Before the birth of our first child, our yellow lab Sherlock led the privileged life as the sole heir of a DINK couple. My husband fed him specially ordered never frozen raw meat. We often emerged from pet shops with $20 squeak toys that Sherlock shredded within minutes. During the week, a professional dog walker chauffeured him and a few other lucky hounds to Fort Funston, a dramatic cliffside beach on the west coast of San Francisco, where he pranced as happily as a prima ballerina. During our weekend walks in Noe Valley, we only frequented restaurants that could accommodate all of us, which usually limited us to a cozy French bistro with an illegal patio in the back.
It wasn't only our activities that changed. The creature that I had previously described as a bright but petulant teenager suddenly became no more than a ball of fur. When he furiously shook his head to relieve his itchy ears, which he did several times a day despite his daily eardrop treatment, a cloud of fur emanated like the brewing of a great dust storm and a flurry of haze rose around his 63 pound frame. The puff of fur lingered in the air and then descended on everything around us, including the baby's blanket, the uncapped milk bottle, the dropped pacifier. Some strands of fur dug into the warp of the rug or became entangled in the fringes, and the rest drifted around until they formed stubborn dust bunnies in far reaches under our bed.
Usually, between the 6am and the 8am feeding, I would start my daily ritual of rolling the lint remover over as many toys as I could manage. Then, I would pull out the vacuum to suck up the fur and dander. While I futilely rammed the blunt edges of the suction into corners to try to reach tiny crevices, I thought of my doctor friend's comment when I fretted about having a pet with an infant in the house. "Who would want a dog with all that dander near a baby!" In those moments, I visualized dander drifting into my baby's mouth, into his nostrils.
When my mom visited, she too focused on Sherlock, or more specifically, Sherlock's fur. "You know, he's such a good dog, but why couldn't Jeff have gotten a dog that doesn't shed? That's his only bad trait." I assume she was referring to the dog.
After a cousin visited from Korea, she went back reciting a couple of criticisms of my housekeeping skills, one of which was that the baby's toys were covered with fur. I'm sure many of my relatives whom I haven't seen in over a decade have intimate knowledge of Sherlock's fur.
It wasn't just the fur. Before Jeff and I merged our households, Sherlock was Jeff's sole companion and had the run of his house. He curled up wherever he liked. He slept on Jeff's bed. Most importantly, he licked whatever he liked. He spent the greater part of his day licking the kitchen floor, lest he miss that one morsel, that one calorie hidden in the crack of the tile. He continued that practice when he moved in with me. Once the kids arrived, however, I tried to modify that behavior.
My friends envied what they saw as a cuddly Roomba. "You don't even have to clean up after your kid eats!" they said. "You're so lucky." I saw it differently. I saw a (relatively) clean floor being smeared with dog spit. And my pristine baby crawl and roll in that film of dog spit, spreading his hands in that spit. And my baby's dog spit covered hands being sucked by my baby's mouth. I vividly remember one of my second grade classmates sharing his ice cream cone with a random dog on the street. It ranks high enough on my gross list that I've remembered it all these years. And here was my baby sucking dog spit off of his hands.
Trying to prevent Sherlock from licking the floor is like trying to shoo a swarm of ants away from a rotting apple. I would send him away from one corner of the kitchen only to have him start at the other. Sometimes, I would scold him with a stern "no!" and send him to his pad. There, he would hunker down, cross his front paws, and droop his head as if to feign resignation. But his doe eyes would stare at me with the intensity of the New York Vigilante. The minute he saw me exit the room, he would spring off of his pad, dart across the room, and start licking the floor nearest the high chair. And the minute he heard my footsteps again, he would quickly skulk back to his pad. I would catch a glimpse of his sashaying tail and hind legs fleeing the scene of the crime.
In addition to the no-licking, I imposed another rule. No doggie on the rug. Since our rug took up most of the living room floor, that was a little unfair to Sherlock, I will admit. But I saw it as my maternal duty to protect my child's space -- space he needed to roam, to learn to crawl, to learn to walk. And to have his toys strewn about as he pleased without having the dog step on or shed all over them.
All these rules did not go over well. Sherlock and I battled constantly, territorially and psychologically. As dogs often do, he pushed the boundaries. At times, he would brush the rug with the tips of his paws, then wait a second or two, then inch forward more and more until the entire length of his front paws fully settled there. Other times, he would lick the floor only when shielded by Jeff, assuming that surely, the alpha male would stand up for his best friend. Otherwise, he would sprawl on the floor and pretend to lick his front paws, and by the time I noticed, he would be surrounded by a halo of dog spit.
Many years ago, I took a tour of Ano Nuevo, a state park about 50 miles south of San Francisco, where elephant seals beach themselves for the winter to give birth. While we watched a colony of seals sprawled all over the beach, the tour guide pointed to one nursing two pups. Since they give birth to only one pup at a time, the guide said that the elephant seal must also be nursing another's. "Bad mom," he said. "She doesn't have enough milk to feed both."
That image stayed with me. Not that I ever nursed Sherlock. The closest was when he licked my baby's spit-up off of the floor, which in turn made me want to puke. But the idea of diverting your resources to another living creature when you should be reserving them for your own offspring raised enough quandaries to unsettle a new, overzealous mom. And something about becoming a mom makes you think in primal terms. Maybe because we spend so much time bearing our chests and cleaning up poop (although not usually at the same time). Granted, our resources were not strictly limited. I knew that intellectually. But emotionally, I was living in a cave, shielding my baby from creatures of the wild and foraging for berries -- all while sleeping suboptimally and trying to get my own basic needs met.
The thing is, I never wanted to be that kind of person. You know, the kind of person who treats a dog like a dog. Rather, I wanted to treat Sherlock like one of us. Because I'm affable. Generous. Compassionate. Easy-going. All those good adjectives that go with being an animal lover here in America. And in America, you can't be affable, generous, compassionate, or easy-going if you're not an animal lover. It's true. Think about it. Have you ever seen a protagonist who hates animals? Who kicks them for fun?
Maybe I'm particularly sensitive to this image because I come from a land where they eat dogs. Sure, they tried to deny it during the '88 Olympics and claimed that it was a thing of the past, but we Koreans know it's not true. Some Koreans still eat dog meat, and you can see those restaurants when you visit South Korea. Not that I ever wanted to frequent such a place, although I cried when my cousin wouldn't take me when I was six.
Once, when I was in high school, I saw my dad kick a cat. It was incomprehensible. Sure, it was during one of the worst stretches in our lives when he was working 15 hour days. And he was going through a bout of depression and frustration. And sure, he was carrying a huge carton filled with buttermilk and the cat was in his way. But the kick was intentional. And I knew, as surely as I knew anything, that he wouldn't have done that had he grown up in America. Because my dad's not a bad guy. Not a mean bone in his body. But he's old school. With old world values. And the thing that differentiated me from him was that I grew up here. And I wanted none of those old world ways about me.
So when Jeff moved in with the dog, a part of me was secretly relieved. Now I too could be a dog owner. One of those people who frisked their dogs and jogged with them. And our children could grow up with a dog in the family. They could be the type of people who love dogs. And wouldn't that be the sure marker of true Americans?
But this dream was short lived. I hadn't realized that when you become a mom, you no longer have the luxury of putting your self image first or even the image of your family. You become a slave to your instinct, and everything is about your child's eating, cleanliness, and sleeping. Before kids, Jeff and I constantly bragged about Sherlock's superior intelligence. And I was fascinated by this creature who knew how to shake hands, roll over and play dead, and rang a bell to be let outside. After kids, however, all those warm and fuzzy feelings toward the dog vaporized, and I only saw him as a source of threat to my kid's safety, hygiene, and territory. I felt like a substandard mom who had allowed an intruder to invade her nest and take residence.
All that Sherlock did seemed like acts of intrusion. When my baby held a piece of cantaloupe in his hands, Sherlock tried to sniff it. When Jeff played with the baby, Sherlock tried to wedge himself in the middle so that he could get his butt scratched. When the baby napped, Sherlock barked non-stop. And when I was in the middle of bathing my little one, he would start ringing the bell to be let out to use the potty. In those moments, I cursed him out, but under my breath so that Jeff couldn't hear.
Perhaps to appease my guilt, I often sought affirmation from fellow moms. Because I found out soon enough that my reaction to Sherlock was common among all dog owners after they became parents, even those who had treated their dogs like their first babies. When I heard other moms complain about their own dogs, I took in every word. And brought them home to Jeff. Because the few times I argued with Jeff were about how I treated Sherlock. And how I insisted that we all wash hands every time we touched Sherlock. When I relayed these stories, I made sure he knew they weren't Koreans like me, because I didn't want to hear him to say, "Well, sure, they don't like dogs. They're Korean," even though I knew he said it in jest.
All my dog-owner friends said things start to change when your children grow old enough to play with the dog. That's when the dog starts to redeem himself in your eyes. Because he can now contribute, instead of just making making demands. He can play fetch and tug of war with your kids. He can make your kids happy.
Well, a couple of weeks ago, we found out that our now toddler son has asthma. And he is allergic to dogs. Allergic. So bad that he had to be admitted to the hospital overnight. Smack in the middle of the redemption phase. How's that for a twist in the story? For the past couple of weeks, not knowing what else to do, we've been keeping Sherlock outside full time (albeit in a nice, sheltered doggie house in prime San Diego weather). Jeff takes him for regular walks and plays with him. But for now, Sherlock's officially ostracized.
I no longer have to spend so much energy trying to contain the dog and his uncontainable dander and his licking tongue and his wily ways. I now have belated justification for my obsessive compulsive vacuuming and insistance that we all wash hands fifty times a day. Yet, I don't feel relieved. Instead, I feel a little sad. Maybe it's the guilt creeping in or a little sense of regret. Or ruefulness that my children cannot grow up with a dog, as I had secretly hoped. But it also seems wrong that any creature's twilight years should be spent alone, away from his family.
Not all is lost, however. Jeff's parents called this week and asked if Sherlock could move in with them. He could be good for Jeff's ailing mother who responds better to the dog than anyone else. And Sherlock's need to be a part of a pack coincides with my in-laws' need for companionship and perhaps something to love. He is good at that - being the object of someone's love.
It's not what we expected. We expected Sherlock to have more time to play with our kids. And to grow old with us. And for him to teach our kids some lessons along the way. I didn't expect such a sudden separation, at least not before I had a chance to make more room in our household for a dog again. And not before I had found my way out of playing the role of the evil stepmother. But life doesn't follow your plans. It also doesn't live up to the scenarios you entertained in your childhood. And time often runs out before you know it.
Our children won't grow up with a family dog. And I will never be as American as I hoped to be. But my son will be able to breathe. And Sherlock will have all the love he wants without some peevish lady chasing him with a vacuum. Maybe that's not such a bad tradeoff.