My most favorite adult responsibility is that I get to care for another being besides myself. My first responsibility was to my beloved dog, Joe. Joe came into our lives the week I graduated from college. He was four months old and very scared. Having already lived in three different places – including “death row” in the pound – Joe was unsure of us and understandably skeptical that we would be his forever home. Still, he loved without reservation. He was very much a “mama’s boy” in the beginning. He followed me everywhere, needing me to pick him up to comfort him. I was 22 years old, and definitely not prepared for his neediness. Poor Joe was just a baby, and he needed to be taught what unconditional love meant. Unconditional love is always there, even when you’re apart. Joe was my first encounter with a being who doesn’t know this innately, and I was responsible for teaching him to trust that my love for him wouldn’t ever disappear or end.
Joe gave us plenty of opportunity to teach him about love and trust. Yes, he cried when we left but he soon learned we came back. He learned that no other dog was going to eat his food, so he began to eat slower. He learned that this was his home, and he took up residency on the couch. He loved to be cozy, always snuggling into blankets and couch pillows. Day in and day out, we were there living life together. We adjusted to each other. I adjusted to being needed, for providing for his well-being, and for creating the space in which he could become himself. Simply put: Joe taught me how to be a mom, and he turned us into a family.
Once fully established and comfortable, Joe was an amazing personality. He loved playing in the water hose. He loved to lay on top of clean laundry. He barked when a stranger got too close to the house. He always went to investigate the front door whenever the doorbell rang in a commercial on TV (Halloween commercials drove that dog nuts!). Joe would wake from a deep nap and run to get some ice when he heard the ice maker. His favorite foods were rotisserie chicken and popcorn.
Joe once was attacked by another dog. Instead of fighting, Joe slipped out of the harness I was holding and took off running. I was five months pregnant at the time so I couldn’t run for long (read: a few feet), plus Joe rus extremely fast! He was long gone and I didn’t know what to do or how I would find him. Only a really good dog would have gone home, and that’s exactly where I found him. He had run all the way home (over a mile) and was waiting patiently for me on the front porch. I still picture him sitting there, wagging his tail, like nothing out of the ordinary had just taken place.
We went for a walk twice daily. We went to the park. We laid around on the couch. We ran wild through Grandma’s yard. I tended to him, providing the care and love that he needed. Each day, I learned how to care for him better. As the days turned into years, Joe laid the foundation for what was to come next: a baby.
The baby arrived home three years and three months after Joe. This time, I was used to being needed. In fact, the baby was less emotionally needy than Joe had been! Because we had a hand on his life from the very first moment, he didn’t need to learn love: he was free to simply experience it as it unfolded. Instead, I catered to the newborn neediness of feeding, sleeping, and diaper changing.
Joe was a trooper and helped us to care for the baby, running over to him whenever he cried, sneezed, or coughed. Joe played with the baby’s toys and let the baby “pet” him. Joe was the thing he “tracked” the most as a newborn. Day in and day out, we adjusted to the new baby and provided for his needs. In the crazy time of adjusting to life with a newborn, we were steadfast in providing unconditional love for each other. This, hands down, is how we got through newborn-land. I was just starting to feel like I had a handle on caring for both a baby and a dog well when everything changed again.
In August 2017, Joe suffered from sudden heart failure and passed away at just four-and-a-half years old. It wasn’t until he was gone that I realized just how much of my life was about him, and there is still a gaping hole in my heart that only his memory can fill. Joe taught me everything I know about being a mother. I will carry all the love and lessons he gave me for the rest of my life. Everything to come in my role as a mother will be influenced by the time that I spent with Joe.
Caring for another is intricate and challenging, surprising and joyful. If you pay attention, remain present, and give of yourself, you can experience the greatest love of your life. Joe showed me those things, and for that I am so grateful.
These days, when my son sees Joe’s picture on the wall he says happily, “dog dog!” And I say, “Yes! Hello, Joe!” and I reminisce about the greatest dog who blessed us with the best kind of love: unconditional.