I didn't want to get the dog. We already had so much on our plate and adding one more thing — a wild card, an element of chaos, another responsibility — was not remotely appealing to me at the time.
But my daughter insisted, and she was the one who was dying.
I made the decision to get her the dog when we still had a small measure of hope about her survival. We knew her prognosis was bad, but we were still in fight mode.
In November of 2015, my daughter’s cancer had reached some sort of internal tipping point. Maybe it was because her oncologist stopped one of her medications or maybe the tumors in her lungs, abdomen and pelvis had multiplied to such an extent that they’d gained the mettle to organize an internal coup.
Whatever the reason, that November there was an explosion of new growth in her abdomen. The next month, a week before Christmas, she endured eight hours of surgery to remove them. By January of 2016, she was preparing for three weeks of radiation, scheduled to commence in February.
That’s when we started the quest for the dog. My husband was not on board, but somehow the three of us — me and the girls — convinced him.
The search begins
With absolutely no experience in dog ownership (we’d owned cats for years), we set out on a quest to find the dog. I'd been following a senior dog account on Instagram for about a year.
The account showed old dogs getting adopted — being loaded into cars with expressions of wide-eyed gratitude, their muzzles grey, tongues lolling as they rested weary heads on open windows. They were treated like royalty, showered with comfort after long lives of hardship, loved to the fullest for the remaining time they had left.
I wanted to adopt a dog like this, but my daughter, who had always loved tiny things, wanted a very small dog — a Chihuahua or a teacup Pomeranian or a little Yorkshire Terrier. Oh, and, she also wanted a puppy. I learned very quickly that these kinds of dogs are in high demand, nearly impossible to adopt and prohibitively expensive to buy from breeders.
Even so, we tried adopting first. We attended a few adoption events at local pet stores and shelters that specifically catered to small dogs. The events were crowded, the dogs terrified. We barely had any time to sit with an individual dog and get to know it. We inevitably left the frustrated and discouraged.
How we found Roo
Two friends convinced me to call a local breeder, offering to help pay for the cost of the dog — a gift to my daughter. So, with many reservations about buying rather than adopting, I agreed to check it out.
The breeder specialized in “toy” breeds, particularly poodle mixes that were hypoallergenic and didn’t shed. Many people in the community had adopted dogs they loved from the place. I was skeptical, but also a bit desperate. My daughter had her heart set on getting a dog and she was about to start radiation.
That’s how we found ourselves driving to the breeder on a frozen January afternoon to check out a new batch of puppies. There were four of them in a little crib in the lobby when we arrived — three white, one black. At eight weeks old, none of them weighed more than two pounds.
The white ones, all female, were quiet and sleepy. The black puppy, a male, wanted nothing more than to nibble our fingers, lick our faces and run around peeing on the floor. We spent about an hour with the puppies, left a deposit, and went home to debate the pros and cons of each of them.
It was always going to be the black puppy. We’d all been smitten by his energy and personality. He was the tiniest of the litter, weighing just 1.4 pounds and wasn’t expected to grow much larger than 6 or 7 pounds. We decided to name him Roo because he hopped around so much, like a baby kangaroo.
My husband and I agreed that we would pick him up after my daughter’s radiation treatment was over — it would mean three grueling weeks of daily trips into Manhattan, a 4–5 hour round trip, not including the actual treatment. He would drive her while I stayed home and worked.
After the first day of treatment, my daughter came home looking pale and exhausted. She walked wordlessly into the living room, looking for the puppy, expecting me to surprise her. Her crestfallen expression convinced me to ditch our original plan and get the dog for her the very next day.
I promised my husband that I would take on all puppy duties for the month she was in treatment. I kept my younger daughter home from school so she could come with me to pick up the dog.
Roo comes home
We brought Roo home on a Tuesday and he settled into the little enclosed space that’d I’d prepared for him. That night, when my daughter came back from her radiation treatment, she was shocked and delighted to see him, but too exhausted to play with him. She picked him up, gave him a kiss, told me he smelled funny, and went to her room to rest.
I honestly expected more of an adjustment to having Roo in our home. My only frame of reference for pet ownership of this magnitude was my cats. Roo was nothing like a cat.
He followed me around everywhere. He went to bed when I went to bed and remained quiet all night long until, bright-eyed, he’d wake with me in the morning. He was already partially potty trained when we brought him home and within a few weeks, he had virtually no accidents in the house (not including his propensity to seek out and poop on the bathroom rug).
Within two months he was ringing a bell to let us know when he had to go out. Within six months, he didn't need to ring the bell. He’d learned our schedules and would just wait until we were ready to go outside, follow us out and do his business. It was astounding to me — how smart he was, how unassuming and loving, how happy just to be present.
I grew to love him as much as my daughter loved him. At first, I loved him because she loved him. But soon I loved him on his own merits, because he was the perfect companion, because he was endlessly entertaining, because he was content to be loved.
Roo motivated my daughter to come downstairs when she was too tired to do much more than sit, watch TV, and pet him. He rode with us to and from school.
When my daughter started feeling better after radiation was over, he became the center of attention when her friends came for sleepovers. When it became apparent that the surgery and radiation treatment hadn’t worked and she began to get sicker, he stayed by her side — a bundle of energy, love, joy and solace.
To love a dog is to be loved by a dog
I knew very quickly after Roo came into our home that he would outlive my daughter. I fretted about this to a friend who had also gotten a dog for her son when he was dying of cancer.
She recounted how catastrophic it was to have brought their dog, Moses, into their home at that time. Moses was loud and energetic — far too much of a burden for her son to deal with as his health had declined. But, Moses also provided endless laughter and love to her family. He was a tremendous solace to my friend after her son died.
“Roo will help you in ways you can’t understand now,” she told me. “You got him for Ana, but he will be your dog when she’s gone.”
At the time we had that conversation, Ana was receiving hospice care, but she still felt relatively good. I had a hard time imagining how Roo could possibly help me if and when Ana died. I’d pictured taking him outside each bleak morning, feeding him, and moving through my days with nothing but emptiness. Wouldn’t he be a perpetual reminder of what I’d lost?
But that’s not how it happened at all.
Ana died one year and three weeks after we brought Roo home. Suddenly, he became my reason for getting out of bed in the morning.
I thought I would resent him. I thought I would hate taking care for him for an impossibly long stretch of years that no longer included my daughter in them. But the most remarkable thing happened. My love for Roo kept growing. This past February, it was three years since the day we brought Roo home and my love for him is still growing.
When I see Roo, I think of Ana, but not in a sad way. I think of how carefully she chose him, how he was the dog that she wanted so much, how he lived up to her all her expectations.
I think about how Roo stayed by her side when she was dying, content to let her rest her hand on his soft head. He made her feel loved simply by being there. He made her feel less lonely. In his unassuming way, he taught me how to simply be with Ana without hovering or trying to fix the unfixable.
I get it now
Roo has been as instrumental in helping me process my grief as my newfound love of birds and my long walks.
He sleeps by my feet while I'm working. He sits on my lap when I'm outside observing the birds at my feeders. He is endlessly happy to see me when I walk in the door. He is so smart that sometimes I swear he can understand everything I'm saying.
I’m guessing that none of this is very revelatory to those of you who have always loved dogs. But to me, a person who's never had a dog — never even entertained the thought of getting one until it became Ana’s unwavering wish — Roo is nothing short of a miracle.
Sometimes he drapes his tiny body across my lap and looks into my eyes with complete bliss. I’m pretty sure he thinks my lap was created for him (and he was obviously created for my lap.) My world is less lonely because Roo is in it. He keeps the desolation at bay.
When Roo does something that I’m sure Ana would’ve laughed at or adored (which is often), it’s like she’s here with me. I feel actual relief, real solace. It’s as if the weight of my grief is suddenly lighter.
Sometimes I'm convinced that this was my daughters plan all along — to give me something to focus my parental energy on, something else to love that would love me in return. Roo soothes the ache deep within my broken heart by offering up nothing more than companionship and love. And that's how, at the ripe old age of 48, I’ve suddenly discovered that I am, indeed, a dog person.