On March 27, 2005, novelist Ayelet Waldman horrified mothers across America. She proclaimed in a New York Times essay that she loved her husband more than her four children.
The backlash started immediately. She opened her email account and discovered more than 1,000 new messages. The Internet pulsated with virulent criticism and Waldman found caustic notes left on her front gate. Some even demanded that her children be removed by Social Services. Compelled to make an appearance on Oprah, she defended her thesis that over-parenting children causes romantic love to wither.
I remember the uproar vividly, stunned at the reaction provoked by Waldman’s under-two-thousand-word essay. But, as a writer, I was awed.
A few months later, I leased a charming post-and-beam guest cottage on a Martha’s Vineyard estate for the winter. In exchange for taking care of the owner’s seven-month-old chocolate lab when he and his family were off-Island, I would receive a sizable deduction in rent.
It sounded ideal: I was divorced, had lived on the island part-time, the discount was attractive, and I’d raised dogs my whole life but was without one at that moment. I’d get all the perks of canine ownership – without the expense and ultimate responsibility.
Until then, I had only spent the warmer months on the island but in early September I learned my mother was ill. I’d decided to stay on the Vineyard, reasoning that it was within a day’s drive to my parents’ home in Washington, DC. She died just two months later.
Disconsolate about my mother’s sudden death at 73, I was more than a little worried that the Vineyard’s short days, harsh climate and meager winter population would hardly prove to be a salve. But I’d committed both to work and to my unusual living situation.
After I moved into the cottage I realized that “part-time” care for Tinkerbelle, or Tinker, as she was known by those of us too embarrassed to say her full name aloud, was nearly full-time. It suited me fine. I was drifting through my own days in a fog of grief and knew that a needy puppy might prove the antidote to my loss. Yet Tinker was devoid of personality. Often crated or confined to an outdoor pen by her owner, she, too, seemed damaged by life’s events, shy and exhibiting little of the exuberance associated with her breed.
But soon she leapt at the sight of her leash and exulted in our strolls along deserted country roads. As the weeks went on, Tinker accepted my invitation to clamber onto the bed or into the car for errands around the island. Gradually, she became the bouncing, bumbling, slobbering dog she was genetically designed to be.
When her family returned to the island from one of their other homes, Tinker bolted in the opposite direction, arriving at my cottage door, beseeching me for entrance.
“She doesn’t even want to be with us anymore,” the owner said, sounding peeved and somehow mystified. “She’s become your dog.”
And I, while growing more and more attached to Tinker, had made plans to travel, footloose for the first time in years. No husband, kids, boyfriend, home, or job to keep me tethered. Cuba beckoned, then Europe, maybe Australia. I had turned 50. The world was mine to explore.
Tinker and I survived winter. Although it felt as if the cottage swayed in the bitter wind that blew across the open fields, we were content. I curled up in the easy chair, Tinker at my feet, gazing up at me with that worshipful look only a dog lover appreciates. When I showered, she trailed into the bathroom, propping her head up on the ledge outside the glass door. She had become my Velcro dog, her soft brown eyes following my every move.
As the daffodils broke through the muddy soil in early spring, my landlord approached. “I’ve decided that Tinker isn’t the right match for my family,” he announced. “Do you want her? You’ve taken such good care of her and she seems so attached.”
Visions of Old Havana, Lisbon, and Melbourne faded gently as Tinker tucked herself behind my legs, hiding in plain sight from her owner.
“Of course I’ll take her,” I said, my voice firm. “I was wondering how I was going to live without her.” As the words tumbled out I realized they were true. I just hadn’t allowed myself to consider life without my chocolate shadow.
A few months later, during the summer of 2006, I met the man who would become my second husband. He understood he was gaining not just a girlfriend but also daily piles of coarse brown hair, puddles of glutinous drool, and a third body in our bed.
By that time, Tinker had become Mambo (an homage to the joyous dance she performs at the sound of her name). She had accompanied me through my months of mourning, our move to Washington, DC, the onset of my father’s slide into dementia, the addition of a strange man to our intimate lives, as well as his two teenage children and their eight-pound Shih Tzu that tyrannized the household.
And although my husband is nearly perfect, he does have his moments of short-temperedness. “It’s freezing in here!” he exclaims at least once a day, swaddled in blankets. I keep the air conditioning set for Mambo’s comfort. She’s 11 now and with her mature figure she’s more sensitive to the Florida heat than she used to be.
“This bed is too crowded!” he objects in the middle of the night. But Mambo is more comfortable stretched out full-length across the bottom of the king mattress.
“Bend your knees and you’ll be fine,” I reply. I pat the pillow next to my head and encourage her come to the top of the bed, to snuggle in, facing me, nose tucked gently under my chest, as we slept for months before we adopted my husband.
“You love that dog more than you love me,” my husband mutters as he drifts off. But there’s no anger. Just a note of resignation. He’s come to understand that Mambo saved me just as I saved her. And at least we let him sleep with us almost every night.