The Story of Us: Essay
Three of Us, Plus One
Just the three of us, B.D. (Before Dog)
I always envisioned “dog lovers” as those slightly crazy people with dog hair on their sweaters and sweaters on their dogs. They didn’t have one dog, they had six, and the six they had ruled their house the way prisoners might rule the prison, given the chance. I didn’t consider myself to be a “dog lover.” Dogs were nice enough, I supposed, except when they jumped up or got overly friendly in embarrassing ways, but mostly I didn’t pay that much attention to them. But then I did what a lot of mothers do when they’re getting divorced and feel guilty and are desperate to bring something happy and simple into their kids’ lives when not too much feels happy and simple – I got a puppy. First rule of dog ownership: the words “simple” and “puppy” do not belong in the same kennel.
Jupiter (whose name came from the dog character in John Cheever’s A Country Husband) came into our lives at a time of change and flux. What happened on the day we got her is one of the true stories in The Story of Us. Just as it happens in the book, we all piled in The Bermuda Honda – our frequently cursed and vindictive car – and set out, driving east of the mountains to pick up our puppy. I was hoping for the kind of big adventure that sets you on a new path as a family. It would be our beginning. After that day, I imagined, we would officially be the three of us, my daughter, my son, and me, plus one dog. We started the day with thrilling expectations and bravery (and great car snacks like Red Vines), and the moment we made it over the mountain pass, two things happened. The car broke down, utterly and irrevocably, AND it began to snow, hard.
Here comes trouble.
We were picked up by a Wenatchee Water and Power truck, and brought to the house where the breeder lived. Puppy Jupiter, who could fit inside two cupped palms, looked as unsure of us as we were of her, and who could blame her then. The breeder was mean-looking and smelled like cigarette smoke. He intended to make this sweet tiny beagle into a hunting dog if no one claimed her. We claimed her. The breeder dropped us off in town, and then we waited in the snow to be rescued by my father, who drove over the mountains to fetch us. As I said in The Story of Us:
“The last thing you want when you’re trying to be big and brave is to be rescued. But thank God we are rescued when we need it. And that day was a whole entire day of rescue. We thought about Jupiter living outside, the snow, that strange, smoky house, that gruff breeder. That small baby, a hunting dog. We thought we rescued her. But when we finally got home, the three of us plus one more, it felt like something huge had shifted. We’d created a new family now, moved on from the old one by bringing in a new somebody, who was scampering around our wood floors cracking us up, biting our fingers with sharp little teeth, looking so small beside her huge bowls now set on a placemat on the kitchen floor. Tell me, who was rescuing who?”
Pals – Nick and Jupiter.
Of course, I fell in love. Jupiter wiggled and dug her way into our lives. Our relationship grew. And I began to notice dogs – short dogs hurrying on short dog legs on their walks, patient dogs tied outside of stores, sad dogs, and joyful ones, each with their own funny little personalities. The more I noticed, the more I saw. Here they were, living half in our world and half in theirs, managing the most earnest, good intentions one could find in such a difficult situation. Stop for a moment and really look. How can you not appreciate them? They go along with mostly good cheer at whatever your plan is. They worry when you worry. They show joy at life’s simple pleasures (grass, a spot of sun, a bit of cheese). They put up with your moods and your great ideas to dress them in hats. Sure, they steal your socks and then take off running, and, sure, they snitch your donut off the counter and take the fluff from your pillows. But they are comic relief, court jesters, stand-up comedians – they strike a goofy pose, or their head tilts just so at your question, or they wink right then, and you could swear it was all perfectly timed for laughs. They are so smart, knowing one car’s sound from the next or understanding that a particular jacket means an imminent walk, but they’re their simple selves, too, barking when the doorbell rings on TV or misjudging their slippery toenail slide right into the wall. They navigate a complex life of their instincts merged with our lifestyle, trying to do the job they were meant for in an ill-matched time and place – herding in an apartment, guarding against the U.P.S. man, stalking and pouncing upon their prey, which happens to be some limp, once-stuffed toy.
Jupiter in the house we designed and made. Yes, folks, she is chewing the garden hose.
But they are one thing above all other things, a rare thing, at least my beloved pal Jupiter was: They are steadfast. Dogs wait for you. They watch out for you. They stand by you, and then lean in. They listen when you need a friend. They are almost always, always trying to do their best for the people they love.
Jupiter became family. She was one of us. She was my daily sidekick, following me into the kitchen when I went into the kitchen, following me outside when I went outside (you get the idea, here), staying beside me during the writing hours. I began to include dogs as characters in my books. I think pets make wonderful characters in fiction, and they can be largely overlooked by writers. Yet, Jupiter was a part of my regular life, so dogs became a regular part of my work. Jupiter appeared as the male beagle Milo in The Nature of Jade (sorry, girl), and my step-dog, Tucker, made an appearance as Rocket in The Six Rules of Maybe. A reviewer once wrote that my dog characters were as full and complete as my human characters, and, to me, that was one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten.
I became a “dog person” after all. My own sort of dog person. I did not have six of them, or (too often, anyway) have dog hair on my sweaters or a sweater on my dog. I didn’t love each and every one with some sort of passion greater than I had for people; I disliked the mean ones and the leg-humpers (let’s face it, they exist, too). Same as Cricket in The Story of Us, my dog love was more the everyday kind:
Birthday party poster of Jupiter’s favorite things, including garden hoses, see above.
“…the kind where you shout at them to stop doing some annoying thing, and then carry them around on your shoulder, watching how pleased they are to be up high. You admire their beautiful ears and their noble expression and then get mad when they pretend they can’t hear you when you call them to come in. And it’s all forgiven; the ways both of you are imperfect. A devoted relationship, with the regular togetherness of rawhide and stop-and-sniff walks. One girl and her own one dog.”
When Jupiter died after a hard illness when she was ten, I was bereft. And I was also blown away at this bond we have with our pets, and at our grief and loss when they are gone. Her death came at another time of change for our family. We were restructuring again, moving away from our longtime home as we all grew into new phases of our lives – graduation and college for my kids, remarriage for me. Her death closed the circle of our time together as a small family of three plus one dog. I wanted – no, needed – to understand this time of change and loss, or at least to process it. Writing a book is my way of doing exactly that, and so I began to write The Story of Us and to research the dog-human bond (as well as cool, amazing stuff about dogs in general). I wanted to understand this unique relationship between two species. I wanted to say to other people who love their pets – I get this. I wanted to spend some writing time with the funny, sweet, fascinating creatures that are dogs.
Pals – Sam and Jupiter.
But I also wanted to do something else. I wanted to acknowledge and give thanks to my Jupiter, who came to us in the very years we needed her, who gave to each of us individually and to our family as a whole, who opened my eyes to the simple goodness of dog love. I didn’t want to forget. I wanted to hold her memory here with the anchoring power of words on a page, my pal, my writing buddy, because she mattered.
So, dear Jupiter, my forever heart-thanks to you for your place in both the real story of us and in the fictional one. And to all the rest of those fine dogs out there – the Max’s and Sophie’s and Buddy’s and Duke’s and Lucky’s – thanks for making our world a whole lot sweeter. May you all have long walks and roast beef and the least embarrassing sweaters possible.
A good dog.