Delmarva Review: A Love Letter to My Sister’s Dog by Frances Park


Mama had a dream last night, Jefferson. You were still alive but barely, your liver failing, your shaven belly mustard yellow, and the vets said there was nothing they could do, so we brought you home, and we gave you a bath where something biblical happened: the water washed away your jaundice.

As Mama told me about her dream, every cell in me stirred, because it was like her love for you. Powerful. Mine, too, though I know I’m just Mama’s sister whose visits were cameo appearances that began with a car beep. Baby’s here! You went nuts whenever you heard that, didn’t you? Howled your head off! And whenever I began to gather my things to go, you’d grow quiet. Disgruntled. Traitor…

You know, Jefferson, a person can’t count on many things in life, but as I’d begin to drive away, slowly, my foot barely on the pedal, the chance that you’d be staring back at me through the window was always excellent. I’d brake, and our eyes would lock like magnets, and we’d stay in that pull for a long time. In a way, that’s as deep as it goes. Famous friends, not like you and Mama—I’m not delusional, you two were twin-spirits roaming this plane, and the next, if there is a next, Mama and Jefferson forever. Though sometimes your attachment was extreme, and you’d become so glum we’d say Jefferson’s on suicide watch, because you’d lie in bed all day, not eating, not moving, just waiting for her to come home. Mama aside, when it was just you and me, we occupied a special space, a poetic place with your paw over my wrist. Didn’t we? By the way, Jefferson, when I say we gave you a bath—in Mama’s dream, I mean—she didn’t say whether “we” included me, but I like to think I was there, in dream life, helping to rinse death off you.

Wherever you are, I want you to know I’m writing this on a gray January morning, spheres removed from that dreamy day when your parents and brother picked you up at the airport and brought you home in a puppy crate. You were something called a golden doodle—your brother had allergies, and, well, it boiled down to a poodle, a doodle, or nothing. Our family had been dog-less for a quarter century, which was fine with me—confession: I was never a true dog lover, always thought they were a bit of a bother—but after work, the summer sky still light and bright, I stopped by just to catch a glimpse of you. A what doodle? A decade ago, that’s all you were to me. Not that it was love at first sight for you, either.

So there you were, and will always be, a beautiful little lamb, a red-collared pup on all fours, refusing to face us. Wherever we set you down, on the grass, on the floral rug, you’d make an about-face, taking orders from your instincts. Paralyzed. I guess if I were plucked from a peaceful farm in Oregon and took a loud scary plane ride for five hours, I’d turn away, too. But I also think that’s how God made you. Introverted. Stony to strangers.

Your love, once bloomed, was reserved for us, your family. That drew me in; made you and your love more special. Some things I found so fetching: the way you’d position yourself so my hair would fall on your face whenever Mama trimmed my ends. The way you growled whenever my husband hugged me—Hands off my Baby! You were a thinker, like my long-gone dad, and call me nuts but were you trying to tell me something with those soulful brown eyes? Oh, if paws could write… Spiritual, too, in a doggy way. Sometimes you broke into a crazy—okay, I’ll just say it—possessed bark, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were barking at ghosts dancing around my head.

Granted, you could be dogs-just-wanna-have-fun, too.

Give me treats!

Hide my tennis ball!

Take me to Hidden Pond!

Ah, Hidden Pond. Granted, you loved your home, especially your spot by the big lumpy elephant-gray sofa, but mention Hidden Pond, and everything flew out the window. It was your favorite place in the world, where your soul became one with every enchanting rock, trail, stream, and falling leaf. Hearing Mama say Let’s go to Hidden Pond! could awaken you from your deepest sleep. Well, almost.

I’m regretting something right now, Jefferson. I rarely went to Hidden Pond with you, just a couple of times, and always opted for the easy trail, otherwise known as the Orange Path, which cheated you, a little. The Green Path, your trail of choice, was too long and treacherous for me. Believe it or not, I started out life as a tomboy who could outrun and outjump any boy in class, a skateboarding fiend, but then I got all poetic and lost myself in words, not woods, and emerged a rock in some ways yet a delicate flower in others—ugh, I agree. Maybe Mama can hop over steep rocks while eating gummy bears, “but I’d fall into some crevice and never be heard from again.

By your tenth birthday, you could still pass for a fluffy puppy but then, abruptly, you slowed down. The staircase was a struggle, each step a crawl-hop. Once, after a long walk in Hidden Pond, your legs gave out, and you had to be lifted into the car. Born with hip dysplasia, you had surgery early on, but here it was, back to haunt you. Oh, you were such a good boy at the vet acupuncturist office last summer, model-still with all those needles sticking out of your doodle fur. But it was worth it because your breed’s lifespan is fifteen years. Miraculously, the acupuncture worked.

Back to Hidden Pond!

With a spring in your step!

True, your walks were abbreviated now. That majestic tree, the grandest in Hidden Pond, standing like some ancient tree of life, now marked the end of your journey. Time to turn around.

But damn it all, one day in mid-December, you stopped eating. The following afternoon you were admitted to the animal hospital—your bilirubin levels were high, pointing to liver disease. The next night, Saturday night, Mama and I went to visit you, though she’d been in and out all day. The hospital staff and décor tried to be cheery but failed miserably; frankly, I had bad vibes as we waited in a room with a maroon rug for an eternity, you weren’t going to get well here. Finally, a nurse walked you in. You plopped down, your shaven belly and ankles and the whites of your eyes all yellow. Worst, your expression was gone.

Where were you, Jefferson?

Just before we left, you perked up in a pup-like way only because you had to pee bad, really bad, so Mama leashed you and the two of you charged out of the room, through the hospital lobby and automatic front doors, leaving me in the dust. Suddenly, it was like it always was, Mama and Jefferson together forever, and what I’m about to tell you will break Mama’s heart when she reads this: something about the starless vision of your silhouettes running into a pitch-black night shook every molecule in me, and all I was thinking was, Run you two, keep running, somewhere, anywhere, don’t turn around, even if it means you never come back because if you come back, Jefferson will never get out of this deathtrap alive and the dream will be over.

I was wrong. You came home on Monday, the same day I developed a cough, easy to ignore at a time like this. The hospital vets said there was nothing more they could do except give you meds and let’s see what happens. Uh, five thousand dollars later and let’s see what happens? What happened was an emotional rollercoaster: one hour you were walking around the block, the next hour your legs buckled; one hour you were barking at the television, the next hour one breath from death. Jefferson, I’d say, knowing you’d come to life if only for a split second, you’ve got to get better so we can go to Hidden Pond.

What happened in the end is that on Friday, December 23 at ten in the morning, eight days after you stopped eating, the in-home euthanasia vet arrived with his assistant. I’m telling you this because I’m not sure how conscious you were, lying on the floral rug, Jefferson. You seemed at peace, even ready to leave us, but when I later learned you were doped up on morphine, I wasn’t so sure of anything anymore. Maybe you were in some drugged-induced state, dreaming of Hidden Pond. All I know is that you surrendered to the vet’s needle without a stir. In case you weren’t aware during those last moments, your grief-stricken Mama was sobbing Mama loves Jefferson, Mama loves Jefferson, petting you so feverishly no doubt you’ll feel her love forever. When you were gone, she collapsed on you, and I, her sister shadow, collapsed on her. You know, Jefferson, I never got to say good-bye to my dad—he was here, then gone forever. So, despite the tragic hour, I’m grateful I could say goodbye to you.

Her next blink, your inconsolable Mama began lamenting Where is Jefferson now? I need a sign he’s OK…

I’m not a religious person, not by a long shot, and only in dream life could a baptismal bath wash away your jaundice. But signs of afterlife, I’ve had a few, and I’m not talking about when someone’s thinking about their dead friend Mike, and then a Michael & Son truck happens to drive by. God, no, that’s not what I mean. I mean something tangible and magical when you least expect it. Yet poor Mama couldn’t wait—Baby, I need a sign he’s waiting for me now. I could believe she might get her sign from you someday but not today, not this soon.

On Christmas—two days after you left this earth—your parents and brother went to Hidden Pond in your honor. I would’ve gone, too. You know that, Jefferson, but by now my cough had progressed to bronchitis. Their original plan was to walk the Green Path trail to the majestic tree, scatter some of your ashes along the way, but Mama couldn’t bring herself to give any of you away, and I don’t blame her.

When your family reached their landmark, they discovered something that wasn’t there last time, something uncanny. On a bed of leaves in the crook of the tree’s hollow, nestled if not deeply rooted, sat a tiny pup with a red collar—a figurine, of course, too sacred to touch, of ancient thistle or twine, Mama guessed. The figurine, Jefferson, was you. At least the image of you just out of your crate one long-ago summer day.

Now, if that wasn’t Mama’s sign from beyond the universe, then signs just don’t exist.

Well, Jefferson, under cursed skies, my little ode to you comes to a close. It’s still January, and I’m still coughing here—that’s how fresh your loss feels. However silly, a part of me wants to hold onto the cough as if otherwise your memory and a bewitching figurine will fade into a dream or a myth. No…not a chance. Maybe I’m not Mama, but I cried writing every word of this, and I’ll be looking for you in the window for a long, long time.


Frances Park is the author of ten books including novels, memoirs and children’s books. She has been interviewed on NPR, The Diane Rehm Show, Voice of America, and Good Morning America. In addition to Delmarva Review, one of her essays earned a spot on The Best American Essays 2017 Notable List. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review discovers compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit the website: Obtain print or digital editions at or Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford.


Letters to Editor

  1. Congratulations to Frances Park, from Alexandria, Va., for her compelling personal essay selected by Spy for re-publication from the “Delmarva Review,” Volume 11.

    • Marsha Patrick says

      What a marvelous article. It brought me back to
      my youth when dogs ruled. I cried from beginning
      to end at this sensitive, personal accounting.

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