‘The most unlikely teacher.’: How our dog taught me to love my mother unconditionally

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Adopting A Dog

“I answered my mother’s phone call that night nearly twelve years ago because I was drunk––the only time I liked to talk on the phone, despite hardly ever remembering any details of the conversations the next day. This time was different. I remember it well, all thanks to the hysteria in her voice that immediately killed my buzz.

“I just saved this poor little dog’s life! Paid three hundred bucks for him, and he’s not the purebred like they said in the ad, but I don’t care!”

She told me how the house was without electricity, how a woman with no teeth and no shoes, who claimed to be a certified breeder, presented the pup––covered in fleas and dirt and piss––quivering with fear in the corner of a plastic laundry basket.

I chuckled, not because I was intoxicated or because she notoriously fell for scams like this. But because the dog wasn’t hers to keep.

Instead, she’d made the transaction on behalf of my grandmother, whose husband and their chihuahua had passed away the prior year. ‘Don’t get too attached!’ I said.

puppy lays in grass
Courtesy of Ashley Carter Cash

My grandmother named the dog after my father; her daughter’s now ex-husband—her daughter who is happily married to a different man. But, as fate would have it, the little quivering dog proved too much for my aging grandmother to handle and, within days, joined my brother’s household. He lived closer and agreed to foster the troubled canine–a chihuahua and dachshund mix with a splash of terrier–until my mother could make the six-hour commute to retrieve him.

In the brief period my brother had custody of Mikey, he changed his name twice. Still, neither was fitting, so despite its origination, Mikey stuck long after the little vagabond finally found his forever home on a ranch in the foothills of eastern Tennessee with the woman who saved him.

Rebuilding Relationship With Mom

Mom was newly sober, fresh out of incarceration, and because her adult life up until that point had been a rollercoaster, she’d never found companionship in an animal before Mikey. She needed that bond more than ever; her nest was empty. So the tiny puppy became her child to look after in the way she only wished she could go back and do for my brother and me; she nurtured him with her weak heart, and he helped mend it.

I lived with my mother on the ranch for six months, a couple of years after Mikey moved in. Fresh out of rehab, I was restless and irritable, and though I felt out of place, I found solace in late-night conversations with an animal I knew wouldn’t talk back. Instead, as long as I rubbed his belly, he listened.

I harbored so much resentment toward my mother back then and blamed her addiction during my childhood for everything wrong that ever happened to me. And, in some twisted way, telling her dog about it relieved me of some of the burdens I carried.

woman and dog on couch
Courtesy of Ashley Carter Cash

I didn’t know it at the time, but Mikey helped to strengthen the broken relationship between my mother and I during those six months we all lived under one roof. Maybe it was because he’d been to hell and back, too and because I and he and my mom shared that commonality, but the three of us “grew up” together that year. The anger toward my mom I’d bottled up and escaped with substances and reckless behavior dissolved.

After I’d gotten married and given birth to my son, I would visit the ranch as often as possible, and Mikey would be waiting for me at the door––tail wagging with anticipation of belly rubs. Late at night, during those extended visits, I would sit with him, talk about motherhood and stress, anxiety, marriage, and staying sober, and he would listen.

Then, once it came time for us to leave, Mikey would whimper in my ear as I nuzzled at the fat rolls around his neck. Finally, I’d say goodbye and tell him he’s a good boy.

Of course, we pass dogs on the street and call them ‘good boys.’ But when I said it to Mikey, I meant it. Some animals have this abysmal mystery in their gaze that is undeniably pure, loving, and loyal.

I saw heaven in Mikey’s eyes. To say he was ‘good’ would not do him justice.

Mikey was a gift. A touchstone. Undoubtedly a barking, licking guardian angel walking the earth on four legs.

Losing Our Dog

Before my son was born, I used to joke that mom loved Mikey more than her human children. Then, once my boy was born, he naturally became the apple of her eye. But Mikey remained her number one, and he well knew it.

He was the one who she fell asleep next to every night. His stout little body kept her legs warm beneath the bed linens. What he didn’t know, however, was just how small he was.

Around the time Mikey was around six years old, my mom and stepdad added a German Shepherd to the brood, and although she outgrew Mikey in no time, he showed no fear as he growled and snarled and garnered all his might to lunge at her in a playful attack. Unfortunately, it was this bravery that would later come at a fatal price.

Roughly eight weeks ago, I saw Mikey alive for the last time. As I stroked his fur, I couldn’t help but notice the twinkle in his big brown eyes–buggy but almond-shaped and framed by eyelids so unusually dark it looked as though someone expertly applied cat-like eyeliner to them–seemed to be fading. The coarse hairs around his snout had turned grey. Intuition spoke to me that day, and in my gut, I knew Mikey’s time on earth was coming to a close.

I thought perhaps he was riddled with cancer or something, and for a moment, I prepared myself for the first talk I’d have with my son about losing a beloved pet to a terminal illness. But then, I went back home. Life went on, and I tried not to worry.

My mom fed Mikey bacon and eggs for breakfast and let him lick her nightly ice cream bowl; he was fine. King Ding-a-ling, as my stepfather called him, was more than fine.

mom holding dog in bed
Courtesy of Ashley Carter Cash

He lived large, no doubt about it. Mom always said, ‘there’s a pit bull trapped in that little body,’ whenever Mikey would square up with a dog five times his size. However, he was no match for a coyote, and little did anyone know a pack of them had begun lurking in the dark.

I bet our little guy fought like hell. He must have. Though the oxygen steadily seeped from the bite hole in his flesh, with labored breaths, he fled the woods and the predator, miraculously making it back home––lung punctured, body broken, battered, dying, but visibly unafraid.

Kings don’t frighten. Mikey had left his fear in that laundry basket years ago when he met our mother.

Upon learning the news, I listened through my mom’s tears as she recalled wrapping her injured dog’s torso in blankets––a futile attempt to suture the deep lacerations he’d sustained. The rips in Mikey’s flesh were so deep my mother feared that if she didn’t swaddle him like a newborn, his insides might fall out.

During the rushed drive to the closest 24-hour veterinarian, Mikey sat perfectly still, face to the window like he’d done a million times before. When I picture him there, I can’t help but wonder whether or not he knew this car ride would be his last.

Unfortunately, the beauty of living out in the valley between the mountainous views means living too far from an animal hospital capable of saving a dog in need of a ventilator. So Mikey took his last breath in the arms of the people he loved the most and who loved him as he deserved.

Regrettably, my mom blames herself for letting him outside late at night since he never hesitated to run after a woodland commotion, no matter the shape or size. It was cold out, though, she thought, ‘he’ll be right back.’ He always came back.

Coping With Grief

Over the twelve years I knew him, Mikey taught me much about life. And today, he taught me about loss. I am sitting on my mother’s front porch as I type this. Sadie, the German Shepherd, is waiting by the gate, staring into the horizon, looking for her brother to return home.

But he’s not coming back this time, and I can only hope his soul arrived safely to wherever the eternal spirits of our canine companions find rest.

I think it’s true that we all have different ways of coping with grief; I pen memories on paper while my stepfather will likely never stop vengefully hunting the coyote that took his best friend. It pains me to say it, but mom will probably grieve for the rest of her days, fluctuating over the coming weeks, months, and years. However, because of the most unlikely teacher, I’m equipped to love her through it unconditionally.

It feels extraordinary, almost foreign, walking through my mother’s home without Mikey’s presence. Yet, I’m comforted as I bid my final farewell, if only to a lamented vessel utterly devoid of zeal that always seemed invincible.

We buried Mikey’s remains deep in the terra firma right next to my mother’s coveted rock garden––his favorite spot to bask in the sun or run in circles, taunting the chickens protected by the coop nearby. I like that mom decided to memorialize him there. I know he’d like it, too.”

baby laying with puppy
Courtesy of Ashley Carter Cash

This article was submitted to Love What Matters by Ashley Carter Cash, from Greenville, South Carolina. You can follow her journey on her Instagram. Join the Love What Matters family and subscribe to our newsletter.

Read more stories from Ashley:

‘I was broke, unemployed, and living in a storage closet.’: Woman sober after decades-long addiction battle

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