My husband parallel parked his Highlander along the curb of the narrow street in front of my daughter’s red brick, DC row home. The front door flung open and Jackie strutted out to meet us cradling a black and white, drooling, fur ball. She wore jeans with holes in both knees, a purple tank top, long ponytail, and the grin of a child introducing her parents to their first grandchild.
I wrestled the puppy out of her arms and kissed the top of his soft head, he licked my face in return. Jackie said, “Meet Walter.”
Walter is a Bernedoodle, one of those nouveau combos—half Bernese Mountain dog, half Poodle.
He is also my daughter’s coronavirus coping companion.
Jackie’s always loved dogs. For her tenth birthday, we surprised her with a Sheltie, Jasmine. We tied a scarf over my daughter’s eyes and drove her down a long country road to a farmhouse pulsing with the cries of squealing puppies. A weathered woman, her hair in a kerchief, led us to a pen filled with wagging tails and slobbering tongues. We removed Jackie’s blindfold as the litter of hopefuls scrambled up her legs, and I asked, “Which one is yours?”
Now, years later, Jasmine has died of old age and Jackie is married and moved from Baltimore to DC. She’s yearned for another dog of her own, but acknowledged, “I’m never home. I don’t want to leave a dog alone all day.” She filled her void with other people’s dogs, texting us pictures of cuddly canines captioned “look how adorable” and calling us with details of puppy encounters, “Mom, I saw this Shih Tzu in the park, he was the size of my hand and he was running in circles chasing his tail.” When I pried for particulars about her life, I got nothing.
Then came the pandemic.
I had just learned how to pronounce Fauci, when Jackie called me and said, “It looks like I’ll be working from home for the foreseeable future. I’m thinking, this might be a perfect time to get a puppy.”
A week later she put a deposit on the, then, four-week old Bernedoodle.
When Walter was old enough to leave his mother, Jackie, and her husband, Lorin, drove to Ohio, fourteen hours round trip, to claim him. They brought toilet seat covers, masks, sanitizer, wipes, and a cooler of food. At home, waiting for Walter, were two different sized crates, a pen, red collar and leash, plaid harness, puppy chow, bully sticks, digestible chews, and a variety of squeaky teething objects.
The new family of three settled into a routine. Jackie and Lorin took Zoom calls on laptops in makeshift offices during the day, taking turns walking Walter. In the evenings, Walter cuddled on the sofa between their thighs, as they watched coronavirus updates and dog training videos. Jackie joined a Bernedoodle Facebook group and a subscription delivery service for monthly “age appropriate” treats and toys.
Worried about Walter’s ability to socialize during Covid, Jackie sent him to puppy kindergarten, though she was not allowed to accompany him into the “classroom.” Later, he advanced to courses like “Who is Walking Who?”
Walter has adjusted well—and, for the most part, so have Jackie and Lorin.
Their toughest issue is separation anxiety—Jackie’s, not Walters.
They spent last weekend with us at the beach. When we went out to dinner, wearing our facemasks (until food came) and seated outside, Jackie said, “I wonder how Walter is doing.”
We had not yet looked at the menu.
I said, “I’m sure he’s fine. The house is puppy-proofed and the doors to the bedrooms are shut—there’s nothing to worry about.”
“At home we have a video-cam, I like knowing what he’s doing every minute,” she answered.
I am grateful that Walter has demanded my daughter’s full attention at a time we’ve all craved distraction. It’s hard to focus on coronavirus while housebreaking a dog. Walter has filled my daughter’s heart and, in so doing, tempered her isolation, displacement, angst, and grief.
He has also filled mine. When they visit and I hear that kerplunk, kerplunk of those bread–loaf sized paws and receive a face full of kisses—in that moment, I too forget—these times which I’ll always remember.