The New Dog
Sometimes a gift that you're not sure you want arrives at your door. If I had rejected this gift, I would never have had one of the great joys of my life. Sometimes it's truly better to receive. For instance . . .
Kai showed up at our doorstep about three years ago. My sister had seen him trotting around the neighborhood for a few days and finally decided to leash him up and walk him from door to door to find his owner. He belonged to no one. It being March in the Willamette Valley, the weather was wet and raw, so we let him into the house. My dog, Cooper was still around in those days and he made Kai feel completely like a persona non grata, or rather a canalinus non grata , snarling and launching himself at Kai with all of his un-tartar-controlled teeth bared and ready for a fight. Since it was a Saturday night and too late to take him to the humane society, Kai was uninvited from the house and we both hoped that he would find his way home.
The next morning when Shelley opened the door to get the Sunday paper, there he was, curled up on the welcome mat in the entryway. That was it. He was coming inside no matter how much Cooper objected. Strangely enough, he didn’t object one bit.
We did the usual notices in the paper, at the humane society and at Marion County Dog Control. The countdown had begun.
I couldn’t afford to have two dogs so Kai would belong to Shelley. Her dog, Taffy had lived a long life and after she died, Shelley decided she was really a cat person and didn’t want another dog, but I would not let her even consider finding a home for Kai elsewhere. Eventually I persuaded her – with promises of dog-walking and daily care to be my responsibility – to keep Kai as her own. As the end of the thirty days approached I virtually held my breath, jumping every time the phone rang dreading that this would be Kai’s owner calling to claim him because I was deeply in love with this dog. But no one claimed him.
On the thirty-first day, I rested. He was now officially Shelley’s dog.
He and Cooper became fast friends, and despite Cooper’s myriad infirmities, they played rough and long together as their nightly ritual. They were about the same size and both had an obstinate streak, but the similarities ended there. Kai rarely barked. Cooper barked at anything that moved. He barked at the neighbor kids; he barked before visitors rang the doorbell; he barked after the doorbell rang; he barked while the visitors attempted to visit and just for good measure, he barked when they headed out the door and didn’t stop until he heard their car pull away from the curb. Kai, on the other hand, didn’t bark once until about two weeks after he arrived, but what a bark. He is a twenty pound terrier mix with the larynx of a Tibetan Mastiff.
He looks like a miniature St. Bernard, but of course, there is no such animal. So when Shelley and I took him for a physical and shots, we were anxious to get the vet’s opinion. We waited in the exam room and when the vet entered and Kai greeted him, the doctor petted him, smiled, looked him up and down and said, “What are you?”
His breed mix, short of getting him DNA tested, will remain a mystery.
What I do know about Kai is that he is smart, gentle, obstinate at times and really quick on his feet. He learns fast, absolutely knows he’s cute and uses that knowledge shamelessly. He is not without some idiosyncrasies. For example, he is deathly afraid of flies, floor vents and manhole covers. If I didn't leash him on our walks he would run out in front of a speeding bus rather than get within five feet of a drainage hole cover. And then there are his food dishes. I bought him the cutest food and water bowls, ceramic with a little smiley-faced dog in the bottom of each. I filled them and then went about my own business only to hear Kai in the kitchen growling ominously. I sort of figured we had a cat in the yard or even a burglar or something. When I went to see what was up I found Kai staring into his water bowl as if he was looking for a fight, curled lip, guttural warning growl and all. He was snarling at the smiley-faced dog in the bottom of the bowl. So much for cute ceramic dog dishes. He now eats and drinks from a clear plastic plate and bowl.
Cooper was the Alpha Dog in our household. He tolerated this interloper my sister had named Kai because he had to, and true to dog behavior Kai respected Cooper’s authority. In November, about nine months after Kai became part of our household, Cooper’s health started to fail and I made the decision to euthanize him as I documented in How Animals Transform Our Lives . Less than a week later, I was laid off from my job. It looked like the holidays were going to be pretty bleak.
I sort of half-heartedly put a tree up and hung some outdoor lights, but I truly missed caring for Cooper and feeling that furry hot water bottle laying up against my back when I went to bed at night.
On Christmas morning I noticed a card with my name on it propped up against a branch of the Christmas tree. It wasn’t from Santa Claus, but from my dear sister. In the card she explained that Kai was my Christmas gift that year. Being a cat person at heart, she didn’t want the responsibility of a dog. She also knew I not only wanted a dog, but needed one. When Kai had shown up on our doorstep, Cooper’s health was waning and she knew he wouldn’t be around much longer, so she had quietly fostered Kai for me until that day came and was now giving him into my care, as my dog, to keep as my own.
I have never had a more beautiful Christmas gift . . .