How Titus Brought Her Groove Back

All it took was a tiny, trembling Chihuahua to bring my mom and me closer -- and help heal her grief.
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Maybe it was the fact that we were meeting a stranger. Or maybe it was that our rendezvous was in a parking lot. Either way, this mother-daughter outing felt more like a drug drop than a pet adoption.

"You sure about this?" I asked.

"I know this is the right dog for me," she said, eyes scanning the parking lot.

That wasn't the question and she knew it. I was really asking whether my 80-year-old mother should get a dog at all. In the past five years she had buried her brother, mother, and my father after caring for all three. Meanwhile, she survived breast cancer, a pulmonary embolism, and a heart attack. Why would she want another responsibility now?

"This is your time," I said. "You don't have to care for anybody but yourself. Enjoy it."

"I intend to," Mom said.

After those devastating losses, my mother had moved north to Massachusetts to be near me. I was excited to have her back in my life. The mom I knew while growing up was clever, 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.

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 think Obama can save the world. She's stoic. I'm a weeper. She is a loner and I am a joiner of knitting groups and book clubs.

Since her move, it seemed as though all my mother wanted to do was hunker down in her apartment; I couldn't help worrying about how isolated she was. Still, I wondered why Mom wanted a dog when she barely had the energy to make it through the day.

As we waited in the parking lot, she reminded me how lucky she was to find a purebred Chihuahua for sale in the newspaper. The seller had bought the puppy 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. "You can't name him 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. Before my father retired from a 20-year military career, he started a gerbil farm. My family also raised sheep, chickens, and geese. We had a stable full of horses and barn cats. And dogs -- lots of dogs.

Finally, a car parked near ours. A frazzled-looking blonde climbed out, holding something tiny in her arms.

"That's my dog!" my mother cried.

The woman set the Chihuahua down on the pavement. I stared in horror as it skittered frantically at the end of its leash. "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."

And that's exactly what this dog was, I realized, watching my mom pay the woman: a baby who would love her unconditionally and probably outlive her, unlike the loved ones she'd 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 pet on the drive home. "Don't you think he's adorable?"

"Sure," I said. "But you still can't name him Lily."

She sighed. "That woman told me his name is Titus."

We both burst out laughing at the absurdity of naming this tiny, trembling pup after a powerful Roman emperor.

"Perfect," I said.

And, as it turned out, Titus is perfect. Because of him, Mom was willing to go downtown with me the very next day. We took him to a pet store, where she chose a leash, a sweater, and a cloth carrier -- the sort of thing people carry babies in, strapped to their bodies.

Within weeks Titus was sporting yellow rain gear, a gray trench coat, and several sweaters. To show off her dog's outfits, my mother started walking around the block with me. People talked to her because of the dog. Amazingly, she responded. She began to know our neighbors.

My youngest son, who my tough-love mother thinks is spoiled, is gentle with the dog, causing Mom to compliment him as often as she corrects his manners. She keeps Titus on her lap at dinner. The dog sits there like a wise fruit bat, following the conversation.

"He's so smart," my mother often says. "Don't you think he's so smart?"

"The smartest dog ever," I 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 across her life. She signed up for a knitting group at the senior center and is taking watercolor classes. She talks about visiting my brother in England.

As I watch my mom slowly navigate sidewalks with Titus, I feel a new rush of love for her. Admiration, too. Getting old is not for the fainthearted, and she is doing it with courage and dignity.

This past month, when I had to leave town for business, I stopped by her apartment to say good-bye. 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 I couldn't answer for a minute. My mother isn't known for expressing her affection. Yet, here she was, opening up. How brave is that?

"I'll miss you, too, Mom," I said.


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