Whitney Grady: Sometimes a dog needs a boy
At our house, pets are family too. After the loss of the dog that my husband and I bought on a Sunday whim at the flea market in Raleigh when we were young and dating (the same dog who appears in our wedding pictures, the one who greeted our newborns when we brought them home from the hospital for the first time, the one who stayed on constant watch near their cribs and then their strollers and then their tricycles and then their bikes after they ditched the training wheels), our hearts were shattered.
When that dog passed and we broke the news in the backyard to our littles, you could hear us all wailing up and down Vernon Avenue and clear across Highway 58 to 258. We had prepared and had the book about all dogs going to heaven and we had said we would get another dog, but nothing could have prepared us for the way my son took the news. His best friend was gone and there was no consoling him.
So, we promised to get him a puppy (if he would please just stop crying and come up for air and go to be already after hours and hours of gut wrenching sobs). Yes, we promised to get him a puppy …the very next day. “Tomorrow night,” we told him, “you will have a puppy right here to lick your face and make you smile again.” And so the crazy venture began. All of our research of kennels with upstanding reputations and litters on the way flew out the window like yesterday’s news. We needed a puppy and we needed it fast.
True to our word and our crazy promise, we were the proud owners of another black lab within 24 hours. Enter Peanut. Peanut was the peg to plug the dog-shaped hole in all our hearts after the passing of the greatest dog ever to have lived. We hugged her and carried her and passed her around like an offering plate at church. I swear her little puppy paws barely hit the floor in the first few months of her life. Peanut won us all over, but particularly my son.
We put a little bed on the floor of Thomas’s room and promised she could sleep there as he was still missing The Great One. Often when I would come upstairs to peek in at the kids in all their slumber, there would be Peanut and Thomas, spooning under his covers with heads on pillows. Sometimes, I shooshed Peanut back onto the dog bed on the floor. Sometimes I pretended I didn’t notice. Sometimes, I thought to myself, a boy just needs a dog.
Now, seven years later, Peanut and Thomas are both too big to share a bed and so it has remained settled that she sleeps on the floor of his room. When we get home from school at the end of a day, she bends down and looks under the car to see if his feet hit the driveway on the other side before she bounds over to greet him.
She hunts with him and rides on the boat with him (and even tried to participate in shad fishing once by scanning for fish in the water before diving in after them to try to retrieve them for her boy). She looks at my son with eyes that share stories of swamps they’ve crossed and forests they’ve explored and sunrises and sunsets they’ve watched.
She loves him like nothing I’ve ever seen. When he isn’t home (gone to a friend’s house or on a scout campout), she is not happy to say the least. She tries to show me his bed is empty when I tuck her into his room and I nod and say, “It’s ok, girl, he’ll be back soon.” I think to myself, sometimes a dog just needs a boy.
I know there’s a bond between them, my son and his dog, but there was a particular event I witnessed a few winters ago that floored even a dog-lover like me. My husband took a rare hunting trip without my son as it was out of state and too expensive for an eleven year old to be invited on.
My son was so upset about being left home with his mom and sister right smack dab in the middle of a perfectly good hunting season and he swore the dog was in depression because of it too. I suppose I got tired of listening to it and told him, “Well, you don’t have to have daddy to hunt. Girls can do anything boys can do! Take us hunting if you’re so serious about it.” I’m not sure I fully thought this through…weighed the possibility that he would take us up on it…but he jumped at the chance! “Yes!” He told us, “Peanut and I will take you hunting!”
And so it went, like a crazy Ferris Wheel spinning that I couldn’t get off of. Suddenly Thomas was packing the car with decoys. “’We’re hunting tomorrow, girl,” he told his dog who wagged and followed him all through the house as he began laying out waders and hats and gloves for Eliza and I to borrow for our hunt early the next morning. Eliza looked at me as if to confirm that this truly was happening and all I could do was shrug. Thomas worked like a little old man, checking to see that everything was right: the gun, the ammo, the socks, the alarm clock.
When I tucked them all in that night, I swear he and Peanut were grinning ear to ear. “See you in the morning,” Thomas said with a little giggle and I kissed his forehead and patted Peanut on the head and my heart skipped a beat.
Before five, we were up in the dark, racing around putting on layers and bumping into each other in the hall. Peanut was right in the mix, excited knowing exactly what she was getting ready to do. When we arrived at the spot, Thomas turned on a flashlight (I not only had not thought of bringing, but had no idea he had brought) and said “C’mon, Peanut” and he and Peanut lead us to the place at the edge of the swamp where Eliza and I were to stand “very still and quiet” (he seemed to emphasize this to his sister several times, but I think he was just as worried about me).
Alone, Thomas and his dog waded out into dark water and set decoys. Eliza and I were no help, but he and Peanut didn’t seem to mind. With the decoys set, he and his dog got settled against a tree. Thomas prepped his gun (safety on as he had told me again and again) and told us to just be still and watch. Time passed slowly with the fog of our breath escaping out into the swamp as the sun began to crack through the pines.
Peanut whimpered. Before I could ask what was wrong, Thomas said to her, “Be quiet Peanut, the birds will get here soon.” I couldn’t help but giggle and then I was shushed. Thomas blew his duck calls and if I had closed my eyes I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t a bird. It was musical and beautiful on our silent morning adventure. And then Peanut’s head turned and gazed into the distance. “What is it, girl? Birds coming?” Thomas asked her and as if they were speaking to each other with only their eyes, Peanut and Thomas looked to each other and then to the sky.
What followed was like a choreographed play. Birds slowly came into sight. Thomas steadied the dog in a whisper as he lifted his gun and switched off the safety. BANG! BANG! The gunshots popped and two birds fell. “Back” Thomas called and Peanut burst off into the water in great splashes. “Get the birds,” Thomas called out and that dog had them in her mouth and dropped at our feet before I could exhale. “Good dog,” Thomas said patting a smiling Peanut on the head, “Isn’t she a good dog, Mama?” and I nodded yes.
I know one day Thomas will leave for college and I’ll invite Peanut to sleep in another room. It will be futile. She’ll stay on the floor of Thomas’s room looking up at his bed telling me he’s not there and I’ll probably fall to pieces because I’ll miss him too. I’ll pat her head and say, “It’s ok, girl, he’ll be back soon.” And I’ll think to myself, sometimes a dog just needs a boy.