I got my first dog when I was 9. I pestered my parents for years. They were not animal people, especially my mom, so it was probably my dad who finally caved.
Spunky—named after his defining personality trait—was a little black terrier mix, about 3 years old. He was not only adorable, he was mine. My younger sisters and brother could play with him but I was the primary caregiver. He was my responsibility.
I bought special doggie bowls for him with my allowance, brushed him every day and played with him for hours in the backyard, throwing balls and sticks. He had boundless energy and was my reason to live, the summer we adopted him.
One day, about a month later, Spunky disappeared. I put up flyers and canvassed the neighborhood but couldn't find him anywhere. No one had seen him. It was like he disappeared into thin air.
Looking back with my adult super powers, my mom's ennui about Spunky's disappearance was a dead giveaway; she had to be involved in some way, maybe even the mastermind. "Control freak"—her defining personality trait—says it all.
I went into mourning and cried through the rest of my summer vacation. Then, one fall Sunday, at my aunt and uncle's for a family dinner, I was messing around in the backyard with my cousin when this little black terrier tore out of the house.
It was Spunky.
"Spunky!" I shouted, picking him up in my arms. I buried my nose in his warm fur and breathed in his heavenly doggy smell while he covered my face in wet doggy kisses. But the reunion was short lived. My cousin pulled him out of my arms.
"What's my dog doing here?" I said.
"He's not your dog. He's mine. His name is Smokey," he said.
"What are you talking about? This is totally Spunky."
"You're crazy," my cousin said, throwing a ball across the yard for the little terrier.
I bolted into the house and cornered my mom in the kitchen.
"Why did you give Spunky to David?"
My mom pulled a roast out of the oven and avoided my eyes.
"Don't be silly, sweetheart, that's not Spunky."
"Yes, it is," I yelled. "I know what my own dog looks like."
My aunt, basting the roast, came to my mom's rescue. "Your uncle and I got Smokey from the dog pound for David, Gail."
I found my dad in the living room deep in conversation with my uncle.
"You gave my dog to David!"
But my dad and uncle kept up the charade.
"That's not Spunky," my dad said.
My uncle took a gulp of his vodka tonic and remained silent.
"I'm not crazy, you know," I yelled.
"Look at him. Did Spunky have gray on his ears?" my dad said.
I ran outside where Spunky/Smokey was stretched out on the grass. His ears were a little gray but not much. Were they like that three months ago? Could a dog change that fast? What was going on? I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.
My parents were gaslighting me. The word for it back then was "lying." But parents didn't lie to their kids, did they? Gradually, I had to let it go. I had no choice.
When I was 11, I won a ginger kitten at a local county fair. An adorable orange ball of fur, I named her Fluffy. It was her defining characteristic.
A few months later, Fluffy disappeared.
Not long after she'd gone, I was at my friend Mary Ellen's house. A kitten appeared and padded across the backyard towards us.
"Fluffy!" I shouted. "Hey, that's my cat."
Mary Ellen picked up the ginger kitty and said, "No, this is Peanut."
"Did my mom give her to you?"
"No. My parents got her," she said.
"From where?" I asked.
"It's not your cat, Gail."
I confronted my mom but, of course, she denied it. But it was a no-brainer. She hated animals. She hated picking up poop, brushing hair off the furniture and the smell of canned pet food. She denied it for years until one day she could finally say to me, "You're asking me to remember something that happened 30 years ago, Gail."
She never admitted it.
How does a warm, loving person fail to understand a child's trauma at the loss of a beloved pet? How anyone would feel? I thought Spunky and Fluffy had died; I thought a car had hit them. The fact that my mom, after witnessing my grief over the loss of my dog, then gave my cat away to my best friend is, to be honest, disturbing. I have no answers. I never will.
Years later, before I left for college, I got my little brother a dog. My brother, a lonely kid suffering from what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia, needed companionship. I named the mousy, flea-bitten Pit Bull/German Shepherd mix I saved from euthanasia Topo—"mouse" in Italian. My brother fell in love.
"Don't give this dog away, Mom," I warned her.
She listened to me. And soon fell in love with the sweet puppy that would ease my brother's painful journey through mental illness. I wish her transformation had happened when I was young, but I'm grateful she was finally able to experience the joy of loving an animal.