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by Elizabeth Rau

Elizabeth is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter living on the East Coast.

We took care of a dog last year. Dog sitting is the popular term. Her name was Olive, and she was a black lab. She was fairly young – people told me a year or so – but I’m not experienced with dogs so, truth be told, I had no idea. She was small and compact with a square jaw. Her fur was soft and shiny. Shedding was moderate. If the eyes are a window to the soul then Olive was filled with goodness, much like Mother Teresa, also known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Olive was Saint Olive of the East Coast, where I live.

When I was a kid, we had dogs. My brother was the primary caregiver. We were a family of six children, so it was always chaotic. Some dogs adjusted; others didn’t, and we let them go to calmer households. There was the sheepdog (name at a loss); Hans the Schnauzer (jumped out of our station wagon one day and disappeared); and two Irish Setters, including Duffy of the Malmar, tall, lean, red-haired. He came with papers, although his boisterous personality did not reflect his pedigree. Duffy walked you. He dug a huge hole in our backyard that remained for years until my father filled it with dirt and sprinkled seed over the mound.

Tending to a dog when I was a single working woman was out of the question. I was a newspaper reporter and never home. Back then, dog walking was not a lucrative business. I considered getting a dog when my two sons were toddlers, but someone who is smarter than I said a puppy was like having a baby. My sons are only 13 months apart, so I wasn’t prepared to take on the responsibility of another little one.

That decision did not sit well with my youngest son. He spent the best years of his life badgering me about getting a dog. He bought dog books and browsed the Internet for dogs we could rescue from, say, swamp country in Louisiana. Whenever a dog crossed his path, he would take the time to pet it and exchange pleasantries: “Hi girl’’ or “Hi boy.’’ A tickle behind the ears was his specialty. I felt guilty for denying him such a simple pleasure, but I was envisioning early-morning walks in frigid temperatures and no puffer on the coat rack.

To keep him happy, I agreed to board his friends’ dogs now and then. How can I forget Gretchen, the shy beagle that curled up in my lap while I watched a movie, or the Australian Shepherd that escaped from its leash in a park and went after a yapping Jack Russell?

Olive entered my son’s life in high school when his adviser brought her to the morning meetings, where students discussed important things like, why are the forks so far away from the salad bar in the cafeteria. My son and Olive hit it off. The adviser took note and asked my son if he would like to dog sit. Olive was a guest in our house the next week. 

Commitment is crucial for the proper care of a pet. One cannot roam the city with The Squad all night if nature calls for Olive. My son agreed to put me in charge.

There was an instant connection. It helped that I was the one who fed her (too much) and took her to the dog park, where she romped in the feathery reeds and sniffed rocks. Her affection intensified so much she started following me around the house, like my son did when he was a toddler. Our bond was rooted in respect (left plenty of room for me on the sofa); unconditional love (waiting at the front door after work); and happiness (tail-flapping on the floor after a belly rub).

During our crack-of-dawn strolls, I began to see my neighbors in a new light. We all looked like we had just rolled out of bed, grabbed a leash and stumbled into the street without our morning coffee. There was the teenager, hair askew, with the mutt working on its social skills; Susan with the 11-week-old puppy taking its first steps; and Mr. Convivial with the wrinkly-faced pug waddling along oblivious to life’s cruelties. We’d nod, raise a hand. We all shared a secret.

During Olive’s subsequent visits, and there were many over the year, we carried on as if we had never left each other. I read an article once that dogs communicate with their eyes. Olive sure did. She’d look at me with eyes full of longing—and maybe a tinge of sadness—and I’d grab the leash or, better yet, a slice of turkey. She had me every time.

Our last visit was wrenching. Montana would soon be Olive’s next home, alongside her owner, who was to start a new job. Olive lived only two blocks away, but on that final day my dread of never seeing her again made the walk feel like a slow shuffle around the world. The goodbye was swift. A big hug; then a tug on her wobbly picket gate.

In that moment, I wished for words.

Me: How do you feel about moving across the country thousands of miles from your birthplace? Will you remember me?

Olive: I’ll thrive wherever I live if I’m loved, and yes.

I’ve always wondered what people meant when they said their dog was like a member of the family, or why they sobbed when their dog died. Now I know. A dog gets you out of your room. A dog is your best friend forever. A dog loves you no matter what. Thanks for the memories, Olive. See you in heaven.

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