I finally fell in love with my dog around the time he turned fourteen. He could no longer leap onto my bed, and his days as an embarrassment who had to be walked wearing a muzzle lest he bite someone -- again -- were part of his fierce youth.
We'd adopted Freddie from a shelter, a five-month-old half Bichon Frise half Cairn Terrier Though when I was a child we'd had always owned dogs, I no longer considered myself much of a dog person. The pets in my adult life were mostly for the kids. To this overburdened mother with two challenging children, a full-time job and a rocky marriage, the dog was a burden, becoming even more of a weight after my divorce, True, he was adorable. But he bit people. Never a family member or a family member's friend. But plumbers and electricians had better watch out. He had a thing for men in uniform and yes, he hated our letter carrier.
He once chomped onto a disagreeable gardener who called the cops – and then he bit the cop. He was quarantined for ten days, banished from the streets of my town for the safety of its citizenry. With a profound sense of shame -- bad dog owner! -- I bought a muzzle. When kids approached, hands out for a kiss, I had to tell them "Sorry, he's not always friendly." Their parents looked on pityingly or disapprovingly.
After a while, the censorious glances -- or so I imagined them -- were replaced with friendly sympathy. He was, after all, seriously cute.
With a biting dog on the premises, my homeowner's insurance skyrocketed. People wondered why we didn't get rid of him. But the kids really did need him. When one was upset after a fight with a friend, or stressed about a test, they knew they could count on a snuggle with Freddie to make things better. So he stayed.
But I didn't love him. Not then. I'd feed and walk him, annoyed by his whimpers signaling the need to go out at seven on a Saturday morning, or the just-before-bedtime outings for one last pee in single-digit temperatures. I wasn't totally immune to his charms, offering the occasional tummy rub, the appreciative "Good boy" but really, I gave him the minimum.
For years, Freddie wasn't allowed into my bedroom. I'd purchased expensive bed linens, and no way was he getting his sharp claws into them. He alternately slept with one kid or another. But with my daughter living away and my son spending more time at his dad's, he had nowhere to sleep where he'd have some companionship. I relented and let him breach the barrier of my bedroom door and sleep on the rug.
But that wasn't good enough for Freddie. The whining and imploring eyes wore me down. And once he'd bounded onto the bed, he was there for good. The linens are a bit worse for wear, and I don't much care.
I became frankly crazy about this now-mellow elderly mutt. Is it because I no longer worry that he'll put his teeth into someone's leg? Could it be that our physical proximity during our most vulnerable moments -- when we're asleep -- binds us in some primal way?
He's now seventeen and somewhat infirm. He recently experienced mobility problems and I feared we'd lose him, surprising myself with how worried I became. He was treated for Lyme Disease, and he's actually a bit frisky again.
I know of some contentious marriages that suddenly shifted when one spouse became ill. A husband who'd been distant became his ailing wife's advocate and thoughtful caregiver. There he was, washing his wife's hair, shepherding her to doctor's appointments.
Is it possible that people -- and other animals as well -- become both more loveable and loving when they need help? When my kids were little, I experienced an almost overwhelming surge of love for them when they were sick, holding them in my arms during feverish episodes. Ordinarily, they'd allow only so much cuddling before jumping from my lap and returning to play. But when they were under the weather, they'd allow me to hug and kiss them as much as I wanted.
Perhaps we're hard wired for the compassion gene to kick in when someone needs us. Or maybe we require someone to take care of in order to retain our full measure of humanity. Could it be that our noblest moments occur when we become caregivers to those we never much cared for?
I regret having kept Freddie at a certain remove all those years. He missed out on my affection, though he received plenty from the kids. And I missed out on the affection he could have offered me, had I allowed it.
The evening primrose is breathtakingly beautiful, for just one night; after its brief bloom, it withers away. So it might be with relationships, some designed for the long haul, others for a short but sweet interlude.
I love my Freddie with an intensity that baffles me. Sometimes, near the end of the workday, I'll start looking forward to returning home, where he'll greet me, tail thumping against the floor, tonguing my hand under his nose. I'll pick him up and carry him outside – he can't manage the stairs - so he can take care of business.
I chatter at him incessantly: "Are you hungry, cutie? Mommy's making you dinner" in the same cooing tones I used with my infant children, never mind that he's eighty years old in human terms.
He lies beside me while I read, watch TV and knit, sometimes snuggling up against me, sometimes wandering off for a bit of independence. But always, when it's time to sleep, we're back to back and he's right up against me. I feel him breathing, and I know he's still with me, and I can sleep.
Andi Brown is the author of the comedic animal shelter novel, "Animal Cracker."