My daughter Leah has finally returned from a month away at overnight camp. She came back taller, tanner, and with many new interests such as horseback riding, martial arts, and kayaking. She also came back so filthy that I asked her how she got all that tar on the soles of her feet. It wasn’t tar—just concentrated camp dirt. Her long red hair was about two days away from forming natural dreadlocks. Should I let her begin middle school next month as a Rastafarian? It’s fantastic to have Leah home again but the truth is she’s not the only newly arrived family member in our house.
Throughout our relationship and marriage, there’s one thing that Kendall and I have always agreed on. It was something we discussed many, many times and we both took comfort in the fact that unlike so many other issues we were exactly on the same page with this life decision: we never wanted to own a pet, especially a dog. We liked other people’s dogs but we always had the same feeling that people who don’t want kids have when they leave their friends’ homes with children: “that was fun, but thank God we don’t have to deal with it on a regular basis.” Kendall and I both had dogs when we were kids, but we never considered ourselves “dog people.” Who wants to deal with the slobbering and the shedding and the barking and the pooping and the fleas and the dog smell and the worry that the dogs will get lost or sick? How would we ever go on a vacation again or even out to dinner without feeling guilty? What about our gorgeous hundred-year-old parquet floors? Leah repeatedly begged for a dog but for once Kendall and I presented a united front: “No way, never, not gonna happen, deal with it!”
A few weeks ago Kendall’s uncle and high school-aged cousin from Texas were in town so that the cousin could check out the USC film school which he hopes to attend next year. Kendall had taken them to the USC campus which is close to our home. She called me from her car a few blocks from our house to tell me that they’d be back in a minute and to be ready to go out to dinner. Just after hanging up, Kendall was stopped at a red light in front of the historic cemetery near our home, the oldest one in Los Angeles. This is where Henry Jensen, the man who built our house in 1909 is buried. Jensen and his family lived in our house from 1909 until Henry’s death in 1944. By that point the once highly desirable neighborhood of large Victorian and Craftsman “mini-mansions” was in serious decline. Many of the magnificent homes were being torn down or divided up into boarding houses. Mrs. Jensen sold our house to a nurse to use it as an in-care health facility for elderly woman. The house continued in this capacity with two other owners until we purchased it in 2003 and began the endless process of returning it to its former glory.
I researched everything I could find about Henry Jensen, including his involvement in the early days of the motion picture industry. Beginning in 1914, Jensen built some of the grandest movie theatres in Los Angeles. He even gave a very young John Wayne (then known as Marion Morrison) his first job, standing in front of his Palace Grand Theatre in Glendale, passing out playbills to encourage people to come in and watch the silent films. It was in that theatre that the future movie star developed his passion for movies about cowboys and the Wild West.
Kendall had just pointed out Henry Jensen’s grave when a terrified puppy bounded from the direction of the cemetery and ran under Kendall’s car. Panicked, the three of them got out of the car and Kendall’s uncle was able to grab the poor mutt. But he wriggled free and dove under the car again, this time out of reach. Kendall’s car was in the middle of a busy intersection and a huge line of rush hour traffic was now backed up behind her. Two men appeared with a jack and jacked up the car so that they’d be able to get the dog. Kendall was afraid to touch the stray, who knew what its story was, and it ran off once again. Getting back into the car, the shaken group was about to press on when a man in the car next to them screamed, “Don’t move! The dog is wedged under your front wheel!” Sure enough, the dog had returned and had pushed his body up against Kendall’s left front tire. One small move forward would have crushed the poor guy’s spine. Kendall’s uncle was finally able to grab the shivering mutt. He wrapped him in a jacket and got back into the car.
Sitting on our front porch, I was wondering what on earth was taking them so long, weren’t they just a few blocks away? As I watched the traumatized trio emerge from Kendall’s car with the dirty stray in tow, my first words of compassion were, “We’re NOT keeping that dog!” Taking the dog into our backyard, they washed it off with a hose, revealing a beautiful white spotted coat under all that black soot. The dog was limping and skinny and clearly a wreck, but he also seemed very sweet and gentle. Still, refusing to look him straight in the eye, I made some comment about how he reminded me of the dogs the Nazis used at Auschwitz. Oy.
For the next two days, I tried not to look at the dog and insisted that we find its owner who surely must be canvassing the neighborhood with his sobbing children who were missing their beloved pet. A trip to the vet revealed that the dog was only 5 months old, had probably been on the street for a while, and if he did have an owner, was clearly not well cared for. Kendall and I fought bitterly about the dog, with me refusing to budge from our decision that we’d never get a pet and accusing Kendall of betraying our agreement.
As much as I wanted to hate this dog, it was impossible. Being completely phobic when it comes to barking dogs (I can hear one five blocks away), I waited to be woken up by the dog’s hysterical cries. Nothing. I waited for it to ravage our historic home and poop on every surface. It didn’t. Given the fact that I was still barely looking at the dog and was hardly welcoming, I expected the dog to greet me with menacing growls, nipping at my ankles and trying to chase me away. Instead, every time I came home he bounded huge distances and jumped into my arms as if I were Roddy McDowall and we were re-enacting the final scene of “Lassie Come Home.” Sigh. I finally had to face it. This dog had deliberately chosen us, Kendall was hopelessly in love, and he was already part of our family.
As soon as I was able to crack my aloofness (and what a strain it was to be that mean!) and open my heart to this animal, I immediately understood what all my crazy dog-loving friends were talking about. What an endless source of love and devotion. Why doesn’t everyone have a dog? We named the dog Henry Jensen. I don’t really believe that people reincarnate as animals but the way Henry practically jumped from Henry Jensen’s gravesite and dove under Kendall’s car at the one moment when she was passing by the cemetery makes me think.
I still worried about the timing. How would Leah feel about the dog since this all happened while she was away at camp? Would she view Henry as an interloper and be unable to bond because she wasn’t there when the dog came into our lives? Hah, I needn’t have worried. Leah returned from camp this weekend with three presents for the dog she’d never met and a T-shirt she made that said “Henry’s Owner.” Where I am still timid walking the dog, afraid that I am hurting him with every tug of the leash, Leah immediately assumed all dog-walking duties and showed such an air of authority that you’d think she was the Dog Whisperer. Henry worships her.
One of the hidden reasons why I never wanted to have a dog again is because I secretly knew how attached I could become to an animal and I didn’t want to face the pain of losing something that I love. I finally realized that if I allowed this psychological model to take hold, I’d better seal myself up alone in a cave in the wilderness. Yes, everyone and everything I love will eventually die. But that’s just not a good enough reason to close myself off from the rest of the world.
And now please excuse me—I have to go hose down my daughter and my dog.