Once upon a day in-or-about the year 1999, I found myself pulling off an exit on Route 95 and into the parking lot of a state liquor store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The station wagon that had been described to me via a telephone call days earlier was just where we had agreed it would be. And a man – maybe in his late twenties, maybe early thirties – was sitting in its driver’s seat. He recognized my car as well. He got out of his car slowly. He was tall and lean. And he carried just enough emotional weight that, if you were looking for it, you could see the slightest hint of a slump in the shoulders of an otherwise healthy young man.
He walked around to the back door of his old car, and it groaned as he opened it. “Bria” was a beautiful, young German Shepherd, and she was scared. The man handed the leash to me with tears in his eyes. She was a ‘match maker dog’ through the Nashua Humane Society. John and I had seen her photo on a bulletin board there. The Humane Society did the screening, and when we passed, they put us in touch with her owners. This way Bria never had to spend even a moment in a kennel. The situation was dire. Her owners’ son had a brain tumor. Somewhere in the mix of logistics, finances, and emotions, the family discovered that they had to give up their dog.
Bria’s owner talked to me about how she’d come to him, how much research he and his young wife had done before acquiring her. He handed me her detailed veterinary records, food preferences and histories. He also gave me a New Hampshire seacoast calendar of dogs for that year (Bria was Miss January). In addition, the cardboard box he gave to John contained photos of her as a puppy, her training class certificate, her pedigree and kennel papers, and her microchip information. She was not abused, or forgotten, or thoughtlessly abandoned. She was a much-loved dog, before we ever knew her.
She rode home in the back seat of our station wagon, with me beside her, and my nearly perfect husband driving. The radio was quietly playing. I talked softly to her, and her tail thumped once or twice. She was not sure of me, of us. And that was okay. When we got home, after we introduced her to the house and allowed her to explore a bit, we clipped on her leash and walked her down to the end of our long, dirt driveway to meet the kids’ school bus. We had two kids then – Sam was in the first grade and his big sister, Mac (short for Mackenzie) was in the fourth.
Bria sat right beside me. Her brand new, red leash was so bright. John was with us, and I remember he was so excited – a Dad about to make his children’s dreams come true. It doesn’t get much better than the feeling that floods your chest and crowds your heart in the moments before you make magic happen.
The kids jumped off the bus and came running toward the three of us, shrieking with joy. After initial introductions, they hugged Bria and scratched her head and I could see a shift in her, right then. She was a working dog who had found her job, and it was these kids. Her tail was wagging and she was carefully assessing them for any issues as we made our way up the hill toward the house.
About half way up the driveway, my son – Sam – asked if the dog was a boy or a girl. With much pride, I told him she was a girl. And he burst into tears. I’m not kidding. The kid nearly Wonder Twin-powered himself into the shape of a puddle.
He was so upset he did that stuttered breathing-in thing as he tried to form his words. Bria was even licking his face as he was trying to shoo her away. When he finally calmed down enough, he said, “I want-ed a bo-hoy do-hog.” And I when I asked why, and he said “Be-cause I was gon-na name hi-him Arnold Schwartze-‘sniff’-negger!”
And a flash of me opening the door and yelling “Arnold Schwarzenegger! Come!” catapulted through my mind.
I assured Sam that we could still name the dog Arnold Schwarzenegger (I mean, c’mon, we are a fairly open-minded family), but he nixed that idea right away when he deadpanned, “You can’t name a girl Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
The kid had standards.
So I told him that he should think of a really tough and strong girl character from all the movies he had seen. And I had visions of walking ‘Tomb Raider’ to the baseball field.
Later that night, Sam came into the kitchen all smiles. Pride gleamed in his nearly seven-year-old eyes. He had come up with a great name, he said. And as we all waited through his dramatic pause, he planted his fists on his hips and announced, “Ripley.” And John said, “Cool, bud, like in Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” and Sam looked very confused and insisted, “No. Like in Aliens.”
Now, Ripley-from-Aliens is indeed a kick-ass female character. I was absolutely impressed with that one. My kid took my advice and nailed the dismount. Two concerns, however, flashed onto my consciousness: One: Why did my nearly perfect husband think our six-year-old son would have any idea what Ripley’s Believe it or Not was? Were they visiting obscure tourists sites and museums without me? and, Two: How was I going to explain to Sam’s teachers and the parents of his friends – who would inevitably hear about his new dog the very next day – that my kid was watching r-rated, alien-infused horror films at the age of six? (To be honest, he actually woke up and came downstairs to us watching it when he was three, but we held him off for a few more years (which gave us time to know where every f-bomb was dropped and construct a proper plan for the necessary distractions and/or fast-forwarding which would be necessary)). I was banking on the fact that he would not share that he originally wanted to name the dog Arnold Schwartzenegger – neither during circle time nor journal time – thus requiring additional justifications for both Terminator and T2)).
Allow me to jump in and correct you before you make a ‘tsk tsk’ noise and say, “Oh my God, Lisa, you are way over reacting. Naturally, everyone would think it was just Ripley from Ripley’s Believe it or Not, why did you even waste your energy worrying about that?” You do not know my son. Based simply on the fact that his father didn’t understand which Ripley he had named his new dog after, my son was about to embark on a mission to ensure that no one ever made that mistake again. I knew him. He was about to introduce his new dog – to everyone – as, “Ripley. From Aliens“.
For, like, ever.
I was so going to get a call from child protective services. Probably not even a call. They’d just come on over. Ugh. That meant I’d have to keep the house clean. And probably do laundry.
But ‘Ripley from Aliens‘ it was. And it was decided and done. I never did get a call from child protective services (though, some thirteen years later I am still looking over my shoulder (mainly because I never did look up the statute of limitations on Aliens-related viewing crimes)). But what I did get, aside from a pretty great family story, was a dog who found her job the day my two kids stepped off the bus. She graciously welcomed kid number three a few months later, and was by my side as I raised them all.
She alerted me (early and often) as soon as a child went under water at the pool (she ran circles around the pool deck until they re-emerged, laughing, and telling her they were okay). She herded them back toward the center of the yard when they attempted to go AWOL, toward the swamp to catch frogs (I would know this because the kids would loudly complain and tell her ‘no’ along with calling – loudly – “MOM!”). And she loudly and, if necessary, forcibly removed any and all trespassing dogs, cats, squirrels, chipmunks, and the occasional peacock (not kidding) from our yard. She was a great dog, close to perfection. Sure, the beeping of a fire alarm with a low battery would send her into nervous whining that she could not stop until we silenced it. And she would take any shot at getting the cats to play chase when she could. But she was my right hand and constant companion. And when she developed an aggressive form of carcinoma at the age of eleven and was too far along for anything but palliative care, we brought her home and fed her steak and loved her. It was time to help her go the night before Thanksgiving 2010, and it broke my heart.
But now it is nearly three years later. Other dogs, each with a great name, have joined our family. But I will never be able to hide the smile when I think of that pretty fall day when my kids got off of a yellow school bus at the end of my driveway, and threw their arms around an unsure dog named Bria, who was transformed, that very night, into their friend, and guide, and certain protector. A dog called Ripley. From Aliens.
Because you can’t name a girl dog Arnold Schwartzenegger.
Thanks for readin’.