As far as I was concerned, he was my little boy. My dad showed up with a new addition to the family when I was 10 years old. As with most major purchases, he did it unbidden for the enjoyment and memories of everyone. He opened the car door and a white English setter puppy with perfect brown spots emerged. Like all puppies, his enthusiasm was unbridled and his body had not quite kept pace with development of his paws.
Everyone in the family was instrumental for Charlie’s care, but I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility for him, a theme that would follow me for every other pet that was destined to bless my life.
Like most persons who are newly responsible for someone, I became gripped by a fear that some harm would come to my darling boy. In the way mothers go to listen to their babies to make sure they are still breathing, I kept my fast twitch leg muscles on standby. I was scared he was going to get away. He had a need to run, which I understood on an instinctual level. His dashes were not to escape, but to seek a momentary freedom, to explore. Charlie’s mad sprints in to the exponential horizon of the prairie were legendary.
He was spotted but his ears were a silky fawn color. They smelled like kibble and I could not give him enough kisses there. I loved the firmness of his belly beneath the sparser fur of his underside. His coat was always a tangle despite my loving attempts to groom him daily as he watched me beneath his soft and eager eyes; his white lashes the signature of a northern adventurer. I admired his energy, his resolve, and his shenanigans that weren’t born of a desire to be naughty, but to attack life with gusto. These would all become traits I sought in other beings I loved as I grew up.
He arrived to us late in the North Dakotan summer. Summer is quickly consumed by a ferocious fall in that part of the world. It was my job to tend to Charlie in the mornings before school. He needed to be let out first and then to be fed. After he had eaten, I had to wait to let him out again.
I had a horrible peach chenille robe I would put over my pajamas each morning when I emerged from bed to take Charlie out. Over that, I would throw on a down jacket, moonboots, a hat and mittens and take my beloved puppy into the backyard. The yard was delineated by a split-fence and covered in thigh deep snow in the winter. The silence was complete, the snow insulating any sound that might have bounced across the 9th hole of the golf course we lived on. The summer sounds of birds and golfers seeking our lemonade stand seemed like a dream from a faraway world. Nocturnal Orion would shine down proudly from the sky, bidding good morning to me as he prepared for slumber after his heroic feats in the icy night sky.
These dark and frozen mornings brought me a profound sense of peace. I love that indescribable freshness of morning on a land-locked tundra. The cold freezes the sinuses and puts the body in to a conservative and meditative trance.
After Charlie had peed we would go back inside and I would take off my cold weather gear, feed him and retreat to my favorite place in the house as he wolfed down his breakfast – the foyer. I would take a break while he ate, fancying myself like an exhausted mother who deserves to flop on to the couch with a mindless television show while her baby naps. In the foyer, I would fiend toward the heating floor vent and pull my big sleeping shirt around my whole body and toes, creating a tent for the hot air to rush in and warm my body. I’d sit there looking out the window in to the dark morning of the front yard. On the more exciting days, I might see the milkman or another neighbor crunching through the snow with his leashed dog.
When Charlie finished his breakfast, it was back to the living room to ensure he had time before we all left for school to wrestle and cuddle and chew. I would sit bathed in the light of the Christmas tree, holding his rawhide between my calves and allowing him to chew away with concentration, his paws resting on my legs. My disgusting robe would be covered in the crust of the rawhide, Charlie’s fur and remnant bits of snow from our first outdoor excursion. I worried that he was as cold as I was and would cover him with the afghans my Grandma Alice had knitted.
When he was finished having a chew and a wrestle, I would groom his coat, brush his teeth and let him out again as the morning finally approached the inky light of dawn.
Prior to Charlie, I had a system of stuffed animals. I had each of the nearly 100 creatures/doll listed and wanted to be sure that each was treated equally so I had them rotate between my closet, a hammock on my wall, a doll bed and for their special night, my bed. Once my living being, Charlie, joined the ranks though, the stuffed animals suddenly were less important and were only a few years away from being orphaned in a garage sale. My primary focus was to ensure that all 90 pounds of Charlie was comfortable in my bed as I clung to the side and wrapped my skinny body around his for warmth and reassurance.
I loved Charlie the way I have truly loved all the other animals in my life. He taught me unconditional love, patience, responsibility and enjoyment of the present moment. He taught me that seeing someone else thrive is usually all the thanks we are going to get for taking care of them. Animals take us outside of something we can’t understand and introduce us to a divine human emotion. Theirs is a special kind of love.
This was based on a writing prompt given to a novel-writing class I took at the Rice University Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, taught by Karleen Koen. The prompt was, “Write about the first person you ever fell in love with.”