Four years ago, my cousins and I—some still in high school, others of us in college—were spending part of our summer vacation with our grandparents when, in mid-July, a small and emaciated dog made his way to their front porch. My grandfather, as well as my uncle who lives next door, never ones to take pity on stray animals, shooed him away. “If you feed ’em, if you pet ’em, if you water ’em, they’ll keep coming back for more.” This mantra of theirs sometimes ended with an explicit order to adhere to its tenets; at other times, the imperative lurked beneath unmistakable facial expressions.
So that night, when the little dog returned, my cousins and I did the only logical thing: once we were sure everyone was sleeping, we took him inside, bathed him, gave him milk, and fed him food sneaked from the bowl belonging to my aunt and uncle’s dachshund. Afterward, we had to send him back into the night, but we were happy to see that my grandpa and uncle’s mantra proved true. Each time the little dog returned, I became more determined to make him mine.
Still living at home with my parents and leaving the country, in just a matter of weeks, for a semester-long study abroad program, I had already begun begging my mom’s generosity. Would she please take care of him for me while I was away if I promised to pay for all his expenses? With a twinge of regret, she said no, blaming her response largely on my dad, but I remained sure that I could change her mind. Then the little dog stopped visiting, and I began to worry that he had passed from this life—that the sustenance we had secretly been providing him was not enough, that maybe he was already too sick and emaciated to get better. I soon discovered he was still alive but that my uncle had loudly scared him off, and those who saw it happen were sure the little dog wouldn’t return.
Then, a few days later, he did. I took pictures, sent them to my mother, called her, said, “Look how cute he is! How can you refuse his sweet face?” She responded simply, with a sly smile in her voice, “You can keep him.” I was in disbelief until I discovered that she had changed her mind days before and told my aunt but swore her to silence: if the little dog never returned, my mom didn’t want me to be heartbroken. “What are you going to name him?” my mom asked. I didn’t know then, but a few hours later, I decided on “Oliver,” an homage to his orphanhood.
But he wasn’t an orphan for long. We quickly bonded, and it was as though he had been a part of our family for years. Still, his transition from a life on the streets to one with a family was not always easy for him. He had clearly been abused, which was evidenced not only in the way he would cower and growl when meeting new people, especially men, but also in a literal scar on his body, what I later learned from X-rays was the result of being shot with a BB. His emaciation was the manifestation of malnutrition, and he also tested positive for heart worms, having been without preventative medication for an unidentifiable period of time. He endured painful treatment for the illness, growing sicker and weaker before he finally recovered.
Since that time, Ollie’s recovery has been more than physical. His feeling of safety is now apparent in his trust in people. Recently, for example, we hosted a party at our apartment in which Ollie greeted every guest—even those he had never before met—with attention, with joyful whining, with requests to be petted. He looks forward to seeing members of our families; he knows they are his and he is theirs. But more than I rescued Ollie, he has rescued me. He found me during one of the most difficult points in my life and has never ceased to bring me healing and joy. So while we do not know—and can never know—his real birthday, in mid-July we celebrate his “birth” into this life we share together, ever better because he is in it.