Adopt a stray and be prepared to stay pals for life

I took her picture last year, one sparkling autumn day, as she stood on our dirt road waiting for me. There was a bright red maple leaf on the ground.

This fall, I held that photo in my hands as the tears rolled down. American singer Eva Cassidy was singing on the radio: "But I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall."

This is the season when columnists write stories about lives that came to an end during the year and remember small acts of grace - those gifts that cannot be asked for, only received. Here's mine.

My sons were 12 and 10 in 2006 and our family had been through a wrenching couple of years. And yet, we'd emerged on the other side of those days still together, the four of us plus Ranger, the black lab. Our lives revolved around that dog, and one another. But we worried that Ranger felt lonely when we weren't around. Sometimes we arrived back at the house to hear him howling piteously. It was heartbreaking, his loneliness.

Then, someone sent us an e-mail about this dog named Indigo. She'd had puppies a few months before, and now she needed a home. Were the Boylans interested?

The Boylans were. And so Indigo joined us, as Ranger's wing-dog. When she first stepped through the door, her underbelly still showed recent signs of the litter she'd delivered. Between the wise, droopy face and the swinging dog teats, she was a sight to behold.

In the United States, more than three million dogs enter animal shelters annually. Most of them are strays that are returned to their owners, while 1.6 million others are adopted.
In the United States, more than three million dogs enter animal shelters annually. Most of them are strays that are returned to their owners, while 1.6 million others are adopted. PHOTO: REUTERS

She had a nose for trouble. On one occasion, I came home to find that she'd eaten a five-pound bag of flour. She was covered in white powder and flour paw prints were everywhere. I asked the dog what had happened, and she just looked at me with a glance that said, "I cannot imagine what you are referring to."

Time passed. Our boys grew up and went off to college. I left my job at Colby College in Maine and joined the faculty at Barnard College in New York. My mother died at age 94. The mirror, which had reflected a young mum when Indigo first barged through the door, now showed a woman in late middle age. I had surgery for cataracts. I began to lose my hearing. We all turned grey: me, my spouse, the dogs.

This summer, I took Indigo for one last walk. She was slow and unsteady on her paws. She looked up at me mournfully. "You did say you'd take care of me, when the time came," her eyes said. "You promised." She died on an August afternoon, a tennis ball at her side.

Sometimes, this autumn, I'd find myself looking for her, as if she might be sleeping in one of my children's empty bedrooms. But she wasn't there.

When you lose a dog, you not only lose the animal that has been your friend, but you also lose a connection to the person you have been. For a dozen years, Indigo had been a constant, part of the glue that held us together. Now she was gone.

Then one day, I got a call from the place where we board our dogs when we are out of town, a "bed and biscuit" called Willow Run. One of their customers was dying of cancer. Her dog, Chloe, was a black lab and she needed a home. We rolled our eyes. They had to be kidding. We were in mourning and were pretty sure we didn't want another big dog, especially an older one, and we were just too banged up. We told them we were sorry, but no.

Then, one weekend when I picked up Ranger after an overnight at Willow Run, I met Chloe. Her face was soft. I asked, maybe I could just take her home for a day? You know how this story ends.

More than three million dogs enter animal shelters in the United States annually. Many of them are strays that are returned to their owners and 1.6 million other dogs are adopted. But more than 600,000 dogs are euthanised every year because they do not have a home. People wanting to adopt a pet can contact one of the many organisations working on animal rescue, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, AdoptAPet.com or The Humane Society.

When Chloe entered our house, she was cautious and uncertain. She spent hours that first day going to every corner, sniffing things out. At the end of the day, she sat down by the fireplace and gave me a look. "If you wanted," she seemed to say, "I would stay with you." Ranger has a new wing-dog.

I had hopes of having a conversation with Chloe's owner, trying to learn what their history had been. I wanted to bring Chloe over to her house, so her owner could know that her dog had a good home and so the two of them could have a proper farewell. When I finally got through, though, I learnt that Chloe's owner had died the week before.

It snowed that night and I woke up in a room made mysterious by light and stillness. In the morning, I sat up and found that Chloe had climbed into bed with us as we slept.

"Well?" she asked. I touched her soft ears in the bright, quiet room and thought about the gift of grace.

"If you wanted," I said, "I would stay with you too."

NYTIMES

• Jennifer Finney Boylan is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel Long Black Veil.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 31, 2017, with the headline 'Adopt a stray and be prepared to stay pals for life'. Print Edition | Subscribe