I'm not sure that my mother really wanted a dog, at least not at first. She grew up with a cat named Baby, who was technically her family’s cat but whose responsibility fell largely on my mother’s shoulders. Perhaps, as the youngest girl in a family of eight, she felt a special kinship with an animal named Baby.
“It’s not easy to give a cat a bath,” she’s said, “but I got pretty good at it.” She’s explained how she would fill the sink with warm water and dunk Baby in up to her neck, then hold her still with one hand while scrubbing with the other. I imagine it being like trying to bathe a small, angry tornado.
“I got so that I could do it on my own,” she's proudly stated. When she says this I picture her standing in the dim light of the laundry room in her childhood home in Indiana, struggling with her beloved family pet as it hisses and howls in the soapy water.
When I was seven, I begged and pleaded for a cat of my own, but my father hated them and so we ended up getting a dog. Our dog, Pepper, was a springer spaniel and border collie mix, so he was extremely energetic, and because none of us had any experience with dogs, he wasn’t particularly well-trained. Like Baby, our dog was the family pet, and like Baby, the majority of his care fell to my mother. I don’t think she was thrilled with this arrangement, as she was often the one to walk him early in the mornings or late at night, especially once my siblings and I became teenagers and began keeping bizarre and annoying hours. Walks in inclement weather could be especially challenging; Pepper had long fur and so if it rained he would get soaked and shake water all over the house. My mother’s solution was to get him a raincoat, however this was the nineties and it was hard to buy clothing for dogs. Undeterred, she sewed it herself, taking out her measuring tape and fitting him for a jaunty, bespoke raincoat not unlike a horse blanket. Pepper looked sharp in that coat, like a dog from an L.L. Bean catalogue.
The years passed and my siblings and I got older and eventually moved away for college, and my mother started letting Pepper sleep on the floor next to her bed. This was a big deal, as when we first got him the rule was supposed to be that he wasn’t allowed upstairs. My siblings and I were surprised at my mother’s relaxing of the rules, but understood that with the house now empty it gave both of them a sense of comfort and security to be near each other at night.
“He’s very considerate,” my mother would say, “he never wakes me up in the morning to go outside, he just sits next to the bed and waits until my alarm goes off.” When we would come home at Christmas or during the summers, my mother would insist on being the one to walk him, claiming that it was part of her routine.
As Pepper got older both he and my mother developed arthritis. Pepper began to find it harder and harder to climb the stairs, so my mother would pick him up and carry him, even though he weighed almost half as much as she did. Eventually, she would also have to help him down the stairs to go outside in the mornings. She did this right up until the end, and the day that we said our last goodbye to him, she came to the vet clinic with me and when it was over we both sat outside and sobbed.
When I think of unconditional love, I have a very clear image in my mind. It’s my mother, wearing pyjamas and framed by the light above the staircase. She says “OK, Pepper, time to go to bed,” then bends down, scoops his frail body up, and carries him up the stairs to sleep by her bedside. There is an old cliché that says actions speak louder than words, and through her actions my mother has always shown that her love doesn’t just speak - it positively howls.