I’m an only child. It’s a dirty secret. When people find out they make a face and say, “Oh,” like I’ve just told them I collect dolls. In some ways I guess it is a quasi-significant revelation. Only childhood explains some of my personality. I share well, but I struggle with boundaries (in college I had to learn it’s not OK to start eating off of friends’ plates), and I was a tattle tale as a kid because I didn’t know how horrible it feels to be told on. I also can amuse myself–hence this blog. I know how to be alone, but I’ve also always had the companionship of animals.
Growing up we had many cats: first there was Grey Dot, a hugely fat, sweet black cat, who I swear tried to teach me how to hunt, and Aster, a bitchy grey cat who had a hard time controlling her bladder. She was my mom’s cat, before she had a family, and Aster always seemed to resent the extra additions in the family. Later we got sibling kitties, Westley and Ferris. Ferris is still alive. He takes many days off (Ferris resents the constant Bueller’s Day Off jokes). He’s a huge ginger tom who in his dotage we’ve started calling “The Senator.” He looks important and fat and powerful. He’s always legislating in the yard.
So there’ve been many cats in my life, all of them with names out of a Salinger novel, but when I was about ten, I made the argument that it was time for a dog. My dad wasn’t sure he was ready. He still hadn’t recovered from the death of his childhood dog, Tank, twenty years before. He took Tank, a Beagle Cocker Spaniel mix, to college with him. In the seventies you could take your dog to class at UC Santa Cruz. My mom says that she fell in love with him partially because he was so sweet to that aging dog, who left a trail of diarrhea wherever he went. Little did she know, she says, that he reserves his complete attention for canines. Humans sometimes can’t compete. We’ve eaten many a dinner with him under the table kissing the dog.
He caved, and for my tenth birthday, a little white doggy with black spots arrived. The shelter woman told my dad he was a small, manageable Jack Russell mix. Elliot immediately sprouted into an obvious Border Collie, Australian Shepherd mix, but he inherited neither breed’s relentless enthusiasm and energy. Elliot is the Woody Allen of dogs. His preferred activity is sitting on the couch and hyperventilating. Writing this seems like a betrayal. I can sense my dad’s outrage. To him Elliot is a God, a sweet baby boy–one who bites children and never learned to come when he’s called. Well, considering Elliot dropped out of puppy school because my mom would cry every time the trainer used the choke collar, he behaves very well.
As you might have guessed, Elliot never really became my dog. I’d promised to walk him and feed him, but I immediately broke my promise. I’m tempted to partially blame this on Elliot and his unique personality, but I’m sure it’s mostly my fault. So Elliot became my parents’ second child and my sibling rival. They call him junior or the boy child. If I whine and refuse to do something for him, my mom will scold me and say “He doesn’t have any hands!” as if he was born human but with a unique canine disability.
When I have been in charge of my brother, I’ve sometimes let my parents down. Like when we went walking on a boardwalk above a marsh, and they handed me Elliot’s leash. I imagine there was some bird watching going on, so the leash was thrust into my reluctant hands. Elliot took this opportunity to jump off the boardwalk. He looked stunned and puzzled as he sank into the mud. I stood there connected to him via the leash, while my parents yelled at me to do something. When the mud was up to Elliot’s furry arm paw pits, my dad threw off his jacket dramatically and jumped into the mud to fish out his son dog. He is my dad’s dog.
The joke used to be that he was my mom’s. Elliot would go on “mom walks,” where he would just follow her lovingly, ignoring all the good sniffs and other dogs. Then they got attacked by another dog, and Elliot no longer felt comfortable “mom walking.” Dad theorized that Elliot worried he couldn’t protect her. I theorized that dad was projecting. Around this time, Elliot started a series of antidepressants. They seemed to help with the hyperventilation. I relished talking about my crazy parents and their medicated dog. What did it mean if even our dog required antidepressants?
My parents scolded me for giving Elliot a hard time. I forget why, but I once called him an asshole, and my dad has never forgiven me. I don’t blame him. Elliot is incredibly sweet, if you know him. He has growled at every young man I’ve brought home, but he was probably right. He once ate an entire wheel of brie. He has expensive taste. As a puppy, he went on panty raids, parading around the house with your most embarrassing pair of rainbow butterfly panties in his mouth. He bit children and raided garbage cans. He loved the beach, running figure eights around us in the sand. He could dig holes and be a normal, happy smiling dog.
Writing in the past tense about Elliot is difficult. Elliot is seventeen and still alive, but he suffers from doggy dementia, which causes him to become incredibly disorientated at night. My dad stays up with him all night, helping him jump from the bed to the floor and move to the living room couch and back again, in an endless loop. Lately, they’re trying some new medication which is really helping, and Elliot seems to recognize you again. He seems generally happy, but when I went home this Thanksgiving, I was shocked by how much he’s aged. His back legs no longer bend and sometimes they stop working all together, and he falls over. When this happened, I assumed he’d get back up again, but he didn’t. My dad yelled at me. I’d let him jump in the mud again. I learned how to scoop him off the floor and get him moving. I said an extra long goodbye at the end of the weekend.
Although I visit frequently, I moved away . Elliot has never left the couch. He’s their boy child, while my nickname is now the grown child. Talking about Elliot’s demise brings tears to my dad’s eyes. People have pulled my mom aside at dinner parties and asked her what she’s planning to do. How will she help my dad survive the loss of Elliot? All of us will suffer, but I hope they get a new dog–maybe one who’s already been trained by a family that doesn’t entirely spoil its animals and children.