My son was about to turn 5 when he announced he wanted a dog. It was not the first time he had raised the subject but this time, I caved.
Every boy needs a dog, I thought. A dog would be his playmate when life was going well and a soul mate when it wasn't. Caring for a dog would teach my son responsibility, sensitivity and compassion for other creatures. How right I was, though not in the way I intended.
We visited the pound on his birthday and felt virtuous when we rescued a 6-month-old, reddish-brown and black puppy. My son named her Gretchen and I beamed when he asked to feed her, accompany her on walks, tag along to obedience school.
He boasted to his friends that he had a dog, and for a while he even scooped up her poop, which I should have known was too good to last.
The problems began as Gretchen grew. I wanted to believe the shelter volunteer who had reassured me Gretchen wouldn't get very big, but of course it wasn't true. Within six months of her arrival, Gretchen, who was part-shepherd, part-setter, grew into both breeds.
She had the setter's high spirits and the shepherd's single-minded stubbornness, and she became too much dog for my son to handle. This left the care-taking to me.
Her dog-food and water dishes were too heavy for my son to carry outside, so I did that. She was too strong for him to walk, so I did that. Already juggling a job, a family and out-of-town speaking engagements, I had acquired one more thing to fit into my schedule.
I put up with these demands for almost a year, believing still that the benefits of owning a pet outweighed the costs to my time and my sanity. Each time I was about to give up, I'd glimpse Gretchen and my son frolicking in carefree abandon and I'd chastise myself for even thinking of giving her away.
Then Gretchen learned to jump our 4-foot-high fence. She would sail over the chain link effortlessly and race around the neighborhood.
This meant, of course, that my son could no longer play with her by himself, that either my husband or I had to be out there with him. When she was outside without us, she had to be kept in a dog run or on a long chain. Neither was fair to her.
For weeks my husband and I agonized privately over what to do. Occasionally we would suggest to our son that maybe Gretchen would be happier in a place where she could run freely, with owners who had more time to spend with her and were better able to handle her. This sent him into such tears that we would back off.
Finally, we decided we had no choice. I placed an ad in a rural newspaper and immediately got a call from a prospective couple. It was time for a family conference.
The three of us sat on the floor of the master bedroom. Having no idea of the agenda, my son at first lounged casually on his father's lap as I traced Gretchen's history in our family. His expression, at first bland if attentive, began to crumble. What were his thoughts, I asked, and boy did he give them to me.
First came the denial: "I won't let you give my dog away." Then the punishment: "I'll stop going to school if you do!" Finally he let go with the heaving, uncontrollable sobs that tear a parent up, even when we know they're a first step toward healing.
Over the next two days the three of us continued to talk. Privately, my husband and I asked ourselves, what had we really taught him about responsibility? That if a relationship doesn't seem to be working out, you just abandon it? Or, as I'd like to believe, that taking care of someone or something else, loving someone or something else, sometimes means letting go?
Would giving Gretchen away damage his trust in us, his parents and, by extension, the world? When we raised the possibility of getting a more manageable pet such as a kitten, his first question was, "How long would I get to keep it?"
My worries began to ease the night before the couple's visit. I've read that children grieving over the loss of someone dear need to exercise some control, and that's exactly what he began to do. That night, he came in from visiting Gretchen outside and announced that he had talked to her about the possibility of a new family.
The next day my husband and I told him he could either greet the prospective owners and, if they chose to take Gretchen, wave goodbye to his dog, or go for ice cream with his dad. He chose to stay.
When the couple arrived, they immediately took to Gretchen, and she to them. My son, normally somewhat shy, welcomed them with a big smile and went to fetch a paper bag to put Gretchen's paraphernalia in.
"You can give her a new name," he volunteered. We took pictures, they assured us we could come and visit, and he waved to Gretchen as they drove away.
That night after he had gone to bed, I overheard my son talking in his room to the first of many friends who will enrich his life as they pass through, if only briefly.
"Gretchen," he said, "I know that you'll be happier where you are." He paused, cried a little, then continued. "I want you to know that I remember all the good times we had. I'll always keep you in my heart."
In my heart I keep many things. One is the memory of a little boy who through his tears showed great compassion and great courage.