By Molly K. Lichtner, 2/19/17
There is always a celebration when I visit my parents. It’s one of my favorite things about finally moving out; I always feel like a celebrity when they realize I’ve pulled up to the house. The dogs greet me enthusiastically when I open the front door. Sometimes I’m lucky and all five of them are there: Tiny, old, fragile, and fiery; Grace, golden in color and too smart for her own good; Abby, the big-headed sensitive one; Penny, lazy and soft; and, finally, Momma, the one that needs us the most. My parents and I love them all and they love us.
Tiny has been with us the longest. She is short and stout—some sort of miniature black Dachshund mix—with white fur that used to be brown. Tiny has been deaf since she’s lived with us; the blindness in her left eye is a new development. She snores loudly and is built like a tank. I joke that she’s going to outlive us all.
Grace is the quintessential Alpha dog. Tall and lean, she is as stubborn as she is smart. Huskies like Grace need some sort of a job: agility or cadaver sniffing or therapy. Her only job is to ask for treats and get in the way. Grace is the only one of the dogs that has figured out how to jump over the gate. I would guess that her vertical jump is about three and a half feet from a standing position.
Abby is the sweetest and the neediest. She is also the biggest and the strongest. The Rottweiler in her is what makes her crave affection; if she is not constantly being petted then she will take her oversized paw and smack the human closest to her until she gets her way. Her fur is mostly black, but a strip of fur over her right eye has grown in white after she had a cut there.
Penny is my father’s favorite. She is the best to take on camping trips because she’s warm and will stay in bed for as long as possible. Her copper fur is soft on her face and ears but coarse along her back. Sometimes she will nip at my mother’s legs as they’re walking down the stairs. That’s the Border Collie in her that makes her want to herd.
Momma was a mistake. She was deemed “unadoptable” by the rescue and they wanted to put her down. I cut contact with them and we kept her. It took her over a year but she’s finally come around; she lets us hold her and sometimes she lets the other dogs sniff and lick her. She is untrusting of anyone but our small family. Her Beagle bark makes catching squirrels impossible.
But if anyone ever asks you how many dogs is too many dogs, the answer is five. I see how their unrelenting energy wears on my parents, my mother especially so. If I am a celebrity to them then my mother is Jesus Christ reincarnated. When she comes home it’s like the second coming; they lose their minds. Their barks and howls of excitement can be heard in the driveway even when the windows on the house aren’t open.
They greet her ecstatically; they act like she’s been gone for weeks when in reality it’s been mere hours. Their tails wag wag wag while their snouts sniff sniff sniff and their tongues pant pant pant and their paws scratch scratch scratch. They do not bother my father past a cursory smell and glance. My mother greets them all warmly with open arms; each of the dogs gets a kiss and a scratch and a kind word. Momma’s greeting is extra special: my mother picks her up and holds her close to her face. Her whole body shakes with joy and she whimpers. My mother kisses her furry cheek and tells her that she’s a good dog.
And then all five of them go outside to romp. This gives my mother a few moments of peace before they all rush back in to vie for her attention again. I have watched this ritual so many times. And I feel guilty. Is it my fault that we have so many dogs? Would we have adopted this many if I never suggested fostering? Did I abandon them when I moved out? Do my parents resent me for leaving all the work and care to them? Does the love they unconditionally give outweigh the stress they cause?
While they eat their dinners of kibble and beef or chicken pâté, my mother tries to sneak upstairs for a nap. She never gets a good night’s sleep because they crowd her off of the bed. An afternoon’s nap while they are distracted is her only hope. Sometimes she lays on the floor with them even though she has a bad back and the doctor told her not to do things like that. Sometimes I lay with them too. The dogs are happier when we’re nose-to-nose with them instead of looming above. It makes them think that we’re dogs too. Before we fall asleep I count the tails to make sure none of them were left outside by mistake. One, two, three, four, five.