Her name is Maddie, and my husband and I adopted her from an animal shelter the year after we were married. I saw her photo online, a pathetic looking little thing with two different colored eyes and ears that didn’t know they were supposed to stand upright. The shelter had named her Wilma – a rather odd name choice for a dog that boasted a regal German Shepherd and Husky mix – so we changed it immediately. The dog that sat on my lap on the way home, shedding its weight in hair with one blue eye and the other half-brown, was now ours. She was our furry baby and a first unofficial step toward parenthood.
My parenting of a new puppy was a sneak peek into what I would be like as a mother – a bit obsessed, a little neurotic, and completely overboard with affection. I stayed home from work during those first few days, typing away on my computer as Maddie slept on the pillow beside me. I checked her breathing for signs of irregularity often; my study of the upward movements of her belly foreshadowing the trips to the nursery that I would make to watch my baby boys’ bellies rise and fall as they slept. I worried about her runny poops, incessant sneezes and body weight – all of which would be repeated on a heightened scale once my boys arrived a few years later. Maddie offered me a test run at parenthood and, of that, I was fully aware.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, was what having a pet would teach me about my kids. Maddie is now 11 years old. She shares the house with my eight- and six-year-old boys, limiting most of her daytime activity to laying in the pocket of sun that shines brightly on the staircase landing. The noise level of the house doesn’t seem to bother her, a worn gray pillow in my bedroom her retreat if the boys get too crazy even for her. She is smart enough to stand next to Finn’s chair at dinner because she knows that he’s the messier eater of the two, and will rest her head on his lap because she’s knows that he likes to rub her nose and talk softly in her ear.
I watch my boys with Maddie and am often amazed. Finn, a loud and carefree kid, lowers his voice when talking to her; this crazy kid who regularly smacks his brother “playing around” and has no problem shouting out in the library that he has to pee has never shown Maddie anything except a soft touch and gentle word. If Maddie looks tired, he covers her with his favorite blanket. If he senses sadness in her eyes, he cradles her face in his tiny hands and asks her what’s wrong. If Maddie is trying to sleep at the end of the day, Finn will lay down beside her, wrapping an arm around her as she licks his cheek with gratefulness and love. Finn writes her notes and leaves them by her pillow, running back “just one more time” to kiss her goodnight. By watching him with our beloved pet, I’ve learned something about my crazy kid – he has a true love for other living creatures. I might get calls from school for his class clown behavior, but he has never met an animal that he hasn’t loved and is the first to save an ant hill from certain destruction in the driveway.
Life with two boys is crazy, but that’s OK; the day-to-day crazy is manageable because I can see the people they are becoming through their treatment of other living things. They are gentle, and kind, and compassionate little souls, who I hope grow to extend such traits to anyone and anything that comes across their paths who need a little help and a little love. More than anything, watching my boys with Maddie has confirmed what I’ve always believed to be true – kids just know. They know things that we never teach them; they have an innate gift to love unconditionally and see the world and all living things as equal and deserving of their time and attention. Kids just know. As Maddie can read my moods, following me around the house quietly if she senses something is wrong or resting her head on my lap if I’m not feeling well, my boys can sense the same things about her. Lamps may get broken by soccer balls, windows shattered by baseballs, and handprints left on walls, but by watching my boys interact with our furry family member, I can see their true selves – their humanity – and it’s a beautiful thing.