When I look back on my twenties, I don't think immediately of my career. I don't think about my young marriage, the tiny brick cottage we lived in, my obsession with vintage clothing, or the bangs I cut myself one morning before heading to work in the dark. Rather, I think about one thing: Pablo.
Pablo is our bichon frise. This July 20, we celebrated his 15th birthday, complete with a homemade dog food cake, pepperoni candles, and a peanut butter treat. Our extended family gathered in our tiny kitchen to have a big lunch, shower him with presents, and play Pablo Trivia for door prizes. We didn't do so because it was necessary. We did so because every single one of us deeply wanted to. From my brother who initially squirmed every time the bundle of white fur hopped into his lap but eventually came around to adoring him to my in-laws, who took him in when we had two babies under three in our home and just needed a break, there isn't anyone in my family who hasn't found a reason to love that furball.
The thing is, he didn't use to have this much attention and this much affection. I found him while scrolling pet adoption websites on my lunch break one day about a decade ago. He was listed by a breeder who lived a few cities away. No, he wasn't one of her expensive puppies. Rather, he was a five-year-old dog that she didn't have the room or resources to keep. His owner had returned him to her before a big move, claiming there was no space for him at the new place. He was malnourished, matted all over, exhausted and weary of absolutely everyone.
In fact, he was in such disrepair that on our way to pick him up, the woman called us and begged us not to come. She said he wasn't ready. She needed more time with him. She had shaved him to remove the mats and he looked awful. He was starving. We told her we could be there in 45 minutes and that was that. We picked him up late in the evening and immediately wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into. We were fresh out of college, back from our honeymoon, and about to hit the ground running with our newfound careers. What were we going to do with a sickly and pitiful pup who was very obviously in need of so much more than we could give him?
We stopped for a fast food dinner that night and I remember looking out of the window at the dark night air. Pablo was in our car, shaking with fear though we had wrapped him in a blanket and it was unseasonably warm that night. We scarfed down our cheeseburgers afraid to leave him for even a moment. That would be the first of many instances in which we felt an inherent need to protect and be near Pablo. Looking back, that night was when our parental instincts first kicked in, though they've grown deeper and richer since the birth of our two children.
Life, I suppose, has a way of equipping you with things you never knew you had. What Pablo needed the most, especially during those first few rocky months, was unwavering love. He needed someone to give him belly rubs first thing in the morning and right before he fell asleep at night. He needed someone to sit with him and stroke his back while he ate his food. You see, he used to be in a home with lots of big dogs, and as the runt, he often went without food as bigger paws and bigger teeth inched their way to the bowl first. So, he didn't want to approach our bowl at first. I had to coax him and coach him until he was ready.
He needed someone to throw a ball down a long and winding hallway so he could have the time of his life looking for it around every corner and under every table. He needed someone to strap a life jacket on him and take him out for a day at the lake, playfully giving him his own pair of sunglasses and letting him splash in the shallow water. He needed someone to take him to the park and the doggie playground. He needed a family who would research bichon frises until late into the evening, learning all there was to know about his breed so they could properly care for him. He needed a mom who, the first time she left him overnight, would type up a three-page list of color-coded instructions for the temporary caregiver.
That was 10 years ago. Now, Pablo is 15. He lives mostly full-time with my aforementioned in-laws but we still see him weekly. They give him the walks, attention and constant adoration that, as much as we desperately want to, we just aren't in the season to give right now. For so long, however, Pablo taught me how to live.
He taught me how to not worry about how my hair looks or my house looks or what kind of day I've had. Rather, he taught me to run directly into the sprinkler, then shake off in the warm summer sunshine. He taught me the importance of lying on a warm backyard deck, looking up at the sunset and the emerging nighttime stars. He taught me that nothing tastes quite as good as an ice cream sandwich while running through a
He taught me that things are just things. He moved with us to three different houses. We started out in a tract home when we first brought him home. Then, we moved into a little cottage on the side of the road, then to my grandfather's house for a few years, and then back to that same cottage. Once, our basement flooded and I came home from work and burst into tears. My cardboard boxes of memories, which I'd stacked in the corner, were damp from every angle. Nothing was covered and nothing was redeemable. It was Pablo who leaped into my lap as I held our wedding album and tried desperately to dry it with a towel. He sprung happily back up the stairs later, as if nothing had ever happened, and nothing had changed.
In every house, he found the same spot on our same couch, propped up near a window so he could look out and see us when we drove home at night. He didn't care where we were, what kind of furnishings we had, what was on the walls or how long the driveway was. He just wanted to love on us as soon as we walked in the door, and love on us he did.
He also taught me that there is a season for everything. Pablo is my twenties, hands down. He is my figuring-it-all-out stage. He saw many nights where I'd flop on my bed and cry out of sheer exhaustion and frustration over my first real job. He was there beside my husband and I on that couch as we discovered the television series "Lost" and stayed up for three days binge-watching it like only newlyweds with no responsibilities really can. He was also there when my grandfather, who adored him, passed away just down the road. He saw a bunch of life during that formative decade, and I think it will forever be the era that shaped us both.
He is aging, now. I can see it. His formal prance has slowed and it's harder for him to get up or down a flight of stairs. He has cataracts in both eyes and cannot see where he is going. When I lie down beside him and rub his belly, I'm not entirely sure he even knows it's me. Does he know it's the same person who carried him on that five-mile nature trail when his tiny legs gave out? Does he know it's the same girl who rubbed his back all those years while he found the courage to eat? Does he know it's me, who snuck out of work early just so I could take him on a walk around our neighborhood during my one-hour lunch break?
Maybe, and maybe not. But I know. I remember even if he doesn't. And those memories and moments with Pablo will sustain me long into the future. He's a good dog if there ever was one, and I will forever be thankful that our stories intersected and I was allowed to bear witness to his.