The last time I stopped by the Smiths’ house, I was greeted enthusiastically by a large light-colored dog. Through the screen door Ron asked, “Have you met T.J.? Just a second, let me get a leash on him so he doesn’t get out.”
I assumed, as I waited on the stoop and watched Ron restrain the excited T.J., that the Smiths were caring for this dog while his owner was elsewhere. I couldn’t help but wonder who’d ask such a thing of them. From what I’d seen so far, T.J. was a handful and the Smiths, although still remarkably active and mentally sharp, were in their early eighties.
Once I was through the door, T.J. bumped up against me affectionately, his tail slapping repeatedly against my legs. Although he looked like a cross between a Yellow Labrador and a Pit Bull, Ron explained, as he unclipped the tether, that T.J. was an American Bulldog. “We got him about a month ago,” said Ron, as he led me into the living room, T.J. bounding ahead of us. In the nick of time, I stopped myself from exclaiming, “He’s yours?”
As Ron urged T.J. into a down position, I reassessed the situation and decided that this dog was a stray that had turned up on their doorstep, and that they hadn’t yet had the heart to call Animal Control. This had to be the explanation as Ron and Nancy had spent the fall exploring VA retirement communities in anticipation of downsizing in the not so distant future.
But as T.J. paced between us, generously offering his large blocky head for pats, Ron explained how he and Nancy had gone to the Animal Shelter in search of a dog and had come home with T.J. Not a pint-size lapdog, but this big energetic hound that filled all the extra space in their cozy house. And it wasn’t only the question of his size that flummoxed me. According to the vet, said Ron, T.J. could be as young as two years old. A teenager in dog years.
Rubbing T.J.’s ears, Ron conceded that “maybe they were putting off moving for a little longer now that they had T.J.” He thoughtfully regarded the pooch standing at his knee. “Nancy loves dogs,” he said, as if that explained everything.
Just then, the dog-lover herself made an appearance. T.J. raced across the room to greet her, making her teeter slightly on her feet. After they finally got T.J. settled between us on the floor, much of his bulk laying across our feet, Ron and Nancy shared T.J. stories: Their morning walks where T.J. sometimes took off on his own, leading them on a merry chase, and how he liked to sit in the back of their car with the hatchback open, watching the coveys of quail traverse their property. They even showed me a trick they’d taught him. The whole while they beamed like proud new parents.
I, on the other hand, had to restrain the question that kept pulling to be let out, “What in the world were you thinking getting a dog?”
It didn’t make sense. Acquiring a new pet was the opposite of downsizing. It seemed like an awful lot to take on. Especially a dog this large, young, and spirited. It worried me a little.
Even though it was none of my business, I fretted over T.J. in the weeks following my visit, and made mental lists of all the reasons this dog was completely impractical. Still, I couldn’t help returning to the vision in my rear view mirror as I pulled out of the Smiths’ driveway: Ron and Nancy bent over T.J., their faces aglow with happiness. Of course, the more I nagged at this canine issue, the more I had to face the fact that the Smiths’ T.J. acquisition had triggered some of my own inner uncertainty. Turning the situation on its head, I asked myself: When was the last time I’d made a nonsensical decision because it made me happy? A decision based on my heart alone instead of my budget, time constraints, the needs of others, or practicality?
I was shocked to realize that it had been years and years since I’d tossed sense out the window and driven straight past Go. I could rationalize that because I’m a parent I need to stick to the safe and well-worn route, but I’m not sure that’s the message I want to teach my children. After all, I’ve heard those stories–the ones about the artist, scientist, or entrepreneurs who became wildly successful because they followed an impractical impulse. More and more psychological research is finding that people who lead with their hearts instead of with what makes the most sense gain greater happiness for themselves. Case in point, my mother.
Two years ago, my mother announced–she’s big on announcements–that she was going to join an online cooking group, French Fridays with Dorie (based on the bestselling cookbook Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan), and blog about her results. Similar to Ron and Nancy’s dog acquisition, it didn’t make sense. She didn’t have much photography experience, and although her computer skills were adequate, I wasn’t sure she’d be able to set up a website. She’d taken some cooking classes in the past, but she often lacked kitchen confidence when it came to putting a recipe together. Most worrisome was the weekly Friday deadline that required her to cook the chosen recipe and write about the experience. My mother was neck deep in caring for my stepfather who had Alzheimer’s. How would she be able to keep up that kind of cooking pace when her days were often interrupted with medical emergencies and his general care? I didn’t want her to be demoralized by failure. Besides, she lived alone: what was she going to do with all that rich French food she made each week?
But, when my mom sets her mind to something, there’s no stopping her. So, as with Ron and Nancy, I kept my mouth shut and my comments carefully supportive. Still, I worried.
Despite my concerns, here is what happened: My mother hired a web designer to create her site and bought a new camera. She dusted off her writing skills as well as her pots and pans and dove headlong into cooking. At first, many of her essays were humorous confessionals about what went wrong in the kitchen that week accompanied by small and fuzzy photos. But over time, as my mom gained confidence and skill, her posts became testimonials to weekly successes born from kitchen savvy, documented by photographs gorgeous enough to eat. My mom became a successful food blogger.
But there is more to it than that. By starting her blog, my mother created a focus that gave her a respite from the daily pain of watching her husband become less and less the man she married. It was an outlet for joy in a dark period of her life. By keeping her mind active and interested, she held depression and fatigue at arm’s length. The online cooking community that welcomed and embraced her salved off her loneliness, and she grew friendships locally by sharing her weekly food abundance. But most importantly, when my stepfather finally succumbed to his disease, she had a life in place to ground her. Instead of widowhood being a sudden blank slate, she had a weekly commitment to keep her focused on the future, and a community of followers and supporters to rally around her during her brave grief.
Starting her cooking blog and joining French Fridays with Dorie was the best nonsensical decision she ever made.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that T.J. might be the equivalent of my mom’s food site. Although adopting a lively 80-pound dog doesn’t seem like a prudent move for two people in their eighties, it might turn out to be just what they need the most to stretch their years well into their nineties. In my brief visit, I could see that just as T.J. filled their living room with his bulk, he also filled their lives with action, purpose, and companionship. He had become their shared mission and interest, and his care was keeping them busy and energized. Besides, T.J. is an awfully nice dog. And, I agree with Nancy, there is nothing quite like the unconditional affection offered by a dog. Who doesn’t need that at any age?
Sometimes what make sense–those safe and reasonable decisions–aren’t what will sustain us. That which is most practical isn’t necessarily what will keep us the most sane or offer us the most happiness. Sometimes those crazy decisions–giving a home to a big dog that needs it or cooking up a whole lot of French food–are the best ones we can ever make. Sometimes they end up making the most nonsensical sense.
Besides, if the Smiths ever do need to downsize in a way that doesn’t include T.J., I’d be first in line to adopt him. Even though I already have a dog and it wouldn’t be practical.
To check out my mother’s site, and I recommend you do, go to: http://www.lightsonbrightnobrakes.com
For more information on American Bulldogs, go to: http://www.terrificpets.com/dog_breeds/American_Bulldog.asp