I stopped working as a free-lance journalist quite a while ago. I had gotten a law degree from Indiana University at Indianapolis. I had given away my cameras and stifled my imagination. Thereafter for twenty-one years precise and prosaic writing did it for me. And my estate-planning clients.
Then four years ago there was Eric.
More precisely there was Eric and Christmas… and this dreadful lump of sadness smothering us both. Suddenly I had to get back to it. The writing. Somehow to express the emotions that legal writing could never present, such as expressing the solace a new pet can bring. But I'm getting ahead of myself…
Eric and I had much in common. Eric's parents, my son and his wife, divorced after twenty years of marriage. During those years they had given us three grandchildren: Rachel, a college freshman, Mark a high school senior, and Eric an eighth grader. Joint custody was the legal term. Heartache the reality. Especially for Eric. Unlike his sister and brother he was too young to drive. Too young to work outside the home. Too sad to even want to keep going from one parental home to the other. The only way he could show his sadness was by the length of his hair which he let grow until it hid quite a bit of his forehead and cheeks. Oh, and he also had a counselor now to put him back in shape and help him accept the things he couldn't change. We, meaning, Grandpa and I, didn't share that luxury.
Eric had always been a good student. Good grades. Lead in the school play. A tall kid. Kind of a gentle giant. But one most unusual blessing a musical gift that wouldn't quit. Eric loved all instruments: guitar, violin, piano, bass trumpet, even Grandpa's Christmas display of tinny-sounding soldiers that jumped up and down so briskly that they had to be glued to the mantel to keep them from catapulting to the floor.
So the first disjointed Christmas, when asked what the kids would like for Christmas, Eric wanted a violin. Neither Mom nor Dad, recently divorced, sharing custody, but no longer sharing house expenses, were going out on a limb on this one. Too expensive. Probably three or four hundred for such a gift. Certainly too much.
Then I found it. Could it be? A brand new violin with case for one hundred five dollars! In a shop that had been in this city since forever. We bought it for Eric, Grandpa and I. We weren't there on Christmas morning but we heard it made a hit. And I got to take Eric for a few of his lessons at the Butler School of Music here. It was then, sitting and listening to Eric in the late afternoon, watching him respond to the young vigorous Chinese student teacher, oh how exacting he was: "watch your thumb," "hold you hand lower," "speak the notes out loud" that I realized the depths of Eric's love of music. When I witnessed his patient responses to the constant orders, I knew why I had never succeeded at piano beyond the simple enjoyment of playing popular pieces.
Although the purchase of a violin was outside the ordinary realm of Christmas giving for Grandpa and myself, it wasn't until the next Christmas that I realized that Eric and I were a dangerous duo.
That second Christmas is the tale of Chiara, the chocolate lab. Chiara is not a rescue dog, not in the accepted sense of being rescued from a shelter, not in the sense of being the rescued one at all.
But before I explain how Chiara came into our lives, let me first explain our Christmas "gifting plan." We have five children and seventeen grandchildren. Five years ago we decided that instead of purchasing a gift for each one, we would purchase a family gift. Last Christmas was the first I had broken with tradition to purchase the violin for Eric. No one minded even though there were no other individual gifts. Cousins, after all, truly want the best for each other.
This Christmas the requests were again predictable: a membership in the Children's Museum, an inner-tube contraption to pull behind a speed boat, a toboggan, a piano keyboard for the little red-headed tykes in Oregon. The last request, for Eric, his sister, brother and father: all wool socks! Yes, that was his father's request!
Well, Eric and I met for lunch and a shopping trip to purchase the socks. At my house I quizzed Eric: "Socks? You all really want socks?"
"That would be nice, Grandma."
Hm, "Nice" I thought rolling it around in my brain. "You know," I said "the other families are settling on one single item, like a toboggan, a speedboat inner-tube, a piano keyboard? Can you think of anything more like, like, a one family gift?"
"Sure, Grandma," he said. And then as I waited, he hit me right between the eyes with it: "A dog!" Wow! That one woke me up. I doubted we could swing that. Here was my son working long days to pay the mortgage and all the extras schools can think up. When Eric's mom left, she took the Boston Terrier and the pug with her. Eric got to see them every other week, but there was no dog at his Dad's house. An outdoor cat. But no dog.
Our family has always had pets. In fact, my son had tried to adopt a dog about a month before Christmas. Unfortunately, in the process of getting the dog's shots, the veterinarian's helper let go the leash and the dog attacked and pretty well tore up the house cat. (The cat lost a leg) The dog had been put down. My son was pretty shocked and not willing to try again.
Nonetheless, I believed that since I had asked Eric to name a gift, I had an obligation to at least try to help him get it.
"What kind of dog would that be?" I asked.
"I don't care, Grandma," he said.
"Maybe a Lab?" I asked. They are sort of a family tradition.
"That would be cool!" I could see Eric coming to life at the thought of a Christmas dog. Socks just didn't do it anymore.
"How old?" I asked.
"A puppy," he said. He was positively glowing.
Thinking again of my son and the long hours away from home, I said "If your Dad doesn't want a puppy, what about an older dog?"
Eric and I went on a dog search. We retrieved the newspaper from the sack of old recyclables under the coffee table. Inside was a pet section. We wrote down the telephone numbers for the puppies, but there were no older dogs.