Mr. Eko, my first dog, was affable, adventurous and even tempered. I felt quite proud (some might say smug) of the well-mannered pup I raised and trained. I’d look at Eko and marvel at how my puppy grew into the dog I decided he would be.
Because I once believed my dogs were only shaped by my decisions. I was certain their personalities were simply the sum of my choices. Then I met Penny.
“I think you’re ready, but watch out for that one, Will.”
Those were John’s words when I carried Penny across the threshold of his front door. John had matched me with Eko a few years prior, and when I told him I’d like to add an adventurous little sister to the mix he paired me with Penny.
“She’ll be an adventure alright,” John said with a laugh.
I matched John’s smile, not understanding his good humor came from wisdom while mine was born of garden variety idiocy. With blissful ignorance I gave John a wave and drove off.
Ignorance has a bad rap, but I’m increasingly convinced it’s the only way anything of value gets done. If you had listed the destruction, frustrations and general mayhem that little puppy would unleash on my life I would have turned my car right around.
Instead I drove on, daydreaming about the life I’d decided to have. Penny would be Eko’s cute side kick – a bouncy, delightful sweetheart. We lived an adventurous life, so Eko would be there to comfort and protect Penny when the world overwhelmed her.
As we now know, it was the world which needed protection from being overwhelmed by Penny.
My first inkling Penny missed the memo about the life I’d decided upon for her was when we stopped at my mom’s house before our drive back to Chicago. Eko saw what I didn’t and wisely pushed his way past Penny through the swinging door. Auggie, my mom’s six-month-old Old English Sheepdog, was not as fortunate. Though about a third his size, Penny brawled Auggie into exhaustion, stole his bed and then used him as a blanket.
Nevertheless, I felt if I made the right choices I would be rewarded with the right outcome. I proceeded to make the exact same decisions for Penny as I had for Eko. We went to the same puppy classes, but where Eko was valedictorian Penny was voted Most Likely To Have A Natural Disaster Named After Them.
We did the same loose-leash training, but where Eko trotted past other dogs Penny was insistent she play with every single one. Recall at the dog beach came naturally to Eko but I literally had to buy new shoes in order to have a hope of catching Penny.
Finally, after a particularly egregious wave of furniture destruction, I accepted Penny was not the dog I thought she should be. The dog I wanted her to be. The dog I long ago decided she must be. I admitted to myself that while I had given her all my love and effort, I never gave her a proper chance to be herself. To assert her identity independent of Eko. More importantly, her identity independent of me.
“Penny Mayhem,” I said, marveling at her latest caper.
The name felt right the moment I said it. Like that had always been her name and it just took me some time to realize it. A group of us had just watched Penny lead a pack of dogs across the beach like some mad Pied Piper. Flying and turning and weaving, Penny ran her playmates until they lay panting in the sand. She promptly trotted back to me with her mischievous, “Okay, whose next?” look.
“That girl is a force of nature!” one woman remarked.
Indeed she is. And I only began to fully appreciate Penny when I embraced her for who she is – a tiny tempest with an off-kilter ridge, off-kilter ears and an off-kilter attitude to match. A dog who will never step paw in the show ring but who embodies the relentless and indomitable spirit of a Ridgeback better than any other I’ve ever met.
Once, her spirit would have chased lions. For me, Penny chased off far more frightening things. After Eko’s sudden death
my world went dark. Aphorisms like “If you’re going through hell, keep going” seem wise until the moment you find yourself there and discover hell is pitch black. Not only can you not see where you’re going, you can’t even see yourself.
But I was not alone. We carry our dogs places inside ourselves no other person can ever visit, and as my soul sank so too did Penny. How long I would have wallowed in darkness on my own, who knows? Penny did not wait to find out. Her world had been torn apart just as mine had, but where my fire for life was extinguished hers still burned brightly.
And what better guide through hell than my little hellhound?
Penny shared her fire with me and we raced through the darkness, each breath a small bellows, fueling a growing flame. Despair feels relentless, but in the end even it found keeping up with Penny Mayhem too exhausting a task. The dog I decided Penny should be the first day I met her never could have saved me this way. Thankfully the dog Penny decided she should be was exactly the dog I needed most.
I think about that idea a lot these days when I’m holding my son. Once again I find myself at a beginning, blissfully ignorant about the future. Except this time I’m embracing the questions instead of trying to answer them ahead of time. Whether pup or person, I’m convinced each are born who they already are. It’s not for us to decide, but to guide.
I don’t know who Lincoln will be. I’m certain it’s not who I want him to be. And that, I’ve learned, is a very good thing. He will be the person he needs to be, and my job is to help him be the best version of that person possible. For reasons and times I cannot predict, I know that whoever he is, Lincoln will be exactly the child I always needed.