What the hell do you want to get a dog for?”
After all these years, my father’s rich, deep voice still filled me with a mixture of fear and awe, even over the telephone, “I don’t know why you people want a dog,” he said. By “you people,” he meant not just me and my husband, but everyone everywhere who has ever had the slightest inclination to get a dog.
“First you get a dog,” he continued, “then you’re going to get attached to it, then it’s going to die, and then what the hell are you going to do?”
“First of all, Dad,” I said, “I’ve already gotten the dog. Second, you can make the same argument about people you love. Are you not supposed to get attached to them because eventually they die?”
My father wasn’t won over. I had known he wouldn’t be thrilled that we’d brought home a dog. I didn’t tell him the real reason why we’d done it (though I think he knew): after three fruitless years of infertility tests and treatments, and now adoption procedures, we simply couldn’t wait any longer for something to love besides each other. And my father didn’t tell me the real reason why he didn’t want us to get a dog: he was terrified of them.
When my father was eight years old, the story goes, his older brother sicked the family dog on him. My father and my uncle were playing cowboys-and-Indians, and my uncle (the cowboy) tied my father (the Indian) to a tree. Then he ordered Queenie, a mild-mannered golden collie, to “sic him!” Queenie wouldn’t have done anything, of course. To her, it was just a game. But to my father, it was life or death. Though the dog didn’t bite him, my father was traumatized by Queenie’s running circles around him, barking excitedly, tongue lolling and teeth bared.
I loved hearing this story as a child. It humanized my father, a larger-than-life sort of man whose hugs were as tender as his anger was thunderous. I was never afraid of dogs as a kid — in fact, I begged endlessly for one. Yet the only pet I ever had was a turtle that my brothers found in the woods behind our house when I was seven. I was so desperate for a dog that I tied a string around the turtle’s shell and took it for walks across our lawn.
When it came to dogs, my father was convinced that even the most complaisant puppy was poised to attack. “You see that?” he would say if we happened to walk past a dog. “You see how he’s tensed up? That dog knows I hate him.” If the dog, God forbid, happened to bark a friendly greeting, it only confirmed my father’s suspicion: “Did you notice how ferociously he barked at me?” It was never entirely clear to me whether my father was joking or deadly serious, but I thought it best to humor him.
To my father’s chagrin, two of his brothers and five of his seven children ended up owning dogs: all sweet, affectionate animals who would sooner lick you to death than bite you. And in another of life’s ironies, every last one of these dogs adored my father. They’d follow him around at his heels, begging for attention. “Get the hell away from me,” he’d say. “I hate dogs.”
The dog my husband and I ended up with was a large mongrel who looked like a golden retriever with a blackish brown coat. We chose him at the animal shelter mainly because we felt sorry for him: despite his size, all the other dogs picked on him. He had a mangy coat, fleas, and bad breath, but also beseeching brown eyes and a tail that thumped heartily on the floor. I was smitten. We named him Sam.
Sam turned out to be the perfect temporary baby substitute. He luxuriated in our parental attention. My father, of course, was not so enchanted. He had heard somewhere that dogs could smell fear, and whenever he visited our house he’d speak gently yet archly to Sam. “I can’t stand you — do you know that?” he would murmur as Sam sniffed around his feet. Once, when Sam tried to put his head underneath my father’s hand, my father froze and asked, “What the hell is he doing?” I tried not to laugh. “He wants you to pet him, Dad.” And my proud, virile father timidly patted the top of the dog’s head.
Three months after we got Sam, we received a call from the adoption agency informing us that our son had been born. Less than two years later, we adopted again — this time, two little girls. Our dog was quickly demoted from child substitute to his rightful place as family pet, to be walked and stroked and fed, but only after everyone else’s needs were met. Sam didn’t seem to mind, though, and accepted whatever bones were thrown his way.
Not long after that, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. I’d never expected that I’d be left with a dog but no father. I’d always imagined that someday I’d cry to my father over the telephone, telling him, as he’d predicted, that Sam had died. And he’d ask me tenderly, if somewhat self-righteously, “What the hell did you expect?”