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By Kathy Briccetti
A long time before my children were born, I found a puppy at the flea market. She looked like a caramel in a sea of Hershey's Kisses, and when I stuck my hand down into the large pen on the grass, she climbed over a pile of her siblings to lick it. Although I had come to the flea market for a bicycle, I carried her home in my palm and named her Chesie, for the bit of Chesapeake Bay retriever in her. She went everywhere with me. She was my first baby.
Eight years later I moved her cedar bed from its spot in the bedroom to a corner of the living room, to make room for a bassinet. Soon after, I took the worn towel, coated with her buff-colored hair, off the back seat of my Civic and installed a child's car seat in its place.
Now, fourteen-year-old Chesie is lucky if she gets her dinner on time and a couple of walks a week. When I go to the park these days, I take my sons and leave her behind. It's all I can do to manage two little boys; I don't have the energy for them and a dog that stumbles on the stairs and doesn't hear me anymore when I call her.
I see what's happened. Now I'm reading bedtime stories, refereeing wrestling matches, and playing catch, so it's become a habit to ignore her. Walking her, combing her, and driving her to the vet for weekly arthritis injections have become chores added to my long list.
Chesie has never protested her demotion; instead, she spends most of the day resting her head on the picture window ledge and gazing out onto the sidewalk. I imagine she's wishing some childless person will come by and offer to take her home--someone who will walk her every day and talk to her in a high-pitched voice. "What a good girl you are," they'd say, scratching behind her ears.
Unlike my children, Chesie doesn't make demands. She doesn't complain, flail, scream, or cry. She just lies on her cedar-chip bed watching me as I walk through the house, thunking her tail on the wood floor as I pass her. But, like a triage nurse, I go where I am most needed.
Perhaps my relationship with Chesie has been a rehearsal for raising children. Petting her, talking in baby talk, throwing balls for her in the park, and nursing her wounds, all those things have taught me how to be a mother. When we get pets after we have children, they're for the kids. They're playmates, and they teach responsibility. But the pets that come before we have children are for us parents-to-be. They're our guides as we fumble our way into parenthood.
The other day, I came home from work early and pulled Chesie's leash off the hook by the front door. She cocked her head to the side and barked once. I carried her down the stairs, and we slowly made our way around the block. I let her lead and sniff wherever she wanted, and when she tangled the leash around my leg, I gently straightened it. She stumbled when she climbed the curb, but her head was high, and she had a bounce in her step I hadn't seen in years. When we got home I leaned down, rubbed her silky ears, and scratched behind them. And into one ear I whispered, "What a good girl you are."
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This essay is reprinted with permission from Using Our Words: Moms and Dads on Raising Kids in the Modern Neighborhood, a collection published last year by the Neighborhood Parents Network, Berkeley, Calif. Writer and book co-editor Kathy Briccetti is a former San Franciscan who now lives in the East Bay with her partner and two sons, ages 13 and 11 (and their new dog, Rosie). Compiling the pieces in Using Our Words, she says, "was a labor of love, an all-volunteer effort to provide a sense of community for parents traveling on the bumpy ride of parenthood." You may order copies by calling 877-648-5437.
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