Aug 30, 2012 0 Share

Pets and Progress

Picture of sleeping kitten.
Photo by Caroline McGraw

When Willie and I were growing up, our dog's name was Curley, and she was tenacious. She lived with our family for 17 years before she passed away. Curley was, admittedly, a funny-looking mutt, with a long body, short legs, and a stubby, “curly-Q” tail, but she had a stellar personality. We met her when we were visiting our grandparents in Arizona; she was the daughter of Daisy, our grandparents' dog. Willie and I spent our days traipsing around the desert with Curley, and by the end of the vacation, we couldn't bear to leave her. I remember pleading with our mom, asking if we could please bring Curley home. Mom relented, and we brought Curley on the journey back to New Jersey. All these years later, we still remember the sad, plaintive sounds she made as she cowered in the unfamiliar pet carrier at the back of the plane. 

Willie treated Curley with respect, even deference; though he rarely approached her unless we suggested that he do so, he was sensitive to her presence. He'd laugh at her antics and enjoy trying to out-pace her, trail blazing on our family walks. He, like the rest of us, loved having a dog around. True, he'd pat her stiffly, rarely showing affection without prompting, but he'd include her in his prayers every night. In his mind, she was certainly a part of the family. 

As Willie matured and started struggling with aggression and self-injurious behavior, Curley grew older too. She was slower on her feet, quieter. But when Willie would melt down, she'd sprint to the nearest corner to hide. Afterward, when Mom or Dad would tell Willie, “You scared us, and you scared Curley,” his face would show sorrow. “I'm sorry, Curley,” he'd tell her, and though she'd avoid him for some time afterward, she'd come around in the end. 

This past week, both Willie and I became pet owners for the first time since we lost Curley five years ago. (It just so happened that we stepped into this new status on the same day, unbeknownst to one another.) Willie received two small turtles as an unexpected gift. He's named them Itchy and Scratchy after characters in “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” one of his favorite animated films. In turn, thanks to the generosity of a friend, my husband and I now have a kitten, Bootsie. 

I've always wanted to take care of a kitten; it's been my dream since kindergarten. At the time, my parents told me that, since we already had the responsibility of a dog, it wouldn't be wise to have a kitten come into the picture. At the time, of course, I disagreed, but now I see their point. Willie and I enjoyed having Curley around, but in terms of caregiving, she was our parents' dog. Mom and Dad were the ones who made sure that she was fed and walked and safely housed when we went on vacation. True, we did help out occasionally, but for the most part, we got to enjoy the benefits of having a dog without bearing the full weight of responsibility. 

Now that I'm caring for a pet as an adult, I have a new appreciation for the level of commitment involved. To be the “point person” for an animal's needs is significant in terms of time, money, and energy. And yet I'm thrilled to be caring for Bootsie; just a week of providing for her needs has changed me. Likewise, when I spoke to my mom this week, she told me that Willie has taken ownership of his new turtles; each day, he has helped her to feed them, and clean and refill their tank as well. And when she passed by his bedroom today, she saw him staring at the turtles' cage, watching the pair intently. I love the idea of my brother having his own pets; something about the concept of him taking care of his turtles makes me glad. I am encouraged by the thought that he's able to contribute as a caregiver. It's both an indicator of his progress and, potentially, a source of growth in and of itself.