Can you ever give away a dog you love?
One of my strategies for Homer was to start plotting activities for just the two of us. We began to leave Rose and Orson behind several times a day, something I should have done much earlier: at dawn, when we trained; then late morning, when we went out to chase balls and Frisbees; and again in the late afternoon, when I began what I called the school-bus ritual. It was a neat idea, better than I first realized.
Homer loved school buses, mostly because kids came pouring off of them, and he loved kids. He was especially fond of one of our neighbors, Max, a sweet 10-year-old with a shy but easygoing nature. In a funny way, he was much like Homer, which is perhaps why the two connected. Homer adored Max from the first, and vice versa, so I thought it would be nice for him to greet Max at the bus stop.
At 3:30 p.m. the bus pulled up to the corner across from our house and a gaggle of kids came thundering out. Homer waited and then went into his patented wriggle when Max disembarked; Max beamed and looked for Homer, knelt down to say hello, gave him a hug. Then Max and Homer would walk the half-block to his house.
By the third day, all I had to say was "Let's go see Max" and Homer would go nuts, as happy as if there were sheep outside. The other school kids loved Homer, too, and he was nearly drunk with joy from all the attention. The first day or two, he looked nervously around, perhaps waiting for Orson to appear and order him away. But he soon realized that greeting Max's bus was his daily task, his moment, another form of work but without competition from his siblings or scolding and criticism from me. There was no part of this task that Homer could fail at, and it was delightful to see these two guys fall in love.
It occurred to me, after only a few days, that this was the kind of relationship Homer would thrive on, and the kind I couldn't provide.
Max's family was dog-starved. He had a younger sister, Eva. His mother, Sharon, an education specialist, worked at home. His father, Hank, a magazine editor, worked grueling hours in the city but was at home several days during the week. Everybody in the family wanted a dog and talked incessantly about taking one to soccer games and playing with one in the backyard.
In fact, Max asked if Homer could come over and play. So one sunny afternoon, shortly before I was due to head back to Bedlam Farm in West Hebron, N.Y., semi-permanently, I took Homer to Max's house. I sat on the back porch with Hank, who sensed that there was more to this encounter than an interspecies play date, but I didn't tell him what was on my mind.
In a week or two I would head north to my farm for the winter. Whatever was going to happen with Homer had to happen soon or else wait for months.
Sitting on the porch, Hank said only how much they all loved Homer, and what a great dog he was. In the yard in front of me, Max and Homer were lying down face-to-face. Max was throwing a ball over Homer's shoulder; he'd rush to grab the ball, lope back to Max, and slurp his nose.
Homer was having a blast, running in circles, tearing around the yard, smooching Max in between. I'm sure Hank noticed that I was affected by the sight, although I didn't say why. The reason was that I'd rarely seen Homer so uncomplicatedly happy.
The next few days unraveled me. I knew where this was heading, yet it brought up awful pain and anger, much of it having nothing to do with Homer. The experience of being criticized, abandoned, frightened—all feelings I was thinking about subjecting Homer to or already had—resurfaced in me. I couldn't sleep. Not even Paula could quite grasp what was happening to me.
Jon Katz’s latest book, Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die, was published by Random House last October. You can visit him at www.bedlamfarm.com and http://www.facebook.com/BedlamFarm or email him at email@example.com.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty; photograph of Homer and Orson © James Lattanzio/Villard.