The girls never asked for much for Christmas. We were in the car; I was driving them to their weekly appointment with the therapist. I could see them in the backseat in the rearview mirror. “Mom,” Tianna said, “I want a dog for Christmas.”
Tianna didn’t speak much. Like her 10-year-old twin sister, Gianna, she lives with multiple disabilities. Both of them are legally blind, Gianna is autistic and Tianna has selective mutism. Getting a word out of her could be difficult. She certainly never spoke to strangers, and sometimes, I worried, she wouldn’t even tell me what was on her mind. That’s why I had to pay attention to this dog request.
“But we already have four dogs,” I said. A couple of years back, the girls’ neurologist had suggested that a dog might help them with their communication skills and give them someone to bond with. We’d started out small with Skater, a mini fox terrier and Chihuahua mix, and the menagerie had grown from there to include two more Chihuahuas and a 100-pound pit bull named Chaos.
That name proved accurate. Our household was usually in a chaos of water bowls, food dishes, leashes, crates, collars, treats, chew toys and balls. We had covers on all the furniture, paw prints were everywhere and nearly every unprotected surface had tooth marks.
But the doctor was right. It was worth it. The dogs drew the girls out, gave them added responsibilities, received their hugs and leaped to their call. Somehow everybody got along. But could we take on another?
“I want a dog that’s like me,” Tianna continued. “One that’s differently abled.”
“Me too,” Gianna chimed in. “For Christmas.”
“I have to walk with a cane at school and everybody looks at me,” Tianna said. “I want a dog who understands what it’s like to be different.”
Their request nearly blew me over. A “differently abled” dog? Where on earth would I find a pet like that? With Christmas only a few weeks away? Would a new dog even get along with the ones we already had?
“I’m not sure it makes sense,” I said, trying to sound every bit the loving but reasonable adult. I didn’t want to disappoint them. They had faced Herculean struggles ever since their birth. We all had—the doctors’ appointments, tests, therapy, cataract surgery. That they were doing as well as they were seemed miracle enough.
“It doesn’t have to make sense,” Tianna stated with the finality of a preteen who has made up her mind. I shook my head. Maybe God could make sense of this.
For the first few years of their lives, I’d get on the computer every night after they went to bed, searching for answers to the many problems they had, tracking down every possible solution or treatment, most of them dead ends. In the end I was left with more worries than anything else. I didn’t want to be a mom like that, always worried. If I could only trust.
The day after the girls asked for a disabled dog, I had to take Skater to Sandy, the groomer. Sandy knows me well and takes good care of our pets. She loves dogs—in fact, her place is named Must Love Dogs—and if anybody could, she would understand my quandary.
“You’ll never guess what the girls want for Christmas,” I told her. “A differently abled dog. They want a pet that’s like them.”
“But Sandy, we don’t have room for any more dogs. We’re not a kennel, we have a house with a living room, stairs, a backyard.
You’re different. You’ve got a business here. You can rescue dogs and find a place for them. I can’t imagine what our four dogs would do if I brought in another one…” I looked around the store and my eye fell on a brown pit bull, even bigger than Chaos. “Like this one…”
“That’s Carmella,” Sandy said.
The dog’s ears pricked up at the sound of her name. She turned her head and looked at Sandy, got up and limped across the room, her spine arched, her legs bowed. She could hardly walk.
“What happened to her?” I asked.
“Don’t know for sure.” Sandy bent down to scratch Carmella behind the ears. “I had to rescue her from a kill shelter. She’d been kept in a cage that was too small for too long. Didn’t have any room to grow.”
“How horrible,” I said. I hated to think that someone would treat a dog like that, leaving her maimed. She wouldn’t even be alive if it hadn’t been for Sandy. Fat chance that anyone would want to adopt her. “She’s lucky you found her,” I said.
“Do you want her?” she asked.
“I told you, I don’t see how we can take on another pet. What would the others do? What would Chaos do? It’s too big a risk for me to trust it.”
“Try it out and see. She is differently abled. Just what you said you wanted. You can bring her back if it doesn’t work out.”
I brought Chaos into Must Love Dogs the next day. I was expecting—or, rather, fearing—a face-off with growling and snarling or worse. Lord, I prayed, let’s not let this get out of hand. The two animals walked around each other, sniffing. Then their tails started wagging. Soon they were playing. It was a scene out of the Peaceable Kingdom.
“A match made in heaven,” Sandy said. “Carmella is my Christmas present to you.”
A few days later, I brought Carmella home. “I have a surprise for you,” I told the girls. Carmella waddled into their bedroom and jumped up onto the bottom bunk bed. It wasn’t graceful in the least, her hind legs kicking at the air as she pulled herself forward. For a moment I thought she was going to fall right off. But her reward came with hugs from both sides. She was home.
I don’t want to pretend that life with three Chihuahuas, one large pit bull, one differently abled pit bull and two differently abled daughters isn’t hectic. There is always something, whether it’s a challenge or a disappointment the girls faced at school or an emergency trip to the vet or a mess somebody made in the backyard. But we’re happy. Very happy.
Not long ago, the girls and I were taking the dogs for a walk and someone stopped to ask about Carmella. I was about to explain what had happened to her and how we had found her. Instead it was Tianna who spoke up, not even hesitating to talk to a stranger. “We wanted a dog just like us,” she said. “It made sense.”
The girls aren’t the only ones who have grown. The other day we were in the backyard and Carmella hesitated at the bottom of the steps. Usually she went around to the front door, where there were no steps, but today she gazed at the stairs longingly.
“Come on, Carmella, you can do it,” the girls shouted. She looked around at us with her sweet eyes and then lunged forward. It was like her struggle to jump on that bunk bed the first day she joined us. One step at a time, she did it. When she reached the top we all hooted and hollered. “You did it!”
She just had to trust. Like me.
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