Rusty the fawn-colored dog lived in our house, even though she belonged to the next-door neighbor. A squat, top-heavy animal, she squeaked and squealed and had to jump with the strength all four stiff legs to lick your face. I think she actually smiled.
Thunderstorms were anathema to Rusty. Doomed to a soggy life as an outdoor dog because of the neighbor’s allergies, she stood on our porch crying for admittance the moment she sensed the rain.
We learned quickly that if you let the neighbor’s dog in once for a rainstorm, she will always come back again. She’ll come back, and if you don’t open the door she’ll tear off the screen. You will have to buy a new roll of screen material, will have to measure it out against the frame and adhere it. You’ll have to do that again and again then finally give up and leave the door with a torn screen, yawning and flapping in the rain. For another thunderstorm will always split the sky, and Rusty will always be there at the screen, tail tucked between her back legs, tearing it off. Once in, she’ll quake on your couch until the storm passes.
She’ll show up in your family photos, eat your cat food, and tear up your garbage. You’ll hazard it all and keep cleaning up, since she’ll smile at you through her black dog-lips and squeak when she sees you.
After many years of thunderstorms, Rusty will grow old. Her skeleton will get stiffer under her skin and when she walks she’ll lean crooked, favoring a feeble back leg.
And like every dog, Rusty will eventually expire. If you hadn’t let her in the first time she would have died under theporch next door. But because you let her into the house that one time, she’ll die under your porch instead of the porch of her proper owner. She’ll be there for a week before you discern the meaning of the odor, and your daddy and brother will have to hoist her out and bury her. This will perhaps count as the steepest expense in your dog-hospitality—both in labor and in sorrow.
We didn’t, of course, bargain for all that at the first thunderstorm. Not any more than anyone ever does when they open their house or their heart to anyone or anything, man or beast.
After that, we called Rusty a family loss. Ostensibly the loss amounted to little—just the unsightly death of a dog that didn’t belong to us. But when neighbors’ dogs hang around for a while then leave without warning, you start feeling it in your guts.
I remember what C.S. Lewis said:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.”
It was worth it for the dog-smile.