It started innocently enough. A summer bucket list. A commitment to grasp our summer with both hands and squeeze every bit of life and laughter and fun out of it. My last summer with my son before he starts kindergarten.
“Swimming in the lake,” I said to Ryan back in May.
“Chuck E. Cheese’s,” he countered.
“The splash pad,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “And the zoo!”
Our summer bucket list has 25 items (20 items checked off so far but WHO’S COUNTING). At the very bottom of that list loomed a pretty big item: “Get a pet.”
Our cat, Belle, died about a year and a half ago. I’d had her since she was a year old. She’d lived with me in my college apartment in Ohio and she had moved with me to Arizona. She met Mike on our first date circa 2005. She’d warily welcomed Ryan home fresh from the hospital — and by “warily” I mean “ignored completely for a full week” — in 2010.
Finally, she moved with all of us back east to Pennsylvania a few years ago as her health began its decline.
I’ll never forget the conversation I had to have with Ryan, then four years old, on the morning I knew Belle would need to be put down. My own grief was lodged in my throat as I explained the concepts of serious illness and death to a child who was completely unaware of either.
He stared into the distance as I talked and by the time I was done explaining, his cheeks were damp.
“Now I won’t have a pet anymore,” he whispered.
By that point, Mike and I were very close to becoming licensed foster parents. We knew we were only months or even weeks away from welcoming our first placement. We knew there would be no time for new pets; and if I’m being honest, I didn’t want another pet anyway.
Pets are messy and they are constant and they are expensive even when they’re in the best of health, let alone when they’re not. Mike and I have never really been pet people. We were simply people who had a cat.
A couple of months after Belle died, our foster son, BlueJay, came to live with us for a year. After he left our home in March to live with biological relatives, Mike and I decided to take the summer off. No major family decisions would be made. We would simply enjoy each other and allow our hearts to mend from the loss we felt from missing BlueJay.
And maybe, just maybe, we said, we’ll get Ryan a pet. Something small, something manageable. Something that might ease his pain and loneliness from losing first the only pet he’d ever had and then the only brother he’d ever known. Not that a fish or a lizard or a hamster could ever make up for the loss Ryan had endured, but he seemed to need something to care for. He needed something to love.
We hemmed and we hawed for two full months. A fish could die within a week and we weren’t looking for more loss. Then again, we quickly discovered that a bearded dragon, for example, could live to be about 10 years old in captivity. Ten years of someone (me) cleaning the tank of a fairly creepy looking creature that Ryan was likely to lose interest in after the first few months. Ehhhhh.
“It’s too bad we’re not dog people,” I said. “Cuz I think he might really enjoy having a dog.”
“True,” Mike said. “It’s a shame. But there is no way we’re getting a dog.”
“Agreed,” I snickered. “A hundred percent. Too bad for Ryan.”
Then our neighbors got a puppy. A tiny Shih Tzu-Yorkie mix that weighed in at no more than 3 pounds. Given that both of my neighbors work full time, I offered to check in on her once a day, despite knowing exactly zero things about dogs.
The first time we visited little Mia, she let out the tiniest squeak-bark I’d ever heard, at which point Ryan fake-fainted, saying “That yittle ruff is so adorable I could just die!”
The 20 minutes we visited her every day after that lit Ryan up with a joy that made him glow from the inside out.
A week after Mia’s arrival, my neighbor dropped the ultimate bomb: “You know … her brother is still available…”
“Get him,” Mike said.
“We’re not dog people,” I said.
“We’re going to get him,” Mike said.
“I know,” I said.
Meet Rex Rocco Walbert, the newest addition to our family:
Rex has pooped and peed all over our house. He has chewed my towels and the legs of our kitchen chairs and my toes.
But he grins like a crazy person when I scratch his belly. He runs to me at full speed after he pees outside because he knows I’m about to throw a parade in his honor for the effort. He scratches at the door when Mike leaves for work in a desperate attempt to summon him back.
He attacks Ryan with puppy kisses whenever Ryan lays on the floor next to him. Together, they play fetch and chase and, strangely, baseball.
Rex has brought a certain liveliness back into our home. He brought some need and some noise and some pure, frenetic joy that have perked us all up a bit.
It’s possible Ryan wasn’t the only one who needed a pet. Not that we are pet people, mind you. We are simply people who have a puppy.
(That’s 21 items now checked off the list. Not that I’m counting.)