Mother, Daughter, Dog
by Lisa Lanser-Rose
For twenty years, I meant to head west. When we got to California, we could live the way human animals were meant to live. Blood relatives would belly up to our Thanksgiving table, wink, and joke that they didn’t feed my dog underneath. Women with my eyes, cheeks, curls, and hips would push grocery carts alongside mine. When my daughter walked on stage for a school recital, she’d look down into the eyes of kin looking up. They would single her out and smile–because she was theirs.
Even though I suffered the absence of kin as a kind of chronic illness, I had turned my two-human, three-species household into the happiest life I’d ever lived. I had about three weeks of it left when my mother called and asked me to come to California. She needed help taking care of her husband while he died.
She’d never asked me for anything before, so I said okay.
That meant my daughter and I scrapped our big plans for the last weeks of our last summer together before she left for college. Instead she’d spend that time at home alone with no one for company but our ill-tempered cat and our creaky old Border Collie, Casey. It hurt. Delaney and I were tight, the way some single moms are when they have just the one kid. Now our intrepid duo was coming to an accelerated end that I couldn’t picture for myself. I could picture it for Delaney—she’d order cheap pizza with her college roommate, pull all-nighters, plan flash-mobs on campus, lug clothes and quarters down to the laundry, screen zombie movie marathons in the common room. I’d made sure she had all the pencils, pajamas, and posters she’d need. As for me, after I helped her move into the dorm, I had nothing on my calendar.
After six o-clock on a Friday evening, Delaney scooted aside so I could lug my suitcase past her. Casey, who used to rocket out ahead of me, lumbered behind me down the stairs. Delaney’s laptop lit up her face with the bright gray light of a hurricane sky. At eighteen, she was beautiful in the way of great beauties—her face had the most beguiling ratios of cheek-to-chin, eye-to-nose, and brow-to-lip, the kind that not only made people stare, but made them blurt out, “I’m sorry, but I can’t stop staring.” She looked nothing like me.
“We’ll Skype,” I said. “We can text while I’m at the airport.” I rolled my suitcase to the door. Casey came with me.
Casey’s pedigree said she was my dog, and so did she. For fourteen years I fed her, I trained her, I threw her Frisbee, millions upon millions of times. Casey was mine. If we ever did battle for custody of Casey, Delaney could’ve introduced into evidence a home video: four-year-old Delaney stands holding a puppy in her arms, whom the record will show was Casey at eight weeks. In it, you can hear my mommy-voice utter the incriminating line: “How do you like your new puppy?”
I gave Casey to Delaney because I wanted a daughter who wanted a cool dog like Casey as much as I did. That’s because when I was a little kid, even as young as four years old, I would’ve done anything to live side-by-side with a dog like Casey. But maybe Delaney was too young, or maybe Casey came too easily, or maybe Delaney’s brain was wired for feline. To her the dog was more conflict and competition than companion. A dog like Casey was in her way. A dog like Casey was my way.
And Casey knew it. While Delaney was growing up, Casey chased her and her friends through the backyard, staggered around the house wearing a princess gown, and let herself be tucked into My Little Pony bed sheets because I willed her to do it. Casey “keeked,” a term Donald McCaig picked up in Scotland from a shepherdess named Viv Billingham, “Tell me, does he turn his head back to you, looking for instructions? Keeking, we call it.” Casey keeked not to Delaney but to me, as if to ask, “You want me to wear this tiara? Oh, okay. I’d rather not wear a tiara while running a lawn-chair obstacle course with the kids, but if you want me to do what the kids want, okay.” If I’d beckoned, she’d have bolted to my side.
Every night when Delaney was still little, I pointed to the end of her bed, and Casey pointed at the door. She glanced back at me, not keeking but negotiating for a promotion—bedding down in my room. Resigned, she curled on the end of my daughter’s bed, always slightly panicked to see a door close between us. She’d lift her head one last time and then lower it, as if to say, “You sure? Okay, one more night.”
Finally Delaney grew into a teenager. “Casey bugs me jumping on and off the bed while I’m trying to sleep.” And so Casey got her bedtime upgrade.
A family counselor would say the three of us—mother, daughter, dog—were “enmeshed.” Casey was the closest thing to a sibling my only child ever had. I had a lifelong case of dog-aholism, and the three of us were deeply co-dependent—or is that “co-reliant?” Not a competitive sort, I didn’t see Border Collies as tickets to big sheep-trial purses, agility trophies, or rescue-network sainthood (even though I secretly craved and liked to think myself capable of all three). Nor was Casey the object of my otherwise unspent maternal excess—she was just my dog, which for most of us should be enough of a mighty thing.
If neuroscientists ever studied Casey’s brain and mine, they would find mental fusion, mirrored neurological roots and branches twining and grafting. My brain had a caniculus or a “little dog” of Casey like the homunculus or “little man,” the neural map of my own body. After fourteen years of bonding with that dog, the Casey-region of my brain was especially large—never mind the Delaney-region. That was probably an entire continent.
In the foyer by the front door, I tried to slide a couple keys off my key ring without breaking a fingernail or bursting into tears. I said, “I can’t believe I’m leaving my girls.”
“The last three weeks of my last summer at home too,” Delaney deadpanned, without lifting her eyes from her laptop.
“Thanks, kid. That helps.”
According to my flight itinerary, I’d be taking the red-eye alone to California and returning in three weeks. The oncologists had given my stepfather two.
“Here’s the car key,” I said, even though Delaney didn’t have her license yet. “Just in case. The little one’s the mailbox key.”
Casey wagged her tail and with her eyes tried to bore through my brow the command, “You’re taking me with you.” She couldn’t read the tickets through her cataracts, and even if she weren’t deaf she wouldn’t have listened to my rationalizations. Suitcases triggered rapid-cycling manic-depression in her—maybe adventure awaited! Maybe abandonment. Her tail popped up, ears forward, toes tippy-tapping, then her tail tucked down, her ears flattened back, her feet rooted in front of the door. She blocked my path in an unspoken demand that I could feel in my bones. The Casey region of my brain busied itself trying to figure out how to take her with me after all. I opened the door, knowing she’d shoulder it shut—
But this time she clattered sideways and fell over. When she tried to sit up, her head seemed to swing loose on her neck. I thought, “She’s having a stroke!” I was so scared, I could’ve picked up and thrown the whole house.
I dropped on my knees. “Casey!”
At the bottom of the stairs, Delaney hunched over the keyboard engaged in a battle of wit with an invisible someone, someone she’d probably never seen, someone unrelated to us. She machine-gunned whole sentences and smirked.
“Laney! Something’s wrong with Casey!”
“Oh, my God,” she said. She kept typing.
Head dipped to the right, Casey’s eyes shifted back and forth, faster in one direction, as if watching someone swing a cat. “I’m serious, Lane. Something’s wrong with the dog.”
Delaney put down her computer and came to see for herself. Her eyes widened. “Are you still going to go?”
My mind scrambled over the grown-up calculations we hesitate to share with our children: how much would it cost to reschedule my flight? How much would it cost to see the vet on a Saturday? How much do you invest in saving the life of a fourteen-year-old dog? How sick can she be when two months ago the vet said she was healthy enough to live to be twenty? How often do vets lie to pet owners to let them enjoy happier last days?
My Casey-dog was dying, just as my father had died, just as my stepfather, John, was dying. Should stay with my daughter while our dog dies? Should I keep my promise to my mother and help her shepherd her husband to his death? What good would I do here? What good would I do there? How should I decide?
My shuttle was late.