I wanted a girlfriend. I did not want a dog.
She told me they were a package deal. As far as the dog went, it wasn’t love at first sight. Or 25th. If Martin hadn’t chewed my left-hand leather glove beyond recognition minutes after our first meeting, things might have gotten off to a smoother start.
Martin was then just over a year old, with a big bark and terrifying puppy energy. He was a cocker spaniel, but I saw him as a Tasmanian devil. It didn’t help that he closely resembled a friend’s ill-tempered cocker, which had to be given away after he bit her in the face.
Black and beautiful, Martin eyeballed me like I owed him money. And “The Boy,” as I called him, was very protective of his “mama,” especially when I was siphoning off the undivided attention to which he’d grown accustomed.
We spent months in an anxious stare-off, trying to will the other away. I fully expected us to kill each other. Instead we tumbled into a marvelous, wacky kind of love.
I liked dogs, but hadn’t spent a lot of time with them. The closest I came to having a dog was when my family served as temporary guardians to a chubby pug owned by the rich white family that employed my grandmother. When they went to their vacation home, we’d get the dog, sometimes for as long as a month. I now feel some kind of way about that odd arrangement, but as a kid, I loved it.
When I considered getting a dog years later, friends talked me out of it. Having a dog, they said, meant going straight home after work, and long walks in lousy weather. Yet I couldn’t ignore how happy my dog-owning friends seemed to be. They saw themselves as parents to the animals they’d brought into their lives. I found their devotion inspiring, if beyond my reach.
Then came “Mama’s Man,” as my girlfriend called Martin.
Spending time with her meant spending time with him. I started reading about the palliative effects of pets, and how a life with animals is longer, happier, and healthier. As I waited to reap those benefits, Martin tripped me as often as possible, peed on my kitchen floor, pooped on my dining room rug (which I stepped in), and threw up on my bed.
Then, something else happened. We found a rhythm with each other, and settled in for the ride. Perhaps we bonded during the 72 photos I took of him chomping on a Santa doll’s head for the first of our annual holiday cards. Maybe it was our mutual love of Beethoven string quartets, which always calmed him.
I concocted weird games for us to play. We “sang” together, making both an unholy racket and a joyful noise. I dubbed myself his “play cousin.” More than The Boy, he became my boy.
It’s no surprise that Donald Trump is the first president in more than a century not to have a family pet. Animals soften us. They’re immune to our boasts, and don’t care about our résumés. They give life to our sillier, over-affectionate selves. They’re great listeners, don’t judge, and have an enviably low threshold for joy.
We should all strive for such perfection.
Last spring, we received a grim diagnosis, and even grimmer prognosis, for Martin. Through our tears, we could see a day when we would perform what a friend called “the last kindness you can bestow on them.” When that impossible morning came, we quietly let him go. My girlfriend’s hand was on his back, and Martin and I stared at each other, one final time.
A life with animals is happier and healthier. As I waited to reap those benefits, the cocker spaniel kept tripping me.
Now his rambunctiousness has been replaced by a silence we’re still learning to abide. I don’t know if Martin’s presence in my life made me healthier, but there’s no question he made me happier in a way no human ever could.
Not long after Martin’s death, I found tucked in a drawer an old right-hand leather glove. It was the orphaned match to the one pulverized by an ornery cocker spaniel puppy nearly 12 years earlier. For what felt like a long time, I held the glove; eventually, I tossed it away. I didn’t want it anymore. All I really wanted was The Boy.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham