"Something's wrong with Thistle and Meatball,**" my father says on the phone during our weekly Skype chat. I am calling not just to talk to my parents, but to find out how my dogs are doing. Frankly, that's the main reason I ever call. That, and to comment on the newest photos my mom has sent me of the dogs in my absence. "Aren't they cute?" my mom will ask, and we'll spend an hour on the computer, talking about dogs.
"Thistle has lost two pounds and Meatball is now two pounds heavier!" my father presses.(**All dogs' names have been changed to protect their privacy. These pseudonyms, however, may more accurately reflect their personalities than actual names.)
"What are you feeding them?" I ask, rubbing my forehead. It's like this every time we talk: the dogs are on the verge of death, my dad is on the verge of despair.
"Everything! Everything!" my father shouts at his computer.
"No, not everything," my mother says, interrupting on her own computer. "Your dad is such an exaggerator. We feed them the dog food you gave us, plus some treats. It's just that Thistle has stopped eating and Meatball just devours everything as soon as you put it down. He just shoves poor Thistle to the side!"
"Meatball is a terrorist!" my dad shouts. "A FOOD TERRORIST!"
"Thistle usually eats at night when everyone's asleep anyway," I say. "Maybe you should just leave food out for her?"
"It doesn't matter," my dad snorts. "That Meatball gets everything. When we hand out the bacon strips to Thistle, you know, to try to get some food into her, he comes over and starts drooling. So we have to give him something, too."
"Bacon strips?" I ask.
"Well, she got sick of the roast chicken we were giving her," mom says. "Though she still likes the Keebler crackers, and the peanut butter--the crunchy kind, not the smooth--and those big bones we get basted in BBQ sauce..."
"Roast chicken?"I ask.
"Yes, well, she tired of that after the fancy canned dog food we switched to, after she stopped eating the dry dog food you got her. She's such a picky eater!"
"Bones in BBQ sauce?" I ask.
"Well, yes. She stopped liking the pigs' ears after three days, and then the dried chicken strips, so we moved on to the bones in BBQ sauce, along with the Milkbones. She still likes those."
"These are more treats than she's ever gotten in her life," I say, feeling alternately impressed and chagrined by my mother's mealtime coddling, realizing as I do now that I'll come home to a dog who expects me not only to change out all her treats and food, but to do so on a revolving three-day basis. It's not that I'm ungrateful: I'm tremendously grateful. It's been difficult for them to take care of my dogs and to make decisions for me in my absence about their care. For my part, I've been consciously trying not to think about my dogs because I start crying immediately. I've learned to seal off this part of my life at home, like an iron door shutting on a vault. I'm turning into Scarlet O'Hara: whenever memories of my dogs threaten to overwhelm me, I just tell myself I'll think about it tomorrow.
But tomorrow is of course contingent on my dogs' health. If anything goes wrong, I'm buying a plane ticket home immediately. This, however, doesn't constitute immediately. What it constitutes is an epic food binge.
"You do realize," I say, sighing, "that she's smart enough that she may be training you, right?"
"Well, I thought of that," my mother says. "But then she just looks so interested in what I'm cooking. It's so hard to say 'no' to my granddogs."
"And meanwhile Meatball, that big walking ham of yours, just sits there and eats her food, then gets all those treats too," my father adds.
"So don't give them to him!"
"I can't! He looks so sad. It's clear he thinks I've betrayed him. And after I fell down on the ice while walking them and he sat with me all that time, drooling on my head... And then I stepped on him the other day, by accident," my father says, "and he just gave me this look, this look, like I'd done it deliberately. I felt so bad, I gave him half my sandwich."
"Well, it is true that Meatball sat with your father out on the ice while he was writhing and slipping around out there," my mother says. "I just thought it was so funny watching him trying to get out of that snowbank! And Thistle of course ran away. She's a very smart dog. That's what we told the vet when we went to run all those tests to find out why she wasn't eating. The blood work came out fine, her teeth are good, the x-rays showed she has a bit of arthritis in her neck, but the vet thinks maybe we should get an MRI or a dog psychologist."
"Thistle isn't smart enough for a psychologist," dad snapped, still miffed at being abandoned in his 10 minutes of need.
"She IS that smart! Oh, look, what's she doing now by the computer?"
"Downloading pornography," I mutter. "Let's go back to that MRI for a minute. Not to panic, but you do realize that's going to be about a thousand dollars?"
"We're just putting everything on your tab!" mom says cheerfully. "Along with the 48 cans of dog food and those sacks of BBQ bones she won't eat. I hope she regains interest in them soon. But don't worry. We aren't doing the MRI."
"Even though she's starving to death," dad says.
"She is not starving to death, Tom!"
It's one of those platitudes that people don't realize how much they are like their parents until they have kids. In my case, I didn't realize how much I was like my parents until I had dogs and then had to have my parents take care of them for a year. Here I can see clearly the two traits I have inherited from them: my father's relentless, near-hysterical pessimism, and my mother's cheerful tendency both to over-indulge herself and the ones she loves. The people she loves comprise a fairly tight-knit circle: my mother is extremely protective of her family, the definition of which--for her--is also fairly conservative. I lived with a man for seven years and had to argue with my mother each and every Christmas to let him stay in our house when we came home to visit, as my mother believed only married people should stay in the same house, evidently. "I don't want to let anyone think we condone your behavior," she said, about our non-married cohabitation. And with Sean it was similar: though we'd lived together for five years, my mother only actually began asking about him once I told her we were married. After that, she regularly sent us boxes of food and gifts, many of their items now dedicated solely to Sean.
But the real test of family is getting your photo taken at Yuen Lui studios. When my mother has decided that someone is undeniably a part of our inner circle, she sets up a studio session and has his portrait taken with us. This has happened, obviously, only twice: with my first husband, and now with Sean.
It took these two men a combined total of 12 years for this event to happen. With my dogs, it took two months.
"Well, your dogs are a lot more adorable than some of the men you've brought home," my mother says, when I bring this up.
"I just worry that they're starting to get a little spoiled," I say. "And, you know, likely to develop type II diabetes."
"Should we stop giving them the ice cream?"
"Mom!" I cry.
"Oh, we're going to miss those dogs when they go," mom says. "It'll be worse than when you went to college!"
"Come and get them now," my father growls. "Do you know how much rain we've been getting this winter? And that those fleabags need to be walked every day!"
"Only Thistle won't go out when it rains," mom adds. "Though she does like to be rubbed down with a towel. I like to give the dogs a little massage after their walk."
"Oh my God," I say, the realization of what I've done sinking into me at last. "I don't know how I'm going to get them out of your home when I return. They'll never want to come home with me after living with you."
"Don't worry: I'm sure they'll remember you again. Meatball still talks about you all the time," mom says, giggling.
"That dog farts your name in his sleep," dad adds.
My parents begin to cackle. I suddenly remember an old Disney movie I saw as a child where two girls--one rich and one poor--are vying for the same pony. They decide to let the pony choose who to live with and stand on opposite ends of the ring calling the pony's name until the pony, hamstrung and hungry for a carrot, eventually waddles off in the direction of the little rich girl, the one whose pockets her grandmother had carefully lined with sugar. At least, that's the way I'm imagining it now, realizing that in order to get my dogs back in a few months I'll have to show up on the doorstep with a pint of Haagen Daazs and a bouquet of dried bull pizzles.
"Is it possible," I say, trying not to sound too wheedling as I form the question, "that Thistle isn't eating because I'm not there?"
My parents pause for a moment. "Oh, no," they both agree, firmly. "It's definitely not that. Because boy did she show interest in that can of Pringles your father opened the other day."
I'm suddenly remembering something my vet said when I asked her, tearfully, if my dogs' health might go downhill if I left them for so long. "Will they be depressed?" I asked, daubing my eyes.
"Weeeeell," my vet had said, tactfully, "dogs are not quite so emotional when it comes to things like home attachments."
And she was right. In the meantime, my dogs have not only become my parents' grandchildren, but probably the most treasured members of our family's inner circle.
"Maybe," I say, "instead of feeding her all this extra stuff, you could just separate their food bowls so that Meatball doesn't eat everything?"
My parents pause. "We could try that," my mother says.
"And maybe fewer treats?"
"We could try that, too."
"And maybe, I don't know, talk about me a lot in front of them?" I ask again. "Maybe show them my picture?"
My parents pause again. "Now that," my mother says finally, before hanging up on her computer, "is just indulging yourself, my dear."