I sat on the porch with my coffee. I’d snuck outside, inching the sliding glass door open so as not to wake anyone. My husband, Anthony; daughters, Grace, 13, and Genevieve, 11; and son, Joseph, 6, were still asleep in the cabin we’d rented in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. The day before, we had driven 10 hours to get here, with Luna, our 75-pound Lab-bulldog mix, sitting on my lap, and Joseph telling endless knock-knock jokes.
Today was my fortieth birthday. And I needed to be alone.
Three years earlier, my mom had died right before my birthday, after an eight-month battle with malignant melanoma. I missed her with an ache that went through my bones, through every part of me. I didn’t want to celebrate. Was this going to be how I felt on every birthday?
A banging on the sliding door startled me. Joseph was awake. I went inside. The girls were up as well. “Happy birthday, Mom!” they said, slurping their chocolate vacation cereal.
On our way to Cedar Creek Stables to go horseback riding, we saw signs for a lost dog. “That’s so sad!” the kids said. “What if Luna got lost?”
Anthony dropped off me and the girls and went to explore the nearby town of Lake Lure with Joseph. Several hours later, Anthony met us at the stables. He had a strange look on his face. “We got you a birthday present,” he said. “It’s in the car.”
“He’s in the car, with the present.”
We walked around the corner to where the car was parked. I saw Joseph’s beaming face first. I peered in the window. There was a medium-size brown dog sitting beside him. When the dog saw me, it wiggled excitedly.
“Can we keep him, Mom? Please, can we?” Joseph asked. The dog licked his face.
“We were heading into town when we saw this dog running along the side of the road,” Anthony said. “I pulled over to check on him, and as soon as I opened the door he jumped in.”
“Is this the lost dog?” the girls asked. I thought of the pictures on the signs we had seen earlier. Nope. This was not that dog.
Metal glinted on his collar. “Look!” I said. “He has tags.”
Anthony shook his head. “It’s just the name of a shelter. I checked.” I plugged the shelter name into my phone. It was an hour away from where we were! All we had for food in the car was a bag of pistachios. The dog looked at me, ears perked, tail wagging, as I opened the bag. I offered him a pistachio, then another. He nudged my hand for more. “Let’s name him Pistachio!” Joseph cried. The girls agreed.
“Calm down, everyone,” I said. “I didn’t say we could keep him.”
On the way back to the cabin, I called the shelter and left a message with my name and number and the ID number on the dog’s tag. I turned to pet Pistachio. The kids were smiling ear to ear.
“He ran all that way to get here,” I said, not wanting to get their hopes up. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he runs away from us, too.”
Sure enough, Pistachio raced into the woods behind our cabin. He came back, though, and played with Luna. They dashed around the yard until Pistachio had enough and crawled under the deck.
That night, Pistachio slept in Luna’s crate. When I went to get him in the morning, he leapt and spun in joy. I texted a picture to my sister back in New Jersey. “Dog jumped in the car on my birthday. Shelter tags. Kids in love.”
She texted back, “Is this Mom’s idea of a birthday gift?!”
We drove to Chimney Rock State Park for a hike. We left Luna in her crate and, over the protests of the kids, Pistachio outside.
“What if he runs away?” they cried.
“Then it wasn’t meant to be,” I said. “He’s a runner, guys, and he won’t be happy penned up inside all day.” Was I trying to convince the kids or myself? Pistachio was a sweet dog, and I wanted to think of him as a birthday gift, a sign that Mom was with God.
On the hike, all the kids talked about was Pistachio. How had he escaped from the shelter? How had he run so far? Would he be there when we got back?
We went to an ice cream shop on the main road. While we were waiting in line, my phone buzzed. The shelter. I stepped outside to take the call.
“Hi…is this Jenn?” It was the adoption coordinator, who said she had received my message and looked up the dog’s file. “He was adopted by a couple last year. They’re from a town outside Asheville. But the last paper in his file is a complaint from some neighbors saying that he wasn’t being taken care of. So if you would like—I mean, we don’t usually do this, but given the circumstances, he’s yours.”
I went back into the shop and told my family. The kids practically melted with relief. “Yay! Pistachio! Let’s keep him!”
We all sat down with our ice cream. Just as we were finishing, my phone buzzed again.
“Jenn? I called back because I just talked with the former owner, the man who adopted Pistachio. The dog’s name is actually Hammer.”
“Yes. If you ask me, Pistachio is a much better name. Anyway, he did adopt him, so officially I have to tell you what he said. You can do with this information what you want. But…he would like the dog back.” She gave me the man’s information, saying again, “I just officially have to tell you this.”
I pictured an unkempt dog pen, cement floors, Pistachio on a chain. Had he been adopted as a guard dog, given the name Hammer and then run away first chance he got?
I told the kids and Anthony. “Mom! We can’t bring him back there!”
I felt uneasy about taking a dog that had a rightful owner. But what kind of place would he be going back to? “First let’s see if he’s even there when we get to the cabin,” I told the kids.
We drove mostly in silence along the curvy mountain roads. Pulling into the long driveway, I scanned the woods for Pistachio. No sign of him.
Then we turned the bend and the cabin came into view. We all let out a little cry. There was Pistachio, sitting lookout on the front porch. When he saw us, he did three spins of joy and ran to the car. The kids leapt out. Anthony and I shared a look.
I texted my sister, copying my niece, as the two of them volunteered at a dog rescue. “What should I do?” I asked.
My niece answered right away. “Do not return him to that owner!”
The next afternoon, we were driving high in the mountains on the Blue Ridge Parkway when I got a message from an unknown number. “Hi, Jenn, this is the director of the shelter that Hammer is from. I’m calling because this morning his owners drove down here, and they were very upset. I spent a lot of time with them. They want him back. Please call me.”
I could no longer enjoy the beautiful views. I imagined angry owners yelling about their lost guard dog. I pictured a run-down home, where the dog was not loved. Back at the cabin, I called the shelter director. I told her my concerns. She listened. “I have been doing this for more than 20 years, and if I am wrong about these people, then I am in the wrong line of work,” she said. “They really want their dog back.”
I sat looking at Pistachio’s owner’s number for a long time before I finally dialed. A man answered. His voice was warm and deep. “We’re so grateful you folks found him,” he said. “My wife’s been crying ever since he got lost on Monday. We were out of town at a funeral, and when we got home there was no sign of him. He’s always come back before. He waits for us on the front porch.”
We arranged to meet at their house. On the way there, the kids took turns holding Pistachio on their laps, telling him what a good boy he was and how much they would miss him.
I was nervous. I’d gotten a good feeling from Pistachio’s owner, but what if we showed up and the place was horrible?
“Looks like it’s just up this road,” Anthony said, turning at a wide-open field. I took a deep breath. Pistachio stood and tilted his head. The kids, even Joseph, went silent. A few minutes later, we took a left onto a paved country road. And then there was the house. Lovely flower gardens. A big, sloping yard that ended in a creek. Plenty of space to run. I couldn’t imagine anywhere better for a dog, especially this dog. Pistachio whimpered when he saw his owners waiting for him on the front porch.
“I think this is his home, Mom,” Joseph said.
“I think so, too,” I answered.
We opened the door and Pistachio leapt out and raced to his owners. They crouched down and let him lick their faces as he wiggled uncontrollably. They laughed and held him close.
We stood back and watched, knowing this was right. The owners told us again and again how thankful they were. We got back in the car, this time without Pistachio, and started the drive back. I thought about how Pistachio had been a gift. Not a dog to keep, at least not for long, but a dog with a message I needed to hear: It’s time to let go. You will be okay.
The next morning, I sat on the deck as Luna explored behind our cabin. I could hear Anthony and the kids chattering in the kitchen. “Goodbye, Mom,” I whispered, taking in the blue sky above. “I love you. I miss you.” Then I stood up to join my family, thinking about the home that Pistachio had returned to, the home that was more beautiful and loving than anything I could have ever imagined.
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