Helen: A Sight and Sound I’ll Never Forget

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At 46 years old, staying at my parents’ home over the winter holiday, I wake up in the bedroom I’d grown up in that once had large Scooby Doo decals emblazoned on its walls with a heavy cloud looming over my head and a seeming inability to lift myself off the bed. I wonder how I’ll make it through the day surrounded by my parents, kids, nephew, sister, and brother with any semblance of normalcy.

The night before, our newly adopted hound dog, Helen, lunged on top of my five and a half year old son, Max, after he’d wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. Helen straddled him on all fours, bared her teeth and put them and her front paws on Max’s face. It was a sight and sound I’ll never forget. Max screaming and Helen growling and lunging so ferociously that if my sister had not pulled the dog off of Max when she did, Max could have suffered some serious bites on his face instead of the small discolored marks he now wears to remind me of what happened on the floor of my parents’ den.

I wasn’t in the room to see what provoked the dog’s anger, but up until that point our three months with Helen had been pretty uneventful. She pulls on the leash, barks loudly at passing trucks, and has escaped a few times from our fenced in backyard, but that seemed like typical dog behavior and didn’t affect my bond with her. She often sleeps next to me on my office floor while I work, follows me around the house, and had been making great progress in her weekly training classes. The trainer thought she had the makings of a great therapy dog.

Up until that night, she slept either in or on Max’s bed. When I pick the boys up at the school bus with Helen in tow, Max is the first to wrap his arms around her and give her a kiss. He comes with me to her training classes every week and loves to work with her on the new things we learned and reward her with treats. He relishes his role as “Treat Boy.”

Helen’s pacing in and out of my bedroom got me up quicker than I thought possible that morning. If my mom let her out in the backyard, she’d howl loudly at the Philadelphia suburb version of the “Bumpus hounds” next door, immediately waking up everyone in the house. So, I throw on the clothes I’d worn the day before, plop on a knit hat from the laundry room closet that barely covers the top of my head, and make my way down the driveway, through the streets I’d ridden my purple, banana seat bike with its purple and white streamers flying from the handlebars.

I watched Helen tip toe over the frost tipped grass and squat to pea at what felt like every other house. She stopped to smell debris on what used to be the immaculate front yard of Mr. Davis. The lines of his yard were cut with military precision, all the grass bright green and exactly the same height. When I was a young girl making my daily trek to swim practice in the summer I’d pass by Mr. Davis’ house each morning hoping he’d be there to chat with me, momentarily delaying the inevitable countless laps in a chilly pool. He’d offer me lemonade and listen to me complain about the pain of the freezing water and how the chlorine stung my eyes. I missed him and that time as I watched Helen pea where we’d both stood over thirty years ago.

She was pulling more than usual. I practiced what Allie, our dog trainer, had advised – have her sit and remain calm for a few moments before continuing our walk. Helen wasn’t keen on resting her bottom on the freezing ground, but she did succeed in hovering her rear end close to the sidewalk.

I stopped to pet and talk with her along the walk, as I normally do, but found I had less to say. She pulled more and barked louder at the passing dogs. When I looked into her deep brown eyes, I saw the sadness mixed with hope that she still had a place with us. I wished I could say yes but knew it wasn’t that simple.

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