When our family had to let go of our beloved dog during Sukkot, the outpouring of support brought us comfort in the immediate aftermath of loss. I knew that we would need to mourn, to wait a while before adopting another dog. What I didn’t know was that the process of pet adoption would teach me new lessons about being a parent.
Two weeks ago, I brought Luna home and into our lives. Nearly a month earlier, she was picked up by Cobb County Animal Control, a well-groomed stray bedecked with a “peace collar” but bearing no identification. She was about a year old and had been trained—housetrained, leash-trained, trained to respond to verbal commands and hand signals—but no one had claimed her.
Within a few hours, she would remind me why I’d so desperately wanted another dog.
* * * * * * *
We have always encouraged our kids to be independent thinkers and problem solvers, mostly by allowing them to form their own opinions, to make their own choices and to live with the consequences of their actions. We are not disinterested parents, but we strive to be the opposite of helicopter parents. To nurture their strong sibling bond, we also try to ignore them as they resolve their disputes. (Full disclosure: My spouse is better at this than I am.)
So when it became clear that we were divided about what to name this dog—and that no one was going to get any sleep unless the name was decided that night—I suggested to my spouse that we allow the kids to reach consensus without us, that we agree to whatever name they could agree upon together. I found them still sitting on the floor in a circle, debating whether to make a graph or conduct a secret ballot, and told them that if they could reach consensus, we would abide by their choice. They replied in unison, “Luna.”
Lesson learned: When siblings are permitted to address their disagreements without the interference of their parents, they achieve better and faster results.
* * * * * * *
A week later, my son and I were riding to school, listening to music on his iPod, when the song “Gone, Gone, Gone” began to play. I glanced in the rear view mirror to see if he wanted to skip it, as this song reminds us of our previous dog’s death and usually makes us cry. Despite our grief, my son and I were ready for another dog long before the rest of the family members. We had discussed our mixed feelings, watched the shelter website for pets in need of rescue and tried to convince his sisters and dad. He said nothing, so I ventured, “This one still makes me sad. I still miss Jenna.”
“Me, too. But it’s a different now. I still miss her, but I’m not as sad anymore.”
“Do you think that having another dog is a kind of comfort, lessens the grief in some way?”
“Maybe,” he conceded. “I like having a dog in the house. I still miss Jenna, though.”
“She was a great dog, and no dog could replace her.” This had become my refrain, a way of honoring one dog’s memory while lobbying the rest of the family to adopt another one.
“Jenna was a great dog. Luna is a great dog, too. And it was a mitzvah to save her life.”
I had been so worried about this dog—so focused on her timidity around men, her anxiety about stairs, her illness (she had contracted Kennel Cough during her month at the shelter), her emerging puppy behaviors (extreme chewing), her unknowable back-story—that I’d overlooked the very values that I’d hoped to instill in my children.
Luna is already settled in and is part of our family. She herds me around the kitchen, nipping at my heels to make me move toward her food bowl, and runs circles around me in the backyard, trying to engage me in her puppy antics. She plops down at our feet and nips at our hands if we stop petting her; she sprawls across the floor or insinuates herself in someone’s lap when we sit on the floor to play board games.
We humans often project feelings on our pets, especially feelings of gratitude on dogs rescued from the shelter. But in my case, it’s really the other way around: I am grateful that Luna feels safe in our home. I am grateful that Luna gives me countless opportunities to fulfill the mitzvah of kindness to animals. I am grateful that Luna opens my heart to life lessons about being a parent.
Some day, Luna will teach all of us the lessons that Jenna did, about being resilient in the face of loss and allowing each person time to mourn according to his or her individual need. But, right now, Luna is a reminder that we have an obligation to be kind to all creatures and make the most vulnerable among us feel safe and sound.