It’s my ninth birthday. I’m in the back seat of our station wagon clutching a fluffy, stuffed dog. I have a collection of them. I’m an anxious kid and they provide comfort and security. I bring at least one of them, everywhere I go.
We pull up to a ranch style house with dark, shaded windows. The front yard is overgrown with trees and bushes. The backyard is big, and the landscaping is limited. It reminds me of the backyard at the house where I’m growing up.
We follow a narrow dirt trail to an enclosed area in the back corner of the yard. There is a pile of black and white and brown and white puppies, climbing all over each other.
I am instantly in love.
Steps away from the pile, there’s one wobbly on her feet, getting the hang of walking, all by herself. Sniffing the ground near a collection of silver bowls, she appears to be frantically looking for food, even though it’s clear, she’s had enough. It’s one of the black and white ones, rounder and squishier than the others.
Two weeks later, we bring her home and name her Sallie. We picked the name on our family trip to Gettysburg, two years earlier. From the front-passenger seat of our rental car, an enthusiastic, middle- aged man points us toward a small monument, with a statue of a tiny dog. He tells us the story of “Sally” the Union army dog. Sally made her away through rows of soldiers and across battlefields, sometimes at the height of conflict. Sally searched out wounded soldiers and stayed with them until help arrived. She was loyal and brave and devoted, even in a war zone.
Our Sallie would prove to be the same way.
My belated, surprise ninth birthday present came not without effort. I dedicated many hours, of many days, over several months, to acting like a dog with my family. My aim was to demonstrate the pleasure and delight of having a dog around the house. I’d wag my tail when my mom entered the room and bark, quietly, to show my affection. I’d nuzzle up next to my brother when he watched TV.
Apparently, I was convincing.
Sallie fit right in. She was smart and eccentric and sensitive, with bursts of hyperactivity and playful madness.
For the next eleven years, she was the glue that held our family together, just barely.
She laid at my feet the night my parents left me in an empty house, during a power outage, so they could rush my brother to the hospital. We watched in horror as my dad carried my brother’s lifeless body down the front porch, then we huddled inside by the only working phone, waiting for the worst call of our lives.
She was five years old then, and I was 14. It was my first awareness of the specialness of dogs and the uniqueness of their relationship to humans. For the first time that night she saved me. And she’d come to the rescue of each of us, many times after that.
Sallie lived through the hell of my brother’s alcoholism and died two months after he finally got sober for good. She survived the screaming and threatening and hysterical crying. She endured moments of insanity and unimaginable conflict. She witnessed the worst of us, and loved us through it, just the same.
She stayed faithfully at our side on the battlefield, waiting for help to arrive.
Sallie was my first dog, and my first love and my first teacher of how it looks and feels to love without condition. She taught all of us how to be loyal, and patient, even when things got hard. She showed us how to forgive and let go. She never let old pain interfere with a new chance to be loving.
Every dog I’ve met since then reminds me of her lessons. Every dog I’ve ever met, shows me how to love.