Kai has been talking about getting a new dog for what seems like years.
“Can Elliott have a puppy?” he would ask, a question absurd on so many levels that I didn’t even know where to begin to answer. I mean, aside from the fact that Elliott was a boy, he was also neutered, and how you begin to explain that to a young child with social-communication issues is beyond me.
After Elliott died, his love of dogs began to meander into obsession territory. A new trail opened up by our house and Kai would ask to pet every single dog we’d see on the path. He’d hop off his bike, leaving it smack in the middle of the trail and dart through the onslaught of roller bladers and scooterers and whatever else, ask the owner for permission, hold out his hand for the dog to sniff, chat with him or her about the dog’s name and where the dog liked to be scratched.
“That’s quite the dog lover you have there,” an owner might say to me as I came running up, panting, as Kai offered his sticky, 8-year-old-hand hand for an enormous pit bull to sniff.
Kai asked for a dog several times over the past year-and-change.
Scott was against it, and he had a point. Not having to walk a dog during the last Polar Vortex, or to arrange vacation dog-care, or to vacuum up dog-hair tumbleweeds was admittedly very nice. And nothing will put you off a new dog like losing your old dog to a painful and expensive illness. But as Kai’s requests for a dog took on an increasing urgency, time and distance helped me to warm to the idea. Scott, though, dug in his heels, and, as the last, desperate hedge of a man who knows he’s doomed, offered Kai the hamster of his choice.
Two weeks ago, Kai was up late, restless and uneasy. He lay down on the couch with us, causing Breaking Bad interuptus. As Scott searched for something more suitable to watch, I ran my eyes over my son.
He was laying with his back to me, hunched over, shoulders shaking.
Having once been a teenaged girl, I recognized at once the signs of someone having a good cry.
I curled around him and asked him what was wrong.
Scott stopped channel surfing to listen.
“I just want a dog so much,” he said.
I held him close.
“Why?” Scott asked.
He could have said “I just do,” or “I dunno, I like dogs.” I mean, that’s the answer I would have given at his age. His answer, though, was unexpected.
“Because dogs make me feel calm,” he said.
“How?” Scott asked.
“I like the feel of their fur and the way they smell,” he answered.
“Okay,” I said into the scruff of his neck. “We’ll see about a dog.”
Scott, recognizing defeat, went to the kitchen and came back with a beer.
“Fine, we’ll get a dog,” he said. “Just make sure we get a good one.”
All of Kai’s therapists thought that a dog was a great idea.
I researched dogs for a couple of days. Kai’s social worker had a line on a breeder of Golden Retrievers who sometimes become therapy dogs, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to get a puppy, much less pay big bucks for a pedigreed one. The shelters are, of course, brimming with dogs. I liked a few of them, but a lot of them were not recommended for homes with young children. How could you even begin to choose? And I was under great pressure to choose a “good one.”
I posted on Facebook that since we’d decided to get a dog, I wanted to adopt all of them.
My cousin replied that that very morning, a puppy had followed her husband home two miles through the woods of Tennessee—a brave little mutt that survived a night among the howling coyotes and seemed to really dig belly rubs.
And so, in the end, I didn’t have to decide what kind of dog to get.
The dog had found us.
Scott was not amused.
“Couldn’t you give me some time to get used to the idea before we rush off to get this dog? And why are we driving all the way to Louisville when there are millions of dogs in Chicago?” he asked.
But how do you explain fate? A dog needed a home, a boy needed a dog. And besides, Scott, in the intervening years, seemed to have forgotten how fast a reluctant “yes” resulted in a new family member.
And so we found ourselves driving to meet my cousin Tamia halfway between her house and ours.
“What should we name the puppy?” I asked.
“Ryan!” Ryan shouted.
Kai was more thoughtful. “Sam,” he said at one point, perhaps channeling the owner of a therapy dog we’d met at Easter Seals. Later he changed his mind. “Something with a K,” he said, prompting Scott and me to unwittingly channel our inner Kardashian. “Kourtney,” Scott suggested.
“Like Kourtney Kardashian?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said. “There’s a Kourtney Kardashian? I guess I just can’t keep up.”
He actually said that, you guys, and without any irony at all.
“We’re here to meet our new puppy,” Kai said to the guy who checked us in to our hotel.
“Oh!” the guy said. “I know exactly who you are. I met your puppy. I almost took her home myself.”
We were, apparently, the talk of the hotel staff.
We’d all taken a moment to get acquainted, and then headed to the hotel's patio restaurant for dinner, bringing the puppy with us.
We talked about how she had found her way to my cousin’s house and debated what to name her. I suggested Ellie, a diminutive of Elliott, and there was some energy around that idea until a boy at the next table over came up to us with a suggestion.
“You should name your dog Stella,” he said.
We all looked at each other.
Fate had, once again, intervened.
First night with a new friend.
I took Stella to visit our vet yesterday, a guy who’s been with me through two cats and a dog already. He was the vet who put Elliott down.
He and I hugged each other, and I introduced him to Stella.
He asked me all about her.
“So,” he said, when I was done. “You have no idea where she came from?”
“No,” I said.
My cousin Tamia had taken Stella to the vet in Tennessee, and Dr. Diaz looked through the file.
He sighed heavily.
“Bring me a stool sample as soon as you can,” he said. He reached on a shelf and handed me a vial. In it was a thing that looked like a bean sprout.
“This is a round worm and you can all catch it,” he said.
I looked at the worm and for a brief moment wondered if it would eat my excess calories and considered the benefits.
“And this spot on her head. This could be mange. Take a picture with your phone so we can monitor it.”
He took out his clippers and began to trim Stella’s nails.
“When she was found, she was covered in ticks,” I said.
Dr. Diaz fixed me with a stern look.
“You’re welcome,” I said to him, grinning.
Dr. Diaz tried valiantly not to smile.
“Here we go again,” he said, disappearing into the belly of the animal hospital.
And so we have a dog.
Please enjoy this picture of Kai NOT roaming the neighborhood in the middle of the night.
Per Scott’s instructions, we got ourselves a good one.