Six years ago I moved my dog's cedar bed from its spot in the bedroom to a corner of the living room, to make room for a bassinet - and even though the bassinet is long gone, I've never put the dog bed back. And I took the worn bedspread, coated with buff-colored dog hair, off the back seat of my Honda Civic and installed a child's car seat in its place.
A long time before my children were born, I found a puppy at the flea market. She looked like a caramel in a sea of Hershey's Kisses and when I stuck my hand down into the large pen on the grass, she climbed over the other nine puppies to lick it.
Although I had come to the flea market for a bicycle, I carried her home in my palm and named her Chesie, for the bit of Chesapeake Bay retriever in her.
After I broke up with a man I almost married, Chesie and I sat on the rug in front of the fireplace, and I cried into her fur.
In our little apartment, I talked to her when I walked by her, and each time she thunked her tail on the floor three times.
These days, though, 14-year-old Chesie is lucky if she gets her dinner on time and a couple of walks a week. Now, when I go to the park, I take my sons, and leave her behind. It's all I can do to manage two little boys; I don't have the energy for them and a dog who wraps the leash around my legs and doesn't hear me anymore when I call her.
I see what has happened. Now I'm reading bedtime stories, refereeing wrestling matches, and playing catch, and it has become a habit to ignore her. Walking her, combing her, and driving her to the vet have become chores for which I have little time or energy.
Chesie has never protested her demotion in the family; instead she rests her head on the picture-window ledge and looks out onto the sidewalk. I imagine she's wishing some childless person would come by and offer to take her home; someone who will talk to her every day, and say things like, "What a good girl you are."
Unlike my children, Chesie doesn't demand me; she's content with what she gets. She doesn't complain, flail, scream, or cry; she just lies on her bed and watches me as I walk through the house. And, like a triage nurse, I go where I am most needed.
Perhaps my relationship with Chesie has been a rehearsal for raising children. Petting her, throwing balls to her in the park, talking to her in baby talk, and nursing her wounds - all those things have taught me something.
When we get pets after we already have children, they're for the kids, they're playmates; they teach responsibility and how to care for others. But the pets that come before we have children are for us parents-to-be.
Yesterday I came home from work early and pulled Chesie's leash off the hook by the front door. She cocked her head to the side and barked once.
I carried her down the stairs and slowly we made our way around the block. I let her lead and sniff wherever she wanted, and when she tangled the leash around my leg I gently straightened it.
She stumbled when she climbed up the curb, but her head was high, and she had a bounce in her step that I haven't seen in years.
When we got back home I leaned down and rubbed her silky ears and scratched behind them. And into one ear I whispered, "What a good girl you are."
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