Growing up, I wanted a dog. My parents said, "No. It wouldn't be fair to the dog." Their house, their rules.
In the faculty room of the high school where I taught in my twenties, I listened to a teacher talk about the way her dogs danced with excitement when she got home after school. I had doggie envy. I lived alone in an upstairs apartment and when I told my parents I was going to get a dog, they remind me that it wouldn't be fair to the dog,
I taught five classes, followed by play rehearsals after school and Saturday workdays for building sets, so I decided they were right. At age 57, though, I was home a lot, I had time to walk a dog every day and I was too old to need anyone's approval. A dog would be a perfect roommate. He couldn't talk back.
I went on Craigslist and exchanged emails with a woman who said she had the perfect dog for a first-time pet owner. I met her as she lifted a shih tzu out of her car. I couldn't understand why she thought he was so perfect. He remained aloof as she set him down and he sniffed begonias and licked the grass. I wanted a dog that would notice me.
I sat on the porch steps. He settled on the doormat behind me. His foster mom said, "Mikko is a mellow, neutered eight-year-old."
I was about to say he was a little too mellow, when something made me look back. Mikko had come closer. He was staring at me, but as soon as I made eye contact, he looked away. The foster mom said, "Why don't you try walking him?"
I attached his leash on the second try, and he pranced down the brick path beside me. He looked up with his big, brown eyes. "See how well I do this?" they seemed to say as he trotted along at my side. "I don't tug on the leash or stop to sniff. See how smoothly I round this corner."
His tail went wag, wag, wag.
This is easy, I thought and wondered whether he, too, was thinking, this is easy, or had decided I was easy.
When we got back, the foster mom said, "If you're serious about this, we'll start the paperwork."
"I'm serious," I said, "but I don't have any dog food or a dish or a bed. Could we do this next weekend?"
"I can't come next weekend, and there's no guarantee that he'd still be available." Something in her cold, calculating voice made me pull out my checkbook. Mikko needed a home. She handed me the paperwork and loaded his battered red crate into my car.
"Does he have to ride in that thing?"
"It's best," she said. I kept him in the crate his first night, but he objected. Loudly. By the second night, he was sleeping on a mat in the living room and within a few weeks, I put that crate on the patio for good. Mikko didn't need it. He needed freedom, love and security, and he was getting large doses of it.
When the neighborhood dog walkers learned that Mikko was my first pet ever, they were thrilled to share their knowledge and expertise. As he exchanged sniffs with Biscuit or Moochie, while tugging at his leash, I learned about Mutt Mitts for poop collection, Shampooches for grooming and retractable leashes that would give him more space.
"How old is he?" a dog parent asked.
My voice caught in my throat as I said, "His foster mom said he's eight."
"He seems very mellow. I wonder why someone let him go."
I wondered that too. Was he a breeder dog who grew too old? Did he run away? Did his owner get transferred or move to an apartment that wouldn't take dogs? Did somebody die?
If I got home later than expected, Mikko was at the door, his tail wagging and his eyes shining with relief. My Person is home, I imagined him thinking, as he jumped and whirled. As soon as I reached down to pet him, he lay on his side, tail thumping the floor, eager for a doggie massage.
"I love my welcoming committee," I told him as I rubbed his back with one hand and his belly with the other. His eye lids grew heavy. He was in doggie blissland.
Mikko was my official alarm system. When the UPS man dropped off a package, or the mailman came to my door, he woofed up a storm. He became mellow about the neighbors passing once he learned they would not harm him.
He preferred returning library books to waiting in line at the bank, though he was a perfect gentleman in either place. People in the library checkout line grew wide-eyed when they saw him pad past. "How cute," they whispered in conspiracy with the two of us. Dogs were not allowed in the library.
I rescued him from foster care and he rescued me from one silly overreaction after another. I lost my temper sometimes when I couldn't find my checkbook or cell phone or purse.
He heard me slam my fist against a wall, and peered around the corner, as if to say, "What's wrong? Do you need a walk?
"I'm not mad at you," I assured him, but he didn't understand. The slam scared him, and I wondered if he had come from an abusive home.
"Let me out. We need a walk," he said, with those beautiful brown eyes.
"I can't believe you're making me do this," I snapped, though I knew he wasn't making me. "You have a doggie door, you know," I added, even though that was not the point.
His job was to distract me and calm me down. He would trundle down the path, stopping to sniff every leaf and plant. He was proud that he was taking such good care of me.
Once I flung open the door, and said, "Go. You'd be better off with someone else!" I did not expect him to bolt, but he ran down the path and was gone. "Mikko?" I called.
He was not waiting at the end of the driveway. He was not waiting by the stairs to the park. His perky little tail was nowhere to be seen.
"Mikko?" I screeched.
Nothing. I grabbed the leash and raced along his favorite route. "MIKKO? Where are you?"
Nothing. I turned towards the street, still calling "MIKKO? MIKKO?" I didn't care if I disturbed the neighbors. How had I been so stupid as to scare my little sweetie? "It wouldn't be fair to the dog," raced through my mind. I had lost the love of my life—driven him away instead of giving him the security he deserved.
Maybe he'll find his way home. Maybe he'll be road kill. Maybe someone had already found him and put him in their garage. Maybe there was a call on my answering machine. I hurried home to check.
I had to keep looking. A boy on a skateboard called to his buddy, "Look at the cute little dog."
"Where?" I asked.
He pointed to his left and there, trundling along without a care in the world was the world's best shih tzu, his floppy ears dangled as he sniffed.
"MIKKO! You've come back."
He heard the joy in my voice and looked up. "It's really you," I called, and he ran towards me, his tail bouncing.
My hands shook as I put the leash on his neck. "Did you miss me?" I asked, sniffing back tears.
"See how responsible I am?" his eyes seemed to say. "I can walk alone."
Another leaf caught his attention. Stop. Sniff. Shift. He dug his nose into scrumptious-smelling ivy and inhaled deeply. Sniff. Shift. Pee.
Our walks often gave a new meaning to "slow and go." Once in a while, though, he raced across a patch of grass and his leash became the reins of a runaway horse. "Gallop apace, ye fiery footed steed," I told him. His paws matched the rhythm of my words as he ran on his tiny legs. I pick my battles and the pace of our walks was not one of them.
Even though he was a dog, I attributed human needs and emotions to him as if he truly were my partner. All he wanted was his food, his walk, his routine and my love. We valued each other. He picked me out, and we both felt responsible for each other.
When I thought of my family telling me, "It wouldn't be fair to the dog," I now laughed. Maybe they were right, back when I was working, though plenty of single teachers had pets. It no longer mattered.
I told Mikko once we would be together "till death do us part," and we were. I miss his little snuffle snores, his wagging tongue and tail, and his grateful eyes. Despite my bad moments, I offered him a loving home for his senior years, and after he went to T-Bone Heaven, I missed him enough to adopt another dog, Eddie, who also needed a good, loving home. Eddie is Mikko's honorary younger brother. Both of them opened me up and taught me to share my love.