“Absolutely.” I say it with assured conviction.
“Really? I can have a dog?”
“Absolutely,” I say again. I even wave my hand in the air just a bit as if this whole dog business is a foregone conclusion. “But, when you’re five.” Her joy is quickly tempered.
“That’s the law in the state of California. A child upon turning five may be considered for dog ownership.”
Full disclosure—there is no law on the California books that I’m aware of concerning this five-and-a-dog-thing. That’s just me trying to gain a little traction in my quest to stay dog-free. Let’s be real. As a parent, part of the time you’re teaching values and good habits and the other part you’re selling snake oil from an old wagon in some unsuspecting Western town. Official decrees about owning dogs before five? Snake oil. My line about how the bell from the ice cream truck was the government playing bedtime music for children to go to sleep? Yup. Pure snake oil. Step right up, folks.
And, let’s be clear. I didn’t want a dog. When you have young children the idea of another mouth to feed that requires real attention is not too enticing. But, almost two years later, I’m taking a glorious Saturday afternoon nap and my snake oil customer comes calling to collect.
“It’s legal now,” she says calmly, holding my closed eyelid up over my eye.
“What’s legal now?” I ask while my eye dries out.
“I’m five and the government says I can finally have a dog.” The fog from the nap is deep and I am unable to pull something credible from my covered wagon. With the timing of a good comedian, she leans in a bit. “I’m five. Really, I’m almost six. So, I can have a dog.” The next pause is placed out there like a chess piece in a great game. “Unless you’re a liar.” And that’s how we wound up at the shelter about an hour later. I do play a lot of mind games with children, both at home and in my classroom, to maintain an upper hand—but I don’t always win.
As we entered the shelter, everywhere was a dog that I did not want to take home. Couch chewers and carpet killers all of them. In the distance, I spot a small chubby black dot. Just chillin’. No jumping. No pleading. Almost an Eyeore vibe to him.
“That’s our dog,” I proclaim.
“That one?” my daughter questions, immediately picking up on his low energy.
“That’s the only one I am leaving with today.”
And we did. It was true, I didn’t want a dog, I already had plenty of responsibility. This wasn’t some game where whoever had the most responsibilities won. But, despite this, I was aware of something much bigger. If possible, every kid needs a dog. A cat, maybe a guinea pig, can substitute in a pinch, but dogs are best. Recently, I had a student write an argumentative essay urging lawmakers to make it mandatory that every new home sold in California come with a dog. This was her grand plan to save shelter dogs. She also argued rather effectively how it would make everyone kinder. She quoted some good sources about the positive effects of owning dogs. Her essay was everything I love about teaching, about earnest children, and about dogs.
We took Quigley home in 2003. He was a damn good dog. Several years later, in the early months of our divorce, he filled a void. He was an anchor, a stable force, during some upheaval. He moved with my daughter twice. My oldest was never good at change, but Quigley became her security blanket. During his first days, my two-year-old feared him. At the time, she feared pigeons as well. But soon, I would come home from work to see her curled up on the floor with Quigley. Within weeks, she discovered that most of the dress up clothes the two of them owned could fit over his stubby frame—tutus, capes, and crowns, you name it. He handled it with a true sense of service—very patient. Every kid could really use a dog.
As Quigley and my daughter got older, they only seemed to grow closer. But, as my daughter grew stronger and her world grander, Quigley grew weaker and his world smaller. Secretly, my goal for Quigley was to make it to my daughter’s high school graduation. He did. He did it with patience and a sense of duty, I believe. My daughter moved 3,000 miles away to pursue her dreams in New York and open her world. Quigley was pushing seventeen when my daughter saw him last over the Christmas break. We all knew his time was coming. In case he didn’t make it to June, she said her good-byes and thanked him for everything he had meant to her over the years. She told him if he needed to move on, she understood.
A few weeks ago, my ex-wife called me and asked if I would go with her to the vet in the morning. Quigley was now clearly in pain. It was time. As we are sitting in the waiting room, a woman tells us what a cute dog we had and asked why we were there. That’s a hard conversation to have with a stranger who immediately felt terrible for asking. My ex-wife is extremely upset. It is a sad time to be sure, but she seems somehow more deeply affected than I would have thought. I don’t ask, I don’t judge. It is very sad, but after a bit, she feels the need to explain.
“Quigley is the last trace of Grace in my home. Now, he is leaving, too.” The good-byes we are given are infinite, almost too big for our frail souls sometimes. They are layered in a dizzying fashion. The mystery churns and our own little universes crack and expand against our wishes. My daughter is face-timed in to say her last goodbyes.
Unfortunately, this is maybe the biggest part of why every kid needs a dog. You must be able to love something deeply, and like all of life, you must lose it. You must give it back and, it must hurt. It must alter you in some way. Dogs, I believe, understand this. It is why they come with this immense capacity to love unconditionally. This is, perhaps, their greatest sense of duty; their greatest service.
Dogs are forever. My own grandmother is pushing a hundred. Her moments of clarity come in smaller and smaller doses now. But, ask her about Ragsy and watch her face light up. She can still recall maybe a dozen stories about Ragsy. They all end the same way, “Ragsy was such a good dog.”
I am certain that very late in my own game, while I try to sort through it all, one of my daughters will ask, “Remember Quigley?” and I will.
When possible, every kid needs a dog. Most likely, so do dads. Good-bye Quigley—and, thank you.
For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent bestseller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.
Feature image courtesy of Unsplash, Andrew Branch.