Irreplaceable You

My wife, Candy, and I were playing our favorite aging baby-boomer parlor game on a rainy afternoon: Which of us would be in deeper water if the other went first—a topic that usually arises after I’ve eaten moldy cheese or asked Candy for the umpteenth time to help me scan and send a document.

“You would be hard to replace,” she said, surprising me this time. But before I had a chance to feel the warm glow, she added, “But Pepsi would be impossible to replace.”

Pepsi is our 5-year-old Havanese, a breed that happens to be the national dog of Cuba. But she is so much more than a dog. In truth, like most animal lovers, we don’t think of Pepsi as a dog or treat her like one. We have totally anthropomorphized her. She is so convincing as a person that I nearly claimed her as a dependent on my taxes this year.

I won’t bore you with a dog edition of let-me-show-you-pictures-of-my-brilliant-grandchildren. Oh, what the heck—just a few snapshots. Pepsi rings a bell suspended from a doorknob when she needs to go out. She  recognizes a nuanced vocabulary of 50 to 60 words that allows us to maintain a running dialogue with her. When we say, “Let’s go to the porch!” she knows we don’t mean the patio, and vice versa.

Pepsi is highly intuitive and as observant as a mall cop. She hates the smell of sunscreen in the morning because she knows it means we’re headed for the beach without her. Ditto the sight of suitcases. Both send her under the couch in silent protest. While gone, to substitute for our voices, we leave the radio tuned to NPR (National Pepsi Radio).

There is no question in my mind that if Pepsi had vocal cords she would be talking, but she still manages to communicate with her eyes and body language better than most people. Her true genius, however, like that of all dogs, is for friendship.

We take Pepsi with us everywhere dogs are allowed, including Home Depot and Lowe’s, where she rides in the cart—not because we have to, but because she’s so much fun to take along. “Get your harness!” we say, and she skids cartoon-like into the foyer to fetch her ticket to ride. Strapped into her doggie booster seat in back, paws on the rolled-down window, she leans into the movable feast of smells. In answer to “Twistee Treat?” Pepsi cocks her head, knowing it means a visit to the place where the girl at the drive-thru window offers a biscuit for the “adorable puppy.”

I grew up with a dog, a sloppy, affectionate poodle/rat terrier mutt who chased cars and lived outside in a doghouse. I married into cats, Ginger and Pepper—snooty, fastidious sisters who never gave me the time of day. I tried to make friends, I really did. I did not expect them to be dogs. All I asked was occasional eye contact, but apparently that was asking too much.

I’m sorry, but if you’re living in my house, eating food I pay for, relieving yourself in a litter box I have to clean out, I expect to be treated better than a manservant in Cleopatra’s court who feeds her figs and fans her with palm fronds.

Like all cats I’ve known, Ginger and Pepper never changed expression, their outward emotions running the gamut from A to B. They put the “cat” in catatonic. Dogs wear their hearts on their collars and spend their lives on constant alert to our moods and needs.

No matter how deeply she seems to be dreaming by our side or across the room, all it takes is a gentle, “Pepsi?” and she uncoils like a jack-in-the-box, springing to attention, eyes bright, ears up, ready to go!

We love dogs because they model the qualities most lacking in our fellow human beings: patience, friendliness, unselfishness, obedience, gratitude, and complete, unshakable loyalty.

When I think of my relationship with Pepsi, I’m reminded of the scene from the movie  As Good as It Gets, when recovering misanthrope Jack Nicholson says to Helen Hunt, “You make me wanna be a better man.”

A man who might someday be harder to replace than his dog. I am working on it. First step: no more moldy cheese.

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