Home is Where Your Dog Is
Published in Dig Deep: The Magazine
Cross-stitch, violet and yellow letters on a linen background, in a faded mahogany frame. “Home Sweet Home.” Hung by the door, greeting each guest with its saccharine promise. I remember versions of this décor in several houses I visited as a child, assuring me that home is sweet, and where the heart is. But you won’t find anything like that in my house. No such claim carefully stitched in cloth to seal the promise, the prayer. No pre-meditated order -- or request -- in cheerful letters on our wall. Instead, you’ll find some photos of good times, perhaps a little faded and outdated. Some art, homemade and otherwise, that speaks of nature, colour, and life. A guitar. Some cracks and partly repaired holes. And on the floor…certainly some socks: one here, one there, rolled into the dust under the couch, along with a pencil, a quarter or two, and a good bit of dog hair. Always dog hair.
If I were to have a sign, it would say in slightly irregular hand-lettering on painted paper: “Home is Where Your Dog is.” This I know to be true.
When G and I were first married and trying to find a house to live in and to make a place a home, “home” continued to be where I grew up. There, my faithful and enthusiastic (even if tongue-dragging exhausted) horse-back-riding companion, Noka, still lived. King Noka, as my brothers and I reverently referred to him, presided over the 5 acres I loved, and continued to do his walk-abouts, patrolling his route daily, watching his home, his people, and quietly accompanying whoever was outside. Noka was my family’s gentle German Shepherd, and still my dog. And so the acreage with its big garden, mature trees, and fields where my horses had lived, was still my home. Until the day Noka left, gently lifted into the back of Dad’s Mazda truck, for his trip to the vet, and brought home for his burial under the Mountain Ash, not too far from his predecessors. Dad stayed with Noka at the end, and told me the news over the phone that evening, adding “When it’s my time, take me to the vet.”
But then that place where I grew up, while still my childhood home, was no longer my primary home, no longer the magnet that pulled me. G and I had a fine-boned German Shepherd of our own. Kala. Black-faced and graceful, she had lively hazel eyes rimmed by tan fur like a set of spectacles. As a puppy, she provided me with the perfect schedule to get my thesis-writing done: break when she needed to pee, write when she needed to sleep. She grew to be 75 pounds of peaceful power, a fast runner and effortless jumper. She knew the precise height and angle of a ball as it made its first bounce from a strong, weak or uncoordinated throw. She got it every time. Kala, who joined us in our first house in Aylmer, Quebec, greeted my nephew with as much care and love as I felt for him, and put up with the whims of her feline superior, Segue. She rode patiently, nervously, in the back of our Toyota pick-up, her crate alongside Segue’s, when we drove 3 days west to Regina. She slid right into her new life in a city yard without the wooded playground backing it that she’d enjoyed for the first part of her life.
Over the next few years, Kala happily occupied her own solid canine niche and did her best to fill the growing hole we felt as we hoped to start a family. She was there loving, being loved, throughout our search, our wait, and as the cycle of possibility and disappointment grew harder. The two weeks we spent in London, while a friend looked after her, the cat and the house, went by, and she gently healed our wounds when we came back without the little girl we had cared for and so quickly grown to love. The little girl was with her young birthparents, who had changed their minds about adoption. Kala was happy to have us home, trying out a few new things, like getting up on the couch, with that look of delight, trepidation, and inquisitiveness -- a guilty question on her face when discovered, and easily jumping off when asked. She made us laugh. She appeared in my dreams, wise and reassuring, when my 3:00 am mind got carried away. She loped beside me as I covered my territory each day, and walked my way back to hope. Her needs and companionship provided the rhythm for our daily lives as we continued on. She belonged to us, and we to her, every day.
And then, two years later, we packed our bags and our hopes and spent a month in Ottawa. And we came back – a sleeping bundle in a car-seat baby bucket, placed carefully on the dining room table while I went outside to be with my 4-legged girl. Bounding around the yard, Kala managed to contain herself for a few strokes on her silky head, and the embrace around her strong neck I needed to give her. She snatched up a red ball from among the leaves layered over the lawn, and with a practiced flick of her head, tossed it at my feet. I picked up the ball, hard and smooth, its weight familiar in my hand. Cupping the ball, I swung my arm down to the ground, bending at the knees and then flung arm and ball skyward as I straightened. I watched the red orb shrink as it moved through the glowing yellow cottonwood leaves and further into the clean blue sky, and grow again as it descended toward us. Kala was crouched in front of me, compact and ready, and then exploded upwards, her body lengthening toward the ball. “Thwack!” Her mouth met the ball and closed around it, and she returned to earth with a satisfied “Hmphh.” She dropped the ball at my feet again. Throw. Jump. Over and over, love and joy in each muscled move. I took a deep breath of the cool, musty, October air. And the tears began to flow, breaking open the disbelief, the distance I’d managed to maintain during the previous few weeks, even while loving and caring for the beautiful little boy I only dared hope would become my son.
Dog. Ball. Baby – our child -- just inside the house. The truth of it finally dawning on me in waves. Home is where your dog is.