” Rob teased.

I wasn’t the only one. Five other families wanted to own this sweet guy, happy to sweep up his white sheddings from their floors every day.

“There’ll be a raffle for him if anyone besides you wants the Lab,” the weary desk attendant told us. “Be here promptly at eleven tomorrow morning if you want a chance at getting him. Don’t leave the lobby, not even to go to the bathroom, or you’ll miss out on winning the raffle.”

We got there at a quarter of eleven and stood our ground in the swelling crowd—all waiting for one particular dog, apparently. 

“Did you see the yellow Lab?” I heard again and again behind me. “I’m trying for the Lab. I think everyone here wants to take him home.”

My heart sank. I’m not lucky. I never win anything. One time my name was printed in the newspaper announcing that I’d won a free pie at Marie Callendar’s. When I called to claim it, they checked my address and I learned that I was one of two Eula Marie McLeods who lived in the Phoenix area. Saddled with what I thought was the most unique name on earth, I discovered—pieless—that I was the wrong Eula McLeod.

“Praying you win,” our daughter texted us as we waited in the shelter’s lobby, shoulder to shoulder with our competition. “Have Dad enter the raffle. He wins everything, right?”
It’s usually true. Rob has a lucky streak the size of the Vegas Strip. I, on the other hand, can’t even win when the odds are one out of two. Rob, representing our family, stepped up to the counter with five other people, dropped his name in a bag with theirs, and waited while a stranger pulled out the winner.

I watched from the back wall, struggling to hold back tears. There was no way on earth it would be us. Despite all the providential hutzpah my husband is made of, the sad truth is he’s married to a doubter with all the confidence of Murphy’s Law. He doesn’t even bother buying lottery tickets anymore—my dogma runs over his karma every time.

This was hopeless.

A winner was announced, a group of women rushed the counter, and I slipped outside to cry in private. One out of six. That poor puppy. Convinced that he was about to be adopted by some family who already owned eight other dogs and destined to spend the rest of his life fighting for leftover scraps, I blew my nose and accepted our mutual fate. Then I went back inside.

Rob still stood at the counter. What was he doing? Was he the alternate? I mean, who cared who the alternate was. Everyone knew the winner would be taking home the Yellow Lab and the alternate would be asking me for a spare Kleenex. I watched in confusion as Rob stood glued to his spot in the crowd. I waved at him as he turned, searching the room for me.

“Come on,” he mouthed, heading for an inside door. I walked over to meet him, uncertainty painted across my face.

“What’s going on?” I asked him, as he held open the door to the hallway for me.

“We won,” he said simply.

“We won?!! We won the dog? The Yellow Lab?  We won?!!” 
I couldn’t believe it. It was as though I could actually hear Jesus laughing with delight in my ear.

“That’ll teach you to trust in luck,” He whispered to my shocked heart.

Two days later we brought him home. I bought a dog tag with his new name on it—Buddy. Because he’s my buddy. Today I’m buying him another dog tag with his real name on it—Brody. Because we changed his name to Brody. I may have named him too fast. We call our grandson “Buddy” more than we use his real name but we never call him Brody. So the boy remains “Buddy” and the dog is going to be “Brody.” Hopefully. So far I’ve called him Body, Brady, and Buddy. I may have to get a tattoo on my hand so I’ll remember what I named him.

I probably should have stuck with “Yellow Lab.”

Our floors will be shadowed by white fur once more. The carpet has already been baptized by puppy pee. And the new legal pad of paper I paid too much for at the Mailbox store has a corner chewed off now.

And we have a buddy named Brody to keep us company and lick our faces and wait for us at the back door. He’s my favorite Christmas present of all time.

“Leave it to Dad to win the raffle for you when it counts!” our daughter said. 

She was right. That man who wanted a tiny dog and fought for the big one is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

I must be luckier than I thought.