My mom stopped loving me after I gained weight following a miscarriage. Of course, that isn’t technically true. She didn’t stop loving me. She just wasn’t capable of true love. Once I was no longer the beautiful daughter she had bragged about, she couldn’t find anything about me to admire, and I became a reproach to her. She never bought me another gift of clothing, and at times it seems she could barely look at me. When people said we resembled each other, she would wince.
This sounds hard to believe, hopefully, for most readers. (For those of you who know from personal experience that this happens, I’m sorry. You are beautiful and wonderful and deserved more.) I finally and completely saw how conditional and superficial her love was. I forgive her now because it’s a tragic flaw in the way she was made, but it was absolutely devastating at the time, and it left big angry scars.
It was a few years after this happened that I was talking to my therapist and realized that I really wanted to get a dog. My mother had always tried to make me afraid of dogs and we never had one (I don’t know why, considering that she grew up with animals), but at some point I reconsidered since, after all, my mom had been wrong about everything that was important. So, once I bought a house, I decided it was time.
And that is how Chowder came to me.
I found him on Petfinder. He was a sturdy, fluffy, slightly puppyish guy in his picture, with a look on his face I couldn’t fathom. Later I realized it was fear. I recognized him as my dog immediately.
When we met, at an empty lot next to a gas station in Harper’s Ferry, alongside the Potomac River, it was inauspicious. He ignored us and focused on the woods next to us. We later learned he had a stratospheric prey drive. Finally, he jumped into our car without even looking at us. He only made eye contact with me once on the trip home, when we stopped at a PetSmart and my husband got out to get some supplies now that we knew his size (he was 20 pounds heavier than listed in Petfinder). I told him it was going to be fine. He seemed to accept that.
Once he’d settled in, he made it clear that he loved both of us, but that I was the most important person in the world to him. He was happy to see me when I came home. He would come over to check on me when he wasn’t watching out the window for squirrel invaders. If tradespeople came to the house, he would wedge himself between us when they were showing me blueprints or a work order, no matter how small the space. During thunderstorms, I’d reach down from my bed at night and feel him lying on the floor next to me, ostensibly protecting me, but in reality hiding and shuddering at every loud noise or flash of lightning.
He didn’t want something from me. As a Chow Chow, he didn’t need affection, and he wasn’t food-motivated. He didn’t care what I looked like. He protected me, even when I didn’t need protection. He just loved me because I was me.
We had ten wonderful years together.
He died a few weeks after we adopted our son and daughter. They were terribly out of control at that time — angry, destructive, and wild. I spent a lot of time yelling or, when they weren’t around, crying. One night as I was putting the kids to bed, my husband noticed that Chowder hadn’t come in from outside when we let him out after dinner. It was snowy, and he loved the snow, so alarm bells didn’t go off right away. However, it turned out it was because he couldn’t get up. My husband carried him inside. I petted Chowder’s face, and he licked my hand, which he never did. By the time he got to the emergency clinic, he was dead. My husband called me and I still remember pondering his choice of words, “He’s gone.” I wondered whether he couldn’t stand to say the truth or if he was trying to be kind to me.
I couldn’t truly mourn Chowder because the children were so all-encompassing and fragile. When they asked where he went, I pointed to the sky and said, “He’s with [our other dog] Ginger.” I couldn’t say more without losing it and scaring them, and they had already seen so much death. It turned out later they thought he was in an airplane with Ginger. I had wondered why they kept asking me if our remaining dog, Maggie, liked airplanes, and why they looked so happy when I said no. It cheered me to imagine Ginger ordering extra cookies in first class, and Chowder looking out the window, wondering what to guard.
My attempts to downplay my grief didn’t fool them, though. They made up a game where they would take turns being Chowder and they would come back and run to me and I’d give them a big hug and tell them how much I missed them. I felt profoundly uncomfortable with this at first, but figured that it must meet a need in them. Sure enough, the game eventually became about them leaving and coming back, with me telling them how much I missed them and how sad I was while they were gone. Chowder fell to the wayside.
It has been four years, and I still feel incomplete without him. His ashes remain in the box they sent me. I couldn’t even begin to decide what to do with them for the longest time. This spring, though, I’m going to scatter them in the woods by the vacant lot to let things come full circle.
I’m one of many other people who learned about unconditional love from an animal, not from a human being. For people like me, we owe our dogs everything. I know I was able to become a better, kinder person, and ultimately, a better parent, because of it.