Three Lessons My Rescue Dog Will Help Teach My Newborn Son
My dog, Vector, has been a dearly loved family member since September 2013, shortly after he was rescued from Puerto Rico's notorious Dead Dog Beach by the modern-day saints at The Sato Project. To my wife and I, he is our four-legged firstborn, and adopting him was easily one of the most rewarding decisions of our shared lives.
Following what his vet estimates was a 3-year stretch as a stray on an island desperately overrun with homeless dogs, Vector, like many rescues, needed both physical rehabilitation and emotional recovery time. As Vector slowly mended from various injuries and ailments, and emerged from a shaking-scared shell, my wife and I had the privilege of witnessing each other shower him with an unconditional love that, perhaps, neither fully knew existed in the other beforehand.
An unknowing teacher, Vector brought out the best in us. He helped make an already-good marriage great and, in the process, transformed a couple into a family.
But alas, his infinite lovability helped doom his monopoly on our affection: On March 18, Vector became the proud big brother of Nicholas Li Dale, our first (human) child. In Vector, Nicholas has far more than a pet; he has a boisterous, floppy-eared street scholar who will help him learn several important life lessons. Here are just a few.
Resilience is rewarded
From his scarred snout to his bitten-off tail, Vector's life as a stray left him scarred from nose to nub. But the former is still held high, and the latter is still wagging.
Before finding his forever home, Vector survived in a hot, humid hellhole where food was scarce, drinkable water even scarcer. All of 20 pounds, he fended off larger dogs in similarly dire straits for everything from a morsel of nourishment to a safe spot to escape the Caribbean's unforgiving sun and thunderous downpours.
Vector lost a tail. A toe. A chunk of his right ear. His deep facial scar recalls far more than a flesh wound, and his body was ravaged with heartworm and tick-borne ehrlichia, each of which can be individually fatal.
Light-years away in suburban New Jersey, Nicholas was born into an upper-middle-class home. Not only will his life essentials - food, shelter, love - be appropriately assumed, he will enjoy bourgeois privileges that many peers will not. Perhaps the only downside - and this holds especially true in a society increasingly insistent on safe spaces and participation trophies - is that Nicholas will be challenged to find the sorts of trials by fire that can build character and confidence.
Vector is resilience personified. His face-licking, fetch-playing joy belies the guile and guts he drew upon to make this enhanced existence - this life beyond his wildest dreams - possible. Amidst a coddled early childhood, where toddlers are encouraged to share, care and express their feelings, Nicholas will come to know, love and forever remember a family member who made it by being just plain tough as nails.
Live in the moment
Among my most relaxing pleasures is watching Vector in our backyard, where he becomes a beautiful blend of lazy lightheartedness and scrutinizing sniffing. He is immersed, engrossed, unconcerned. A barking Buddha.
Dogs are the ultimate Zen masters, and one with Vector's assumedly haunting past further intensifies this distinction. His life story is starkest during these quiet moments: He is "outside good" when before he was outside very, very bad. The weight of a world that for years threatened to crush Vector is squarely off his shoulders. He is cognizant of none of this. He is just a dog enjoying his backyard.
Humans, of course, cannot emulate a dog's ability to shake off the past like so much bathwater. We can, however, make progress toward that unattainable ideal. And as our phones ceaselessly ring, buzz and ping, Vector's present-tense life embodies a sanity-saving lesson.
That's where Nicholas comes in.
My son will grow up in an era of omnipresent, oftentimes inescapable Internet connectivity, the likes of which we've surely only begun to experience. The world is already at our fingertips ... imagine what Nicholas will have at his, even by elementary school. It already seems too inundating - too noisy, too disruptive, too constant - and it's only going to get more saturating.
In Vector, Nicholas will see the purest example of positive compartmentalization, juxtaposed against the multitasking mindset instilled in today's children practically from birth. Vector's singularly-focused calm provides a keep-it-simple insight to navigating a storm of nonstop stimulation. If Vector can set aside his harrowing history to enjoy a sunny day in the yard, then we should be able to disconnect from our more consistently blessed lives in order to do the same.
Death is inevitable
On September 25 - a makeshift birthday combining our vet's educated guess with the anniversary of his joining our family - Vector will turn 6. This means that sometime early in Nicholas' life - hopefully not before third grade or so - Vector will pass away.
In looking at Nicholas's dearest elder family members - three grandparents, a few close great aunts and uncles - he is fortunate that none have hit 70 and all are in relatively good health. All will probably outlive Vector, who in all likelihood will become Nicholas's first up-close experience with death.
And unless any of his grandparents end up living with us in the next decade - which (ahem!) almost certainly won't happen - Vector's death also will be Nicholas's first truly intimate experience with loss. A family member with whom he grew up - with whom he spent every night under the same roof, even the same bed - will suddenly be gone, and gone forever.
Like his history and missing body parts, Vector's passing will, for Nicholas, be a cold, hard and altogether valuable lesson in reality. His death will leave an upsetting, gaping void proving, through harsh silence, that life is both precious and finite.
My son will learn how to grieve, to celebrate a loved one's life, and to move forward in a fashion that honors Vector's spirit. His next dog will be a new family member - not a replacement. He will remember Vector as a teacher for whom there was no substitute.