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May 11, 2022Essay

The dog who believed in my brother

Before we can believe in ourselves, sometimes we first have to believe in a dog.

I thought my brother was crazy for adopting a senior dog. Not least because he was doing so the morning after a record-breaking snowfall in Chicago.

“The woman told me if I don’t come today he might not be available,” James said.

“I don’t think anyone else is fighting through a couple feet of snow to adopt a senior dog with a history of seizures,” I said while heaving another shovelful away from the car.

“Me either,” he said with a laugh.

Still we dug. My reservations and opinions quieted by the unspoken covenant of our family. If someone needs help with their dog, you help. We can fight, feud and harangue with the best of them, but we do not include the dogs in our human folly. For them, we are better.

My brother decided this dog was his, so that was enough. With a final count of three, James pushed the gas and I pushed his sedan over the snowbank.

When my brother returned I expected to meet a hobbled geriatric, but the German Shorthaired Pointer who bowled through my front door was more like an over-caffeinated spiderman. The “senior” proceeded to climb every piece of furniture I owned, bounce off every wall, and pee on my carpet before any of us registered what had happened. I caught the culprit only because he paused to start tearing into my couch.

I can’t remember my exact words at that moment, but I know they are unprintable.

“Does this lunatic have a name?” I asked. 

“They told me he was called Dot,” my brother said – pointing to the large circle on the dog’s hip.

“You could call him Doc,” I suggested. It was our grandfather’s nickname and seemed an easy change. 

“Sure,” James said. Our family loved to jockey and lobby about dog names, so I was shocked he nonchalantly agreed with my first suggestion. Like so much about my brother and his dog, it was something I would only understand later.

Because at that time, I had answers. Or really, I was foolish enough to think I did. After a listless early twenties, I followed through on a promise to myself and got a dog – Eko. We hit the road and along the way I discovered purpose. I moved to Chicago, added a second pup – and in the coup of the century – got the woman of my dreams to agree to marry me. My life had a course and I could see it extending to the horizon.

James once had a course too, but he decided to veer wildly off it. He had a well-paying, secure job. He had enviable lifetime benefits and the promise of a nice pension. But it wasn’t enough. How could it be when he was so deeply unhappy with where he saw that course taking him?

So at a time when his peers settled down, James scrapped his life and started over. By chance, he ended up in Chicago for graduate school. Just as he arrived, Dutch, the dog who’d been with him since college, died.  

When James adopted Doc a few months later I thought it was a rash decision born of desperation. In my naivete, I couldn’t fathom another motivation. How else could you explain going from losing a dog who spent his entire life with you to bringing home a random eight-year-old dog with an enigmatic health history?

I neatly tied up the question by offering both my brother and his dog my pity. Surely a seizure-prone senior wouldn’t be around for long.

Doc lived nearly 8 more years. 

A word of advice – never bet against the endurance of a bird dog. They are the Honda Civics of canines. 

Those first years were a frenzy of destruction. Forget all those cute adoption aphorisms you always hear because Doc was a menace to society. I’m dating myself, but we called Doc “Encino Dog” after the Brendan Fraser movie about a decanted cave man’s wild mishaps as he learns to live in modernity.   

If it was edible, Doc ate it. If it was inedible, Doc ate it. It got to the point that my brother walked around with a chewed up driver’s license because he knew Doc would destroy the new one anyway.

I didn’t understand how James put up with it. The destruction, the frustration, the challenges and the uncertainty of life with Doc. Why would he pick up these burdens unnecessarily during such a difficult time in his own life?

The answer was unknowable to me until Eko died suddenly. It wasn’t until my life was blown wildly off course and my plans for the future turned to ash that I began to understand. Because not until you open a door and your dog is not waiting on the other side can you fathom what that means. 

It means two funerals. One for the dog, and one for the person you were with them. It means lifelessly trudging forward through days you want no part of. It means listlessly wondering who you are. A dissociative amnesia settles over your existence because you don’t recognize yourself without your dog beside you.

And that means you can’t love yourself either. Because you don’t know how to anymore. Whether you knew it or not, your greatest act of self-love each day was taking care of your dog.

So there my brother was – an old guy gambling on a second chance when not many believed in him – when he came upon another old guy in need of a second chance and someone to believe in him.

We both knew no one else was going to pick up Doc that day. I thought that’s why my brother should wait. James knew that’s why he couldn’t.  

It wasn’t impulse which compelled him, but necessity. He couldn’t believe himself worthy of a second chance if he wasn’t also willing to offer that same grace to another. 

This is why James’s devotion to Doc never wavered. There was no foster-period. No trial to see if Doc was a good fit. No matter how challenging Doc’s destructive habits were, no matter how many vet visits he needed, James’s loving commitment never faltered. To give up on Doc would be to give up on himself.

I used to wonder why James agreed to take on such a difficult dog at such a difficult time in his own life. He could have put his nose down and tried to play catch-up with his education and career. Now I know there is no catching-up. There is no race. There is only the path we choose to take. My brother refused the easy path, the swift one, and all others too narrow to share.

While I worried about the weather and the dog’s name, James had the wisdom to know both were obstacles to what mattered most – time shared together along the way.   

As James was there for Doc, Doc was there for James. Steadying him, comforting him, and loving him as my brother rebuilt his life. I’m certain James would not have survived that arduous task and those dark nights of the soul without Doc by his side.

Which is why whenever my brother needed help with Doc, I was there. When I cared for Doc, I cared for my brother. When I loved Doc, I loved my brother. I was always willing to help because Doc, in a way I never could, reminded my brother to love himself. 

I shared my gratitude for Doc by helping James care for him more frequently during his last weeks. Despite having a liberal helping of seemingly every age-related condition and ailment a dog can have, Doc happily carried on as I carried him up the steps to go outside. And despite his failing legs and vision, he remained firm in the conviction that he’d catch one of the birds on my brother’s fence.

But the thing about second chances is that they don’t wait up. Not even for love. After years of delay, James and his fiancee needed to make a number of frantic trips to find a wedding venue. On the days he was gone, my brother trusted me to watch Doc. Trusted that my tears and my arms and my love were worthy of his pup if the end came suddenly. I have never doubted my brother loved me, but with that trust, I have never been more certain of it.  

Fortunately James made it home. But my own second chance called me away. Emily and I staked our future on a gamble to uproot our family and start over in rural New England. We couldn’t find anywhere to live and needed to take a last minute trip for our desperate search. 

Though his own dog and heart were failing, my brother never balked at caring for Penny and Zero on short notice. With the same certainty he brought Doc home, James sent us off to find a home of our own. 

The day we returned, Doc’s decline accelerated rapidly. I think I once might have said something like, “Doc held on for us”. Or maybe appealed to the poetry of Doc dying in my brother’s arms as he arrived at the vet. But I don’t think life works like that anymore.

It’s a maelstrom out there. Life is chaos and chance and blizzards and lost dogs and lost people. There’s hard work and hard luck and a hard time telling the difference between the two. But if there’s any truth to be found in this mess, it’s that nothing is worth having that isn’t worth giving away. 

As he gave Doc one hell of a second chance, my brother’s responsibility is to now make the most of the one Doc gifted him. I have a feeling James will be okay. Because on the days he can’t do it for himself, he’ll do it for the love of the dog who believed in him, and who taught him to believe in himself. 

As for me, I don’t pity my brother anymore. Or anyone willing to risk their heart. James and Doc taught me pity should be reserved only for those who don’t take that gamble. Or for those who do, and lose, and are unwilling to roll the dice again. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still think James is crazy. But every once in a while he makes me proud to be his brother. Just don’t tell him I said so or I’ll never hear the end of it.

Thanks for believing in my brother, Doc. I know he won’t let you down.

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