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Connections | Magazine

A father’s soothing ways

The energy that draws our rescue dog to my husband is the same gentleness and patience that surrounded our son when he was alive.

Titi, a 6-year-old rescue, gazes adoringly at the writer’s husband, Chris Cooper.
Titi, a 6-year-old rescue dog, gazes adoringly at the writer’s husband, actor Chris Cooper, in their Massachusetts home.From Marianne Leone

“I’m still mourning Frenchy,” my husband said.

Frenchy and Lucky, our 17-year-old rescues, died during the pandemic, Lucky early in the year, then Frenchy in September — a pair of wounded healers who never knew they were healers. In October, COVID was rising, the 15th anniversary of our son’s death was in January, and a bleak winter lay ahead. A dogless household seemed too depressing to bear.

I began sneaking looks at Petfinder.

Titi, an undersized bichon frise, seduced me with her hopeful smile. Her origin story was grim: Kept in a backyard cage for the entirety of her six years, Titi birthed multiple litters, so neglected that her rescuers discovered the harness growing into her flesh. As a brutal result, Titi had become a fear biter.

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I could identify with a fear biter. I’d had to fight fiercely for our son, Jesse, to be recognized as a fully cognizant human being. He was born prematurely and, as the result of a cerebral hemorrhage, was quadriplegic and nonverbal. I would bite anyone who denied my son his humanity, this boy who, despite his physical limitations, was on the honor roll every year and wrote poetry on his adapted computer. At age 6, Jesse had sat on Santa’s lap and summoned every bit of muscle control to blurt “dog” into Santa’s ear. Goody appeared on Christmas morning and was his beloved fur sibling for the rest of Jesse’s life. A dog’s presence in our home seemed to honor the memory of our son.

Titi’s smile telegraphed her resilience. I hoped it would be contagious. I presented her case to my husband until finally, he agreed.

Titi drew his blood on the first day.

We were with her in our fenced-in backyard on a sunny, crisp November afternoon. Titi’s unbounded joy at running free was soul-stirring and we basked in it. After many giddy circles, she flopped down near the raspberry bushes and we were all ready to go inside. It was time for the maneuver we dreaded: picking Titi up. We approached her warily. Chris stepped on the leash, but Titi wriggled out of her harness, making capture almost impossible. We made blockades with lawn furniture, tried a pincer move, and surrounded her. No luck. Titi’s rescuers had told us to try throwing a towel over her first, but it made us feel like kidnappers — or worse, complicit abusers — as we watched her thrash helplessly. When Chris stood over her, threw the towel, and picked her up, she bit, and he bled. (It wasn’t deep.) Chris blamed himself. “I’m a guy,” he said. “I’m wearing a hat. I loomed.”

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But the bloody bite was the start of a love story.

During the first week in January, the week that pulls us into the anniversary of our most staggering loss, Titi crept up from the end of the bed and licked Chris’ hand in the dark. Within a week she launched into a full body shimmy if he even glanced her way. The fear biting was at an end, and the love fest had begun. I admit to having felt the tiniest bit jealous, watching them morph into Lady and the Tramp sharing a single spaghetti strand, beaming love at each other, while I was relegated to the stereotypical Italian waiter dishing up dinner. But whatever envy I have is soon overcome as I, too, am enveloped by the love blast emanating from those two. I know the energy that draws Titi to Chris. It’s the same gentleness and infinite patience that surrounded our son when he was with us, Chris lifting him from his wheelchair, or playing video games, waiting for Jesse’s wavering hand to hit his switch, or placing a little turtle into Jesse’s hand.

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We lie in bed watching Titi wiggle in ecstasy on her back. She burrows into the memory quilt of Jesse’s T-shirts on our bed and it’s as if he, too, is embracing her and welcoming her home.


Marianne Leone is the author of Jesse and Ma Speaks Up. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.