On June 14th, 2009 our family became the proud, slightly anxious owners of a terrier mix puppy. My children had wanted a dog for years. They had used every argument imaginable as to why our family needed a dog as a pet. The timing was never right though. Jordan started asking for a dog when he was in elementary school. With his prepared list of rationales he would detail how a dog would enhance our lives. He of course promised to take care of the dog and his dad and I wouldn’t have to do anything. Of course he got his younger brother in on the begging. They made quite a convincing pair. The only drawback was Jordan’s allergies, which were so bad an allergist recommended in Jordan’s presence that we wait a year or two to see if the medication he was taking would stabilize his symptoms.
Not to be outdone, and as if he were checking the days off on a calendar, Jordan at around the one year mark came back again requesting/begging for a dog. This time he was armed with information. He had been on various websites and researched the best types of dogs for someone with allergies. He also reminded his dad and I yet again that we both had dogs growing up and “didn’t we want our children to have a pet too?” When Jordan set his mind to something and did his research I always thought, “future lawyer in the making” and imagined him before the Supreme Court. I had always taught him if he was going to have an opinion, have an informed one. He certainly took that message to heart and when it came to getting a pet, my direction to my son was coming back to bite me in the butt.
Just as Mark and I started researching breeds and giving serious consideration to adding a dog to our family, we were startled to find out that there would be a different sort of addition to our family. I learned the surprising news as I went in for my annual exam that I was pregnant! A few days later the news went from surprising to shocking as an ultrasound showed that I was having twins. I can still hear my husband’s voice when I called him after the ultrasound appointment to tell him the double news. All he said over and over was, “You are lying”, “You are lying”. I assured him that I saw the two beating hearts for myself so the news was true that I was pregnant with twins. Any thoughts we had of getting a dog were put on indefinite hold, and there was no argument that could sway me. I explained to Jordan and his brother that raising a puppy was like raising a baby and I couldn’t raise three at a time. I knew even though they didn’t believe that no matter how much they promised to do everything for the dog, I would be the one who would end up being the primary caretaker.
Luckily, twin sisters proved a great diversion for the boys and talk of dogs ended- until the girls started asking for one. My response to them was, “I’ve got four kids and that’s all I can handle right now.” They soothed themselves with every toy dog that was on the market. Whenever someone asked them what they wanted for a gift it was always some type of stuffed animal dog.
As the girls got older something shifted in my doubts about pet ownership. I saw how much the girls loved dogs. I also saw how responsible they were. They would ask people walking their dogs past our house if they could pet their dogs. They volunteered to walk our neighbors’ dogs. They also asked me if they could sign up as volunteers at the local animal shelter. They wore me down. Now that the girls were older and I wasn’t as exhausted as I had been in my first years as the mother of four, I was willing to consider getting a dog. Unfortunately, there were two problems: 1) Mark suddenly was totally against the idea. He thought our lives held enough chaos, noise and energy, and 2) Jordan was a senior in high school. When I told Jordan we might get a dog his response to me was simple and succinct, “You can’t”. He reminded me that he always wanted a dog and I said no, and now that he was about to go off to school it was unfair that we would even consider getting one. His guilt trip worked. I knew I could make Mark come around to the idea of pet ownership, but I didn’t want to make Jordan feel left out of such an important family experience.
Then suddenly everything was different, Jordan was gone and our family struggled everyday to redefine and feel our way into what family life meant for us without Jordan. After Jordan’s death, the girls continued asking for a dog and I hesitated, more because of my own physical and emotional state than any dislike of owning a dog. I felt that I spent most days crying or catatonic and knew I couldn’t care for anything else. Time moved on and Mark and I began to feel that a dog might offer a distraction to our family. The unconditional love a dog gives in the midst of all of our heartache and sorrow sounded comforting and right. We were pushed over into the yes column when our son Merrick spoke privately with Mark and asked in such a plaintive voice, “Dad can we please get a dog?” Clearly our family needed some pet therapy. On June 15th, 2008 we became the proud/anxious/slightly reluctant owners of a 3-month-old terrier mix puppy that we adopted from a shelter.
The name we decided on was Nessy. It was my Merrick’s idea. “Ness” was Merrick’s favorite character from a video game called “Earthbound.” A running joke in our family has been Merrick’s long time affinity for unusual names and when he hears one he likes proclaiming, “I like that name. I’m going to name one of my kids that.” So far he’s up to about 60 kids. “Ness” was the first name he liked so much that he bequeathed it to his firstborn. Jordan used to tease Merrick that no matter what he really named his first child, Uncle Jordan was coming to the hospital, picking up the baby, looking down on him or her and calling the baby “Ness”. We would all laugh as Jordan teased Merrick. I would sit watching my family and imagine the scene of brothers moving to a new stage and becoming uncles to each other’s children. What a beautiful image. Merrick never forgot the “Ness” exchanges with Jordan. He could no longer have the brother/uncle moment with Jordan. He had lost that day, that memory; Merrick would be given naming rights of our new dog.
Merrick wanted to call the dog Nessy and no explanation to Mark or me was needed. His sisters resisted at first. They had names they had chosen that leaned towards things like “Sporty” or “Fluffy”. I explained to them that the name Nessy represented a special bond between Jordan and Merrick. I understood even if they didn’t that the memory of Uncle Jordan coming to the hospital would never happen. This was Merrick’s way of honoring that occasion that would never be realized. The girls understood Merrick’s need to honor Jordan and agreed to the name Nessy.
Nessy has been a godsend to our family. The girls are so happy and excited and our new pet is proving to be a wonderful diversion for them. They take their responsibility seriously and don’t have to be reminded to care for her, so far. She has also been a source of comfort to both of them. Nessy always finds her way into their laps when they are heartbroken and weeping and having a “missing Jordan” moment. As Mark and I sit holding and talking to them, Nessy sits quietly nuzzling their faces. I’ve watched Mark after a long day of work relax as he sits and is welcomed home not only by his children but by the tail wagging and nuzzle that our little dog offers.
For me Nessy has eliminated my ability to stay inside all day, even on the days when the world outside seems too much and all I want is to curl up and undo all the pain my family has suffered. There have been moments when I’m lying on the couch staring out the window with my chin on the armrest and I’ll suddenly feel a paw on my arm and see this little tail-wagging machine that will not be ignored. I know she needs to be walked. With her big brown eyes she speaks volumes, “I can pee outside or in here on the rug, it’s up to you.” She is persuasive, and I get up, put my shoes on, get her leash on and we’re off, out into the world. Suddenly the place I’d been peering out onto from my grieving spot, I’m now a part of and it feels okay. I walk; I look at the sky, the trees, nod at passersby and realize I have more energy than I thought. I always return home feeling better than when I left and I am renewed. I’ve been outside and taken a walk I would not have considered if it weren’t for my dog. Nessy makes sure that I connect to the world and nature everyday.
She has done so many things for our family but the thing I am most grateful for is how she has become a barometer of my teenage son’s mood. The days when he is too quiet and I can tell grief and sorrow are overtaking him, I can ask him if he’s okay and he’ll reply, “Yeah, I’m just tired”. I know it’s more than fatigue that keeps him in his room, lying in bed with his arm covering his eyes. Nessy however can jump onto his bed and he never turns her away. I’ll hear him quietly say “hey girl” and pet her as she snuggles next to him. Merrick has forged a bond with Nessy that calms him and gives him peace. This bond took awhile but it was certainly worth the wait.
When we first got Nessy, I noticed that Merrick unlike his sisters was hesitant to hold or pet her very much. After a couple of days of noticing his reluctance to get attached to our new pet, I asked him what was wrong. He said that Jordan wanted a dog more than any of us and it didn’t feel right that now we had one. I had to admit to him that I too experienced a similar sadness and regret the entire ride home after we picked up Nessy. Bringing our new dog home was the first family experience we had that didn’t include Jordan. I struggled with the fact that we were making new memories and moving forward and Jordan wasn’t a part of them. Merrick and I both experienced that “Jordan should be here” feeling. Merrick was facing such ambivalence. I knew how much he wanted a dog. Watching him struggle with the guilt of feeling he was betraying his brother was so painful to watch. I offered him a story that I hoped would ease his guilt and allow him to love our new pet.
I relayed the conversation Jordan and I had last summer 2 months before he died. One afternoon as we stood in the kitchen, Jordan out of the blue pronounced that it didn’t matter to him anymore whether we got a dog or not because once he had his own place he was getting a dog. As I relayed my conversation with Jordan, Merrick looked at me surprised because he had no idea Jordan had made such a statement. I then told Merrick about the first dream/vision I had of Jordan after he died:
Jordan was standing in his blue sweater and jeans; hands in his pockets with a huge, beautiful smile on his face. Seated right next to him was a beautiful collie.
Through tears I said, “Jordan got his dog, Merrick.” Merrick just looked at me and said “Thanks Mom.”