If you’ve seen any of my social media posts in the last few months, then you know I got a dog. Mae says my Instagram feed should simply be called the Ramona Fan-page.
Ramona came to us at four months as a stray from Zihuatanejo. She had been rescued, rehabilitated and spayed by Surfers for Strays, a non-profit operated by gringos (if you’re looking for a dog, I don’t have enough good things to say about them). They put her on a plane with a friend of the organization (a twenty-something surfer coincidentally traveling to the Bay Area) who delivered her to us at a gas station in San Rafael on a cold November night. While we had contingency plans if she somehow wasn't a fit, it was love at first sight. She is the star of our household, patiently enduring our ongoing vows of adoration.
Though the adoption of this particular puppy happened quickly, I had grappled with my desire for a dog for over a year. Historically, I have jumped into relationships, pregnancies, real estate purchases; I can make quick gut decisions. This commitment was long contemplated.
I have a complicated history with dogs. When I was eleven, I lost Adam, a young German Shepherd that was my most trusted companion in a time when I felt very alone. The situation that resulted in his death was complex and very dark; it was a central expression of what was profoundly not right in my family. I loved Adam desperately but with his death I closed the book on dogs. I couldn’t even look at them without feeling heartbreak. I told myself I wasn’t a dog person.
When I was twenty-two, my live-in boyfriend, Mark, wanted to get a dog. I had great reservations. But when we visited a litter of golden retriever puppies deep in the sprawl of the San Diego suburbs, when a particular girl puppy with pink nail polish on one of her claws (to identify her as the only female left for adoption) kept tumbling into my lap and gazing into my eyes with such naked devotion, I cautiously agreed. In the weeks that followed, my self-concept about my non-dogness shattered, quite painfully. With the rush of love for her, I once again felt the loss of Adam. My heart was pried open by the fuzzy crimped fur on her ears.
That dog, Ellie (full name Eliante, named after a Moliere character I played that year), became one of the great loves of my life. She was my baby before babies. Already eager to please, Mark trained her impeccably. It was like she could read our minds. When we later separated, we shared custody of Ellie, which was probably as much a testament to our deep friendship as our love for the dog.
A year before my marriage ended, we got a puppy. Sunny was adorable and hilarious. She also had a wire or two crossed. She was reactive; she was actually kicked out of the Humane Society training class because she couldn’t stop barking at the other dogs. Given the opportunity, any opportunity, she would book it at high speed. She was delightful and she was a handful. As the marriage disintegrated, she became a point of contention, an emblem of all I was doing wrong. In the following chaotic first year of separation, her high needs and the needs of the kids were in competition. Ultimately, sadly, the situation became unsafe for her (for reasons I won’t share) and I tearfully found her a new home.
Again, it was clear I wasn’t a dog person. I couldn’t train a dog. I wasn’t responsible enough for dog ownership. Ellie had been a fluke, trained by someone who knew what they were doing. Really, wasn’t I cat person?
Post divorce, slowly, I stabilized, we stabilized. There were some tumultuous years, years I’m so glad to see the back of, but in some ways, we’ve emerged into the light. The girls have found solid ground under their feet. So have I. We’ve built a place of safety in our house in the trees. About a year ago, I again starting thinking about the steady sweet energy of a dog.
Our neighborhood borders open space. We hike daily - together or separately. Increasingly, as I wandered the trails I contemplated a companion, a non-verbal friend with whom to witness this daily shock of beauty. As my work shifted with COVID, the shop closed and much of my design work happening remotely or at least episodically, a dog felt more possible.
I hemmed, I hawed. Some days (the calm, quiet ones) it seemed like the best idea ever, some days (when the chaos of solo parenting descended) the worst. At some point, on one of those peaceful days, Mae extracted a commitment.
“Mom, you keep talking about it but are we actually going to do it?”
“I…don’t know. I want to - and it worries me. What if it’s overwhelming? What if we can’t give the dog what it needs?”
“Mom, it’s a dog. You’ve done harder stuff.”
All the weight that surrounded the idea of DOG for me, all the heaviness, lifted a bit. I’ve done way harder stuff. And done it well. Maybe I could do this, too.
And so, Ramona. Mae pledged that she’d train her, that she’d walk her. She hasn’t done much of either. To her credit, she says that the way Ramona and I are attached at the hip, there’s not a lot of room. Ramona, in early puppyhood, scared from her time on the street, would only walk if I was with her. She’s getting braver (Ramona the Brave), more used to the idea that she’s safe. But from early on, she was clearly a Mama’s girl.
And I, much to my surprise and delight, have trained her. She sits, she stays, she comes when called, she walks the trails off-leash. I’m not the expert that Mark was but I’m doing a fine job. As is she.
And so, twice a day, we’re up in the wild, encountering woodpeckers and hawks and deer and even the occasional bob cat or coyote (“Ramona, COME!”). She sleeps in her crate under my elevated bed, her snores a comfort in the middle of the night. When the kids fly, and they will soon, I will still have a baby at home. I, not a great believer in insurance, got major medical for her because I know I would pay anything to ensure her health and well-being.
When I’m with her, which is almost always, I feel the ghost of long ago Adam, the sweetness of Ellie, the loopy delight of Sunny. My heart is wide open, the deeply buried dog part of it fully engaged. Ramona is brave, it’s true. But I, in loving her, have some courage of my own.