I knew for sure that I was middle aged a couple days ago when I realized that I was subconsciously combing my hair over the two recessions at the top frontal corners of my skull.
Maybe I should be honest though: Middle age is more a state of mind than a set of physiological markers. I’m not making any of the lame claims about being a “cool dad” or “40 is new 30” anymore. The surest sign of my psychological shift into middle age is that I recently broke down and got a dog.
I had dogs growing up in Kentucky — Hamlet, a stray who was always running away when I was a toddler; Star, a hyper-active Australian Shepherd whose death by car reduced me to tears; and Rio, a Chihuahua-border collie mix who survived long beyond the time I left home. But I never really considered myself a dog person or an animal lover. And for the first 25 years of my adulthood, I resisted the call to take in a canine companion because I didn’t want to be tied down if a job opportunity sprang up on the other side of the country.
But I’ve been taking note of some things recently, including observations that people who are kind to animals are likely to show the same regard for humans. At the North Carolina Oath Keepers Summit this past spring, a chill dude with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder and knit cap remarked on his beefy Alaskan Malamute: “He’s good at reading souls.” As my friend John G. recently put it, “People with dogs are happier.”
What finally tipped me over though was a conclusion my wife and I arrived at together that our 4-year-old daughter would benefit from having a dog around. At least to date she remains an only child, and she could use the company. We figured it would help her develop empathy. Encountering dogs at the park, she was both fascinated and freaked out, so helping her develop a comfort level with animals seemed like an obvious move.
We’d talked about getting her a dog for Christmas, but our fate was sealed when my wife took our daughter to the Guilford County Animal Shelter and discovered this serene old mensch — well, he’s 5 years old, but a heart-worm condition that’s slowed him down gives him a dignity beyond his years. He was calm, and my daughter took to him immediately. She named him Byrus, likely a mispronunciation of his previous moniker Buyo. The connection was so immediate and obvious that it would have been cruel not to take him home.
My daughter loves Byrus, eagerly calling his name every time he trundles to the door to greet her when she comes home from school. He’s a great companion to me too, dutifully laying at my feet while I work at my laptop at the end of the dining-room table, and then leaping to his feet every time I get up to go to the bathroom to make sure he doesn’t miss any excitement. In truth, much of our bonding occurs around his bathroom ministrations. And let me tell you, there wouldn’t be much depth to our relationship if it didn’t involve some sacrifice.
His bowel movements are, shall we say, irregular. My commitment is that I’ll afford him the opportunity to find a fresh patch of ground before bedtime and first thing in the morning. One time he squandered his chance when I threw on a sweatshirt and took him out back yard at 11:30 p.m. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I apprehended his whimpering at the backdoor some hours later. Emerging from a fitful slumber, I picked up my phone from the window sill to find out the time — 4:30 a.m. No way am I getting out of bed for this dog. Accordingly, there was a gift waiting for me in the morning. To his credit, it was in the mudroom next to the backdoor, where it was easy to clean up.
I put my own needs aside for this guy, taking him out in the morning before I even get my coffee. Typically, we take a short walk down the driveway and cross the street to an expanse of mowed right-of-way on the shoulder of Wendover Avenue so he can find his spot. This morning our timing was completely off again, and after 15 minutes, it was clear No. 2 wasn’t happening, so we came back in. I fed him and hopped in the shower. Mid-rinse I heard his frantic barking at the backdoor. Going outside dripping wet and completely naked with the temperature just above freezing wasn’t really an option. Predictably, his deposit was waiting for me at the backdoor when I dried off and got dressed. At least he’s intentional.
He’s a good dog.