Anyone who doubts the transformational power of companion animals need look no further than cable TV.
On Pit Bulls and Parolees, we’ve watched hardened criminals melt in the presence of down-and-out pit bulls thanks to the work of Tia Torres and her volunteers on the Villalobos Ranch. Other shows have featured stories demonstrating how children with autism or elders with Alzheimer’s are drawn out of their shrunken shells by the power of therapy pets.
Back in the late 1960’s, we didn’t have cable. Still, I was a kind of hardened juvenile in desperate need of softening.
After her tumultuous marriage to my dad, my divorced mom had re-married and packed me up to move with her into the sprawling estate of her new husband and his family. I was filled with excitement in the months leading up to the move. Here was a chance for both my mom and me to leave old baggage behind and to redefine ourselves.
Once transplanted, however, I felt racked with guilt over the friends and family I left behind. I firmly believed that - by embracing my new family - I was betraying the old. My answer was to shut down and build a force field around me that no human kindness could penetrate. I was stiffly polite, but not genuinely approachable by anyone in my new family.
Sensing this rift, and wanting to raise a child of their own, my mom and step-dad decided to conceive. Soon thereafter, my half-brother was born. While there is no doubt that my half-brother ultimately unified my family genetically and emotionally, there was one pivotal family addition that pre-dated him.
Paco was a black toy poodle with boundless love and an adorable mischievous streak. Be it potpourri, bird’s nests or freshly-laundered sheets, Paco found her way into everything - including our collective hearts.
It was especially easy for me because I shared little in her care, yet reaped so much undying support. She played Robin to my Batman. We chased devil-squirrels up the towering trees and played hide-and-seek in the dappled sunlight along the hedgerows in the back yard. She aligned my algorithms as I wrestled with algebra. She curled up next to me when I was not suave and clever enough to convince a girl to do so. But what she did on that frosty February day in 1973 sowed the seeds for changing the way I felt about my new family.
In the gentlest way possible, my step-dad broke the news that my beloved uncle, a staple influence during my formative years, had taken his own life. I dropped to my knees then collapsed face-first onto the checkered tile floor in the foyer. In that moment, I was suspended in a void with nothing to grasp onto; I sensed everything and nothing at the same time. It was as if I were on the verge of non-existence.
Paco resuscitated me. By bounding over to where I lay and fervently licking my face, she pulled me back into the material world and validated my reaction to one of the most significant losses in my young life. I squeezed Paco close to me. Then the rains of grief poured down. For days, Paco licked my flood away.
On the plane ride out for my uncle’s funeral, I sat next to my step-dad. As he spoke haltingly of his first wife’s tragic death, I could feel the the glacier surrounding my heart begin to crack. The man I’d seen as a “step” had become more of a real dad.
Still, my heart was not completely swayed to fully join the family. Almost immediately after graduating high school the following year, I made the pilgrimage back to my birth city where I resumed my “rightful” path - and all but forgot about Paco.
My parents told me that Paco slept on my bed for months after I left. She was waiting - like my family by marriage - for me to come home.
It took me more than 40 years, but I finally realized where my home is.
And I miss you, Paco.
Please share your story about how a pet changed your life.