Is it as eerie as I think it is, this mirroring: the one-woman dogs; the girl babies who come too early, too small?
I was born two weeks after my mother’s dog, Smoky, was hit by a car and killed. Smoky was a crazy dog. My mother adopted him when she was single and must have had him for only a few years, but he was as much a character of my childhood as Santa Claus or Bilbo Baggins.
One story went that when my mother was on her way to visit family in Kansas, Smoky escaped from his crate while being unloaded from the airplane baggage hold, and took off down the runway, temporarily shutting down O’Hare. Another that he would often clamber up onto the roof of the apartment building when she moved in with my father—whom Smoky disliked, probably for good reason—and refuse to come down. I know he ate everything with relish, whether it was a tray of cookies cooling on the counter or the upholstery of an entire sofa.
My favorite photo of my mother, now faded almost beyond recognition, is of her kneeling, wearing high-waisted ’70s jeans with a blouse tucked in, and a pixie cut. She is grinning and has her arm slung around Smoky, who is sitting, also grinning, his chin up. He is all black with a shock of white on his chest—probably a lab mix, a freaky, hyper mutt. They were only for each other; the future was ahead of them, both wide-open and obscured.
It’s odd, looking at that photo, to know the rest of her story. I know she would move to Massachusetts, that she would marry a kind man whom she loved, but who never loved himself enough to stop drinking. I know that she’d work nights at a restaurant to finish her degree in library science and finally get a job as a children’s librarian, and that she had a unique ability to find the exact book that would ignite a particular imagination. And I know now the bottomless grief she faced when she realized she would die of cancer. But in that photo, she’s just a girl with her dog.
That day in 1979, just weeks after Smoky was hit and killed by a car, going into labor was the last thing on her mind. She still had about two months of pregnancy to go. And she must have been distracted by the dog-shaped absence: No click of paws on the floor, no jingling collar. Waking up early and then realizing there’s no one to take for a walk. When she started feeling nauseous, and then vomiting, she thought it was the spaghetti she had eaten for dinner. Her stomach hurt, she realized: it really, really hurt.
Imagining this scene, I am aware of how little I actually know—did her water break? When did the obvious conclusion slot into place? Somehow she knew, all of a sudden, and she and my father jumped into the car, sped to the hospital. I was born weighing three pounds, rushed from the community hospital in Wareham, Massachusetts to a bigger, better hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Forever after, we joked that I was Smoky, reincarnated. Forever after, my mother and I were only for each other.
My mother died of a long-simmering cancer when I was in college. I went through the motions of finishing my degree while fantasizing about sitting down on the street and not getting up again. The only thing that lifted my despair was when I could pet a dog. My friends got accustomed to stopping on the street, waiting for me as I flung myself toward some poor unsuspecting owner who was just trying to walk their dog and get on with the day.
“Can I pet your dog?” I would ask. And then I’d sit on the sidewalk, scratching floppy ears, crooning, “Who’s a good boy?”
I suppose that’s why none of my roommates complained when I finally went to the Cranston Rhode Island Animal Control and came home with a caramel-colored, rangy mutt named Jack.
I am sure everyone thought I was a little unhinged. I was a recent college grad with no job, no money, and no plan. I was in possession of a theater degree, a boatload of debt, and a dog. I never second-guessed my decision, though. My mother had taught me about how it was important to find reliable comforts to make yourself happy: books, dogs. Without ever speaking of it, she had prepared me to survive a life lived without her.
Jack was a weird guy, both anxious and lazy, happiest lounging together on the couch. He was an emotional eater, and would devour his food with glee only when I returned home from work. He had a benign tremor in one leg that made him look a little pathetic, a quality he was happy to exploit: People who saw it for the first time would always gasp and say something like, “Oh, poor doggie!” and give him a scratch or a treat, and he would look pleased with himself. His ears were very soft, so soft I liked to put them in my mouth. He had droopy lips and soulful eyes and a little velvety-bald pink patch right before the rubbery black part of his nose began.
After graduation, I put him in my mother’s Toyota along with all my possessions and moved to Los Angeles. He was like the best kind of dude roommate. He loved beer, so every now and then I would buy him a bottle of O’Doul’s. When he sat on the couch, he’d push himself up and then purposely fall back so that he could lounge at a flamboyant angle, his front paws drooping in front of his chest. At first, he and my boyfriend, Amol, mistrusted each other. And then they loved each other, and we were a family.
After a few years, we piled back into my mom’s old Toyota: this time the three of us, more possessions. We drove back to the East Coast, staying at motels along the way. Jack loved a classic Motel 6, a room with two double beds, one for him and one for us. We found an apartment in Brooklyn, we got jobs, we got married. I was constantly aware of my great good fortune to have found a way to be happy; the sweet, unbelievable safety of being in the world and having people. Or, at least, having a person and a dog.
We got older, as we do, and he got old, as dogs do. His back legs failed him. Amol, now my husband, carried Jack around and helped him to poop, which sometimes involved actually sticking his finger in Jack’s bum. Jack’s degenerative nerve condition was not going to get better, kept getting worse. Soon he could no longer stand up. He lay on his bed and looked at me with those same liquid, soulful eyes. He was thirteen years old. I made the appointment and canceled it three times. Finally, we kept it. The vet made a house call, gave him an injection, and he went to sleep. The furrows in Jack’s face, which I hadn’t even realized were there, finally relaxed. They carried him out in a blanket and I cried and cried. I was twenty-six weeks pregnant.
Two weeks later, my daughter was born. She weighed one pound, thirteen ounces. I couldn’t believe it, but also, I could. I loved her immediately, in the same space where I still love my mother.
Is it as eerie as I think it is, this mirroring: the one-woman dogs; the girl babies who come too early, too small? Maybe I’m just looking for ways to connect with my mother across time. Sometimes I feel like another species, un-mammalian, someone who couldn’t gestate properly, who became a mother in the rush of emergency, who gazed at her newborn child in a plexiglass box.
My mother never spoke of what my birth was really like for her. She obscured it behind comforting, well-worn stories spun just for me: I was a batch of bad spaghetti. I was the fastest drive to the hospital, ever. Most of all: I was her beloved dog, reincarnated. Her stories told me that no one is ever truly separated—not forever, not for good. And now when my daughter asks about her birth, I tell her the same kinds of tales: You were in the hospital, but we were always there with you. You were safe. I will always keep you safe.
Loving my daughter is the most beauty I have ever experienced, but it is not a safe feeling. I have too much to lose, again. It must be this way for most parents. Now I think I know how my mother felt: Looking at a small, dark-eyed girl, wishing she could throw herself in front of what was coming for her. But what can you really do? Bury your face in the fur of a sweet creature. Keep going.
Sarah DiGregorio is the author of EARLY: An Intimate History of Premature Birth and What It Teaches Us About Being Human.