When I was eight years old, a stray dog showed up in my neighborhood foraging for scraps in an overturned garbage can. I grew up in one of Tampa’s lower-income neighborhoods, the kind of place where (at my mother’s orders) I was never to leave the cul-de-sac without a parent. To most of our neighbors, a stray dog was just more Town ‘n’ Country window dressing, not worth
any more attention than the folks who parked their cars directly on their lawn, or the baggy-pantsed teenagers who wandered the streets smoking after school.
But my mother had instilled in me from a young age an earnest compassion for all creatures great and small. That compassion was a bit harder to apply here, as she had also raised me to be a lifelong cat person and every cartoon I had seen up to that point had made all dogs the mortal enemies of all cats. My friends’ dogs covered a spectrum from yappy and snappy to old and lumpy, so I didn’t quite get the appeal. This stray was different, though. She was gentle, curious, and playful. She had my trust from the moment our eyes met, as she slobbered all over my younger neighbor Anthony with a massive lick to the face. Clearly, this was not the aggressive dog from all the cartoons.
Anthony and I spent that whole day playing with the stray in our front yards. We named her Rex, in part because that’s what Spongebob had named his worm-dog-pet-thing, and also because I’m a millennial, and it’s my god-given duty to destroy traditional gender roles, even before I knew what gender actually meant.
It was Winter Break, so I spent several full days in a row hanging out with Rex. Tampa was getting chilly (by Tampa’s standards), and I had started to worry about where she went at night. I begged my parents to let me keep the dog over and over again. To my simple child brain, Mom would never say yes because, again, Cat Person™. In reality, dogs are a heck of a lot more demanding than a pair of aging cats. My parents probably hoped Anthony’s dad would adopt Rex, as he was the owner of the aforementioned old and lumpy dog. Imagine my surprise, when Christmas morning rolled around and my parents said we could keep Rex. A rare Christmas miracle for the Jewish kid!
It did not take long for Rex to become my constant companion, an overnight cure to my adolescent loneliness. I took her on walks around the cul-de-sac, tore trenches in the backyard from running too fast, and made her the subject of every school writing assignment I was given. She was my dog, and I was her boy.
Rex and I the night we adopted her. December 25th 2001
When I was twelve, my parents divorced. Mom, the Platonic ideal of a Cat Person, got full custody of Rex. We moved to a new house in a safer neighborhood, and the dog, who had up until now been relegated to the backyard and the garage, became a full-time indoor resident.
Though I was still the one who took her on walks and kept her in my room overnight, Rex started to show more respect towards Mom as the new head of the household. The clearest example to me was how she would raise a ruckus every time Mom came home from work. Rex never barked like that for me. One time a pair of plumbers spent an afternoon working in the house, and Rex refused to leave Mom’s sight the entire time they were there. One of the workers told my mom, “She’s not watching us; she’s watching you.”
This woman had become the most important thing in the world to Rex, and she didn’t even know that Mom was the reason she had a home in the first place. Even if her little dog brain could have understood that, I doubt it would’ve changed much. Rex was as giving to my mom as my mom was to everyone else. Finally, Mom had met her match in compassion, and it could not have been more deserved.
Some of that motherhood rubbed off on Rex, too. Moving indoors also meant that she started interacting with our two new kittens daily. Nobody knew what to expect the first time Bailey, the braver of the two cats, hopped over his gate and marched up to Rex in the living room. Time froze as we waited for nature to take its inevitable, brutal course. Rex then extended to Bailey the same greeting she’d offered everyone since the first time I saw her: an enormous lick from a tongue that was bigger than his entire face.
From that point on, Rex became something of a mother to Bailey, his brother Cantu, and their later-adopted sister Fluffy. Every day, the cats lined up for their turn at an ear bath from Rex. And every day, she cleaned them with a focus and determination that instantly called to mind the stereotypical image of a doting mother. Were these cats simply the rambunctious puppies she never had? Or was Rex mirroring the care that my mother showed all of her pets? It’s tough to speculate on, but given that some dogs truly do consider cats their mortal enemies, I like to imagine that she learned some of that behavior from watching us.
After I shipped off to college, it was Jackie and Rex against the world. Mom became the one who walked and fed the dog every day. For her part, Rex stayed by Mom’s side more than ever. Anywhere Mom went in her downsized townhouse, her footsteps were echoed by the gentle tippety-tappety of dog paws against the tile floors just behind her. If Mom was going up and down the stairs to wash and then sort the laundry, well then damn it, Rex was following her each way. As Rex got older, she abandoned any pretense of boundaries with Mom, and decided that actually, she had been a lap dog this whole time. The closer Rex could be to Mom, the happier she was; it didn’t matter if she was more than half of Mom’s size.
Even with months-long gaps between my visits, Rex still didn’t bark for my arrival. It could not have been more clear that I was no longer the dog’s favorite. And I was okay with that! As much as I used to think of Rex as “my'' dog, I think in the end her real purpose was to look after all of us. No matter the situation, Rex was there to accompany the lonely, protect the family, and render smiles out of tears. In other words, she was a dog.
In a lot of ways, my mom overcoming her hesitancy in adopting this dog was one of the best things she ever did for me, but I only recently learned that she came to this decision after a conversation with her own mother. For context, my grandmother, who is otherwise an incredibly caring individual, hates pets. She calls them “animals,” not pets, and thinks they all belong outside. I spent every afternoon at Grandma’s house after school, playing by myself in her backyard. She could see better than most how lonely I was, what with my incredibly small list of friends and my many complaints of bullying at school. So, despite her aversion to animals, it was Grandma who swayed my mom with a single sentence:
“Sam needs a dog.” Grandma always knew what we needed, be it homemade tea, a nap, or fresh-baked cookies. So when she said “Sam needs a dog,” it meant I needed a damn dog.
Mom let Rex into our family out of the kindness of her heart, and Rex spent the rest of her life repaying that kindness with interest. I wonder if Grandma knew how much she was helping her own daughter when she encouraged her to adopt this stray mutt. Regardless of the answer, what this tells me is that if you take care of your loved ones, that care will find its way back to you in some form or another. Maybe it will be in the form of a son who calls you every week and writes essays about how great a mother you are. Maybe it will be a fifty-pound dog who thinks she can fit in your lap. Whatever form it takes, I hope that care finds you.
Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.
My mom Jackie, fully unbothered by the fifty pound dog on her lap.