Friday, February 06, 2009

Leader of My Pack

Let me begin by assuring you that my dog mended, though she still has a huge hitch in her walk, and her back legs go faster now than her front ones, giving her a John Wayne lope.

Jeanette is a miniature beagle, bred, I'm told, to ride in the saddlebags of horses on the hunt. Her "saddlebag equivalent," she thinks, is the front passenger seat of my Subaru.

For 12 years now, whenever my kids and I have driven away without her, her brain has seized with compulsion to join the hunt. Jeanette has chewed through her crate and a fancy French door in her efforts to reach us. She digs under fences. She wriggles out of leads.

On a hot day one summer back in her third year, I didn't put Jeanette in her crate when we all left for the town pool. I knew she'd chew through it anyway, so I left her outside. When she looked like she wanted to follow, I sternly said "No," put pedal to metal, and tried to outrun her with my car. Long after I thought we'd left her behind, we all felt a big bump.

“What was that?” the kids asked when I slowed the car to a stop.

With my eyes glued on the rear-view mirror, where I could see a small tri-color mass lying in the middle of the road, I blurted out, "I killed the dog". Well, not quite. I almost killed the dog. But with my pre-emptive announcement I did throw the children into a frenzy.

When I loaded Jeanette into my wayback, she was jerking her head, voiceless, an accusing jitter in her eyes. The children were not at all able to follow my suggestions that they not look and that they please quiet down and think wonderful thoughts to give Jeanette some peace. Kora, our 7-year-old friend, saved my sanity by suggesting that we all say, "Good girl, Jeanette." Ben, my 6-year-old, sobbed the phrase like a mantra. Katie, my 10-year-old, wailed it angrily. The vet’s office down the road was closed. I raced into town, through a senseless traffic jam, and on, frantically searching for someone who could help.

And as I drove, I heard Kora tell Jeanette that her white light was getting brighter. And then Jeanette started to whimper. Softly. Then loudly. The dog that I thought had seconds to live had some animation by the time we reached a vet. Soon enough she was home from a week-long stay in an ICU. By Week Two she had full control of the left side of her body and was gaining some control of the right.

Everything happens for a reason, right? Well, no—but I am relieved to paraphrase Samuel Clemens. "The reports of Jeanette's death were greatly exaggerated." And I learned a lesson, for which I am deeply grateful. As a parent, I am the leader of a small pack--the children (Katie and Ben), and Jeanette, our dog. Jeanette has taught me that a difficult pack member only gets more difficult if the leader gives up and fails to follow through on reasonable restrictions. Jeanette was, for the rest of that summer, quite literally my constant and well-deserved burden. (I had to carry her around in a baby sling). Things turned out that way because I had failed to contain her the way she needed to be contained. But because I learned my lesson well enough, my sometimes difficult children—now in their mid and late teens--will never suffer the consequences of my failing to say "No", mean "No", and enforce "No” ... no matter how strongly they rebel.

Because Jeanette escapes crates, fences, and leads, more than one friend has suggested that I rename her "Houdini." I won't. I may actually rename her "Consequences," though. "Consequences"--as in "We reap exactly what we, in our equivocations, sew". In flights of fancy I stand on my back porch each night, gratefully calling my "Consequences" home.

This was originally part of the Vermont Public Radio "Commentary" series.

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