My race began…
at a time so early in my life that I don't think I was making a conscious decision about having someone join me, in running. I can't recall when or what words I used to persuade my parents to get our first dog, but somehow I knew that I wanted someone, or something... else.
I was surely in 2nd or 3rd grade -- parents still together, we still lived in our first house -- and I distinctly recall being in their bedroom when I was told that yes, I could name the dog “Mia.” As in Mia Hamm, the (at the time) most famous female soccer player, whom I worshipped beyond all others. Except, as young first-born minds do, I was confident that the pronunciation of her name was “Maya,” like Maya Angelou -- and my mother didn't have the heart to correct me. So our first dog was on paper Mia, and in conversation Maya.
When my parents found out that Mia had a failing set of kidneys, and would only live for another year, they couldn't give her back. Her breeder offered that. My mom only told me this recently.
I remember Mia's dog bed folding up in a beautiful origami way, as my parents carried the four corners of it with her in the middle out to the back of our family car. I remember that she had to go, because she couldn't control her body anymore. I don't remember where my parents told me she was going. Or what was going to happen. Or how I felt. That seems to be blocked from my memory.
Three or four years later -- parents divorcing -- I sat on the front porch of my grandparents' Victorian bed and breakfast in Asheville, NC, begging to borrow my mom's laptop to look at Petfinder.com. I spent weeks and weeks looking at dogs. Could we drive to Georgia from North Carolina? Western Tennessee?
We found a true mountain hound dog around the corner at a Baptist church annual fair. We named him Lucas, with a long list of names trailing behind. This caramel-colored, ambiguously-bred mountain dog has run more of a race in life than many humans have. This dog traveled from the South to the North, summer after summer, adored in the backseat of a minivan by four insane children, eating Bojangles chicken biscuits and peeing on rest stop signs. This dog traveled back and forth from my mother's house to my father's house, two places so stratified during my parents' divorce that it's a miracle the dog didn't politely bow out, choosing to take his chances at a second go-around back at the shelter.
This dog ran. At 8am, we would open the doors to head to school, and Lucas would run, squeezing through our legs, out the door and into the forest. As my mother sat behind a computer in an office building, as I sat behind a desk in a dated high school building, Lucas romped through the swamps of woodsy Fairfield County, Connecticut. He would come home baring battle wounds - signs of tussles with raccoons, bobcats, squirrels, skunks, any vermin found in thick forest. He visited neighbors, where they fed him and called us to come get him once bedtime approached. When he ventured too far, he spent nights in the pound.
And then we packed all of our belongings into a moving truck and drove across the country to Dallas, Texas. And we, and Lucas, each entered a new phase of life. He became king of our tiny fenced-in backyard, policing the squirrels and delivery men instead of pouncing on wildlife outside in the woods.
I call Milo my “quarter life crisis.” Who decides to adopt a dog the month before they graduate from college? Me. It isn't some insatiable mothering quality within me -- I don't find myself to be particularly patient, I certainly don't have baby-fever. And yet, I found myself sitting there in the campus library, studying for the MCAT, my eyes darting to the Petfinder.com window open on my browser. For months and months. Milo has given me a reason to embrace my true maturity, parenting at times when my peers are frolicking in irresponsible young adulthood, while simultaneously making me laugh like a child. He's seen the bad and the sad and the good in me. I don't know what will happen on the day that Time proves that he isn't, in fact, the first eternal animal on this earth. But that is, thank St. Francis, not the leg of the race I'm on now.
A constant, undeniable, somewhat inexplicable force in my life is my care for dogs. I've experienced a family's love for an animal, to my own independent love and responsibility for my own -- and I know that each step in the various legs of my life's race will have two pairs (or maybe more) of paws next to it. We spend a lot of time in this life making plans and timelines, marking and preserving milestones. I urge everyone else to find a four legged running partner, and to see what laughing and smiling and barking and chasing squirrels is really all about. Because I believe the running shouldn't be done alone.