First Person: For better, for worse
JASON PICARD Mary Ellen Shaughan and her dog Zeke in their Amherst home, Friday, Feb 28th. Purchase photo reprints »
This is the story of a marriage, of sorts. It wasn’t love at first sight for Zeke and me, though I guess I can’t speak for him. It was more like, as I told my daughter, an arranged marriage. I hoped we would learn to love each other.
To clarify things, Zeke is a 6-year-old tan-and-white male beagle, and I am a white-haired mother, grandmother and dog lover, or so I thought. Dogless for most of a decade, I recalled my handsome black Lab, my happy, curly-haired miniature poodle. I remembered hiking with them, playing ball with them, though my memory was a little fuzzy regarding daily walks in rain, snow, or sun. Ditto the smelly doggy bags.
As in some other arranged marriages, Zeke and I did not meet until the day his master delivered him to me, having found the rigors of dog ownership to be too much. I had joyfully promised to adopt — sight unseen — this dog, promised that I would love and care for him, as long as we both should live (that phrase rang a bell). But time had skewed my memory of dog ownership, and this dog was not what I had envisioned.
It was apparent that Zeke was a couch potato. He had happily devoured not only his daily grub, but the cat’s food as well. We all know what that kind of regimen — or lack thereof — will do to one’s figure, and Zeke had lost his (figure, that is) about 10 pounds before I met him.
Not only was he a bit of a ‘lard,’ but he looked weird in other ways. Visualize, if you will, a white dog onto which someone has thrown a bucket of brown paint. A few drops had run off one ear and onto the underside. He had a brown nose and was missing the customary black markings of a beagle.
I have to be honest — I was not impressed. He was fat; he snored — loudly — all night. He shed white hair everywhere in my house (finally clean, after four children and even more dogs).
Every couple of weeks, he would experience an upset stomach, and — lacking grass to chew on — would resort to chewing leaves (some of them mildly toxic to dogs) off low-standing houseplants. He was needy: I would walk out the door to put a letter in the mailbox and Zeke would howl until I re-entered the house. When I returned home after a few hours’ absence, he would jump and cry deliriously for 30 minutes, when all I wanted was to see a wagging tail, and have a soft head to pat.
Zeke and I began to walk twice each day. I believed that under all that extra weight was a good-looking dog, and that eventually he would calm down. I was right. He lost weight and mellowed out. But slowly; oh, so slowly. There were days when I thought — Great! This is going to work. And the very next day, Zeke would get sick and I’d think, I’m too old for this. Back and forth, back and forth. After vacillating for weeks, I concluded that I needed to find a new home for him, and soon I did find someone who seemed taken with Zeke immediately. We even agreed on a moving date, but the night before Zeke was to leave me in peace and with a clean house, the truth smacked me in the face. I simply could not part with this dog; for a day, maybe, or overnight, but not forever. Zeke had surreptitiously stolen my heart.
Today, Zeke and I are happy, though I can really speak only for myself. He has become a svelte, handsome boy. He seldom snores anymore, and is rarely sick (I decided I could live with fewer houseplants). I have purchased stock in those rollers that remove lint and pet hair from all surfaces. I vacuum my house more often. Zeke is my goodwill ambassador to the neighbors, including their dogs and cats, and he has become my gardening buddy. While I weed, he guards the property. Occasionally he will chase away an unsuspecting rabbit, and come running back within five minutes (totally un-beagle-like), acting as excited to see me as if I were the one who had run off and returned. He has calmed down so much that when he simply lifts his head off the pillow and wags his tail when I return home, I feel a little slighted.
For better, for worse. It took awhile, but I think we’re going to make it.
Mary Ellen Shaughan lives in Amherst.
First Person welcomes reader submissions. Email essays of about 800 words or less to Suzanne Wilson at email@example.com.