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"I have a lousy cold," I tell my friend Ilene when she calls.
"Give me a half hour," she answers. Ilene arrives with something much better than chicken soup: a leash. She uses it to take my 11-year-old springer spaniel, Isabella, to her house, a five-minute drive from mine. It's Isabella's second home, where she will flop on the monogrammed dog bed Ilene bought her and hang out with a family that loves her as much as we do. Meanwhile, I can crawl back under the covers without having to worry about taking anyone for a walk.
For the past five years Ilene and I have shared Isabella. We were good friends before, but this has brought us even closer. Our situation started with a request from Ilene: "Could you bring Isabella to my house for an hour to cheer up Jamie?" Her teenage son was recovering from surgery, and Ilene knew that Isabella was certified as a therapy dog. Jamie loved having her and asked if she could come back the next day. He'd been lobbying his mother for a dog of his own for more than a year, but Ilene had steadfastly refused. She knew that with school, sports, and weekends with friends, his responsibility would quickly become hers.
And then my mother, who lives in another state, had a stroke. I panicked. What would I do with Isabella? I had no backup plan and would be at the hospital for several days. Thankfully, Ilene offered to step in.
It turned out that I was away for two weeks, during which time Ilene and her family fell completely in love with Isabella. They were charmed by her sweet disposition, the dainty way she takes treats out of your hand, her shiny coat, and the compliments she always gets when you take her on a walk.
Between work and medical emergencies with my mother and mother-in-law, I've had to make many getaways lately. But now I don't have to stick Isabella in a kennel and feel worried and guilty. Instead, when I know I'm going to be away, I clear the date with Ilene via e-mail, a "woof" in the subject line.
Even when I'm home, Ilene or her husband, Michael, call if they haven't seen Isabella for a few days and ask if she can come for a sleepover. I also get playdate requests when Michael is away on business and Ilene is lonely.
Isabella has a special relationship with each of us: She tags along in the car with Ilene when she runs errands, takes early-evening walks to the reservoir with Michael, and keeps up with Jamie as he skateboards. She'll sit for hours under my desk while I'm working and pads around the neighborhood at my husband's side on weekends.
Isabella seems delighted to be a part of both families, even with our distinct worlds and households. Their mailman carries treats for her (mine doesn't), and the child across the street from them will call to ask, "Is Isabella there today? Can I play with her?" (There are no little kids in my neighborhood.) Ilene sneaks Isabella an occasional bone; although I am stricter about snacks, she loves us both.
Ilene and I talk about her shamelessly in the same way parents do about their children. We worry about her health, agree how adorable she is, and call each other to relate the funny things she did that day.
I do get envious of Ilene and Michael's relationship with Isabella; it happens each year on the Fourth of July, when my husband and I visit them at their beach house. Isabella has a cozy spot to sleep in both our room and theirs -- and she always picks theirs. It hurt at first but now I make a joke of it.
I still pay the vet and grooming bills, and Ilene always refers to me as "Isabella's real mom," but I'm not so sure that's true anymore since Isabella rushes eagerly to greet whichever one of us she hasn't seen lately. But it doesn't feel as if I've lost a dog. Instead I feel I've gained an extended family, with more than enough love to go around.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2009.