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I live on an island filled with wooded trails but for years, I rarely visited them. My children do not like to ruminate while pondering the starkness of nature. They prefer sipping hot cocoa in a cafe downtown as if preparing for city life.
I live on an island filled with beaches around nearly every bend in the road, but for weeks at a time, I would not see them. Mostly, this was an off-season lament, but sometimes, even during summer, my inland routines left me landlocked, as if I had somehow settled down in Kansas or Oklahoma, rather than Martha’s Vineyard.
But now I see the beach nearly every day and walk the trails weekly. Last year, I finally gave in to my daughter’s constant pleas for a dog. I thought I was in the clear. I'd held off for so long.
I felt my reasons for not wanting a dog were valid. The children were workout enough and what quiet time I could scratch out of a day I wanted to keep for myself. For a long time, my daughter listened to my rebuttals and after a little nagging, let the matter drop. But then she grew older -- she's 11 -- and her debating skills flourished.
Can I have a dog?
There are so many reasons.
Did you ever have a dog?
What was its name?
Did you love her?
Then why can’t I have a dog to love?
Her offense was strong and marshaling a defense, speaking it out loud, felt too cruel. I told her Triscuit died young, at three years old, and that I still felt the sting so many years later. But how to tell her that Triscuit died when I was a sophomore in high school, during wrestling season, and because I did not know how to express my grief I took it out on a boy from a neighboring high school? I beat him more savagely than I needed to or had ever done before, all within the rules, while friends and teachers cheered me on from the stands, because they could not hear the boy crying beneath me for it to be over.
How to tell my young daughter all that? There was no way, so I finally gave in.
At first, I did not like this new dog. My daughter named him Artichoke, a cute name for a cute puppy. But he did not sleep, he needed to be walked early and late, he wanted my attention all the time. And so when he barked, I barked back, and when he whined, I whined too.
My daughter grew so worried that one night at dinner, while I sulked once again, she said that if I really needed to, we could get rid of Artichoke, find him another home where people would love him, even the father. She was crying but she stayed at the table, wanting to be strong.
There have been many moments of my parenting life that I am ashamed of but that scene quickly vaulted to the top of the list.
There have been many moments of my parenting life that I am ashamed of but that scene quickly vaulted to the top of the list. I vowed to do better.
Soon enough, something did shift. Perhaps Artichoke became a little easier, bit by bit, like children do as they add years to their very small selves, from toddler tantrums to kindergarten kindness to pre-teen wonders. And I certainly became a better dog owner.
It started the same way I became a better father, by letting go of my agenda and following the mysteries of my children's minds. It was a revelation then, and it was again, as I put my to-do lists aside to spend hours walking the beaches and trails with Artichoke. A summer friend introduced me to mornings at Lambert’s Cove Beach, a dog party until 10 a.m., and suddenly I started each day with a swim as well as a long walk. The beach is open to dogs all day now but the crowd has thinned. Some days Artichoke and I will meet no one on our walks, our summer friends dispersed to their winter homes, our island friends operating on different schedules.
But the gulls are still here, as are the waves. There is more seaweed on the beach after the recent storms and what we all call the "Coca-Cola stream" meanders rather than flows in a straight line, pushed into a new pattern by the wind and the rain.
Today Artichoke races ahead of me, on the trail of some new and exciting scent. He is fully focused on what is ahead, but then stops and turns to look at me, to make sure I am nearby and still a part of his life. He cocks his furry head and his floppy ears perk up, and in that moment I recall my children, soon after they started walking, heading off to follow their curiosity, then stopping to look back and make sure I was close behind. My children no longer do this. I miss it deeply.
“I’m here,” I call out to Artichoke.
He barks a reply and then disappears around a bend in the beach, leaving me completely alone for a moment. And as the waves slowly lap at the shoreline and the wind picks up, I hear what I think is a young boy crying — only this time it is me.
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