How Titus the Mighty Chihuahua Helped My Mom Get Her Groove Back

Ladies' Home Journal, August 2011

Maybe it was the fact that we were meeting a stranger in the wilds of New Hampshire.  Or maybe it was because our designated rendezvous was a parking lot.  Either way, this mother-daughter outing felt more like a secret drug drop than a pet adoption.
“You sure about this?” I asked.
“I know this is the right dog for me,” Mom said, her brown eyes scanning the parking lot.
That wasn't the question and she knew it.  I wasn't asking whether this was the right dog for her, but whether my 80 year-old mother should get a dog at all.  In the past five years, she has buried her brother, her mother and my father after caring for all three.  Meanwhile, she battled breast cancer, a pulmonary embolism and a heart attack.  Why would she want another responsibility now? 
My parents had moved south with my grandmother at the start of my father's demise.  At one point, I was flying between my home in Massachusetts and theirs in South Carolina, where I dashed between hospitals to sit at the bedsides of my mother and grandmother, then rushed back to care for my housebound dad.  After he and my grandmother died, Mom moved north to be near me.
“This is your time,” I said.  “You don't have to care for anybody but yourself.  Enjoy it.”
“I intend to,” Mom said. 
I was excited to have Mom back in my life.  I've always admired her.  The Mom I knew was clever, quick, funny and glamorous – a Navy officer's wife who was the hit of embassy parties.  She was independent, too, managing her own riding stable for years.  Mom was so sexy in her yellow jodhpurs and black leather boots that I once saw a woman smack her husband because he wheeled around to watch my mother walk by in her riding habit. 
What I had forgotten is that Mom and I don't always get along.  She worships at the altar of Fox News and votes Republican.  I am a National Public Radio junkie who thought Obama could save the world.  She's a stoic.  I'm a weeper.  She is a loner, and I am a joiner of knitting groups and book clubs.  She is the sort of parent who believed in lots of chores and tough love. I err on the side of indulgence.
  “I worry about you and those children,” Mom fumed frequently.  “You spoil them rotten.”
Nothing makes me angrier – or more anxious – than my mother's criticism.  I'd conveniently forgotten that aspect of our relationship.
  Another problem with our new proximity was that Mom wanted to hunker down in her apartment.  Why would my mother want a dog, when she barely has the energy to make it through a day? 
As we waited in the parking lot, Mom reminded me how lucky she was to spot a purebred Chihuahua for sale in the newspaper.  The woman who was selling the puppy had bought it for her son, who turned out to be allergic to dogs. 
“I've always wanted a little white dog named Lily,” Mom added.
“I thought you said the dog was male,” I said.
“Well, yes.”
“Mom.  You can't name a boy dog Lily.”
She jutted out her chin but didn't say anything.
Cars came and went.  Despite my doubts, I began to feel excited, too.  This is one thing my mother and I do have in common:  We are animal lovers.  I grew up on a gerbil farm.  Besides 9,000 gerbils, we raised sheep and pygmy goats, chickens and geese.  We had guinea pigs and lizards, and even a furious parrot.  We had a stable full of horses and barn cats.  And dogs – lots of dogs. 
If my mother saw a sick or abandoned animal, she rescued it.  I once saw her lance an abscess in a goat's neck and drain the pus into a coffee can.  We were always bottle feeding lambs, kittens or bunnies in our kitchen. 
Finally, a blue car parked near ours.  A frazzled looking blonde climbed out.  She held something tiny and white in her arms.
“That's my dog!” Mom cried, clutching the door handle.
The blonde woman set the Chihuahua down on the pavement.  I stared in horror as it skittered frantically at the end of its leash like a rabid hamster.  “He doesn't look very calm.” 
“He's just a baby, poor thing,” Mom said.  She practically leaped out of the car to greet her new son.
For that's what this dog was, I realized, watching Mom whip out her checkbook and pay the woman:  a baby who would love her unconditionally and almost certainly outlive her, unlike the loved ones she has just buried.
The Chihuahua was cream-colored with tan patches.  It had enormous tufted ears, a feathery tail and the giant glassy brown eyes of a troll.  It shivered like a near-drowning victim. 
Mom mooned at her trembling pet on the drive home.  “Don't you think he's adorable?”
“Sure,” I said.  And possibly psychotic, I thought.  “But you still can't name him Lily.”
She sighed.  “That woman told me his name is Titus.”
We both burst out laughing.  “Perfect,” I said.
And, as it turned out, Titus is perfect.  Because of Titus, Mom was willing to go downtown with me the very next day.  We took Titus to a pet store, where she chose a leash, a tiny sweater, and even a cloth carrier – the sort of thing people carry babies in, strapped to their bodies, only this one was for  dogs.  It even had a matching sun hat for her. 
Within weeks, Titus was sporting yellow rain gear, a gray trench coat and several sweaters.  To show off her dog's outfits, Mom started walking around the block with me, something that she hadn't done since moving here.  People talked to her because of the dog.  Amazingly, Mom responded.  She began to know our neighbors.  
My youngest son – the one who drives my mother nuts – is gentle with the dog, causing Mom to compliment him as often as she corrects his manners.  Mom keeps Titus on her lap at our dinner table; the dog sits there like a wise fruit bat, following the conversation.
“He's so smart,” Mom often says.  “Don't you think he's so smart?”
“The smartest dog ever,” I always tell her.
And maybe he is.  It took Titus a year, but he has gradually brought Mom out of the blue shadows of grief that had fallen long and cold across her life.  She has signed up for knitting group at the Senior Center and water color classes, too.  She is competing in a Wii bowling tournament and talks about visiting my brother in England. 
Watching Mom slowly navigate sidewalks with Titus, I feel a new rush of love for her, and admiration, too:  getting old is not for the faint of heart, and she is doing it with courage and dignity.
This past month, when I had to leave town for business, I stopped by Mom's apartment to say goodbye.  Titus sat on my lap and I stroked his silky fur. 
“I'll miss you while you're gone,” Mom said.
I was so startled that I couldn't answer for a minute.  My mother – a stoic Navy wife, a grieving daughter and widow – isn't known for expressing her affection.   Yet, here she was, opening up again to love.  How brave is that?
“I'll miss you, too, Mom,” I said.