I rescued my dog not long after my miscarriage. It had been my first pregnancy and, in the wake of my grief, I clung to the buoy of distraction. What I needed was something to love. Instead of reading the book on my nightstand, I scoured PetFinder, my dreams populated with brindle Pit Bulls and trembling Chihuahuas, once, a three-legged Australian Cattle Dog I wanted to call Penguin. Eventually I fell for a goofy terrier mix. Eight weeks old, motherless, her head a little too small for her frame, she had been found wandering the streets of L.A. At the rescue center, she had that floppy, boneless puppy feel when I picked her up. She carried herself with the belief that the world was made for her and she was delighted to meet everyone in it.
On the drive home she rode in my lap. I had not realized that my sadness still sloshed around my ribs until the puppy rested her chin on my thigh and fell asleep. “Oh, I love you,” I said aloud at a red light on Venice Boulevard. I felt suddenly like myself again.
I named her Falkor after the luck dragon from The NeverEnding Story. There’s a scene where Atreyu is on a quest to save the world from the Nothing. He crosses The Swamps of Sadness when his horse drowns. Close to defeat, Atreyu slogs through the mud when his sorrows start to overwhelm him. Just as the swamp closes around his throat, a streak of pink light pierces the clouds, and a dragon pulls him into the sky.
Falkor’s head never grew into her body. The lightbulb shape of her skull suggested she had some Jack Russell in her blood. She developed long, wise eyebrows. Her beard turned red-hued and she dribbled water on the kitchen floor after drinking from her bowl. In the mornings I walked two miles with her around the neighborhood, past California bungalows razed for the new construction of Silicon Beach. At the Penmar Recreation Center I let Falkor romp around in the afternoons, meeting up with other humans who loved their dogs with particular affection: the couple with a black Labradoodle named Lando, who wanted only to chase his ball; the divorcée whose German Sheppard Caesar was in a wheelchair, his hind legs dangling in little hammocks. Sometimes Caesar’s owner would gently lift him out of the chair and let the dog lie in the grass.
“He was there for me when my marriage fell apart,” his owner said once.
After Caesar died the park regulars signed an enormous sympathy card, the dogs too, their paw prints stamped onto the page with black ink.
When I got pregnant again, my husband kept saying that he couldn’t imagine loving our child as much as Falkor. “I know it’s going to happen,” he told a dog-less couple who were also expecting, “but I just can’t imagine love bigger than this.” They laughed, not understanding.
Of course, when our son was born, the enormity of love we felt was stunning. When I woke with a temperature of 103 a week later and had to go to the ER, leaving my baby felt worse than the mastitis that made my right breast heavy as if I was filled with small stones. I smiled when he let out only a solitary wail at his bris, my son, who was already so strong. By two months, his feet scurried across tabletops when I held him under the armpits, a sure sign he would grow up to be a runner like his father. At eight months, he began to wave at strangers at Starbucks. At nine months, he would bow when I said “hello” in Korean.
The first time I heard him laughing I was in the other room. I rushed into the nursery, not wanting to miss the joke, and found my husband pressing our son’s belly button, saying “ding-dong” over and over and it was, for some reason, hysterical to this boy whose joy could drown me. It wasn’t the sound of his laughter that got me, but the sound of someone discovering that laughter exists.
On New Year’s Day my husband and I sliced cucumbers into yogurt for the neighborhood dip party when the doorbell rang. Falkor started barking, late to inform us of the man in bicycle shorts standing at the door. Lenny was a family friend who stopped by on his ride home from Manhattan Beach. He had not seen our son since the bris. We showed him the tricks our baby had learned and he nodded approvingly.
“You keep thinking it can’t get any better,” Lenny said. “Until they turn nine or ten. Then it’s all downhill. But at this age, you keep thinking it can’t get any better, and then it does.” Falkor circled, licking sweat off his legs.
That night in bed I told my husband that there are different species of love.
“Oh?” he asked, sleepily.
“Yeah,” I nudged Falkor further beneath the covers. She liked to sleep between us. “People love dogs because they’re dependable. We love their constancy.”
“But it’s like Lenny said. Loving a child is all about change. They don’t let you get comfortable. As soon as you get used to their game, they learn something new.”
“Falkor learned how to ring the bell when she has to pee.”
“That’s not the same. She can learn new tricks, but she’s already who she is. A change in behavior for a dog is usually a sign something’s wrong. The baby is still growing into himself.”
“He’s a good baby.”
“He’s a magic baby,” I said, listening to the crickets from his sound machine come through our shared wall. “But so … it’s like how I love you. It’s comfortable.”
“You just said you love me like a dog.” In the dark, my husband’s face was in profile, eyes closed. Our son had inherited his lashes, long and pretty.
“I mean, remember when we first fell in love when it’s all exciting and makes you nervous? And how now, being married, that edge isn’t so sharp. But I like how we love each other. It’s easy.”
“Me too. I hated being single. Since we started dating, ninety percent of awkward social encounters have been eliminated from my life.”
“But loving your kid, it’s like falling in love for the first time, again and again. So it’s not that you love your kid more than your spouse or your dog. It’s that the intensity of feeling doesn’t have a chance to soften.”
“That makes sense,” my husband said in a way that I knew meant he wanted to be asleep.
I kissed him goodnight and drew Falkor close, twirling her ear in my fingers as she dreamed.