Phoebe’s Family

Phoebe’s Family

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

Phoebe’s Family

In rural Oklahoma, where I was raised, dogs were big and lived outside. They protected the cattle and barked when someone walked down the dirt road. If the temperature dipped below freezing, they might come inside, but they sat right inside the front door, looking ill at ease until we let them out again in the morning.

Then I met Phoebe.

Around the time that my future husband, Joseph, and I became “more than friends,” his family bought a Boston terrier puppy. Phoebe had the bug-eyes and big ears of her breed, and the sharp claws and swift tongue of her age. She was smaller than any dog I’d ever known, but she was pure energy, throwing herself at my legs, clawing her way up my body to nuzzle my face with a cold nose and slobbering tongue. She had her own bed, her own chair and an entire family waiting on her hand and foot, speaking to and about her as if she were not the dog but a newly adopted member of the family. And she was allergic to grass. She had to get shots for this condition.

I found all this faintly ridiculous and was uncertain how to treat a dog like Phoebe. Phoebe sensed this. When I came in the door, she bowled me over completely, launching her body through the air to crash into my legs. To defend myself from her claws, I quickly learned to wear jeans when visiting the house. I stood outside the door, steeling myself for her advances, trying to set a cheerful, dog-confident expression onmy face in the hopes it would trick her into thinking I knewwhat Iwas doing. It neverworked. Every time, Phoebewould barrel past everyone to hurl herself at me, and every time, she would be reprimanded by my future in-laws. The only thing worse than being unable to fend off Phoebe’s exuberant advances was feeling that her family thought I disapproved of her—and therefore disapproved of them. Every time it happened, they would apologize and hold Phoebe back, saying, “Be still, Phoebe. Stacy doesn’t want to pet you.”

But the odd thing is that I did want to pet her. She was sleek and beautiful, the first Boston terrier I’d seen except in photographs and paintings. She knew how to do all kinds of tricks our farm dogs wouldn’t have considered. Her eager eyes and excited, wiggling body made me laugh. She was fun and boisterous, like Joseph’s family— just the opposite ofmy close-knit but quietNative American family. In the same way that I wasn’t sure how to fit in with a family so different from mine, I wasn’t quite sure how to make friends with Phoebe, who was so different from every dog I’d ever known.

Joseph was in the army and I was attending college, so we carried on our relationship mostly through letters and phone calls, only getting to see each other in person when he was home on leave. Phoebe grew bigger and smarter, but not less energetic. Because I was an infrequent visitor, she treated me to the grand, excited welcome of a brand-new person every time I came to the house. With other new guests, she would eventually settle down and play fetch or sit on her chair, looking cute. Not with me. No matter how I tried to distract her with toys, her main goal was to stand on my chest, claw at my shirt, lick my nose and bite my long hair. I was trying to impress my future in-laws with my good manners and poise. As you can imagine, it was difficult to be either graceful or witty with an excited dog attempting to clean my eyeglasses with her tongue. Still, I gamely kept trying to find a way to relate to Phoebe that would satisfy us both.

In December 2002 Joseph asked me to marry him, and three months later, he parachuted into Iraq with the 173rd Airborne. I moved nine hours away from our families to attend graduate school in Mississippi—and wait for him. I kept in touch with his family and visited whenever I was home from school. I never did become entirely comfortable with Phoebe, but I grew to value her even more when I saw what a comfort her cheerful, loyal presence was to Joseph’s parents during this stressful time.

Joseph was wounded in October 2003 and sent home for two weeks’ leave. We were married in a quiet ceremony before he returned to Iraq. Now officially part of the family, I continued to keep in touch with my in-laws as we waited and hoped for Joseph’s safe return. Every time I visited them, it was as if Phoebe and I were meeting for the first time. Our relationship became a kind of running joke: “You’re a cat person in a dog family!” my niece said. I loved my in-laws, but I worried that I would always be the “cat person.” In a dog family, this could be serious.

When Joseph called to say he was coming home, his parents drove to Mississippi to help me move, leaving Phoebe with his grandparents for the two-day trip. On our way back to Oklahoma, Joseph’s grandparents called to say that Phoebe, who had been fine when my in-laws left, would not play or eat. We expressed sympathy for her, but we weren’t truly worried. We all joked about how spoiled Phoebe was, and I envisioned my father’s reaction to the news that now Phoebe was visiting a dog psychologist.

When we arrived at their house late that night, we expected a jubilant welcome. Instead, a quiet little Phoebe walked up to us wagging her stub-tail, then lay down under the end table. Everyone petted her and tried to get her to eat, with no success. We decided to take her to the vet first thing in the morning. I was sorry that Phoebe wasn’t feeling well—and felt guilty too. I was finally comfortable with this new sick Phoebe, who sat on the floor with her head on my knee, as I petted her gently. It was a drastic change from the tug-of-war using my shirtsleeve and the slobbery game of fetch that had become our routine.

The next morning, Joseph’s mother loaded Phoebe into the truck and left. She was back much sooner than we expected, and when she walked in the door, Phoebe was not with her. “She died on the way to the vet,” she announced, her usually animated face completely still with grief.

Shock and disbelief pounded through my body. I didn’t know what to say. Joseph’s father went to his wife and put his arms around her. They cried together, and I was filled with a bittersweet gratitude, knowing that their relationship had served as an example for my husband. He had grown up with the kind of marriage where two people were willing to share this much love for each other, for their children and even for a demanding little dog, no matter how much it might hurt at times.

In my family, we very seldom cry in front of people. Our emotions are shown through our actions, so I put on my shoes and prepared to help bury Phoebe, despite my in-laws’ protests that it was too cold. It was a miserable, sleeting day. The ground was a little frozen, and we took turns pounding the shovels into it. Phoebe was wrapped in a quilt with one of her toys. When the little grave under the lilac bush was covered, we patted it down one more time and came inside. As I washed the mud from my hands in the privacy of the bathroom, I cried for Phoebe.

For although I’d never quite learned to handle her, I had loved her. From the beginning, she’d pulled me headfirst into the process of becoming comfortable with my new family. And though I was awkward and stiff around her, she never gave up trying to connect with me.

Today, when my in-laws’ new Boston terriers, Petey and Lucy, run up to play with me, I know what to do. I roll around on the floor with them—and don’t even care if I look silly. I can finally be myself with Joseph’s family, who I see now have always welcomed me with open arms. I think Phoebe would be pleased.

Stacy Pratt

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