As my medicare card becomes a real, tangible thing in my hand, I’m inclined to think of it as a new chapter, the beginning of a new story for me. I realize as I write, looking at my chosen title, that I’ve selected something from the Department of Redundancy Department. Anything that is new is beginning and anything that is beginning is new. But to use the analogy of “you can never step in the same river twice,” so might we think of new beginnings as novel from any other similar beginnings we might have had.
For example, you might have experienced adopting a new pet many times. Each time, you’re beginning the process of bringing a new life and new energy into your life, and each time it’s a new version of that process.
New beginnings are what everyone hopes for. Clean slates. Fresh starts. The tropes are endless. Suffice it to say, this is the time of year when most people who would stop to read this blog are thinking about how to improve on the past. Much has been written and stated about the explosion of pet adoptions in 2020 due to sheltering in place, pandemic loneliness, work at home and home schooling practices and general COVID-19 related issues. But what of the pet loss and grieving of 2021? Or the newly acquired four legged family members that accompanied recent holidays?
Did you find yourself with a new pet in the last month? Did you lose one? Either way, you are faced with a new beginning. How will you meet this opportunity? If you’ve seen as many Christmases come and go as I have (note the Medicare reference) you’ll have a had a few bad ones and a few outstanding ones. I’ll slough the bad one by talking about it first.
One of the worst Christmases I can remember was my 10th one. My dad was in the Army so we were living in Heidelberg, Germany that year. Living in Europe was a wonderful childhood experience for a million reasons. But there’s one reason I remember that Christmas with sadness, despite a beautiful visit to Bavaria (at Christmas!)
When we left our home in Virginia to move to Germany we included our two year old Collie, Laddie (I kid you not), in our move because we had been promised a house on the army base in Mannheim. In a not uncharacteristic bait and switch by the Army they re-stationed my dad to Heidelberg where only a family apartment was available. My parents were committed to Laddie, so we brought him along and determined we would do our best to provide him with proper exercise and fun.
That commitment proved very difficult to fulfill. We left a family house on half an acre of fenced property in Northern Virginia for a ground floor, three bedroom apartment in a 4-plex housing unit. This required walking the dog several times a day and finding places for him to run and play. My parents quickly discovered that while Laddie had been playful and friendly with the dogs in our neighborhood back home, he was prone to leash frustration and bad behavior on walks in our German neighborhood. For safety reasons my sister and I were not allowed to walk him. His life with us became an increasingly frustrating existence as my parents, already spread thin, had less and less time for Laddie. Although it broke their hearts they made the difficult decision to re-home him. I was devastated. On Christmas Eve we took him to live with a family of seven who lived at the base of a hillside in a large house with an enormous fenced in space. The proverbial farm. The five children gathered at the gate as we approached and were overjoyed at their good Christmas fortune. I held him tight, told him goodbye and encouraged him to love his new family and to be good.
None of my presents that year meant anything to me. I don’t even remember what they were. I suppose I was angry with my parents for a time. Now, of course, in hindsight, I know they made the right choice to give Laddie (and his second family) a new beginning. My parents loved dogs; their decision had everything to do with Laddie’s happiness and quality of life. They knew my sister and I would be miserable, just as they were miserable, but they also knew we would all recover. They placed the dog’s long-term well being above our short term misery. I’m still miserable when I think of losing Laddie, but I appreciate the lesson in pet quality of life. A new way of thinking for me at the tender age of 10.
Nine years later, my sister Anne and I were home for Christmas – one of the best ones ever. Anne had a week off from her job in Richmond, Virginia and I was on holiday break from college in Boston.
Our family had moved back to Northern Virginia only 13 months after we first went to Germany. Another bait and switch by the powers that be. If only we had known. Back in the same house in Northern Virginia my parents lived with Molly, an eight year old Yorkshire Terrier we had gotten after our return from Germany. Molly was a far cry from the big dogs my dad was used to, but my parents loved her dearly. Over the years she had definitely become my father’s dog.
The weather that Christmas season was fiercely cold; residual snow and ice patch worked the yards, sidewalks and roads. On the second day of our visit a long haired German Shepherd decided to park on our front porch. We had no idea where she had come from, whose dog she was, or why she picked our porch. We dutifully ignored her, knowing that we’d be going back to our lives in Richmond and Boston and to encourage her to stay was to leave our parents with an unwanted second pet. The next day the dog was still there. On the third day – the coldest day yet – my mother said, “Will someone please bring that dog into the house, it’s freezing out there.” Like a Warner Brothers cartoon my sister, my father and I, who had been in different parts of the house, converged on the front door in an instant. You could almost hear the “ziiiiiiiippppp” in the soundtrack. We opened the front door, the dog walked in, laid down by the fireplace and made herself right at home as if she’d been hanging out with us all along.
Despite our best attempts to find her people, it seemed this beautiful dog was forever stray. My parents decided they would keep her until such time as Anne or I could take her to live with one of us. We named her Hilda and she was like a ready-made companion. No assembly required. She knew “sit” and “down” was pleasant to walk, house trained and good with other dogs. Nevertheless, Molly despised her and went to live under the bed. Well, mostly.
A year later, I moved out of my dorm room and into a shared house with six other students. The landlord said we could have a dog and everyone agreed Hilda was the one. So on New Year’s Day my parents and I met at a friend’s place in New York City to transfer Hilda from their care to mine. That day began my step up into full-on adulthood. I had someone other than myself to think about, to be responsible for, to love unconditionally. She was the best dog ever. Everyone says that about their favorite dog, but she really was.
Four years later I moved to California to go to graduate school. With the lessons I learned from Laddie firmly in hand I brought Hilda to California with me and determined that come hell or high water she would stay with me until the end of her life. And she did. I found a place to live where she was welcome. The people I lived with are friends to this day. I took her everywhere with me and she was an ambassador for her species. Everyone knew her name, even if they didn’t know mine. When she died the vet told me he thought she was 14 or 15 years old. We had never known her age, where she came from or what her past was, but the part of her life spent with my family and me was the beginning of a path I travel to this day – a path lined by the lives of countless four-legged companions to whom I commit and who commit to me.